Melania who? Trump’s wife a forgotten memory in Slovenian home township

Sevnica residents could not recall much about Melanija Knavs and did not seem to follow her transformation from working-class daughter to possible US first lady

The mayor of Melania Trumps hometown is embarrassed.

At 47, Sreko Ocvirk is just a year older than the worlds most well known Slovenian. But even though he was a schoolmate of hers, the mayor of Sevnica said: I have to be honest, I cannot place her. In those days, Sevnica primary school had a lot of pupils, he added sheepishly.

Born in 1970 to a textile worker and a vehicle spares trader, Melania Trump has lived a life judging by what is known of it that could be romanced into that of a phoenix risen from the belching smokestacks of Titos Yugoslavia. But the Trump campaign has opted not to go down that route.

On a tour of Sevnica, a pretty medieval town that clings to vine-clad hills rising from the Sava river, it quickly becomes clear that the young Melanija Knavs did not stand out from the collective consciousness of the time as someone who would rise to global fame.

In the socialist days we were all the same, said a woman in the same age bracket as the 46 -year-old.

Sevnica, the smaller Slovenian town where Melania Trump is from. Photo: Tanja Zibert for the Guardian

By contrast, other residents can seem to build too much of an effort to recall her youth. At the Rondo Pizzeria, a couple of diners seem suspiciously well informed about the supposed early knitting abilities of Trumps future wife. At the market, a tomato seller named Matej said Melanija wrap her schoolbooks with pages torn from Italian style publications merely to confess that he learnt that detail from a recent television report.

Not merely are clues sparse as to Melanias transformation from model to the Republican presidential candidates third wife, but few residents seem to hold strong sentiments about their own lives, her immigration status or the libel lawsuits pending over her references to her pre-Trump past. No one in Sevnica can even confirm the oft-reported tidbit that Melanijas maternal grandfather developed a red onion variety, the Raka.

Sevnica was very different in the 1970 s, said Ocvirk. It was a young town, made up of people moving in from the rural areas.

They ran in large numbers at two or three factories, chiefly constructing clothes and shoes. They shopped in Italy and Austria and tried to achieve the living standards of those countries, said the mayor, a Sevnica-born agricultural technologist who was elected eight years ago.

Sreko Ocvirk, mayor of Sevnica. Photo: Alex Duval Smith for the Guardian

Among the incomers who construct the towns industrial base were Viktor and Amalija Knavs and their daughters Ines and Melanija. Businessman Viktor dealt in automobiles or spare parts or both no one seems quite sure. Amalija was a pattern cutter at the Jutranjka childrenswear factory and may at some point have gained a promotion to pattern designer.

They lived in a five-storey block in the Naselje Heroja Maroka area. Later, Melanija and her older sister went to high school in Ljubljana, 60 miles away, and their parents constructed themselves a white villa in the fairly hills above the town, far away from the hourly clatter-past of the train. They still own the house but are rarely there, living instead in New York and helping look after Donald and Melanias son, Barron.

The block where Melania once lived has been painted in mellow peach tones. The climbing frame in the playground is Lego green. The splashings of colouring are townscape hallmarks of central European countries such as Slovenia that received growth funds after joining the EU in 2004. Even the school bears no resemblance to the one Melania attended. With EU funds, it was rebuilt last year, to the annoyance of visiting television crews determined to see her locker.

Trainee nurse Drita Mustafai, 21, knows nothing about Melania Trump, but says she can only be a good thing for Sevnica. It is a lovely town which deserves more tourists.

Mustafai helps out at her fathers ice-cream stand and works in a hotel to help pay for her surveys, and hopes to move to Germany when she graduates, because wages are better.

Among Sevnicas 5,000 -population, unemployment is 10.3% roughly the national median. Jutranjka, where Amalija Knavs ran, is no more. Lisca, a lingerie brand named after the local mountain, survives, along with a shoe mill and a furniture company. But they employ fewer than 1,000 people between them. Many residents drive more than an hour to the capital Ljubljana to work.

Asked what Donald Trump could do for his wifes home town, Ocvirk ruled out a skyscraper as unsuited to our natural beauty. Instead, with a sweeping arm motion reminiscent of a Trump Tower escalator, he suggested a golfing and fishing complex, spanning from the hills to the Sava river.

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