Slovenia is still at a crossroads. “Justifying a crime is dangerous for any society, as it erodes the value and legal order at its core. It affects individuals and the masses and brings about the danger of the tragic times repeating,” the Prime Minister Janez Janša said in one of his past think pieces, emphasizing that the culture of death has distorted the human character of many individuals in Slovenia so much so, that they are incapable of uttering a simple sentence: “A crime is a crime, regardless of who commits it and with what political motives it is being justified.”
In light of the national reconciliation and peace, the President of the Republic of Slovenia Borut Pahor and the Prime Minister Janez Janša attended a memorial ceremony and mass at the abyss under Macesnova Gorica in Kočevski Rog on Saturday, June 6th, 2020. The mass was held by Ljubljana’s Metropolitan Archbishop Stanislav Zore. The memorial ceremony and mass were held in light of the 30th anniversary of the first reconciliation ceremony in Kočevski Rog, which represents the site of the massacre of the Slovene National Army at the abyss near Macesnova Gorica.
The New Slovenian Covenant emphasized that moving the location of the ceremony to the abyss at Macesnova Gorica is a reminder of how for almost thirty years, we had been coming to mourn and remember those lost, to the wrong abyss. “The authorities which made the event after the mass in the year 1990 their own, knew about this but did not tell us. But the truth came out, relentlessly. From now on, we will be celebrating the memory of all the victims in the actual place of their suffering.” The 75th anniversary of the massacres thus reminds us that the communist revolution covered the Slovenian soil with actions that did inconceivable evil to Slovenians and caused unimaginable suffering.
“The victims who were tortured and killed had suffered, the orphans and widows had suffered, the families of the victims had suffered for many years, when people were not even allowed to show their grief. Indirectly, however, the entire Slovenian nation suffered and continues to suffer today, for the revolution which brought massacres tore the Slovenians away from the fabric of the Europen Christian environment in which we developed into a nation; it pushed us into barbarism, in which violence, the rule of the strongest, lies and, above all, fear have reigned for decades…,” the New Slovenian Covenant emphasized. In a recent post on Facebook, Prime Minister Janša also drew attention to the consequences of the silenced history, which is not
surprising, given that his family was also affected by the tragic time of the middle of the previous century. Janša revealed the traumatic life story of his father, who was rescued from the Roška abyss, the story about which Janša only learned about in 1988, when he was 30 years old, from the book Okopi, and later the newspaper Družina.
An excerpt from his father’s story
Among other things, regarding his father’s life, Janša revealed the following in his Facebook post: “On May 13th, 1927, Janez Janša was born to mother Marija and father Blaž, in a house number 13 in Setnik near Polhov Gradec. Then they heard about the first news of the resistance against the Italians and the Liberation Front. This was in spring 1942 already. No one in the village knew well what the Liberation Front actually was. At first, they mostly thought that if it was against the Italians, then it must be something good. Then came the news of the massacres of prominent local people. They were not being killed by the Italians, but by other locals. People were saying that the Communist Party was doing it. The boys who were growing up then did not know what that is. But fear settled in them, and just like their parents, they started talking in whispers. They locked the doors at night when they heard foreign, as well as local talk.”
In his post, Janša wrote about June 29th, 1942, when the Italians stormed his father’s village. “They surrounded all the houses, even those who stood a bit further from others. While screaming, they went from house to house and also knocked on the doors of house number 13. They took Janez and his father with them and ordered them to bring a pick and a shovel with them. They led them to a nearby hill and ordered them, using more gestures than words, to dig a hole. A guard with a loaded gun stood right beside them. Janez asked his father why they had to dig. The father kept silent for a bit, as he had sensed he knew what it all meant. However, he told him that the soldiers probably wanted a trench and that they did not want to dig it themselves, so that is why they took them along so they would do it for them. The Italian guard who heard this answer suddenly spoke in Slovenian and told them that they were digging their own grave. The father put down the shovel and asked why. The Italian soldier, who was actually a Slovene from the coastal region, replied that it was because they were partisans. On the frame above the door of their house, they found the abbreviation OF (Osvobodilna fronta – Liberation Front) written in chalk. The father was upset; he pointed to Janez, who was just a child, and asked how they could think they were partisans. The guard, who wanted to help, took them to the commander and translated the father’s objection. The father demanded that they check with the parish priest in Polhov Gradec whether or not they were partisans. Since the only incriminating evidence against them was the chalk-written OF sign on the front door, they actually did ask the priest. He confirmed that they were at home at the time and that no one from the house would be so stupid as to draw the OF sign on the door themselves. The priest’s testimony saved them.”
Janša was sent to the outpost
The war raged on and began to blur the line between children and adults. For a while, they managed to hide, Janša continued in his describing of the events, and shed some light on the events that happened at the beginning of 1943. “Then, in January 1943, a patrol of village guards from the Polhov Gradec outpost came in the house, where the whole family had gathered after Sunday Mass. Janez was told that he was mobilized and that he had to come with them. His father objected, saying that he was still just a child and that minors should not be mobilized. “If he is good enough for smuggling, he will be good enough for the guard,” the patrol leader replied, and on the same day, Janez was led to the outpost. In the outpost, he witnessed the capitulation of Italy and the transformation of the Village Guards into the Slovenian Home Guard. The guard service usually lasted one whole day. It was boring and useless, and there was a lot of work to do at home. So Janez went home several times, instead of standing guard, and during the day, he helped the locals with mowing and other chores, and in the evening, he returned to the outpost. This game, however, did not last long. He was caught and arrested. He was sent to prison for neglecting the guard service. He was imprisoned in the cells at the Ljubljana Castle.”
“Janez did not like prison. He kept an eye out for the opportunity to escape. He and a fellow prisoner Andrej Malovrh, who was from the same area, made a plan. On December 6th, 1944, on St. Nicholas’ Eve, when twilight came, Janez secretly put a ladder against the outside wall, and Andrej was already hidden in the toilet. As the twilight thickened, they listened for the voices of the guards. At the top of the castle tower were the German guards. Judging by the sounds they could hear, they knew that the guards were playing cards. Andrej and Janez climbed the ladder and found the wire of the lightning rod through the opening on the castle tower. They climbed down the wire to the hillside of the castle. Janez wrapped his hands with a hat, otherwise, the steel wire would have burned them. Then they had to crawl through barbed wire. They waited until late at night and then began to make their way through the darker streets of Ljubljana towards Šentvid. They made it out of town. In Šentvid, however, they were suddenly stopped by a Home Guard patrol. They didn’t know them.”
He was sentenced to 21 months of forced labour in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany
“Janez left home but stayed underground. Andrej was caught two days later, but Janez was more successful in hiding, and he never spent the night at home. He had to hide for one month; this lasted until one evening before the holiday of the Three Wise Men at the beginning of January in the year of 1945. That night, his mother demanded that Janez stay in the house in the evening and pray three rosaries with his family, as should be done before an important holiday. Janez knew this was dangerous, but stayed, nevertheless. In the middle of the prayer, they heard someone knock on the door. It was the Home Guard patrol. They knew that on an evening like this one, they had the best chance of catching him at home, and they were not mistaken. He was then taken to Polhov Gradec, and from there, back to the prison cell in Ljubljana’s Castle, where he awaited trial. Despite being a minor, he was sentenced to 21 months of forced labour in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. This was a severe punishment, especially since this happened just before the end of the war. It could very well have been a journey with no return.”
The partisans laughed at them and said that the holes for their graves had already been dug
“As soon as the locals found out about the verdict, they wrote a request for pardon. Again, the parish priest of Polhov Gradec helped. The request was granted. He was sent back to Slovenia from the camp, and on April 17th, 1945, he found himself at the Home Guard post in Polhov Gradec again. There, he waited for the end of the war, and two weeks after returning from Germany, he was with the others from the outpost again, on his way back in the direction from which he had just returned. In the meantime, he stopped at home. He decided not to go anywhere. But his father decided that wherever the others were going, he should go too. And so he went. Janez remembered how they moved slowly in a long column. They were tormented by thirst and hunger. In Austria, near Vetrinje already, he and a friend went off the road and tried to quench their thirst in a nearby stream. But behind the bushes by the creek, the partisans were hidden, who were not doing anything, only watching those who were retreating. When they saw them, they laughed at them and said that running away was futile. That they will not escape, and that the holes for their graves had already been dug.”
They were being beaten and robbed
“He stayed in Vetrinsko polje until the end of May. The English, who were guarding the Vetrinje camp, began to return Slovenian Home Guards back to Yugoslavia, claiming that they were only transferring them to Italy. The transport which Janez was also in was one of the last to leave. At the railway station in Podrožca, they waited for a train in a fenced area. While waiting, a stranger approached and began warning them that they were being returned to Yugoslavia, where they would all be killed. They did not believe him. They called him a liar and chased him away. But when they found themselves locked inside the wagons, they realized what the truth was. The soldiers with the red star on their caps came to stand guard. On the Yugoslav side of the border, they entered the wagons and began beating everyone. They also robbed them. They took their watches, their rings, even the better clothes they had. The train came to Radovljica. There, they were written up and left off the train. Earlier, however, they were also thoroughly searched. The guards wanted to know how old they were and how long they have been a part of the Home Guard. There were plenty of insults and beatings in between the questionings. The guards picked out the more familiar faces among the group. Janez, like the others who were born between 1927 and 1926, belonged to the group of minors, which was then separated from the others. They remained in Radovljica until June 3rd. Then, they were loaded onto a train and taken to Kranj. Ther, they were placed in the formerly German barracks.”
“They were being fed one meal of water in which beet leaves were boiled. In Kranj, Janez was present when his inmate Albin met with his brother Jože, who was the commander of the camp guards. Before the war, Janez, Albin and Jože were friends, as they grew up together. On June 15th, they had to form a line and then had to walk to Šentvid near Ljubljana, under heavy guard. They were malnourished and exhausted. In Šentvid, they were crammed into rooms in the Bishop’s Institute. The room where Janez was, was so crowded that it was impossible to even turn around. The situation was unbearable, there was no information available, and the guards’ attitude was stone cold. So, they were just waiting and hoping for the best. Occasionally, the door opened, and the guard called individual names. People were leaving the room. Those who stayed behind envied them. They thought it could not get any worse, that it could only go uphill, from that crowded room where they all were, thirsty, hungry, and insecure. One night, it was probably around July 3rd, Janez’s name was also called. He gladly stepped out into the hallway, thinking the inhuman torment was over. He could not have even imagined that there was anything worse than the unbearable suffering in an overcrowded prison room. But as soon as he stepped out into the hallway, he was kicked.”
“They were tied together with wire, two by two, and thrown on the trucks. The trucks then took them to the train station, and there, they were crammed into cattle wagons and locked the doors. In Kočevje, they were pushed off the wagons at the railway station, and they had to form lines. They led them in the direction of Rog. Janez walked alongside the man who was tied to him with a wire, on the hard road. Their lips were cracked because they were so thirsty, and bruised from the beatings, so they could not even speak. The guards stood on either side, pushing them along with their rifles. The long, sad procession went deeper and deeper into the forest of Rog. The people who were walking were young people, born in 1927 and 1928, mostly children, convicted without a verdict, among whom there was probably no one who could have committed anything serious, and certainly no one who could have known at least approximately what politics or the revolution was. The July sun became another reason for their scorching pain. The road dust from under their bloody feet, the sun’s rays and the smell of fresh blood made it seem like hell.”
“Weeks without food, many injuries, kicking and beatings, along with the July heat, were too much for some. The guards spoke Slovenian. Some of them were walking along the long column, looking for familiar faces one last time, but it was hard to recognize anyone, due to the sad state of the inmates. The longer the path dragged on, the more inmates fell down into the dust. As they were tied together with wire, two by two, every time one of them collapsed, a guard approached with the pliers and cut the wire, which bound the inmate who fell down to the other inmates. Then, he was pulled from the line into the woods, and the others heard the sound of a blow, which was sometimes accompanied by a faint scream, but no shot. They were killing them with the butts of the rifles.”
ABYSS AND DEATH were waiting for them at the end of the road
“The inmates that were tied together had to stand in a half-circle, at the edge of the abyss. Without a command and without hesitation, the machine guns sang from close range. Mortally wounded and those who were not dead yet, but just wounded, dead and alive, they fell over the edge and, bound together, dragged each other into the depths. Janez was pulled down by the chain of bodies while the bullets hissed by. After a while, he regained consciousness. He was not hit. The wire with which he was tied to the living chain was somehow broken. Maybe it was pierced by a bullet; maybe it tore while they were falling into the abyss. He was not bound to the others anymore. He dug himself from under the bodies, many of whom were still alive. The hole was filled with the moans and groaning of hundreds of dying people. Many of those who were only slightly wounded, were dying, drowning in their own blood and the blood of their fellow sufferers. And from above, new ones kept falling down. Janez somehow dragged himself to the edge of the hole, where there was a bit more space. His senses slowly began to function again, and they all perceived HELL. Moisture was gathering on the walls of the hole, quenching his thirst for a while. Time had stopped.”
“Just get away from hell,” he thought
“Then, slowly, everything went quiet. In the meantime, the abyss was filled with human bodies. There were only a few meters separating the top of the pile of corpses from the outer edge of the abyss. Janez spotted a young beech or hornbeam tree, half-fallen, hanging over the edge. He slowly climbed over the corpses and clung to the trees. He then reached the edge and looked around. It was night. He had nothing to lose. A shot would be merciful compared to the slow death among the hundreds of corpses. But there was no one on the edge. A fire was burning somewhere close by, and the guards were gathered around it. He crawled in the direction, opposite of where he saw the fire burning. “Just get away from hell,” he thought. After about a hundred meters, he stopped crawling and ran, while limping. He instinctively chose a direction. But the forests of Rog are vast, and he began to get lost. During the day, he tried to listen, to see if he could hear the bells or any other noise from the civilization that he wanted to hear but was afraid of at the same time. Horror from the abyss, condensed in the moaning voices and rumbles of hundreds who were killed, were still with him. He chewed on roots and drank water from puddles.”
“He finally made his way to the edge of the forest. In the valley, he saw a village, a road, and a railway. He thought that it must be the railway that connects Kočevje with Ljubljana. Physical exhaustion was slowly defeating him. Any kind of power he had gained from the miraculous salvation, was waning. He managed to get a few kilometers further, and then he ran out of any kind of energy reserve he still had. From the woods, he dragged himself to the back door of a house, which was a bit more secluded, and entered. There were two elderly women in the house. He was nothing but skin and bones; his eyes were glowing feverishly. He was still stained with blood, and the only things he had on, were the scraps from the torn-up suit. The women were terrified of him. They asked him where he came from. He said he came from where people are being killed. He asked for some food. They understood. One of them sighed and said, “our two are probably there as well.” They warned him to be careful as patrols were common there, and they had often heard shots. Despite the warnings, he left through the front door and headed for the main road, thinking he was safer in disguise, and that he would move forward about a hundred meters off the road.
On the way home, he was ambushed
“He had barely made it about a hundred meters from Ponikve when he was ambushed on a forest road. “Stop!” and “Where are you headed, comrade?” There was nowhere to go. He was caught again. They asked what he was doing there. He was confused and kept repeating that he was lost. Luckily, he was disguised and even washed himself earlier, and also, there was probably no one who would have believed that he could have escaped from Rod. Since he did not speak with the accent that was common there, they thought he was a Home Guard who was hiding and actually got lost, or an interwar hideout who wanted to run away to some distant relatives. But they did not worry too much about it. They loaded him on to a military jeep and drove him straight to Šentvid, to the Bishop’s Institute. There was a central gathering place there. It was only a few days after, and he found himself in the same room from which he had been called on July 3rd. The suffering lasted for many days, and it looked like the whole ordeal would happen again. The inmates, the few that were left there, who knew him from before, wondered where he had been all this time. He replied, telling them he had been interrogated and that he had been detained in other rooms in the meantime.”
“Before they put him in the room again, he was written up once more, and he was only waiting for one of the guards or people on the higher positions to figure out that he was already on the list before, and that he should have actually been rotting in the abyss in Rog. There was talk of amnesty. Janez was first summoned for questioning in August. In the room where he was being interrogated, there was a butcher’s chair, and two batons on it. However, the partisan officer who interrogated him has had enough of everything, or he was a good man at heart. He asked him why he had not joined the partisans. Janez replied that he was still a minor back then, and he did what his parents told him to do. The officer did not ask further questions. He told him that the amnesty would happen soon and that he would be able to return back home.”
“After the war, he mostly stayed at home. In October 1947, he was called into military service. Location: Petrovaradin. Janez had no idea where that is. It lasted two years. Accustomed to all the hardships, he endured this as well. No one mentioned his past while he was in the military. At home, he first told his mother about all of the sufferings he endured. They started talking about his sister’s husband. Janez knew what had happened to him, and somehow, the truth came out. His mother had to promise him that she would not tell anyone about it. Life went on, and the memories were slowly being forgotten. Nobody was allowed to talk objectively about the times of the war, so most stayed silent. But fear was deeply ingrained into day and night. Then, in the mid-fifties, he found himself in Dobrepolje and Ponikve again. The memory awoke vividly. He found the house he had taken refuge in, ten years prior. It was just the same as it had been then. He found the two women who remembered the living corpse who, half-naked, all dirty and covered in blood, begged for food. They recognized him.”
Throughout the time of preparations for independence and during the war, Janša always had his father’s story in his mind
Then came the military prosecutor’s first indictment, because of an article Janša had written for Mladina, and that is when his father told him that he, too, had gone through difficult times. “Especially when he was shot, but he climbed out of the abyss, alive. I believed him, even though he did not talk about the details. He only told the whole story after I came out of the military prison after the second indictment, arrest and trial in Roška in 1988. In early 1993, I decided, with his consent, to write about his story in my next book as well. I asked him and my mother to write down all their memories. That is how this text was created,” Janša pointed out. He let it be known that his father’s story was in his mind throughout the preparations for the independence and during the war in June and July of 1991, as a warning of what the national division could result in, at such a fateful time. “I hoped, and also did everything in my power, not to let things go in a familiar, horrible direction. And it worked. The second, post-war generation had finished the national project in 1991 and reached the end – an independent Slovenian state, without shedding a single drop of blood in this finale. That is why this achievement is all the more valuable and, hopefully, more lasting.”