Milan Zajec, one of three survivors who made his way out of the pit of a thousand dead and dying fellow Slovenians at Kočevski Rog in 1945, recently died in Cleveland, I learned from Pavle Borstnik’s column in the Slovenian American Times. As in other Communist countries, Slovenian freedom-seekers were forcibly repatriated as deals were made with Stalin. The war was over, but 10,000 refugees staying in a British-controlled camp in Austria were told they were going to Italy. As they looked out the slats of the rail cars and saw Partisan soldiers, they knew that they were going to their gruesome deaths in their homeland under the rule of victor Marshall Tito. Slovenia, which gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, is the size of New Jersey, but has over 600 mass, unmarked graves of victims of the Communists.
Borstnik describes Zajec as a “simple, country boy,” from the village of Veliki Gaber, who along with his brothers wanted to lead a simple life. “Then came war and revolution and Milan soon recognized the real aims of the people claiming to be waging a ‘liberation war’ against the foreign occupier. Together with most of his brothers he chose to resist this philosophy. . . .”
Borstnik writes that Zajec retreated into “total privacy” during his last years.
Those who were killed in the pits are often accused of being Nazi collaborators, Communist propaganda repeated in the schools and media. In my most recent copy of Slovene Studies, Professor Oto Luthar of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Ljubljana calls the Partisans “liberators.”
In the United States, scholars studying Communism are exiled from universities. Communist propaganda continues to come from Russia, even as the Olympics take place.
A former political prisoner of Tito, whom I met a few years ago at a Slavic studies conference, pointed out all the “red” academics and journalists who had flown to Philadelphia from Slovenia, or who were comfortably ensconced in American universities. These academics do “gender analysis” or “semiotics” as they deny firsthand accounts of survivors—and history.
Real life doesn’t fit the neat categories of theory or ideology.
Borstnik explains that the Communists in Slovenia began their social revolution by forming a vaguely “anti-imperialist front.” Heeding Stalin, they launched an insurrection in Yugoslavia on July 4, 1941 under the pretense of fighting the Germans. One thousand out of the 300,000 population of Ljubljana were killed by the secret police.
In the countryside, the Communists terrorized farm families, demanding food. They were “armed bands, roaming the country, executing the known or suspected ‘enemies of the revolution’ and pillaging their property.” The Slovenians were then accused by the Italians of supporting Communists and sent to concentration camps.
So the men decided to form independent Village Guard units for self-defense. After Italy went to the Allies, the Germans came in. Under German occupation, Village Guards became the Home Guards to protect Slovenians from the Partisans.
When Tito’s forces became victorious at the end of the war, the British shifted their support to him from Draza Mihailovich, the military commander of King Peter, in exile in Britain. The 20,000 Home Guards (Domobranci) who had fled to Austria were disarmed by the British and repatriated until Canadian Major Paul Barre confronted the British commanders, thus saving 10,000 from the same fate.
In order to advance their pro-Communist theories, the professors overlook the complicated stories of life under Nazi occupation, as Communists terrorized the people. Borstnik expresses contempt for the Nazis who treated Slovenians like slaves, as they did all Slavs.
Metod Milac who was born in 1924 in Slovenia and wrote a first-hand account in Resistance, Imprisonment & Forced Labor: A Slovene Student in World War II, also describes how most Slovenians felt about the Nazis. Only a teenager, Milac was captured by the Italian fascists, then the Communist Partisans, and then again by the Italians. He resumed his studies briefly after recovering from near starvation in the Rad concentration camp.
Milac describes the day in 1944 when the Germans forced the Home Guard (which his older brother, Ciril, had joined) to take an oath of allegiance: “I felt pain and despair that day, knowing that many of my friends, acquaintances, and schoolmates who participated had no intention of pledging any alliance to the Third Reich nor did the majority of those taking part.” He expresses relief that his brother’s unit was not selected to take part in the oath-taking.
Milac had decided to join the pro-Anglo-American underground group, “Slovene National Clandestine Resistance Force,” diverting from his brother’s choice. He was captured by the Gestapo and eventually sent to Auschwitz, where he survived the labor camp. One of the 200,000 displaced persons, he immigrated to New York, then Cleveland, and finally Syracuse. He earned advanced degrees in music and then in library science and becamea librarian at Syracuse University. He tells this story in his book, A Land Bright with Promise.
Milac knew Milan Zajec and another one of the three survivors of Kočevski Rog, France Dejak. It was through Dejak’s account that Milac learned about the fate of his brother, who was with Dejak’s group imprisoned at the school, Bishop’s Gymnasium, which the brothers had attended. Milac writes, “Having spent four years as a student in the Bishop’s Gymnasium only a few years before, he must have suffered even more at being a prisoner in the chapel where he attended daily mass as a student. Dejak did not know much more, except that he last saw Ciril, wired to another man, when they were loaded on the trucks to the place of execution. Thus, I can assume that his murder took place on Saturday, 9 June 1945. He was 22 years old.”
Zajec, as Borstnik writes in his most recent column, was “chosen to survive.” Fortunately, he recorded his memories. This is Zajec’s description of being transported with other prisoners (quoted in Slovenia 1945 by John Corsellus and Marcus Ferrar):
We were all between 18 and 24 years old. The wire cut into our flesh. We were beaten by the Partisans at the corners of the truck. I started to sob. If I moved, everybody was hurt and we all fell on top of each other. . . We started to pray aloud and get ready for death. We had been preparing for death ever since the Partisans got hold of us . . . I was afraid I would be sick and I could not get off the truck at Kočevski Rog. The sun was strong and I was thirsty.
They approached “the killing site in a valley”:
We heard shooting and screaming of domobranci being killed. Nobody cried yet. We were just waiting. I could not feel my legs any more. They cut my shoe-straps and removed my shoes. The knife went into my flesh and it bled. I saw an 18-year-old boy with his eyes gouged out and his skull smashed. He was still conscious, sitting quietly, not moaning, just sighing . . . We were forced to sit down and stand up, still tied together with wire that cut into our flesh. We had to walk several metres and then back again. It seemed to take about an hour. We were made to sing Communist songs. Some had their heads cut by the knives and were dragged along unconscious behind.
Speaking Slovenian and wearing British uniforms, Partisans tore gold teeth out of the jaws of living Domobranci. The prisoners were forced into a pit with bloody corpses. The dying moaned beneath Zajec, new victims fell over him, and blood flowed into his mouth. He wrote, “I wanted to die, but death would not come.”
Zajec attributed his survival to his Holy Mary of Carmel medallion. The dying prayed for their atheistic Communist enemies, and a priest chanted in Latin. The Partisans fired shots and grenades into the pit.
Zajec survived five days. Eventually pulling themselves out of the pit by a tree that had fallen in from blasting that was intended to cover the bodies, the survivors got out and walked 35 kilometers to safety.
Milac expresses his disbelief that all this happened without any trials, in violation of international rules. It was evidence that the goal of the Communist Party was “a Soviet-style dictatorship under Tito.”
With the sadness that overtakes him when he talks about the war, Milac writes, “It is also hard to believe that in the small Slovene nation one would find so many people who would be able, willing, and possess so a complete disregard for another human being to execute acts of such unbelievable sadism.” His book is filled with accounts of kindness and cruelty on all sides.
My own parents escaped Yugoslavia (specifically Slovenia) in the late 1950s with me as a toddler. I knew only bits and pieces about the war from overheard conversations among the adults. They told about being forced by the occupiers to learn the Hungarian language and about soldiers demanding food from villagers. There were secret signals among women to avoid rape. There were stories of survival in forests. There was the story of the young man in the village, whose name I don’t recall, who was shot just as he looked over his shoulder. There was the uncle recruited to fight, with a gun pointed at him, more than once. But we did not learn this history in school.
In his epilogue to Resistance, Imprisonment, & Forced Labor, Milac writes that the enforced repatriations that killed his brother and several friends are “among the deepest wounds that are still bleeding.” Efforts to cover them up, he writes, will last forever.
Borstnik continues to write about the political situation in Slovenia. He calls Milan Zajec’s story “the final testimonial to the banality and criminality of the red ‘philosophy’ which, unfortunately, to this very day, continues to claim for itself the right to rule and judge the life of our unhappy homeland.”