The first of my photos about my father’s story. This is an experiment and may not be the finished photo, but it’s a start at trying to show what happened. I was lucky to get hold of some of Dad’s diaries, written when he was sixteen and with a death sentence on the whole family. I translated these words myself with the help of Google, Pons.si and my Slovenian lessons. It’s a good thing we’ve started to learn the past tense, I can finally make more sense of the words.
My main difficulty in trying to do work about Dad is that I can’t imagine I will ever be able to convey how awful the experiences he had were. It doesn’t help that Dad won’t tell me everything and he absolutely refuses to talk about his brother who died.
I decided to place Dad and his words in the farmhouse where he was born and lived before he became a refugee. His diary was written in this house and some of the descriptions are about what happened there. The house has been empty for many years and is now in need of extensive repair. A house in Jungian dream therapy is a representation of the person dreaming about it. It is fitting for the photos about my Dad that it is not whole anymore. It is largely unchanged since the days my Dad lived there, as his brother in law, who was also a surviving Home Guard, refused to change with the times. He said if it was good enough for the last generation, its good enough for him. This means the photos of the house are fairly true to how it would have been 70 years ago, although there are some things like plastic bags and other things that show it is taken now. I can remember visiting and using the outside toilet, tin bath and aga-type stove, they still used the bread oven too. I used to love it there.
The words on the photo are
Then one of the two in the house said “Go ahead and shoot the devil” He held a gun to my head for a long time.
Tedaj je eden tistih dveh rekel v hiši:« Kar ustreli ga hudiča«. Dolgo časa mi je grozil s pištolo.
How I wish I could understand Slovenian to read my father’s diaries and police files! I’m learning but it’s going to take some years. In the meantime, I will have to use a translator. It may be quite a job, as my father used a mixture of languages, mostly Slovenian, including very old words not used now, plus Croatian, Italian and even some German words. Probably because of the occupation by the Italians and Germans. The Police files are in Serbo-Croat, the official language of the Yugoslav army.
I’ve just returned from another trip to Ljubljana, researching my Father’s history and looking for inspiration for an art project about how he became a refugee. On this trip, I collected the State Police files about my father and his brother who died. I’m not allowed to publish them until they send me a version that’s acceptable to publish. This is correct as there are other names on my father’s files. These need to be removed, as I only have permission to use the files about my father and his brother. I had to sign an agreement and my father had to sign and have witnessed his permission for me to see the files. There were also files about one sister of his, but apparently, they are very sensitive and her son, who was adopted by his aunt, needs to see them first. It will be up to him if he wants any of the family to see them.
I’ve been told what’s in the State Police files. He was given a death sentence for escaping from prison. My father says that if he had not escaped he would have died anyway with a sentence of up to ten years hard labour. He was in prison for being part of a group of fourteen men in the army who had affected the morale of the battalion by spreading propaganda. I was relieved to see that my father did not kill the guard when he escaped with one friend. He took his gun but let him go. My father will be happy to hear that his friend survived and wasn’t caught. They fled to the woods, and dad waited while his friend went to see his family and say goodbye. He waited two days and nights, then decided he had to go on his own as his friend had probably been caught. I went to the woods he hid in, at twilight, to take photos and imagine. I was really glad to leave before dark. My dad travelled through the woods at night as it was safer to do so. He was then recognised near the farm and shot at, hiding in the cornfield. He eventually made it to the cow shed and got civilian clothes then went over the mountains again into Austria.
I found it surprising and disturbing that the files had our home address in England, where I was born. They accused him of being a terrorist and plotting to overthrow the Yugoslav government from England, where he ended up. This was at a time when the Yugoslav government was known to send execution squads to eliminate enemies abroad. A whole family was killed in one instance. I need to research this further and get actual facts about this, but it means our family could have been killed in our house.
My cousin had my father’s diaries, they had been kept by my Aunt in amongst 1000’s of books. It’s very lucky we found them as the farm had been raided at least three times, looking for documents to destroy. The letter sentencing the whole family to death at the beginning of the war, one volume of his diaries and the diaries his brother wrote while fighting the Communists cannot be found. To have those diaries survive after more than seventy years is a fantastic find, when most documents have perished. I showed them to the professor at the Institute of Contemporary History when he gave me the State Police Files. He was quite excited by the diaries and said there had been great interest in them at the Institute. He said my father had written well and it was interesting that he had written about his feelings. He wants permission to publish them and thinks that a TV producer may be interested in interviewing my Dad. Unfortunately, I don’t think my Dad is up to it, as he is now mixing up languages and finding it hard to talk about what happened. It’s taken me more than a year to get what information I have from him.
I was fascinated how the two sets of documents checked out. The state Police files say the date of his brother’s funeral. His diaries start on the day after the funeral. My father said he started them after his brother’s death, but not that it was the day after the funeral.
I hear quite often that even though Slovenia is now independent, it hasn’t changed and is still run by Communists. But I would never have had access to my father’s Police files, before independence. Nor would there be memorials of those killed after the war, granted they could do better, the Italian occupiers who died have a big area in the main graveyard and are all named with an individual cross, the Home guard have just a tree and no names anywhere.
I will post more about our other exploits on this trip, over the next week or so.
The route that was taken by the Slovenian Home Guard and civilians in May 1945, to surrender to the British in Austria at the end of the Second World War and civil war in Yugoslavia. They surrendered to the British believing that they would treat them more humanely than the Communists. The British sent them forcibly back to their deaths as part of a land deal.
Our walk over the Karavanke mountains was planned for the end of July 2016. Not an ideal time to be doing long walks, as it is very hot. However, it was important to me to have as many people that wanted to do the walk, together. This meant making it coincide with University and school holidays. At first, I had been very unrealistic about how far we would be able to walk each day. I had planned that we would do the whole 86km over the mountains in three days. This is how many days it took Dad to walk, but he was 17 when he did it and in the army. Luckily, Maria- my sister, told me she wouldn’t be able to do more than about 15 – 20k a day. This meant we now had realistic targets for walking. As it was, I was the least fit and the person who struggled with it most. (Although I like to think it was because I was carrying a heavy camera around my neck, plus tripod etc). I was also attempting the whole walk, which was now a five-day walk. The new plan was that Franzi (a Slovenian cousin) and myself would do all five days, we would be joined at various points by my sisters, brother-in-law, nephews, my husband, another Slovenian cousin Marko, his wife, and Franzi’s wife. Everyone was together for the crossing of the border. However, by the time we got to day five, the only person able to continue was my cousin Franzi. We abandoned the last day and I am hoping to do this with him next year. It would have been better if we could have done it in one go, but in the end on day four, I had to hand my backpack and camera to other people in order to finish that day’s walk.
There were some sad moments along the trip. Just before the border, we arrived at a former German concentration camp, where the prisoners of war were made to build the Ljubel tunnel. Those losing their usefulness died. The most shocking thing was that it was run as a commercial enterprise. Peoples’ lives for profit. Walking through the site was very sad. This must have only just been abandoned when my Dad passed by.
It was also quite moving when we stood at the border at the top of the old Ljubel pass. We had photos of those we were remembering, who had all walked this way to surrender to the British, also those who had chosen to stay behind. The whole family was separated. Most were sent to different parts of the world. Three were in the Home Guard and were sent back by the British, but survived the mass executions of the returned- my father, our cousins’ father ( our Uncle by marriage) and our cousin’s wife’s father. All three were born in the same year, 1927. Two 17, one just 18. These three didn’t know each other till afterwards. They survived because those under 18 were, in general, spared from death. France, who was just 18 lied about his birthdate. The title photo is of us holding their photos. It commemorates the break-up of the family and the creation of new ones.
Even though we didn’t do the last day of walking, we did still manage to visit some of the other places by car. We went to Ferlach in Austria, the site of the last battle against the Communists, who were trying to stop them crossing the bridge to reach the British. The bridge at Ferlach dam was the most inspiring for me, because I learned that this wasn’t the original bridge that they crossed. The original bridge is under the lake, submerged when they built a new road and dam. Ruminating on this, I thought that I wanted to come back and try to walk the original bridge under the water, which would mean taking up diving again. To me, it seemed poignant that the bridge was submerged. There is so much that has been unsaid, so many people died without telling their story, either frightened or ashamed to, or because it was too painful. It is a symbol of the deep, the unsaid, the unacknowledged. I was also quite excited by the possible imagery this would produce. I’m not sure how feasible it will be to scuba dive there, as it’s near a dam and could be dangerous.
It was great to spend time with our families and get to know each other better, particularly bonding over serious issues. It meant just as much to our Slovenian side of the family, to do this walk, as it did to us. It was very thought provoking. It helped me to try to imagine what it could have been like for them. They had to leave their homes and family, fight to stay alive and then on arriving at a place of safety, were betrayed and sent back, knowing most of them would be killed. All the while they were still minors or young adults. All tinged with the knowledge that they were on the wrong side and german collaborators, yet felt they were defending their lives from the Communists, who had given their family death sentences, while they were fighting the Germans.
I find it hard writing about the whole issue of the German collaboration of the Domobranci. When I speak to my Dad I see clearly how he had little choice, and how the Communists were certainly not 100% good, that the world war was a way for the Yugoslav Communists to take control of Yugoslavia, that they were the invaders from within. That they used fear and killings to control and recruit, and massacred around a hundred thousand after they won the war. However, they also risked their lives fighting the Germans. Yet the Domobranci got their arms from the Italians, then the Germans when the Italians capitulated. Many started off fighting the Germans but then concentrated on fighting the Communists, after the Communists started killing them because they wouldn’t fight as Communists. I can see that Churchill had something to do with this situation as he backed the Communists, not caring who won or lost as long as the side he backed was the side most likely to beat the Germans, leaving the Domobranci little choice about where to get arms. Then Churchill betrayed them after they surrendered, by sending them back to their deaths as part of a land deal. Britain has a lot to answer for, yet many documents Britain has about this time, are still not open to read.
Main photo, left to right, Michael Persin, Matthew Persin, Anna Watkin, Alex Persin, Tina Reid-Peršin, Mariana Vrečar, Maria Persin, Franzi Vrečar, Marko Peršin, Janaya Peršin.
For about a year now, I have been trying to interview my Dad about the civil war in Yugoslavia during the second world war, and why he was a refugee. He has never wanted to talk about it. But now he is dying, I am desperately trying to get him to talk. I visit at least once a week to see my Mum and Dad, sometimes Dad is too unwell or in too much physical pain, but occasionally I can get him to talk. It’s a difficult balance as it can make him very low talking about it and he is suffering from depression alongside his illness. But there are times when he wants to talk. As it’s so hit and miss, I’ve found that setting up a camera on a tripod is not good. He is more likely to talk if I use an iPhone or just tape his voice. It means that the quality of the recording is varied. My aim is, first of all, to understand what happened. Then record it to pass it on. But also to make an art project of it that looks at empathy. What I’ve found though is it’s not that easy to control the content of interviews, unless you edit so much out for the sake of the aim, that it isn’t true to what was said. Creating empathy should be so easy, they were tortured and killed, Dad didn’t kill anyone, he was a child of 15 when he took up arms. However, what I’ve realised is that unless you actually walk in someone’s shoes, it’s so hard to have real empathy for the emotions of that person. I will never understand what it’s actually like to go through a civil war, or a revolution, as I have never experienced it. The nearest I’ve come to a divided country is Brexit. I can try to imagine, but, the mere fact that I am still shocked by what my Dad says, shows how far away I still am from empathy. Yesterday, when I asked him if he had any regrets from those times, thinking he might say something like he wished he hadn’t taken up arms, he said that he wished he had shot a few of them. This is my Dad, a man who I admire for being so kind, so patient, so even tempered. Of course he still hates them, they destroyed his life, took away his land, killed his friends and brother, killed hundreds of thousands of people in revenge massacres. Of course, the Communists would also still hate those that opposed them. Does civil war ever end? Or does it just get watered down and die out as the generations pass? Is that the only way a country can heal? The more I do this project, the more I think it should be about forgiveness, not empathy. Forgiveness, in a Catholic country, the basis of confession for the Catholics. Tito was forgiven by the Catholic Church for the massacres, but why haven’t the Home Guard been forgiven? Why haven’t the British Government apologised for knowingly sending the Slovene Home Guard to their deaths? Or am I still missing some important information? I can only research further. There’s still so much to learn.