I am Ciril Zlobec, Slovene poet, writer, translator and essayist, and many-a-thing regarding my age. Most of all, it was the Partisan movement during my youth that affected the rest of my life. I joined as a fighter and a coordinator, actively at hand in the Resistance movement for whatever purpose in my field of activity. This time played a fundamental role in the formation of my personality. I had no dilemmas when I was faced with the choice of joining the armed resistance against fascism. Contrary to many in central Slovenia, there was no doubt in my mind whether to join or not. Although personally, I of course had many doubts. I had gone to study prior to WWII. It was my great ambition to get an education because I sensed within myself, already early, the inclination to write. I even wrote a few awkward verses. I was aware that I could truly become a poet, in the correct sense of the word, with the appropriate education.
The first time I ever entered a school building presented me with my first personal contact with fascism. I was six years old and the teacher demanded that all newcomers greet with the characteristic fascist raised arm salutation. Subconsciously, I immediately sensed the pressure of something foreign and hateful and I didn’t want to raise my arm in the fascist salute. Upon the teacher’s persistence that I must salute, some sort of childish impetuosity, a stubborn anger arose in me. Nothing could make me raise my arm. Eventually, because he insisted, I raised my arm, albeit in childish wounded vanity. The teacher was standing over me and he gave me a hard slap. That was my first encounter with fascism. I was a six year old fighter. My second encounter was about two years later when my father took me to Trieste. Of course we walked from the town of my birth, 30 kilometers. I so wanted to see the city for the first time in my life. I was fascinated with the palaces in Trieste, especially on the Via Carducci, the main road. I asked my father to tell me what was what. At that moment someone wearing a fascist uniform spat in my face and threatened to bash me in the face if he heard one more such obscene word. Even though I was just a child, this was the moment when fascism instinctively emerged within me in the form of identification: everyone and anyone who spoke the Italian language was a fascist. So, the beginning was quite traumatic. On the one hand it was unjust to me, personally, because I was incorporated into the persecution of Slovenes. Also to my family, which was also exposed to various elements of harassment where they lived and worked.
By 1941 I was ready. And not only I. The entire Primorje region was ready to fight against fascism. Of course, anti-fascism was not the only rage in the Slovenian territory. There was also the National Liberation Movement. The Slovenes in the Slovenian Primorje region sensed a chance through the liberation movement, through WWII. We were always confident that the Allied forces would conquer the nazi-fascists. By taking part in the resistance we were faced with an historical opportunity to join the rest of Slovenian territory in some new form of community. Then there were whispers of the Partisan movement in the Primorje region. Ever-indignant against fascist politics reaching even into the depths of the schooling system, I reported to the activists immediately. I wanted to join the Partisans. My first contact was with the unit operating in the Karst and in the Vipava valley. I presented myself at the end of 1942. They advised me that winter was nearing and that it’s pointless because the leaves will be falling and camouflage will be more difficult. They told me to come back in the spring and that they’ll be delighted to have me then. So I returned home. Who knows if it was just a call of fate, but in February 1943 the Italian army found this group and slaughtered them all. Each and every young Partisan. Then they brought the corpses to the cemetery in Stanjel and forced the locals to come and look at the dead Partisans. They wanted us to get the impression that the resistance movement was over. They crammed us into that cemetery. Just to make a stronger impression they partially stripped the dead bodies and turned them over in various ways, displaying even their genitals. This dishonor to the deceased was an outrage to me, considering my classical upbringing straight from the theological seminary - that one must respect the dead akin to how they are respected in literary sources such as Homer etc. It only reinforced my attitude: I would go to all ends, upon first opportunity, to find the next group that forms, which surely would, and I would join the Partisans. Only a month later I was confined. They threw me out of bed in the middle of the night. They packed me into a truck and carted me away, along with all the other youths born in 1924, 1925 and 1926. They drove us to various regions throughout Italy. I was sent to the Abruzzi and I had to spend all my time there until the capitulation of Italy. I was surrounded by farmer boys, all relatively awkward in the Italian language, even for simple communicative purposes, and it was I who accompanied and brought the entire unit back to the Primorje region and directly to the Partisans. Three hundred young men.
The anti-fascist disposition was in our blood. Hearing the first news that some opposition had arisen somewhere - especially once these news came to the Slovenians in the Primorje region, which belonged to Italy – we all were automatically for the Partisan movement. Not only were we inclined to it, indeed we experienced it extremely naively. It was a romantic view of unconquerable Partisans, the same Partisans who suddenly show up first here and then there, un-capturable! The first Partisans were in our eyes according to our hopes and aspirations. They did not conform to reality. Already in 1942 there were posters hung all over the Primorje region, warrants for the arrest of a renowned Partisan of the time, Janko Premrl – Vojko. Later he fell in action and was designated a national hero. A financial reward was offered to anyone who would turn him over, dead or alive, to the Italian military authorities. Despite the large sum posed, especially for the conditions at the time, no-one was tempted to betrayal or the mediation of information, which might bring about the arrest or the mere identification of his whereabouts or doings. Vojko, that is, Janko Premrl became a legendary hero in our eyes. We attributed to him various activities, which he never even did, nor could he have done. We said he’d been to Venice, Rome and atop Nanos all at the same time – like a miracle man. Although we knew it was impossible, it was what we thirsted for. In the beginning the Partisans were just a small band, but we made their strength out to be that of an entire troop. These were the dreamy visions of the resistance. But of course, anti-fascism was present in the Primorje region already prior to the war.
At one point, I experienced some sort of metamorphosis, like in Trieste when the fascist spat in my face and I identified everyone who spoke Italian as a fascist. The civilian population brought me to recognize that it is unjust to condemn or declare an entire population merely for what is expressed through their political, military or other representatives. I began to understand that Italians, no less than us, are quite disparate. There are those to whom I’m close and there are those whom I find adverse, they are my enemy as I am theirs. Upon our return from Italian confinement, we all went together in groups. I remember that the day I returned from half a year of confinement, I washed, changed my clothes and headed off to join the Partisans. My family wanted me to stay at least a full day. No. I couldn’t wait. For me, joining the Partisans felt like discovering America. I wanted to become an active fighter and not just a sympathizer. The mood after the fall of fascism – formally on July 25th and later September 8th - when Italy acceded to the unconditional truce, and which was when we arrived after a few days of travel from the Abruzzi to the Karst, the atmosphere was already in full swing. People were gathering and cheering about liberation, convinced that the war was over. So my comrades and I, we were anxious and eager to seize the day that we, too, would become fighters, before the war ended. It was a total illusion that with the capitulation of Italy, Germany would fall as well.
I was so eager to exchange blows with the enemy. I was in a battalion, equipped with only three machine-guns and rifles, very poorly armed. The Germans surrounded us with tanks during the night. It was their mighty army against ours. They waited until morning to attack. I immediately offered to go, and three more men were equally enthusiastic to go with me up against the German tanks with hand grenades. We imagined it was just a matter of throwing the grenades, we would simply kill the Germans and blast everything to ruins. Older and more experienced Partisans told us to calm down. There would be many more opportunities to fight. They clarified that it’s not that simple to destroy a tank. They’re not made of paper, rather of steel, and also the Germans were not sleeping. We were atop this hill. There was also a bit of forest around. The Germans approached in a dense line of ‘shooters’ followed by a display of tanks, slowly advancing in the rear. We then recognized the horror. We were all novices, it was our first fight, except for a few leading cadres. On the basis of my four grades of high schooling, I was named right off as the Political Commissary of a unit; without any previous fighting experience. I had to take care of my men. We had these dugouts or shelters made from stones. During a fight we were to defend ourselves from behind the shelters. The command was to remain quiet and calm and to wait until the commander yelled charge (‘juris’). We were to wait for the enemy to approach within 20 meters and then each man was to pick his own target enemy. We would all charge together. Then something unexpected happened. Of the 300 men on our side the enemy was expecting at least 100 to die. But when the Germans approached, not 20 meters away but rather 40 meters, the guy behind the machine-gun started firing the machine-gun too soon. We all charged at that moment, all frantic, all in a rush. We were suddenly inside the German lines, which were well organized according to the logic of a military attack. The 300 young men charged among them and provoked such havoc that the Germans were so surprised they didn’t even shoot. Had they shot at us they would have also been shooting at their own people, because we were among them. We broke through their lines without a fight. Instead of 100 of our men dying, only two fell, two were wounded and one was taken captive.
At the time and place, the frame of mind was perfectly idyllic: the responsibility, not only as one regards one’s own behavior, but also towards one’s comrades. If a comrade was wounded, you would rescue him. Even if he fell, you would rescue his body so that the enemy wouldn’t get him and desecrate his body. It was a matter of honor; you would not hesitate to risk your own life. Once I dragged a fatally wounded comrade almost three kilometers. Luckily, the Germans knew that a Partisan brigade was somewhere in the vicinity, so they chose not to hunt me down directly but tracked me through the shooting lines. That time I was almost sure I would die too. Honor prevailed over thoughts of self survival in such moments. It was one year later when the army ‘lent’ me to civilian society, to help organize Slovenian Partisan schooling in the entire Primorje territory. I had always collaborated in the Karst. Then I returned once again to the unit. I was very active in cultural matters: I wrote songs, recited at meetings. Brigades were named after poets, I was in the Kosovel brigade. There was also the Gregorcic battalion and the Levstik brigade. Culture and combat were amalgamated at the time. I had founded schools, taught, been the district headmaster and I don’t know what all, anything that was needed, I’d recited my poems at many a meeting… It was 1944 and we were sure the war would end almost the very next day. I was called back to the armed forces yet again. They put me among the miners. Once I went with a colleague to mine a track-line between Gorica and Trieste. We fell straight into German occupation near Doberdob. Somehow, and to me it’s still unbelievable, we stayed alive. I can only imagine how that group of Germans shot right past us. Perhaps they didn’t want to kill us, considering that we were within ten meters of them. They just didn’t hit us. The commander later called a unit meeting and said: You see? Ciril almost fell today. It’s some kind of miracle that he’s still alive. We were all astounded, myself most of all. He said: When it gets dangerous, Ciril does not go into action anymore. He writes poems. I was to be a molder of Slovene words, in a time when it was officially prohibited to use the Slovene language and when only two years earlier I had been expelled from school for using Slovene words. These men paid reverence to the Slovene literary word, song, Gregorcic, Presern… It was constantly recited, and we all carried miniature books of Presern and Gregorcic. They were all too ready to protect me and keep me safe, while they went into action. Half of them had already fallen within a year. They were consciously prepared to risk their lives to protect me. They would fall, while I, the poet, and I wasn’t much of a poet back then, would only write poems. Such comradeship, such ethics as I experienced then… Mind you, I’ve mentioned one mere example… I never before, nor ever thereafter came across such again. So, during the actual fighting, Partisan ethics were at their heroic apex; they were pure. Things happened after the war. Once it’s all over, when you finally feel that all the bad is over and done with, that’s when uncontrollable human passions surface; and of course already the first political reckonings, settlements and everything bad. That’s why I, even today, while history is revised, always say that it was a clean and pure fight for liberation. Especially with the Slovenes, in contrast to the French, the Czechs or whoever, who fought for the uniting of Slovenes into one community. It was pure and ethical. Later the passion began. It’s when some get weapons into their hands and also deem themselves as having the power to decide who is the enemy and who to take revenge upon. Of course things then happen which cause a shadow to fall over even those few ideal and idealistic aspects of anti-fascism, across everything that occurred between 1941 and 1945.
In the two years that I was with the Partisans, I came quite close to death several times. I somehow had to get used to death becoming a part of Partisan life. For each fight there was the success or failure of the encounter. It was determined almost exclusively on the basis of the number dead. If we fought with the Germans and then figured that five Partisans had fallen, so as to find pleasure in the result of the encounter. We had to convince ourselves, regardless of how true it was, that we had lost five Partisans while the enemy had lost twenty. You had the feeling that the death that swallowed up your colleagues was not in vain. Rather it was a mini-contribution towards liberation and the persecution of the occupying enemy, freedom and everything we imagined was to be after the war ended. I myself was lucky. I was an informer, the Germans caught me three times and three times they let me go; all because I wore this… I’m an agnostic. I’m not a believing man. But my mother was extremely religious. When I joined the Partisans she said to me: Son, I know you don’t pray, but… here, take this little rosary. And she put it in my pocket. She was a peasant girl. Out of respect to my mother I carried that rosary in my pocket at all times. When the Germans first captured me and searched me and emptied my pockets, they pulled out my rosary. They were in the habit of believing that all Partisans kill priests and burn churches. They were certainly surprised to find a Partisan with a rosary in his pocket. Furthermore, it coincided with my forged papers, which stated that I was still studying at the theological seminary. Once I fell into the middle of German ranks in the road. I was searched, they checked my documents. I didn’t have any money on me. He said to me: What are you doing here? I was near Opatje selo. I was en route to Doberdob. I told him I was on my way to the seminary in Gorica. They said: It’s the middle of the school year now, so what are you doing here? I said that I had a little bit of sickness of the lungs and that I was sent home to recover and now I’m on my way back. I was riding a bicycle. I had thought that there weren’t any Germans around and so I could ride on the road. The soldier said: Yeah, yeah, yeah… and what will you do without any money? I explained that we record our dues in a booklet and that we pay the balance at the end of the year. He was suspicious of me. He couldn’t figure out how to get me caught. After flipping through my papers he finally whips out a photograph of my first love, Elvira from Stanjel. ‘Forever yours Elvira’ was written on the back. He knew a little Slovene and said to me: Translate this for me. I did what I had to. Because of his little knowledge of Slovene, he then feeling victorious, snorted: Now I’ve got you. So this is a theological seminary? And you’re a priest?! I hung my head and said: What can I say, youth is youth. I was repentant, as if to say I’d disobeyed the rules of the seminary. He watched me and then said: That’s quite a tall story you’ve told, huh? I looked him straight in the eyes and said to him: Is it that difficult to discern when someone is telling a lie or the truth? I was looking straight at him, but I was dripping sweat from fear and horror. He told me to go. I probably never could have pulled off a trick like that without the four years of high school. I was at least a little above the level they were used to meeting in a regular fighter. A peasant boy would only look on in horror once he was caught. Once I discovered the effectiveness of the rosary, I was more than happy to continue carrying it. I related this story two times after that and it always worked. …Those were the little guys; they were still learning how to read. I had a hidden bunker in school. A plank that would lift up and I could hide under it. Some woman would run over from the village, under the pretense of being a teacher. All men my age were either with the Partisans or in camps. There was almost no one, except if the parents were so sick that someone had to take care of them. Suddenly this German appears at the window. They had come from the other side, not through the village. Actually the unit went through the village, all but this one German. I presume he had the task of checking this isolated house, which was the school. He leaned on the window ledge - it was spring so it was open - on his submachine gun, looking into the classroom. My blood froze. I admit it first occurred to me that this would end in tragedy: these poor children were going to be victims. That I myself would be seemed perfectly logical. The children had already witnessed the burning of their village. They all began to scream and cry like mad. It had always been taught that in the dangerous event of Germans coming, the plank to hide under should be lifted. So one child charged forth to lift the plank where I should hide under. I quickly pressed it down again and picked up a Partisan handbook we had compiled. Although these children were very young, I just opened the book and told them to open their books on the same page. The text happened to be Ivan Cankar’s ‘Cup of Coffee’. It was by all means for higher levels. I told the best reader to read, but he said a few words and began to cry again. The German just kept on watching and watching. I, too, watched the children and tried to soothe them but I couldn’t calm them down. I was sure we’d meet our end. There I was, and looked straight in the Germans eyes. I showed him these children, indicated their sadness. He left the window. I thought he surely would come around and enter on the other side. Or that he had gone off to report to his unit to have them come and finish us off. But he never did show up, nor did any other Germans. The silence was deathlike. A quarter of an hour later the Germans withdrew from the village and all the women came running, all the mothers. The horror that ruled is beyond words. The mothers were sure that we had all had been massacred in the school. They came in to find us alive and well. Apparently, that German took pity on those children. Earlier that morning the Germans had killed off the wounded. Having to massacre the children as well would have been, presumably, too much even for him. So even among the enemy, wearing the SS insignia, there were some who were not brutal beasts. There were those who were just swept up into the current of the times and they killed merely because that’s how it was.
While we waited for the breakthrough, many of the boys under my leadership, cried from fear. It was a horrific sight. The same boys, aged 17, 18 or 20 at the most, volunteered for dangerous actions, attacks, within half a year. When a man has weapons, when he witnesses the deaths of his colleagues, his friends, even his neighbors from the very same village, a murderous passion overwhelms him. When in combat, sooner or later the logic prevails that death to the enemy is your life. Perhaps now as I look back upon myself as a man who considered himself a poet, I was a tremendous individualist. Of course, in a war the units are under strict discipline, all organized according to a military structure quite necessary for leading into any type of combat. It wasn’t for me though; it didn’t suit my character. There was another aspect of human character. Even out in the open, wherever we managed to get some sleep, I always liked to sleep in a bit, I’m a bit lazy in the morning. When I was in the brigade, we’d usually march at night. We walked all night long just to get a little bit further, for instance from the Karst to the Trnovski gozd via the Vipava valley, where the ambushes and outposts were. I often thought these actions were dangerous or just too straining. So I often volunteered for various new tasks that would arise amidst a battle. These were more dangerous, but at least I could channel my individualism this way. So I became an informer. I would travel alone to Trieste with forged documents. It was highly risky, but I felt that my life was at my own disposal. Later I was with the miners. That was just a small unit, maybe there were 13 or 15 of us. It was easy to command. One year I worked in the educational system organizing the school system and appointing teachers who didn’t even exist. I was alone in appointing these teachers and without Slovenian schools. I decided to call a meeting for all the women who stayed home alone so I could present them with a dictation of a text. I had some knowledge of the Slovene language I reviewed the results and decided that the one who made the fewest mistakes would be the teacher. The children needed someone to present them with at least the basics of the language and a little math and reading. They couldn’t just go through the war without any schooling … The official schooling system had disintegrated. So it was necessary to establish a Slovenian school. Things were easiest for me while I worked in the schooling system. Although for a long time I felt like an informer. Being 18, I strained to be a great informer, like all those characters I’d read about, Sherlock Holmes for instance, and I dreamed of all the miracles I would do. I did do a few bold things, even stupid, but at least they worked. For instance, if I could, I slept in a bed. I’d arrive in a village and they would offer me a bed. I would risk it. The Germans would come at night and that was a problem: how and where to hide. I always had a mini-bunker somewhere to hide in. I acted completely against all rules, rather according to my instincts. Once I was in my home village and Germans came suddenly at night. Luckily it was very dark and they were roaming about with torches. I was on the verge of coming home to my house and what was I to do? They were going to inspect the houses. I got an idea. I thought it wisest to follow the patrol to see where they were going. So I followed them, only meters behind, through the entire village. I was careful of how I walked as not to be too loud. It was utterly dark but I didn’t need a torch. I could move around independently or in small units, arranging ahead what we would do. I was also a courier. We would always travel in pairs. I wasn’t entirely aware of how dangerous it was. That was a great advantage to me. To the same time it increased the danger factor, but things worked out. Many men, who were just as foolish as I, fell. I am left with an almost romantic regard of combat, as if it was a romantic period. Which of course it wasn’t; far from it. At the same time we were also falling in love. I was prepared to walk all night just to see my beloved from afar. In short, we lived intensively under the conditions of war. We had to be careful. There would be a meeting and we would dance and go wild, then we would fight the very next day. This became the norm of our lives, we learned to count on it. It was all the easier in the Primorje region, in the Karst especially. Anywhere you came, someone immediately gave their cow to slaughter so the entire brigade could feast on goulash. When I traveled as a courier, I was always fed. If I was wet I was dried no matter what house I stepped into. Despite that you were alone, everywhere and anywhere you always had the feeling that you belonged together. There was never any danger that you might take the wrong turn into the wrong house. Everyone was inclined to the Partisans. This relieved us of the fears that took rise elsewhere throughout Slovenia, where one had to consider the potential betrayal of the locals. That is, elsewhere, the Home Guard and their informants were lurking. There was none of that in the Primorje area. I never came across a single Slovenian enemy, dead or alive. So I realize I have a somewhat idealized conception. Nonetheless, it was genuine, the idealization that a war could unfold such a beautiful humanity, if I may say so, because war is far from beautiful. It is true though that as a poet it was hard for me to choose death, even the enemy’s. This is also why I selected tasks which were far more hazardous than being in the brigade. However, it was less imperative in the tasks I chose to have to kill someone standing before me, even the enemy. I have always tried to live my life with as little death as possible, even with regard to the Germans. Killing, even in the name of great ideals, will ultimately come back to you later in form of a trauma.
Speaking of the circumstances of WWII, we often forget that the Slovenian area was the only area in occupied Europe where occupation was thought only a first act. Slovenia was divided. Ljubljana was the hundredth Italian province. The Italian right hand, with the bishop Rozman at its lead, who sent a letter of thanks to Mussolini for accepting this ‘large family’ into fascist Italy. All the other countries, in this region… The Croatians had some sort of country, fascist, satellite, but their right to a form of their own was acknowledged nonetheless. The Serbs had their own heir to the crown and thus the Kingdom of Serbia. Slovakia was a Protectorate. And Slovenia was divided among the occupiers, which means the Italians… Hitler came to Maribor and said: Make this land German again for me, the Hungarians took Prekmurje. There were some villages in Bela krajina that even the Croatians usurped. We were obliged to constitute ourselves as a nation and as a country; nobody acknowledged us. Only by strongly determined fighting we forced our allies to understand a people lives here, a nation with its own language and its own culture and tradition. That’s why the significance of this fight was so essential and vital. Had there been no Partisan movement, the Primorje would not be a part of Slovenia now.
They wanted to keep me in the army when the war ended. I had some sort of Partisan rank, something like second lieutenant, but I had no intention of building a military career. I deserted the army in September 1945. I wanted to study and I believed that I fought for that too, for my own personal freedom, for the right to decide for myself what I would do. I didn’t want anybody else deciding for me. I wanted to study Slovene; as I had never attended Slovene schools, my knowledge of the language was deficient, and I was a poet. That was all just retold rather harshly, but they understood. There were no charges brought against me. I had deserted in September and it was December before I received my certificate of discharge. For three months I had been de facto, and I might very well have been charged with desertion before a military court. It was another of my crazy maneuvers that had simply worked out well. They had understood this powerful desire of mine to study and they turned a blind eye towards the fact that I had broken the law, that I had deserted the unit without anyone’s permission. I just left. Our unit was the Gubcev brigade with its seat in Postojna. Every day I tested: I have to go studying, leave it alone, we have other worries, and you know how invaluable you are to us. I was immediately nominated for some medals, but I just didn’t stop. Once the commander finally lost his temper and said: I’m sick of you! Just get out of my sight! He only meant get out of his room at headquarters, but I played dumb and said: Ok, Ok, I’ll go to hell! And I went straight to the station in Postojna and I hopped onto the very first train. Relationships back then were much more humane. He understood that I hadn’t really deserted, but rather that I’d gone to study. And I could afford it too, because I truly felt that it was my right. I always had advocated almost philosophically, that no society is well-suited if its individuals are not content with how they fit in.
Ciril Zlobec (born in 1925)
1941 - 1945: Ponikve (Croatia)
Armed Resistance, Unarmed Resistance, Partisan
Liberation Front of the Slovene Nation, Special Unit