Family left behind in Slovenia evokes memories of WWII

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All travel is a search for meaning, a pilgrimage. No less was our trip to the Adriatic Coast.

Americans love stories of immigrant success. Some bright lights have come as refugees from discrimination and murderous governments. Some have waved the flag of enterprise and made a name for themselves. These are our stories.

Even children’s stories tell of hard work and perseverance. Paul Bunyan and “The Little Engine That Could” instruct the young.  But what of the stories unknown, only to be discovered by travels. Where are the relatives who are still in the old country who stayed behind?

The popularity of genealogy attests to our interest in how we got here. Many Americans have located their relatives through on-line sites.

We took a different road and went to find my relatives in Slovenia. You may recall Slovenia has had a difficult history: captured by Napoleon; taken by the Austrians and the Hungarians; invaded by Nazis, Fascists and communists. But in 1991 this tiny nation of just 2 million people gained independence from the former Yugoslavia. Though a largely bloodless (there were 50 or so deaths) revolution, a tank commemorates the events.

My grandparents were from Austria. At least that is what they called themselves around 1900. Grandpa knew he would have to leave. There was a large family of 15 to share small lands and he did not want to be cannon fodder for another war.

Unschooled, he had little to offer except a strong back. As Italians famously said of America, “The roads were not paved with gold; they weren’t paved and we were expected to pave them.”

Grandpa arrived at Stari Tisler, the coach house where emigres gathered before traveling to the ships leaving the country. Today it is still an historic restaurant in Ljubljana.

But what of those who did not leave and come to America? Grandpa could neither read nor write and once in his new country, he lost contact with his family in Europe. He never learned what we discovered happened to them during the war.

In June 1941, soldiers with guns and bullhorns rolled into their village in Slovenia and told everyone: men, women and children – they had two hours to pack one suitcase and report to the Reichenburg castle stables.

Slovenian deportees were forcefully shipped to scattered locations from Poland to France, and to other Yugoslav countries with the intention of wiping ethnic groups off the map. German occupiers deported as many as 63,000 Slovenes from 1941-45.

The first to go were teachers, priests, leaders of political parties, writers and other intellectuals. The majority – at least 45,000 people – were sent to 428 German camps. They were destined to work in factories and if not, sent to concentration camps. As Nazi leader Hermann Göring ordered: Not to kill them, but toil them to death.

Benito Mussolini had similar attitudes. He told a crowd: “In our dealing with a race such as the Slavic, which is inferior and barbaric, we must choose the politics of the stick,” and “the Adriatic sea, which is our bay, must deliver the Slavic race into our hands if we are to realize our Mediterranean dream.”

This was the fate of my family. They were deported to Rudolfstadt, a German work camp. This was their home until the camp was liberated by American forces in 1945. They worked in a munitions factory living on a diet of mainly potatoes with meat added to the soup on Fridays to tempt the Catholics.

In Slovenia, occupiers violently separated children from their parents. They torched villages, demolished buildings, exploited natural resources, pillaged the belongings of Slovenes and sent the booty to their mother country.

Over 20,000 Slovene children were among the exiled. Following German educational tradition, children had a makeshift school in the work camp where my family lived. Here the children were taught to speak only German. If they forgot, the teachers were directed to spit in their mouths.

In 1945 with defeat approaching, Germans fired up another weapon: their disease front. My family’s father and brother were injected with typhus, for experimental purposes. Dying of typhus is long and excruciatingly painful. The first died within a few days; the latter, a week later. He passed on a day before the camp was liberated.

Today people ask if they were Jews. In his book “Bloodlands,” Yale professor Timothy Snyder explains deliberate extermination policies to eliminate Slavs which included Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian and Polish nationals in addition to Jews. This is a history of political mass murder.

Snyder reminds us that the distinction between concentration camps and killing sites cannot be made perfectly: people were executed and starved in camps. Yet there is little difference between a camp sentence and a death sentence, between labor and gas, between slavery and bullets.

In the mid-20th century, Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some 14 million people over vast territories. Some 6 million were Jews. The reason we know their story, he suggests, is that there were survivors to tell it. Jewish survivors and their families wrote accounts, novels and plays and visited the death camp sites; they even created curriculums in schools.

Sadly in most areas of the bloodlands Snyder wrote about, there were no survivors to tell their tales.

Few are left of the greatest generation who liberated Europe. But they made a difference to my family. I will wear a poppy this weekend in memorium.