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Begunje

(beh-GOON-yeh)

Click on slideshow photos for description

Brief Details:

Name: Hostage's Cemetery (Grobišče Talcev)

Location: Draga Valley, Begunje, Slovenia

Year completed: 1953 (one year to build)

Designer: Edvard Ravnikar

CoordinatesN46°23'02.0", E14°13'04.6" (click for map)

Dimensions: Roughly 4 dozen half meter tall graves

Materials used: Granite

Condition: Good

 

History:

This spomenik complex in the Draga Valley of Begunje, Slovenia commemorates the 161 prisoners from the Begunje prison that were shot at this site by Nazi soldiers from August 1941 to May 1942.

 

World War II

When German forces invaded Upper Carniola and occupied the town of Begunje, Slovenia in April of 1941, the town's women's hospital called Katzenstein Castle was turned into a make-shift prison and Gestapo headquarters. Over the course of the war, many thousands of Slovenes cycled through here as prisoners, especially those considered part of the political resistance or collaborators with the Partisans (Photo 1). In August of 1941, Gestapo commander Franz Kutschera orchestrated a series of trials here at Katzenstein, where those accused of being sufficiently guilty of engaging in resistance related activities were put to death. One group of roughly 161 Slovene 'hostages' condemned to death were taken to a forest clearing just north of nearby Kamen Castle in the Draga Valley and were all shot in the head and then all buried together. In Axis occupied Slovenia, German forces would regularly take local civilians as 'hostages', with these prisoners acting as a sort of insurance policy against Partisan attacks. In an instance when Partisans did attack German troops or infrastructure, the hostages would then be executed as punishment for the rebel incursions.

Photo 1: Prisoners at Katzenstein Castle, 1941

All together, over 1,200 Slovenes held prisoner at Katzenstein were executed at various places around Begunje. The town of Begunje was finally liberated on May 4th, 1945 by members of the Kokra Partisan Detachment, who were able to free over 600 prisoners from Katzenstein Castle.

 

Photo 2: Tito (right) at Begunje ceremony, 1953

Spomenik Construction

In the early 1950s, local and regional governments and veterans groups in the Begunje municipality organized the construction of a memorial cemetery at the site in the Draga valley where the 161 Slovene hostages were executed. Famous Slovenian modernist designer Edvard Ravnikar was commissioned to create this cemetery complex. Ravnikar, who had been an associate of Le Corbusier during the 1930s, was most likely chosen for this commission as he had just successfully completed the elaborate and expansive memorial cemetery project on at the Kampor concentration camp site on Rab Island, Croatia. The completed memorial complex at Begunje was unveiled to the pubic in August of 1953 during a ceremony which was attended by the President of Yugoslavia, Josip Tito. The central element of the memorial cemetery consists of dozens of half meter tall prism-shaped granite markers spread across the execution site. Each marker is inscribed with names of the victims who were executed at this site. At the entrance to the complex, there are two engraved stone pillars along with a bronze sculpture work depicting one of the hostages made by artist Boris Kalin. In addition to the executed hostages, 20 Partisan soldiers are buried here who died in the Draga valley during skirmishes in 1944 and 1945.

 

Present-Day

This spomenik appears to be in excellent condition, as it is well maintained and its landscaping is kept in perfect order. There is no sign or indication that any sort of vandalism or neglect is occurring here, as is common at other spomenik sites across the former-Yugoslavia. It is clear from the flowers and candles seen left here at the grave markers that many people from the local community still regularly pay tribute to and honor the victims who died here. Furthermore, commemorative and remembrance events are still held at this site annually.

 

Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:

At the primary entrance to this spomenik complex, there is a tall flat engraved stone (Slide 1). It is inscribed with a verse by Slovenian poet (and Partisan fighter) Matej Bor. The inscription reads, translated from Slovenian to English, as:

"On this mountain landscape, there were many years of evil... Killings of men, children, women,  but peace is here again. Though all is still quiet... the killers murdered justice and glory."

Meanwhile, all of the prism-shaped granite stone markers in the main part of the spomenik complex bear the names of the hostages who were brought to this site from Katzenstein Castle and executed during WWII (Slide 2).

 

Slideshow

Symbolism:

When Ravnikar arranged his memorial cemetery project here at Begunje, he did so with very deliberate intent as far as symbolism and meaning. Firstly, he created a sort of partition between the cemetery and the surrounding natural landscape by constructing a rough stone wall around its perimeter. This wall, which is constructed in a very traditional way using local materials, is meant to act as a sort of mental buffer zone between a place of great tragedy and the stunningly beautiful landscape it is surrounded by. This not only accents the cemetery but also lets the viewer know that they are stepping into a sacred place. Meanwhile, the triangular pylon stone markers themselves are arranged in varying patterns, with some being solitary while others are grouped in significant geometric clusters. Such an arrangement highlights, as Nina Stevanović explains, that some of hostages were executed individually while others were executed together in large groups.

Photo 3: The TR2 & TR3 Towers in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Photo 4: Marker stones at Hostage's Cemetery

 

As such, the triangle pylons themselves can be understood as highly reduced abstract versions of the hostages themselves. These extremely non-figurative representations juxtapose very interestingly against the bronze sculpture by Boris Kalin, which depicts one of the hostages (prisoners) in a decidedly realistic and figurative fashion. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that when Ravnikar later built his monumental TR2 & TR3 Towers in Republic Square in Ljubljana in 1976, they also were of a triangular pylon shape (Photo 3) and were even situated similarly to his stone markers at Hostage's Cemetery in Begunje (Photo 4). Even further, this same geometric configuration is so integral for Ravnikar to this complex at Republic Square that it is even reflected in the collection of street lamps that are positioned around the plaza (Photo 5). As such, it seems clear that Ravnikar was particularly inspired by these geometric forms and this particular spatial configuration of them.

Photo 5: Republic Sq lamps, Ljubljana

Status and Condition:

The spomenik complex and cemetery here at Begunje, Slovenia is in very good shape. Firstly, the landscaping and vegetation are kept well trimmed, cut and manicured, while the vast majority of the monument elements themselves are well maintained and cared for, without displaying any overt signs of damage, neglect or deterioration. However, while there is some significant moss and lichen growth on the stone markers in the cemetery area, such accumulation completely normal for stone graves/markers of their age (having been built in the 1950s). Meanwhile, there are ample directional and promotional signs along the road from Begunje alerting visitors and tourists of the memorial's location. Furthermore, there is a large educational multi-language interpretive sign located directly in front of the memorial complex - this sign does a tremendous job at informing visitors (from a wide range of backgrounds) about the site's historical and cultural significance.

Photo 5: A ceremony at the Begunje memorial, 2011

Upon my most recent visit to the site, a large array of commemorative wreaths, flowers and candles were found left at the markers all across the memorial site. This seems to be a clear indication that the site is highly honored and appreciated by the local community. This is further evidenced by the fact that annual remembrance ceremonies are still held at this complex to pay tribute to those who died at this spot and in the surrounding area (Photo 5). All signs seem to indicate that this memorial complex will continue to fare well into the future.

 

Additional Historic Sites in the Begunje Area:

This section explores additional Yugoslav-era historic, cultural and memorial sites which are situated in the general area around Begunje, Slovenia that would be relevant to anyone who is interested in studying Yugoslav monuments. We will examine several sites in this section, including the two memorial pillars near the main Begunje site, as well as Katzenstein Castle and the Ljubelj concentration camp site at Podljubelj.

Begunje's Memorial Pillars:

Just a few dozen meters south of the main Begunje spomenik complex there are two additional smaller memorial markers: a wooden pylon marker and a stone pylon marker. The first one you approach while heading south from the Begunje complex along Begunje na Gorenjskem road is the wooden pylon memorial (Slides 1 - 4). It was built as a memorial to Štefan Erman, who was a fighter with the Kokra Partisan Detachment. Erman was killed at the location of this marker on November 7th, 1944 during an ambush by Axis soldiers. The memorial marker, which stands roughly 2-3m tall, was commissioned by the family of Erman in 1947 and created by Slovene architect Anton Bitenc. The design and decoration of the memorial marker is interesting in that it has an uncanny resemblance to some styles of Native American art, specifically the 'totem pole'.

Two Pillars at Begunje- Slideshow

Then, about a dozen or so more meters south down the road, in the direction of the village, you approach the second memorial marker (Slides 5 - 8). It is a roughly 3m tall three-sided stone pylon with red engraved names on the two outward facing sides. There are exactly 13 names engraved on the pylon, with a message across the top of the pylon saying, "Fallen Fighters in the Night". This memorial marker commemorates the 13 Partisan fighters, named on the pylon, who were killed by local German military police on January 27th & 28th, 1945. The marker was created by a local NOB veterans group in 1957. It is interesting to note that this stone pylon is of nearly exactly the same stylistic form of the markers at the main Begunje spomenik complex, while the wooden marker is of a completely different artistic style and creation. The exact coordinates for the wooden pylon marker are N46°22'56.5", E14°13'05.5", while the exact coordinates for the granite pylon marker are N46°22'52.7", E14°13'04.6".

Many additional memorial pillars exist around the town of Begunje, however, as these two above mentioned ones are in close proximity to the Hostages Cemetery, our focus will be contained to these for the time being.

"Katzenstein Castle" - Slideshow

Katzenstein Castle:

Originally built at some point in the 1400s, this castle in Begunje, Slovenia (Slides 1 & 2) was redeveloped in the 16th century and given its current name when it was acquired by the Katzianer family. In 1875 the castle was purchased by the Austro-Hungarian government and turned into a women's prison and mental hospital operated by Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. With the onset of WWII, the German occupiers took over the castle, surrounding it with bunkers and converting it to a Gestapo operated military police prison for exiles and dissidents of war. Over the course of the war, over 11,000 prisoners were held here, with more than half of the being under the age of 30 years old. Roughly 850 people held at the castle were executed, both at the castle itself and in the surrounding areas. Immediately after the war, it was used as a female penitentary for political prisoners and then as a police school. 

"Katzenstein Castle" - Slideshow

Photo 6: "The Hostage"

Photo 7: "The Prisoner"

Photo 8: "The Prisoner"

Since 1952, Katzenstein has operatedas a female psychiatric hospital, while also housing a museum facility (Slides 3 - 5) which relates and explores the horrors which happened in the castle during WWII. The complex is called the Museum of Hostages (Muzej talcev). In addition, adjacent to Katzenstein Castle is an additional cemetery memorial also created by Edvard Ravnikar. It is similar in style to the Draga Valley monument, however it is laid in more in a series of rectangular grids comprised of square stone markers (Slides 7 - 9). Also, there are three significant sculptural works at this site as well. In front of the castle is a bronze sculpture hand-cuffed sitting male figure called "The Hostage" (Photo 6), while in the cemetery there are two sculptures called "The Prisoners", a bound female figure in white marble (Photo 7) and a tied-up streched make figure in bronze (Photo 8). These works were all done by Slovene sculptor Boris Kalin in the early 1950s. The exact coordinates for the location of Katenstein Castle are N46°22'37.3", E14°12'06.0".

 

Ljubelj Concentration Camp Site:

Roughly 7km as the crow flies (but ~20km driving along the mountain roads) you will find the site of the former Ljubelj Concentration Camp. It was here in 1950, Slovenian sculptor Boris Kobe created a monument near the site of the former camp to commemorate its victims (Slide 1 - 6). Since 1940, the Nazis had been constructing the Ljubelj Tunnel through the Karavanke Alps as an effort to circumvent the long and tedious Ljubelj Pass Road (which was the primary connection between Austria and Slovenia at the time). During WWII the tunnel was a top priority project for the Nazis, as they needed a more efficient system for getting troops and supplies from Germany and Austria to the southern occupied regions of present-day Slovenia. So, in July of 1943, a sub-camp of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp was set up near Ljubelj Pass to expedite the construction of the 1,570 m tunnel through the Karavanke Alps to connect Austria to present-day Slovenia.

Photo 6: Ljubelj tunnel under construction, 1943

Ljubelj Concentration Camp Monument - Slideshow

At its height, the camp at Ljubelj (or 'Loibl' as it was called in German) held over 1,300 prisoners of over a dozen nationalities who were mostly POWs and political prisoners and consisted of two camps: one at this location in Slovenia and another on the north end of the Karavanke Alps in Austria. A historical image of the Slovenian Ljubelj Camp can be seen in Slide 7. Conditions at the camp were very brutal, and during its time, over 40 prisoners died due to beatings, mistreatment and starvation. The tunnel was completed in December of 1943 (Photo 6). However, just months after it was completed, Nazi forces and German refugees began to use it for retreating back towards Germany and Austria, as the Nazis were beginning to lose ground against the advancing efforts of the Partisans at the Yugoslav Front. On May 7th, 1945, the Ljubelj Camp was abandoned by the German guards and the prisoners were simply set free. However, some of the non-Yugoslav prisoners were re-captured by SS units to be held as hostages and human shields as they fled Partisan forces on their way back towards the Carinthian region.

In 1950, the ruins of Ljubelj Camp which were left over from WWII were preserved as a memorial space. A current image of that memorial area can be seen in Slide 8. In addition, also during 1950 a memorial complex was created by famous Slovene architect Boris Kobe and blacksmith Jože Bertoncelj to commemorate the victims of the camp. The monument consists of five tall thin wedge-shaped stone walls created by Kobe which radiate outwards from a central point, at which there was an iron metal sculpture of a macabre-looking skeleton dramatically reaching for the sky with two arms (Slides 3 & 4). It was created by Bertoncelj. The skeleton sculpture was placed on a circular stone base around which is engraved the words "J'accuse/Obtožujem", which are the French and Slovenian words which mean in English  "I accuse". It is a expression often used to decry or condemn a major social injustice (generally one of an anti-Semitic nature) and comes from an 1898 letter by French novelist Émile Zola. While there are a number of engraved plaques around the five stone walls, the most important are a series of five stone panels which are placed at the inside edges of each of the stone walls (Slide 6). These five plaques all bear the same message, but each one written in a different language: English, Slovenian, French, German and Polish. This inscribed message reads as:

"Here, from 1943 to 1945, stood the section of the Nazi extermination camp Mauthausen-Ljubelj in which political internees from France, Poland, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Norway and Yugoslavia suffered and died during the excavation of the Ljubelj Tunnel."

Photo 7: The summit of Ljubelj Pass Road

A historical photo from the 1950s depicting the monument can be seen in Slide 9. This monument has continued uninterrupted to be kept in good condition and highly honored with commemorative ceremonies from its creation up until present day. The exact coordinates for the memorial site are N46°25'48.9", E14°16'07.8". If you do visit this site, one notable nearby activity to engage in is to hike up to the top of the old Ljubelj Pass Road (which is now closed to road traffic and whose highest point is at 1,367 m). Here you will find a pair of large historic obelisks (Photo 7) built in 1728 to commemorate Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI passing over it. Some consider this pathway to be the oldest mountain pass roadway in Europe. The trailhead for the hike is 1km past the Ljubelj Camp monument at the parking area just before the Ljubelj Tunnel entrance and the trail route takes roughly 30 minutes to an 1 hour to hike up to the top of the pass (depending on conditions). There is a beautiful old mountain house restaurant/tavern at the top called "Koča Na Ljubelju". As an interesting side note, the name of the area where the concentration camp monument is located is often referred to as "Podljubelj", with the prefix 'pod-' meaning 'under'... so Podljubelj as a name literally means "the area under Ljubelj Pass".

 

And Additional Sites of Interest:

  • Monument to Jože Gregorčič: Roughly 5km south of Begunje in the central park of the town of Radovljica is a monument to Yugoslav national hero Jože Gregorčič and his fallen comrades, who were killed in an ambush by German soldiers just south of the town on Sept. 9th, 1942. This monument consists of a ~14m tall marble obelisk decorated with sharply carved geometic designs. The work was created in 1961 by famous Slovene architect Edvard Ravnikar. A photo of the monument can be found at THIS link, while its exact coordinates are N46°20'31.6", E14°10'26.3".

Directions:

Getting to this Hostage's Cemetery, just outside of the town of Begunje, is a relatively easy task. From the village of Begunje, take Road 638 east out of town. After about half a kilometer, you will see a left hand turn with signs pointing towards 'Draga' and 'Grad Kamen (Kamen Castle)'. Take this left (Begunje na Gorenjskem road) and just after you pass Kamen Castle on the left, in a few hundred yards you will see a turn on off on the right for the Bengunje spomenik, with a monuments coming right up to the edge of the road. You can see a image of what the entrance looks like HERE on Google StreetView. Parking can be made at a gravel lot across the street from the monument grounds. The exact coordinates for parking are N46°23'04.0", E14°13'03.5".

A ma to the location of the monument at the spomenik complex at Begunje, Slovenia.

Click to open in Google Maps in new window

 

Slideshow

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