Name: Monument to Fallen Fighters
Location: Griček Hill in Črnomelj, Slovenia
Years completed: 1954-1961
Designer: sculptor Jakob Savinšek & architect Marko Župančič
Coordinates: N45°34'28.6", E15°11'45.7"
Dimensions: 10m tall obelisk at the center of the site
Condition: Good to excellent
This spomenik and memorial tomb in Črnomelj, Slovenia, situated on Griček Hill, was constructed to honor the lives of 1250 fallen Partisan fighters and victims of fascism who were all from the Bela Krajina region.
World War II
The Bela Krajina region (aka "White Carniola") sits along the southern border of modern Slovenia, at the heart of which is the town of Črnomelj. As Yugoslavia was invaded by Axis powers in April of 1941, this region fell into the jurisdiction of fascist Italian occupational forces. Within a few months, Črnomelj was designated as the region's primary military outpost and was overrun with Italian soldiers (Photo 1). A series of bunkers and barbed wire fencing was constructed around the town, trapping all citizens, whose movement was controlled by Italian forces. Not only was movement controlled, but the Slovene teaching out the Slovene language and Bela Krajina heritage was strictly forbidden. All people were expected to speak Italian, as it was the new official language of the occupied region. Such oppression quickly led to local organization of people into Partisan/OF resistance units. In fact, Črnomelj was particularly known as a strong hotbed of Partisan supporters and revolutionary action. However, as a result of some units forcing rural farmers to join their ranks (with severe penalties if they refused), Partisans were not always as popular in some parts of the region's countryside.
Photo 1: An image of Axis occupied Črnomelj, 1941 [source]
Photo 2: The aftermath of the Axis bombing of Črnomelj, October, 1943. [source]
The early actions of Partisans around Črnomelj consisted mainly of guerilla tactics, such as sabotage and raids on weapons depots. The first Partisan attack in the region took place in September of 1941, when a group of Partisans derailed an Italian train. The attacks soon escalated to surprise attacks on small groups of Italian soldiers, leading to many casualties for the Italians. It was by this time in 1942 that the Italians began to take seriously the Partisan threat, which resulted in mass arrests and executions of any Partisans and their civilian sympathizers. However, this did not dissuade the Partisans. On May 20th, 1942, the region's first Bela Krajina Partisan Battalion was formed, marking an evolution in the resistance war against the occupiers. This battalion took part in numerous incursions against the Italians during the summer of that year. However, the Italians struck back with even harsher retribution attacks against the local civilian population, with the burning of numerous villages (such as Tanča gora, Kvasica, Mala Lahinja, Veliki Nerajec and Pusti Gradec) and the execution of anyone even remotely suspected of helping the Partisan cause. However, when the Italians capitulated the following year in September of 1943, the region's tide of war flowed decisively towards the Partisans, as they declared Bela Krajina to be a "Free Territory" from Axis occupation.
Numerous Partisan hospitals were established around the Črnomelj region, as well as the creation of small airports in areas along the Kupa River. Yet, this free territory still routinely came under attack by Axis powers, primarily taking the form of bombing raids by Ustaše and German planes. The towns of Črnomelj and Dragatus were particularly affected by these raids (Photo 2), among other towns in the region. The famous female travel writer and pioneer globe-trotter Alma Karlin was seeking refuge in a house in Črnomelj during its October 1943 bombing, later writing the following description of her experience:
"The city was an image of devastation. In the ditches overturned railway carriages, a new line completely destroyed, tracks removed. If nothing else, the Germans realized, at least after all this devastation, that it was not worthwhile for them to retake Bela Krajina. In the middle of the road lay giant trees with branches, so that driving on them was not possible, and often hidden bombs or explosives were hanging under them. After the air raids, only ruins remained..."
Despite such attacks, the Partisans were not deterred in the efforts to organize a new antifascist government for Slovenia. On February 19th, 1944, members of the Slovenian People's Liberation Council assembled for the first time at Črnomelj within the town's Sokol Society building. During this first session, the supreme representative and legislative body of the Slovenian People's Liberation Movement was formed, a body that later became the People's Republic of Slovenia (Photo 3). German troops subsequently attempted to retake Črnomelj during the summer of 1944, but they were unsuccessful. As such, the Partisan-led "Free Territory" of Bela Krajina weathered as an independent entity until the end of the war. And from this region, within the small unassuming town of Črnomelj, the governmental and political framework of what would become the Socialist Republic of Slovenia was created. By the end of the war, roughly 1,250 citizens of Črnomelj died as a result of fascist oppression and 1/10th of the region's people perished.
Photo 3: An image of the 1st Session of the Slovenian People's Liberation Council in Črnomelj, 1944.
As Bela Krajina was at the heart of the Partisan resistance efforts against fascist oppression in Slovenia during WWII (with Črnomelj being at the center of the region), the initiative to create in the town a grand memorial complex dedicated to its fallen fighters and victims of fascism began almost as soon as the war ended. The verdant Griček Hill, a prominent location just a few hundred meters north of the center of Črnomelj, was chosen as the future home of this newly conceived memorial space. Griček Hill (formerly known as Commander's Hill) is a spot of important significance to the history of Črnomelj. In the 1600s, a small fortress for the Order of the Teutonic Knights was built atop the hill, a point from which the famous 17th-century historian Valvasor drew a famous sketch of Črnomelj in 1679 (Photo 4). The fortress was later destroyed by Napoleon's Army in 1808 during his battle against the Austrian Empire of Francis I. After the war, the Austrian emporer built a small church upon the hill (the Chapel of St. Joseph), but this too was dismantled in the 1890s as part of local agricultural expansion. During WWII, it was from atop Griček Hill that Axis forces shelled Partisan positions with artillery cannons. As such, Griček Hill was a fitting place (both historically and culturally) for the creation of the memorial complex honoring the Partisans.
Photo 4: A 1679 drawing of Črnomelj by the historian Valvasor as viewed from Griček Hill. [source]
Photo 5: A view of the 1961 unveiling of the Monument to Fallen Fighters on Griček Hill in Črnomelj. [source]
In the late 1940s, the Ljubljana-born architect Marko Župančič was chosen by local authorities in Črnomelj to lead this memorial project. Župančič was a significant and symbolic choice, as he was the son of the famous Bela Krajina poet Oton Župančič, who himself is viewed as one of the fathers of modern Slovene literature. The first stage of the complex was the creation of a tomb for the remains of 1,250 local people of the Črnomelj region who perished during the war (as well as fallen members of the 1st Bela Krajina Battalion). Positioned at the top of the hill, Župančič's tomb consisted of a 15m wide circular earthen mound that was reinforced around its perimeter with a 3m tall stone wall. This first stage was completed between 1948 and 1950. The remains of WWII victims who were interred in this tomb were exhumed from mass graves at cemeteries in the nearby villages of Rožni Dol and Uršna Sela. The second and final stage of the Griček Hill monument began a few years later in 1954. The execution of this stage consisted of the creation of a 10m tall obelisk at the center of a ceremonial plaza (designed by Župančič), around which also included a large sculptural relief wall and a stone cube adorned with additional relief carvings (created by Slovene sculptor Jakob Savinšek).
This monument and memorial tomb on Griček Hill was finally unveiled to the public on July 4th, 1961, marking the 20 year anniversary of the start of the Partisan uprising against fascist occupation. This unveiling was attended by over 5,000 people, with the keynote speech given by JNA Major General Franc Kočevar-Ciril, who was not only from the Bela Krajina region but was also the commander of the famous Cankar Brigade during WWII. Sadly, Savinšek passed away from a heart attack just one month after the unveiling of this monument.
Yugoslav-era to Present-Day
The monument and tomb spomenik honoring fallen fighters and victims of fascism here at Črnomelj was unquestionably the most important memorial object in the Bela Krajina region during the era of Yugoslavia (and, for many, it continues to be even up to the present day). Some sources even credit it as being one of the most significant NOB sites in Slovenia, crediting its historical, sculptural and architectural value. Also during that time period, this site was routinely featured on postcards promoting the Črnomelj area (Photo 6), a fact which even further emphasizes the monument's landmark status for Črnomelj within that era. After the dismantling of Yugoslavia in 1991, the Griček Hill monument did not see the destruction and degradation that many Partisan sites saw across the country during the conflicts of the 1990s (such as the mass monument destruction that went on in Croatia during this time, just 7km away from here). All through the 1990s, this spomenik continued to exist as an important historical heritage site that was honored and commemorated by the local community.
Photo 6: A vintage postcard showing the Monument to Fallen Fighters on Griček Hill in Črnomelj.
The site was put under national protection by the Slovenian Ministry of Culture in 1992 and subsequently declared a cultural monument of national importance in 2001. This memorial continues to host annual commemorative and remembrance events, which are routinely attended by both local and national dignitaries. Meanwhile, just as occurred during the Yugoslav-era, regional school trips of young children are still made to this location to teach children about the history of this memorial's meaning. Even furthermore, the Monument to Fallen Fighters here in Črnomelj is tightly woven into the fabric of the community, with the site being constantly visited by dog walkers, pedestrians out for a stroll, people looking to relax in greenspace, as well as any others seeking outdoor open recreation.
Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:
The Tomb and Monument to Fallen Fighters here at Črnomelj contains two primary stone inscriptions. The first inscription at this site is located at the entrance to the monument complex as you are entering it from the south access pathway. It is engraved in large geometric angular letters onto a roughly 4m tall stone block wall (Slide 1). When translated into English, this inscription reads as:
"1,250 fighters and victims of fascist violence from Bela Krajina did not regret giving their lives in the fight for freedom, 1941-1945"
Meanwhile, the second inscription is located on the hexagonal 10m tall obelisk at the center of the site's memorial plaza. Also inscribed directly into the stone, although with much smaller letters in this instance, this engraving is situated on the east-facing side of the obelisk. The inscription contains a poetic stanza that was penned by a poet who, according to sources, still remains unknown. When translated into English, this inscription reads as the following:
"This land, which offered up meager bread for the people of these sunny towns and villages, was richly soaked with noble blood for the sowing of seeds that matured into freedom."
Finally, in respects to graffiti or vandalism, there was no such damage inflicted upon this monument during my visit to the site nor was I able to find any articles or sources that indicated such damages were issues that this monument ever endured.
Elements (and their Symbolism):
In this section, we will examine the numerous elements of the Tomb and Monument to Fallen Fighters here at Črnomelj, including the tomb mound, the obelisk, the relief wall and the memorial cube. Each one will be investigated individually, while also looking at the symbolic meaning behind each element.
At the center of the ceremonial plaza of the Monument to Fallen Fighters here at Črnomelj is a 10m tall memorial obelisk that stands as the paramount vertical element of the site (Photo 7). Constructed out of what appears to be Brač limestone blocks, the tower takes on a pinched slight hexagonal shape, leading it to take on a thin profile. The stone facade of the structure is smooth yet slightly texturized with the hammering of repeated chisel marks. No adornment or flourishes of decoration mark the streamlined modernist design of the obelisk. Its form steps inward as it reaches its final meter of height, giving it a more tapered chimney-like appearance. The east face of the obelisk bears a poetic inscription at its base, which is examined in the above section. It is against this obelisk that ceremonial events are held, with it operating as a fulcrum around which commemorative rituals are held. While slightly weathered and stained by the passing of time, the obelik continues to exist in an excellent condition.
Photo 7: A phot of the obelisk at the Monument to Fallen Fighters on Griček Hill in Črnomelj.
The obelisk is an eternal symbol going back thousands of years. In the years of ancient Egypt, the obelisk was used as a central funerary element, symbolizing rebirth and operated as an embodiment of the sun's life-giving rays. As such, it is not surprising that the earliest obelisks during early Egypt were dedicated to the sun god Ra. For the monument here at Črnomelj, the obelisk can clearly be understood as an architectural (and spiritual) counterpart to the adjacent mound tomb. While the circular tomb contains the mortal remains of the dead, the obelisk communicates their eternal being to the next realm. As seen with communist non-religious funerary sites across Yugoslavia, particularly Partisan cemetery sites, often overtures towards ancient death rites and practices are made in order to communicate to the visitors a holy or spiritual connection without making any gestures towards any specific religions. Here on Griček Hill there are no Christian crosses or any Catholic emblems. Instead, we have the tall unadorned obelisk dominating the site, standing as a universal symbol of life transcending death and our inner beings moving beyond this realm and into the next.
The Sculptural Relief:
The primary arresting visual element of Črnomelj's Monument to Fallen Fighters is its impressive sculptural relief mural, created by master Slovene sculptor Jakob Savinšek out of what appears to be Brač limestone blocks (Photo 8a). Measuring roughly 3m tall by 8m wide, this sculpture depicts the suffering that the people of Bela Krajina endured during WWII, as well as their resistance to this oppression. Within the scene, the violence of tortured bodies are visible, a writhing horse, a dog biting upon a woman's head, and numerous people cowering in fear. Yet, despite this agony, at the top of the middle of the scene, we see a lone figure bursting forth and resisting this oppression. This explosive figure refuses to submit and calls out for a revolution against their subjugation. Meanwhile, on the right hand side of the scene, a woman holding a water jug ponders and gestures toward the drama in an enigmatic fashion.
Photo 8a: A phot of the sculptural relief mural at the Monument to Fallen Fighters on Griček Hill in Črnomelj.
Savinšek's composition is sculpted in a stylized fashion, highly reminiscent of the work of Picasso, with faces split into sections and features and emotions reduced to their most minimal elements. This likeness is taken even further with the commonly cited comparison that Savinšek's sculpted mural here stands as "Slovenia's Guernica". When examined together, Picasso's famous 1937 Spanish Civil War painting "Guernica" (Photo 8b) bears many similarities with the work of Savinšek here on Griček Hill.
Photo 8b: The painting "Guernica" by Picasso [source]
Firstly, they both depict the writhing horse as a central element, as well as the depiction of suffering and of violence. In the same place where Picasso shows the light of hope at the apex of his painting, Savinšek reveals the heroic Partisan fighter bursting forward in revolution and resistance. Lastly, a distinct inclusion in Savinšek's mural, making it unique from Picasso's painting, is the female figure on the right-hand side of the scene holding the water jug. The motif of the water-bearing woman is commonly interpreted as a symbol of the renewal of life. Bearing the weight of the jug on her shoulders (uniting the feminine and water as the sources of life), she turns her head away from the scene, averting her eyes from the horrors of death, yet, she gestures towards it with her right hand, indicating that from this death she will usher in a new beginning.
The Relief Cube:
Sitting at the center of the memorial plaza at Črnomelj's Monument to Fallen Fighters, just next to the obelisk, is a cube element that is adorned with a large sculptural relief on each of its four sides. Standing about 2m tall, these reliefs were created by master Slovene sculptor Jakob Savinšek out of what appears to be Brač limestone blocks. Each relief depicts figures that embody an aspect of what the people of Bela Krajina experienced and endured during WWII, such as compassion (Photo 9), suffering (Photo 10), bondage (Photo 11), and, ultimately, freedom (Photo 12).
Photo 9: An image of the relief showing "compassion".
Photo 10: An image of the relief showing "suffering".
Photo 11: An image of the relief showing "bondage".
Photo 12: An image of the relief showing "freedom".
The intention behind Savinšek's relief cube composition here within the memorial plaza is to operate as the sacred core of the complex. The cube itself is a representation of the connection to the divine through its perfect geometry. It embodies harmony, balance and stability. As a visitor to this monument engages with the cube, they walk around it and commune with it, just as one would devotionally circle the Kaaba in Mecca. Upon the cube, the wartime trials and tribulations of the people of Bela Krajina are on display. On the east-facing side of the cube (Photo 9) we see the mother, the divine feminine, holding a frail body, a scene that communicates the compassion that was received by fallen Partisans and victims of fascism not only by the women of Bela Krajina, but also the compassion their souls will receive in the next life. Next, the more grisly and disturbing scenes we see in Photos 10 & 11 of suffering and bondage illustrate that the cube can also be seen as a symbol of the cage and of confinement. In these images, we see bodies contorted and trapped within the cube, emaciated and struggling for escape. These scenes symbolize the horror and oppression inflicted upon the region's people during the war, with these two bodies, wrought with pathos, begging for release. That escape finally comes in the last scene, Photo 12, where we see a powerful nude male figure bursting forth from his torture and confinement. His dynamic action and bounding motion symbolize the Partisan's fight for freedom against the fascist oppression of the Axis powers and, ultimately, it represents the courage and enthusiasm that was undertaken to create the new nation of Yugoslavia.
The Burial Mound:
Adjacent to the memorial plaza at the Monument to Fallen Fighters here at Črnomelj is the site's burial mound (Photo 13). It is within this earthen tomb that the remains of Bela Krajina's victims of fascism during WWII are laid to rest, as well as the remains of the fallen fighters of the 1st Bela Krajina Battalion. The structure has a diameter of roughly 15m across and a height of roughly 5m tall at its highest point. This mound is surrounded at its perimeter by a ~3m tall stone block wall, in addition to a white stone paved processional walkway. The walkway is accessed from the memorial plaza via a short narrow stairway situated to the right of the relief mural. The top of the mound is bare earth upon which an expanse of green grass grows. No visitor access is provided to the top of the mound nor are there any access points into the interior of the mound itself. The burial mound was the first element constructed at this monument site, completed in 1950, and was the work of architect Marko Župančič.
Photo 13: A aerial photo of the burial mound at the Monument to Fallen Fighters on Griček Hill in Črnomelj.
Photo 14: An aerial photo of the Newgrange burial mound in Ireland [source]
The burial mound which Župančič constructed here at the summit of Griček Hill is a pivotal work of funerary architecture and among the most impressive examples of such a creation in Slovenia's modern era. The most direct visual comparison invoked by this site is the ancient burial mound of Newgrange in Ireland, a Neolithic site that is over 5,000 years old (Photo 14). The internal passageways of Newgrange operate as a primitive astrological device that is aligned with the sun on the days of the solstice. Similarly, Župančič very likely took inspiration from this ancient site and constructed this burial mound so that its entrance stairs off of the memorial plaza and its exit stairs on the opposite end (which create a bisecting line through the center mound at an azimuth of approximately 330 degrees) point roughly at the location where the sun sets on the summer solstice on June 20th every year (the longest day of the year). It is hard to imagine that Župančič created such an alignment by accident, as such, it must be assumed he did so intentionally and with symbolic meaning.
The setting sun on the summer solstice can be seen to represent a transition stage and a new beginning, where we end one realm of our being and start another. At the closing of this day, the achievements of victories are celebrated and our cycle of growth is complete (our zenith in the sky).
Status and Condition:
The Monument to Fallen Fighters spomenik complex here at Črnomelj presently stands in a condition that could be evaluated as fair to excellent. The grounds and landscape of this facility are very well taken care of, with the grass being regularly cut and all vegetation being kept well under control. The stone facades of the elements of this site are slightly stained and tarnished black by the continual process of weathering but, on the whole, are currently in very good shape. Meanwhile, numerous official publications of the town of Črnomelj, as well as many online tourist websites, direct visitors to the Monument of Fallen Fighters as a local point of interest and a touristic attraction. However, despite this positive condition and the publicity it is being offered, it must be noted that there are no informational boards or educational placards at this site that might communicate to outside visitors the historical or cultural significance of this monument. Nor are there any road signs or directional arrows in the greater vicinity of this monument that lead visitors to it or point pedestrians or motorists in its general direction.
Photo 15: A ceremony being held at the Monument to Fallen Fighters on Griček Hill in Črnomelj.
Commemorative events and remembrance ceremonies (Photo 15) are still held at this monument site on an annual basis, particularly around the July 4th time period and November 1st (the Day of Remembrance). As of 2001, this complex has been recognized by Slovenia's Ministry of Culture as a cultural monument of national importance.
Additional Sites in the Črnomelj area:
In this section, we will examine additional sites of interest across the greater region of Črnomelj that would be of interest to those investigating the monumental, architectural, or sculptural heritage of Slovenia or the former Yugoslavia. Such sites include the Črnomelj House of Culture and the Monument to the Battle of Kvasica.
Črnomelj House of Culture:
In the center of the town of Črnomelj is a building that is today known as the "House of Culture". Originally, this institution was constructed in 1925, but was at that time known as the "Sokol House", with the Sokol movement being a pan-Slavic physical fitness and cultural education organization. The building was the work of Ljubljana architect Viljema Trea. In February of 1944, the Sokol House was used as the venue for the 1st Session of the Slovenian People's Liberation Council, a meeting that laid the groundwork for the future Socialist Republic of Slovenia.
In 1952, the building was modernized by architect Branko Simič, while a large carved marble sculptural relief was installed above the building's main entrance (the work of sculptor Jakob Savinšek). This relief shows the struggles and resistance efforts exerted by the people of Bela Krajina during WWII. Within the scene, we see fighters clashing, we see civilians at their daily activities, we see victims of fascism laying on the ground, among other scenes.
Photo 16: A contemporary image of the front facade of the House of Culture in Črnomelj, Slovenia. [source]
Today known as the "House of Culture", it continues up to the present day to operate as one of Črnomelj's most important cultural institutions and venues (organizing film screenings and theater productions). The building has been protected as a national landmark by the Slovenian Ministry of Culture since 1999. Its official website can be found HERE, while its coordinates are N45°34'27.7", E15°11'26.7".
Monument to the Battle of Kvasica:
Roughly 5km south of Črnomelj along the road to Vinica is the small village of Kvasica. Just south of the village along the road is the site of the Battle of Kvasica, which was a clash between Croatian Partisans of the 1st Kordun Brigade and an Italian motorized infantry column. This battle occurred on September 22nd, 1942.
In 1959, a monument was erected at the site of the clash to commemorate the battle (Photo 17). It was created by Slovene sculptor Jakob Savinšek and consists of a roughly hewn 14 ton marble boulder that resembles an abstract head shape, standing 4.5m in height. The stone was pulled from a quarry at the nearby village of Gradac. Savinšek exercised minimal modification to the boulder (which was slightly head-shaped to begin with) in order to craft its very organic form. The large boulder is elevated about 1m off the ground with three metal rods. Engraved directly onto the boulder is an inscription that reads, when translated into English, as "Nov. 22nd, 1942, at this spot, fighters of the 1st Kordun Brigade destroyed an Italian column of over 100 soldiers."
Photo 17: An image of the monument dedicated to the Battle of Kvasica, just south of Črnomelj.
During the Yugoslav-era, this enigmatic and unusual work was much lauded by domestic art critics and was featured in numerous national books about NOB monuments. The sculpture continues to exist in good condition up to the present day and still plays host to annual commemorative events. In September of 2023, a large multi-lingual information board was installed next to the monument (see an image of the board HERE). However, while the info board contains large amounts of history about the battle that occurred here, it contains very little info about the art history or heritage of the monument itself. The exact coordinates for this site are N45°32'06.5", E15°09'48.9". For more info about the Battle of Kvasica, see the paper about the topic HERE by Janez Weiss.
The Monument and Memorial Tomb to Fallen Fighters in Črnomelj, Slovenia is very approachable and is a very non-complex site as far as visitation. It is located just 0.5km north of the town center of Črnomelj along Zadružna Street (along the west side of Griček Hill). Free parking can be made along the east side of the street and from this parking area there is a simple 700m stroll to the monument site along a gentle gravel walkway. The exact coordinates for the parking area for this site are N45°34'27.7", E15°11'39.1".
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Selected Sources and More Information:
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