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Ilirska Bistrica

(i-LEER-skah BIS-tree-tsah)

Click on slideshow photos for description

Brief Details:

Name: Monument on Freedom Hill (Hrib Svobode)

Location: Ilirska Bistrica, Slovenia

Year completed: 1965

Designer(s): Janez Lenassi (profile page) & Živa Baraga-Moškon

Coordinates: N45°34'07.7", E14°14'24.7"

Dimensions: 8m tall cube

Materials used: Poured concrete and rebar

Condition: Very good, well maintained

History:

In the village of Ilirska Bistrica, in the Green Karst (Zeleni kras) region of Slovenia, there is a spomenik complex a dedicated to the fighters of the 4th Yugoslavian Army who liberated this area during WWII. The remains of 284 of these soldiers who died during this fight are interred in a mass tomb beneath the monument. In addition, this monument also honors the Partisan Prekomorski (Over-seas) brigades who battled and fought in foreign lands.

World War II

After the fall of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia brought about the Axis armies invading the region in the April of 1941, this area was completely under Italian control and occupation. All activities of Slovenian citizens, such as schools, institutions, associations and schools were actively suppressed and squelched during this occupation. During WWII, strong Slovenian anti-fascist resistance groups flourished here, most notably the communist Partisan rebels, who fought an active armed opposition to the Italian's oppression. As the region around Ilirska Bistrica was a strong tactical transition region for the movement of troops towards the Adriatic (and situated right along the Italians defensive 'Alpine Wall'), the Partisan's resistance fighting against occupying forces was especially fierce here. Such notable Partisan units as Brkin's Company (Brkinška četa), commanded by Anton Vidmar, were founded and operated in the region during the spring of 1942. As a reaction, in early June of 1942, many Partisans were executed by Axis forces in Ilirska Bistrica and at the nearby town of Mereče. However, after the Italians capitulated in 1943 due to the Allies conquering Italy, the Brkin's Company helped to breifly liberate the town. Yet, the occupation of Ilirska Bistrica was soon replaced with occupational German forces, a change which reportedly resulted in even harsher treatment of civilians. Finally, on May 7th, 1945, the 4th Yugoslavian Army brigade, who had  free the city of Trieste, finally liberated Ilirska Bistrica from the control of the Germany 97th Army Corps, who gave themselves up to the Partisans. Over 16,000 German troops were then taken prisoner by the Partisans (Photo 1).

Photo 1: German troops captured by Partisans in Ilirska Bistrica after the town's liberation, 1945.

Furthermore, in addition to being a memorial fighters who died and fought locally, the monument here at Ilirska Bistrica also commemorates fighters from Istria and the Slovene Littoral (Primorska) who were members of the Yugoslav Prekomorske (Over-seas) Brigades, which were units of the National Liberation Army who fought outside the territory of Yugoslavia... mostly in Italy. In fact, the 3rd Prekomorska Combat Brigade of the 4th Yugoslav Army took part in some of the region's final battles against the Germans in the surrounding area of Ilirska Bistrica.

Photo 2: The Freedom Monument under construction, 1963

Spomenik Construction

In the early 1960s, local government and veteran groups (with aide from the Yugoslav government) planned the creation of a commemorative spomenik complex and ossuary (bone crypt) in Ilirska Bistrica. An open design competition was initiated to generate possible proposals for the final form of the monument. Of the 28 entries submitted, famed Sloveian designer Janez Lenassi was granted commission, along with female architect Živa Baraga-Moškon, to construct the memorial (Photo 2). Construction works were undertaken by the Slovenian company Primorje Ajdovščina. The official public unveiling of the complex was held on November 29th, 1965, an event which was celebrated with a large commemorative ceremony attended by thousands of local citizens and notable politicians from across Slovenia. Located on what was officially named Freedom Hill (Hrib Svobode), but also called Brinšek's Hill (Brinškov hrib), the primary element of the monument is a 8m tall hollowed out concrete cube held upright by nine internal tapering columns. Underneath the monument is a crypt which contains the remains of 284 fallen Partisans who fell during the liberation of Ilirska Bistrica. Considered a marvel of modern design, Lenassi was awarded the coveted Slovenian Prešeren Award for his accomplishments in the building of this structure.

In April of 1981, the Yugoslav Association for the Protection of the Environment & Nature planted a grove of 88 birch trees directly adjacent to the monument at Freedom Hill Park in order to commemorate the death of Yugoslav President Josip Tito, who had passed about just the year before. Tito's death came just a few days shy of his 88th birthday celebration, so each of the 88 trees was to symbolize a year in Tito's life. Also, on May 7th, 1981, a decommissioned Stuart tank (whose crew aided in the liberation of Ilirska Bistrica) and an artillery cannon were added as memorial elements to the Freedom Hill Park in order to celebrate the 36th anniversary of the town's liberation (Photo 3). Finally, in 2001, a small monument commemorating the pre-WWII TIGR anti-fascist movement was included within the park complex, located just at the west edge of the hill.

Photo 3: The Stuart Tank just after being placed at Freedom Hill Park, 1981

Photo 4: "Fabric 75" by Maya Jane Cole

Present-Day

Today, this monument remains in excellent condition, being well maintained and surrounded by well kept landscaping. It receives regular visitors of various sorts and, from all indications, hosts many annual commemorative and remembrance events. This spomenik, as is the case with others in Slovenia, has been spared the neglect and damage that many others endured across the former-Yugoslav states during and after the Yugoslav Wars.

As the notoriety of the Yugoslav-era monuments expanded in the international sphere over the last decade, the memorial sculpture here at Ilirska Bistrica found itself to be among the most popular and recognized. As a result, artists, designers and other creators from around the world began to integrate the shape of this monument into their artwork and designs, such as posters, paintings, digital creations and other multimedia projects. Notably, famous British-Japanese producer/DJ Maya Jane Cole released an album called "Fabric 75" in 2014, which featured a depiction of the Ilirska Bistrica monument on its cover art (Photo 4).

Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:

Underneath the primary structure of the monument there is a gated crypt sanctum where the remains of 284 members of the 4th Yugoslavian Army and local fighters are interred. This crypt is generally kept locked and inaccessible to the public. Against one the southwest wall of tomb's interior there is an engraved poetic stanza written by Slovenian poet Rado Bordon (Slide 1). This poetic verse roughly translates from Slovenian into English as:

"To all the fallen from those watery depths, your last home and the memory of you will never pass and will remain amongst the living. Overseas fighters, fighters of the 4th Yugoslavian Army and our local fighters"

Slideshow

Meanwhile, there is another stamped inscription on the outside of the monument made directly into the concrete base of the sculpture (Slide 2). This inscription reads, when translated from Slovenian to English, as:

Set up on Nov. 29th, 1965 by the Central Committee of Overseas Brigades

Sculptor: Lenassi

Architect: Baraga

Verses: Bordon

Constructed by: SCP Primorje Ajdovščina

Finally, in Slide 3 a contemporary photo of the Stuart Tank, along with the artillery cannon, can be seen, which are both located just south and downhill from the central monument.

Photo 5: The caves of Postajna

Symbolism:

The form and shape of this memorial sculpture, which was created by designer Janez Lenassi, potentially has multiple interpretations. Firstly, the fluted column shapes of the monument appear to be very reminiscent of the world famous cave systems located around the region of Ilirska Bistrica, most notably the cave systems at Postojna (Photo 5) and Škocjan. This series of tightly packed tapering columns are can be seen as direct mirrors of the geologic formations such as stalactites and stalagmites which can be commonly found in the karst topography and cavernous vaults around this part of Slovenia. Furthermore, the shape of the tapered columns can also be interpreted to represent the bones of the fallen Partisan fighters which are interred underneath this monument. With this dual meaning, the monument makes a direct connection to both the fallen fighters who are interred within its tomb while also making a direct homage to the region's landscape itself.

Status and Condition:

The condition of this monument is very good. There is no overt or distinguishable graffiti anywhere on the monument, while the monument itself is in very presentable condition. I could not find any serious degradation or deterioration of the concrete or of the facade. However, while it appears presentable in its current condition, in the years since the fall of Yugoslavia, it has been repeatedly vandalized with paint and graffiti, even as far as having nationalist and fascist symbols sprayed onto them. Despite this defacement, the municipality works hard to clean and protect it.

Photo 7: A 2010 ceremony at the Freedom Hill Monument in Ilirska Bistrica

The landscape of the park and the area surrounding the monument is kept up very well, with it being clear and evident that the grass is regularly mowed and grounds maintained. However, I could find no obvious informational or interpretative signs around the monument alerting visitors to the site's cultural or historic significance. Meanwhile, there were no promotional or directional signs around the greater area leading visitors or tourists to the monument nor were there any sort of multi-lingual educational or interpretive signs alerting visitors to the site's historical or cultural significance. Yet, despite this signage absence, I found ample evidence that regular annual commemorative events are being held at the Freedom Hill memorial site (Photo 7), in addition to other cultural and social events. Overall, I saw no significant indications that the monument is in any state of neglect, deterioration or dereliction. However, while I found the park playing host to many visitors upon my most recent visit to the site, it was not readily apparent that any of these visitors had come explicitly to see the monument itself -- the memorial resides within an attractive city park, so many locals are strolling around and patronizing the grounds.

Additional Sites in the Ilirska Bistrica Area:

Around the region of Ilirska Bistrica are several other Yugoslav-era/WWII-focused memorial and historic sites which are relevant and of interest. These include the the ruins of Fort Primož (which was part of the Italian Alpine Wall) that is in the nearby town of Pivka, as well as the TIGR monument, which is located at Freedom Park in Ilirska Bistrica next to the central monument.

The Ruins of Fort Primož:

Just north of Ilirska Bistrica roughly 20km in the town of Pivka are a set of ruins that could prove to be very interesting to anyone already intrigued by Yugoslav-era monuments or WWII history. Here hidden in the hillsides above Pivka you will find the destroyed concrete remains of the massive Fort Primož, which was part of the Italian border fortification known as the Alpine Wall. This underground fort was one of the largest defensive compounds on the Yugoslav-Italian border, consisting of several above-ground concrete fortifications all connected by over 500 meters of tunnels (which can still be explored). After the capitulation of Italy in 1943, this position became one of the post important locations for Partisan troops in defending Yugoslavia's western border during WWII. Back in the town of Pivka you will also find an expansive military museum called the Park of Military History, which is also well worth a visit. The exact coordinates for this complex are N45°40'10.2", E14°12'06.2", located on a side road just off of highway 6.

Ruins of Fort Primož - Slideshow

TIGR Monument:

Also within the memorial park on Freedom Hill at Ilirska Bistrica is a small concrete monument in honor of the revolutionary anti-fascist group called TIGR (Photo 8). The sculpture was created by Slovene artist Janez Lenassi and unveiled in 2001 in order to commemorate the 60th anniversary since the "2nd Trieste Process", during which ten anti-fascist & TIGR members were executed by a fascist Italian court in Trieste in December of 1941. The name of the group TIGR is an acronym for the four geographic regions which this organization represents: Trieste (Italy), the Istrian peninsula, Gorizia (Italy) and Rijeka (Croatia) -- these four locations are inscribed on the front of monument. On the back side of the monument is an inscription that reads (translated roughly into English): "To all TIGR members and anti-fascists of the Reke River Valley, Brkini Hills and the Upper Pivka River: YOU!... it is you who have accepted the pride of the Primorska people and the freedom of one nationality." This inscription is written in multiple languages. The side of the monument is inscribed the ten names of those executed in 1941.

Photo 8: TIGR Monument

The TIGR organization was formed in response to Italy's fascist government's Italianization of culturally Croat and Slovene people who lived in the former Austro-Hungarian areas transferred to Italy after WWI. Not wanting their culture and traditions eliminated, many of those opposed to these efforts joined TIGR to resist this forced Italian assimilation. It was one of Europe's earliest anti-fascist groups, but was dismantled by Italy and German secret police by 1941, with much of its leadership being executed and many its members exiled or sent to death camps.

And Additional Sites of Interest:

  • Pivka NOB Monument: Roughly 17km north of Ilirska Bistrica is the small town of Pivka. At the center of that town is a WWII monument that commemorates the community's local fighters who perished during the People's Liberation Struggle. The monument consists of a figurative bronze monument depicting a young male fighter poised in a dramatic stance prepared to throw what looks like a grenade. The sculpture was created in 1951 by Slovene artist Anton Sigulin. Around the sculpture are plaques bearing the inscribed names of fallen WWII fighters. A photo of the monument can be seen at THIS link, while its exact coordinates are N45°40'42.5", E14°11'39.4".

Directions:

This monument is within a city park on top of Brinškov Hill inside the city center of Ilirska Bistrica. If you are taking the main road through the town, Gregorčičeva cesta (Hwy 6), turn west onto Vojkov Drevored, then immediately turn right onto Hrib Svobode road heading uphill (see turn HERE on Google StreetView). At this point, drive uphill and park along the road once you reach the park at the top of the hill. The precise coordinates for the parking area are N45°34'04.3", E14°14'28.7" (click for map). From there, followed the park's trails to the very top of the hill. The monument can easily be found in the center of the park.

Ilirska Bistrica spomenik map location monument

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Slideshow

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