Name: Monument to the Victims of Fascism (Spomenik Podhumskim žrtvama)
Location: Podhum, Croatia
Year completed: 1970
Coordinates: N45°22'31.9", E14°29'49.6" (click for map)
Dimensions: ~22m tall obelisk
Materials used: Poured concrete and rebar
Condition: Fair, well maintained
Click on slideshow photos for description
This memorial complex at Podhum commemorates the victims which were executed by Axis Italian occupational forces during the National Liberation War (WWII). Documents indicate that upwards of 91 people from the area were executed in these reprisal killings, while nearly 1000 additional residents being sent off to Italian concentration camps.
World War II
When the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and its Istrian peninsula were invaded by Axis forces in April of 1941, the small village of Podhum was besieged by an Italian occupation -- in this region of Istria, the occupation was under the administration of the Italian province of Carnaro (Fiume). Within a few months of being occupied, local residents in Podhum and across Istria began to resist this occupation and formed organized resistance movements, the primary one being the communist-led rebel group called the 'Partisans'. By early 1942, the Italian's control over Istria was being threatened by these uprisings, so the Prefect of Carnaro, Temistocle Testa (Photo 1) ordered that harsh reprisals should be carried out in any towns and villages refusing to cooperate with Italian authority. Then, in June of 1942, sources relate that a group of Partisan communist activists killed an Italian teacher and his wife in the village of Podhum, then fled the area -- as a consequence, the Prefect Testa gave the order to carry reprisal killings on local citizens to avenge these Italian deaths.
Photo 1: Temistocle Testa
Photo 2: The aftermath of the executions, taken by an unknown Italian soldier.
On the morning of July 12th, 1942, 250 Italian soldiers, under the command of Waffen-SS Major Armando Giorleo, entered the town of Podhum, rounding up all 'military age' males that were between the ages of 16 and 64, which amounted to an estimated 91 people. During the this round-up, it is reported that roughly 14 people resisting arrest were executed on the spot. These captives were then marched to an open field south of the village. At this spot, they were brought to the edge of a small dirt pit in successive groups of five where they were then shot with rifles and thrown into the pit (Photo 2). This continued until all the captives were killed, however, the exact number executed here not known, as some estimates range upwards of 130 men. A list of known names of those executed during this massacre can be found HERE. After the massacre, Italian soldiers burned most of the town of Podhum to the ground (over 100 buildings), with only the church reportedly left standing. After this, accounts relate that the town's remaining roughly 800 women and children were deported to forced labor camps in Frosinone, Italy.
Directly after the war, a modest memorial of makeshift crosses and graves were put together by locals to commemorate the tragedy. However, in 1968, the regional SUBNOR veterans group organized a public design competition to select an group to create a more substantial monument in Podhum to honor the 1942 massacre. The design concept by notable Croatian sculptor Šime Vulas was ultimately awarded first-prize in the competition and award the commission to lead the design of the complex, while the landscaping, stone work and architecture were arranged by architects Duško Rakić and Igor Emili. It is interesting to note that this was the first monument commission Vulas would partake in, with many more to come later in his career. The completed project was officially unveiled to the public during a remembrance ceremony on July 12th, 1970, a date which marked exactly 28 years since the massacre. The central element of the memorial is a 22m tall concrete obelisk-scaped structure characterized by undulating rounded protrusions. North of the obelisk are two sunken amphitheatres (a large and a small one), while there are also two square grids containing several dozen unmarked concrete markers. The whole complex is surrounded by a tall stone wall on the inside of which are hung additional commemorative markers that bear the inscribed names of executed victims.
Photo 3: The original pre-1970 massacre memorial at Podhum
Photo 4: Cross fixture on stone wall
Currently, the spomenik complex at Podhum is in fair condition. It appears to be well taken care of, being in a maintained and orderly state. It seems the Podhum monument was spared much of the destruction visited upon other spomeniks in the former-Yugoslavia during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. The park continues to receive modest numbers of regular visitors, while commemorative and memorial events are still annually held at the site. Interestingly, the Christian cross motif that appears on the inner west wall of the complex is not original to the site (Photo 4), but was, according to sources, actually added in 2009. This is not surprising as most memorial sites such as this rarely contained overt religious elements, however, after the wars of the 1990s the newly independent former republics added many religious symbols to WWII memorial sites in the
Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:
At the southern entrance to the large circular stone wall area, there is set an engraved marble plaque (Slide 1) which reads as, when translated from Croatian to English:
"Here, on July 14th, 1942, fascist occupiers brutally shot 91 patriots, aged 16-60, from the village of Podhum and the legendary Grobnik Fields. These shining graves will teach future generations about the immense sacrifices and heroic deeds of the sons & daughters of the Croatian coast of Istria and Gorski Kotar and also the days of the glorious and victorious four-year liberation struggle for a new life in freedom to join Croatian Istria into the homeland and the fraternal community of nations of Socialist Yugoslavia."
In this inscription, the reference to the 'legendary Grobnik Fields' refers to an ancient battle which was said to have taken place less than 1km west of this location around Castle Grobnik in the year 1242 (Photo 5). During this battle, records indicate that native Croats struck a resounding victory against invading Mongols (Tatars) of the Golden Horde. Legends relate that this battle was one of the last Mongol offensives in Europe before they retreated back to their native lands in Asia. As such, this area is deeply sacred and meaningful to many people in the region and across Croatia.
Also around the inner perimeter of the stone wall are dozens of additional rectangular engraved marble plaques bearing the names of those who were executed at the site (Slide 2 & 3). It is important to note that the engraved stones on the wall are grouped together by family names, so that it can be clearly seen how many whole families were killed here. Also, arranged around the inside of the complex are two sets of stone markers set up in a grid that commemorate additional families who died together at the site.
Photo 5: A view of the nearby Castle Grobnik, built in the year 1225
This monument at the spomenik complex in Podhum, created by artist Šime Vulas, does not immediately seem to have been designed with any specific symbolic or representational attributes. The Podhum monument is very typical of other creations made by Vulas (Photo 6), which can generally characterized as towering sculptures constructed out of repeating shapes and forms -- you can see additional examples of his work at this website. However, some sources assert that the shape of the sculpture is meant to be indicative of a 'flower' shape, which is a common symbol used across many spomenik complexes in the former-Yugoslavia, generally representing 'rebirth' and 'renewal'. Extending this symbolism, the bulge shapes which make up the sculpture, of which there are 91, are said to be 'petals' of the flower representing each of the 91 victims who were executed at the site. Meanwhile, the amphitheatre elements of the site, which are designed in such a way as they resemble chunks or sections of earth simply lifted from the ground, are described by some to symbolize the 'emptiness of space' or hollowness left behind after the executions were committed.
Photo 6: Other works by Šime Vulas
Meanwhile, the setting within which the monument is placed contains symbolism and meaning of its own. The circular stone wall complex was created by Croatian architect Igor Emili. A plan of Emili's concept for the complex can be seen in Photo 7. In a monograph about Emili's work, author Rastko Švalbe makes the following observations as far as Emili's approach to designing the confines of the complex here at Podhum:
Photo 7: A drawing by Igor Emili of his plans for the stone wall [via Idris Tutaro]
Emili's idea was to authentically define this crime scene within the horizontal landscape of the great Grobnik Field surrounded by mountains, but in a way which integrates it into its environment. As such, Emili created two high walls of soft lines which encircled the execution area and mass graves. These walls in the ground plans are semicircles, open to one another, but they do not touch, but instead slip away so that at their point of approach they create two narrow passageways. The wall is constructed from gray local stones and packed together in a drywall.
These walls softly encompass the place of death, and through the two passageways this terrible place communicates with the fields and the mountains. Contrasting with the gray stone walls are white plates bearing the names of the slain, and the rows of fragmented white stacks function as the headstones of the fallen villagers of Podhum.
Photo 8: Photo of 2016 ceremony at the Podhum monument
Status and Condition:
This memorial complex at Podhum is in relatively good condition. The landscaping and major elements of this memorial are well taken care of and it shows minimal signs of damage, degradation or neglect (though the central monument itself does exhibit some discoloration and staining from age). The grass and vegetation are well kept, while no graffiti or vandalism appears present on any of the stone walls or memorial elements. However, few directional or promotional signs along the road lead visitors to the site, yet, there are some online promotional materials informing visitors that it is a local attraction. The site continues to host annual commemorative ceremonies memorializing the massacre which took place here (Photo 8), which often play host to numerous local dignitaries and politicians. In a 2018 ceremony commemorating 76 years since the massacre, head of the municipality of Čavle, Ivana Cvitan Polić, stated that she felt that all schools in the region should include a visit to the Podhum monument in their curriculum. It is curious to note that the dedicated parking lot in front of the memorial complex has had official-looking traffic lines painted all over it for what appears to be a driving course for some sort of motorcycle or motor-vehicle skills test. In 2020, it was announced that a major restoration project for the Podhum monument would begin in 2021 (coordinated by the local municipalities), which would meticulously work towards repairing and improving many aspects of this complex.
From the center of the small village of Soboli, just off the A6 motorway, travel east along highway 3, which runs right through the center of the village. Follow this road roughly 350m, then you will see a yellow sign pointing towards a road on the left that goes towards Jelenje and Dražice. After taking this left, within a few meters, you will immediately see a road on the right which takes you into the spomenik complex (see Google StreetView here). Parking can easily be made here, from where you can walk to the spomenik. The exact coordinates for parking are N45°22'29.4", E14°29'49.5". Depending on when you arrive, the gate into the complex through the tall stone wall may be locked (to prevent vandalism). I do not currently know the optimal person to contact if you are interested in having the gate opened, but I am in the process of figuring this out.
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Selected Sources and More Information:
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