Name: Monument to the Detachment in Brezovica Forest (Brezovica Spomen-Park)
Location: Novo Selo Palanječko, Croatia (small village just east of Sisak)
Year completed: 1981
Designer: Želimir Janeš (profile page)
Coordinates: N45°30'09.6", E16°27'30.2" (click for map)
Dimensions: Monolith ~14m tall
Materials used: Poured concrete and rebar
Condition: Fair to poor, neglected and in disrepair
Click on slideshow photos for description
This spomenik at Sisak commemorates the creation of the first politically organized fighting brigade who resisted and fought against Axis invasion of occupied lands of Croatia.
World War II
In April of 1941, Axis powers invaded and occupied the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Soon after this occupation, the area of Croatia and Bosnia were re-organized into an Axis puppet-state called the Independent State of Croatia (NDH). The government of the NDH was very brutally oppressive to various segments of this new territory, namely ethnic-Serbs, Jews, Roma, communists and other dissidents. Then, under the code-name 'Operation Barbarossa', Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on the 22nd of June, 1941, in clear violation of the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop non-aggression agreement between the Soviets and the Nazi government.
Concerned for their safety upon hearing the news of this dramatic development and angered by continued oppression by the NDH, a group of 10 young men from the Yugoslav Communist Party and Communist Youth League of Yugoslavia (SKOJ) from the Sisak area fled into the nearby forests of Brezovica. There, under the cover of a grand elm tree in that forest, they banded together on that June 22nd to form the 1st Sisak Partisan Detachment. Historically, this group is often referred to as the first armed and organized resistance unit in Europe intent on combating the occupying forces of the invading Axis army, a moment which marked the beginning of the National Liberation Movement in Yugoslavia -- however, some writers contend that other anti-fascist resistance groups preceded the Sisak Detachment. Commanded by Vlado Janić (Photo 1) and its commissar Marijan Cvetković, the detachment enlisted roughly 80 young fighters from Sisak to immediately begin an aggressive engagement of occupying forces and the NDH's Ustaše militiamen across Croatia, while also taking part in sabotaging efforts against strategic railways to the NDH capital of Zagreb and bombing military train depots. In response to these Partisan attacks, over 500 of the NDH's Ustaše militiamen were sent to intercept and eliminate these rebels. After the Partisans had several disastrous encounters with the much better equipped Ustaše fighters, the Sisak Detachment retreated south across the Sava River in September of 1941. Later that month, the detachment was combined with other Partisan fighting brigades and was renamed the Banija Partisan Unit (now consisting of several hundred rebel fighters), while continuing under the command of Vlado Janić.
Photo 1: Vlado Janić
Photo 2: The original 1959 stone plaque that existed at the Brezovica forest
In 1959 a modest stone plaque (Photo 2) was set up in at the Brezovica site to commemorate the significance and importance of the formation of the 1st Sisak Partisan Detachment (and also to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Croatian Communist Party (KPH). In addition, an elm tree was planted at the exact spot where the uprising was said to have begun. However, many decades later, the later 1970s (after the planted elm had fallen), it was decided that a much more substantial memorial was appropriate to memorialize this historical event. The design concept chosen for this new memorial was a concept by Croatian architect Želimir Janeš. The completed spomenik complex was unveiled to the public on June 22nd, 1981, commemorating 40 years since the day of the location's original uprising. The central memorial element of the site is a large 14m tall finned white concrete tower mimicking the shape of the elm tree of the 1941 uprising. This tower, abstract in its form, was often referred to as "Debeli brijest" or "Thick Elm" in English. Within the center of the inner sanctum of the concrete monument was originally situated a large bronze fist sculpture along with 11 additional small fist-shaped plaques attached to the wall engraved with the names of local fighters and victims.
Meanwhile, adjacent to the 'Thick Elm' sculpture, a number of other memorial elements were included at this site. Among these were a concrete mosaic plinth, as well as a small concrete wall bearing an engraved plaque of the names of participants who took part in the first meeting here in 1941. As this site was recognized as the start of armed uprising against fascist forces during WWII, this was a hugely significant and culturally important monument for commemoration events and ceremonies related to the observance of the People's Liberation Struggle. Gatherings here on June 22nd during the Yugoslav-era would routinely draw in thousands of participants from across Croatia, Yugoslavia and beyond.
Yugoslav Wars to Present-Day
After the Yugoslav Wars, the complex here in the Brezovica Forest fell into disarray and neglect, even to the point of the total destruction of the inner sanctum's bronze fist sculpture and all the smaller first-shaped plaques during the 1990s. Meanwhile, in 1991, a statue in Sisak called "Monument to the Uprising" that sat at the center of what is today called "Ban Josip Jelačić Square" (called "Freedom Square" during the Yugoslav-era) was transfered from this square to the Brezovica Forest and settled in a new position in front of the Thick Elm monument. Created in 1955 by famed Croatian artist Frano Kršinić (Photo 3), this was one of the most significant Yugoslav-era monuments in Sisak and its removal from its central spot in Sisak was undoubtedly related to the dismantling of Yugoslavia and the conflicts which occurred in the Sisak-Moslavina region in the aftermath of that event. Yet, after the statue's removal, the work was targeted by vandals and ultimately destroyed completely after multiple years of attacks.
Photo 3: "Monument to the Uprising" sculpture at Freedom Square, 1950s
However, in more recent times, the area is being more maintained and large annual gatherings are being regularly held here again to celebrate national Anti-Fascist Struggle Day on June 22nd. Yet, with so many of the site's original sculptural and memorial elements missing/stolen, the complex has lost much of its intended symbolism and meaning.
Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:
Just in front of the central monument element here at the Brezovica Spomen-Park you will find along the paved walkway a ~2.5m tall concrete vertical slab (Slide 1) inset with an engraved marble plaque bearing the names of the 12 founding members of the 1st Sisak Partisan's Unit. This plaque, and the concrete wall itself, are severely damaged by vandalism and gun shot.
Meanwhile, when facing the monument from the walkway, there is low concrete plinth (platform) in the grass immediately to the left of the central monument (Slides 2 and 3). The top of this platform is decorated with a stone mosaic depicting an impressionistic rendering of the area's surrounding forest, with the Sisak monument portrayed at the top.
Photo 4: A view from the 1980s of the bronze fist sculpture at the inner sanctum
On each of the sides of this platform are engraved unique inscriptions, "Brezovica Kaline" on the the west facing side, "Brezovica Žabno" facing east, "Žabno Sisak" facing north and "Brezovica Osekovo" facing south. These names are villages in the Sisak region where the Partisan fighters originated.
Originally, a series of 11 fist-shaped plaques existed around the walls of the inner sanctum of the monument with the names of fighters from the 1st Partisan Unit (Photo 4). In addition, also on the walls was a large raised letter inscription (Slide 4). While it was removed and destroyed at some point during the last decade or so (along with the fist-shaped plaques), the remnants of this inscription can still be seen within the walls of the sanctum (Slide 5). The inscription was a quote from famous Croatian poet Jure Kaštelan and existed at the site up until the 1990s, at which point it was destroyed and removed by vandals. While it existed this inscription read, when translated from Croatian to English, as:
"From the truth of people we come, for the truth of people we live."
Graffiti at this location is minimal, but what little I found here was not notable or significant.
Photo 5: Commemorative pin
According to the monument's creator Želimir Janeš, the shape and design of the memorial sculpture here at the Brezovica forest of Sisak was intended to be a highly stylized version of a historically tall elm tree which was reportedly located here at Brezovica during the time of the first meeting of the 12 communist youth leaders on the 22nd of June, 1941. In Photo 5 you can see an image of the monument in a commemorative pin that depicts the form of the sculpture with features referencing its symbolism as a tree. It was under this large elm tree that it is said these Partisan youth laid the plans to create the 1st Sisak Partisan Unit. While I have found no direct photographs or evidence of the life or fate of this tree, many other elm trees do exist around the surrounding forest. From evaluating the shape of the sculpture, it does not seem to be depicting a live tree, but instead this abstract depiction appears to show the bare trunk of a dead tree. Perhaps Želimir Janeš intended the sculpture is a testament to the tree itself within which is embodied the spirits fighters who laid their plans for revolt and rebellion.
In statements regarding the specific symbolic qualities and local feelings towards the memorial site, the monument's creator Želimir Janeš is quoted as having made the following statements, which are here roughly translated from Croatian into English:
"...this trunk, this ancient elm, which has stood for centuries but finally disrupted by disaster, cut deeply into my heart and soul as a native Sisak resident, and also other people of this region. For us all, this elm was and remained not only a symbol of the power of nature, but also a symbol of freedom, without which the people of this region could not even imagine life. It was a giant tree, above which always soared hawks and falcons, its greatness exceeded the birch forests, it was a reliable landmark and a road sign. My first encounter with the legendary elm and Partisan landmark date back to 1967. That year the tree was still in full force, green and strong, huge and heavy, a leafy trunk, leaving a profound impression of indestructible power and some primordial relic-like attachment to the earth."
Status and Condition:
The current condition of this memorial complex is fair, but certain of its elements have been seriously damaged, as they have been subject to damage by gunfire and vandalism. The overall structure of the main 'Thick Elm' memorial sculpture is decent, yet all of its bronze interior elements are gone. Meanwhile, the re-located bronze statue in front of the spomenik complex titled 'Uprising', created by Frano Kršinić, was repeatedly damaged and slowly dismantled from roughly 2008 up to 2014 (Slides 1 & 2) -- the original state of the statue can be seen in Slides 3 & 4. Then, during May of 2014, what was left of the sculpture was broken into small pieces and stolen. These remains of the sculpture were recovered several months later by police who found the thieves were attempting to sell it for scrap metal. Restoration of the memorial is originally slated to begin towards the end of 2016, however, as far as I have been able to determine, no work together the reconstruction of this sculpture has begun.
Uprising Sculpture - Slideshow
Photo 6: A view of 2017 ceremonies at the Sisak memorial in Brezovica
Other than the degraded state of the 'Uprising' statue and the stolen bronze elements, the condition of the memorial complex and grounds is steadily improving despite its many issues of neglect over the years. The grass and landscaping are now kept in reasonable order and access road and pathways are well maintained. Meanwhile, there is good signage and direction from the main road to the complex, with visitor-ship here seeming to be light but regular, as I found a number of wreaths and flower offerings here left by locals. However, there are no informational or interpretive signs present at the site which might alert visitors to the memorial's historical or cultural significance. Also, as of 2018 I have observed efforts underway to re-paint the monument, bringing it back to its original bright white color. Meanwhile, grand celebrations for the holiday of Anti-Fascist Struggle are held here annually on June 22nd, which generally draws significant crowds (Photo 6). The celebration is regularly attended by delegations of high-ranking national officials with speeches being given by state officials.
In recent years, some Croatian writers have made attempts to dismantle the traditional story of the formation of the Sisak Partisan Detachment in the Brezovica forest in 1941, alleging that the event never took place and asserting that all official celebration and recognition of the holiday should cease. However, other Croatian writers have disagreed and contested these allegations.
Additional Monuments in the Sisak Area:
This section explores additional Yugoslav-era monuments and memorial complexes in the Sisak area that notable and might be relevant to those exploring this website. The sites which will be examined here are the Viktorovac Cemetery Monument, the Monument to Fallen Fighters in the town center of Sisak, as well as the Monument to Edvard Kardelj in Slovene Square in Sisak-Caprag.
Viktorovac Cemetery Monument:
An additional monument that is in the Sisak area is a large stone-block towering structure located in city cemetery of Viktorovac (Slides 1 - 4). This memorial sculpture, which is titled "Zastava" (The Flag), was officially opened on June 22nd, 1965 and built by famous Croatian artist Antun Augustinčić. This monument was built as a means to honor soldiers and fighters who fought and fell during the National Liberation Struggle (WWII). The total length of the monument is roughly 20m while total vertical height is roughly 10m tall. On the stairs which approach the flag monument originally was placed a version of the 1946 sculpture by Augustinčić titled "Carrying the Wounded", which is a carving in rough marble of two Partisans carrying a wounded fighter (Slide 5 & 6). Meanwhile, the monument bears two engravings by notable Croatian poet Jure Kaštelan. The first engraving on the west-facing side translates into English as:
Viktorovac Cemetery - Slideshow
Tell the living greetings, transfer from grave to heart, wear through darkness, a song that doesn't die: Freedom, freedom.
Meanwhile, the second large engraving on the east-facing side of the monument (Slide 7) translates from Croatian to English as:
In our hearts you will live eternally, you who have fallen for freedom & beauty, for the future of your people and for the most brilliant ideal of humanity.
The citizens of Sisak and its surroundings.
June 22, 1965
Below this inscription is a list of 15 notable Partisan fighters who distinguished themselves during the People's Liberation Struggle. The remains of these fighters were interred in a tomb underneath this monument. The flag monument began to fall into a state of disrepair and degradation in the years after independence in Croatia (Slide 8). In addition, as of 2016, the stone slab covering the tomb has been broken and is completely exposed (Slide 9). Also in Slide 9 you can see that the "Carrying the Wounded" (Nošenje ranjenika) sculpture is so damaged that it was recently removed from the site for professional repair. Reports have indicated that funds were allocated in 2014 to repair this damage but the project has been plagued by delays and, as of 2019, the process still continues. If you visit this monument please be careful as it may be extremely unstable or dangerous to walk on or near. Finally, in Slides 10 - 13 you can see a see the monument in its original condition in a series of historic images from the Yugoslav era, while in Slide 14 you can see an early conceptual sketch by Antun Augustinčić of his original intentions for the monument's appearance. The exact location of the memorial site within the Viktorovac graveyard is at N45°28'14.3", E16°22'38.3".
Photo 7: Memorial dedicated to the victims of the Sisak Children's Concentration Camp
Finally, it is notable to point out that just across the street from the main entrance of the Viktorovac graveyard is a small memorial (Photo 7) which is dedicated to the victims of the Sisak Children's Concentration Camp, which was run by the Ustaše government during WWII and located near the site of this monument. Some estimates of deaths at this camp range around 2,000. The monument, which is of a simple minimalist layout, consists of nine circular polished concrete plates scattered in a cluster on the ground. The front-most circle contains an inscription which translates into English as "In this place buried from 1942 to 1945 are about two thousand children of the victims of the infamous Ustaše camp in Sisak", while a second circle to the left of this first one bears a poetic inscription from the poem "Mi djeca" (We Children) by Grigor Vitez which roughly translates into English as "We children will build a city that an enemy will never conquer. We children will build a city in our hearts." This memorial was reated in 1974 by Croatian artists Milena Lah and Mira Halambek-Wenzler. After the wars the struck this region during the 1990s, commemorative events ceased for several years, but were restarted in 2012, which now draw large crowds of mourners.
Monument to Fallen Fighters:
Located in what is today called 'Franjo Tuđman Park' is a memorial work titled "Monument to Fallen Fighters". Created in 1949 (or 1952, according to other sources) by Croatian academic sculptor Marijan Kocković [profile page] (who created a number of Yugoslav monuments, including ones at Drvar and Jasenica). This monument here at Sisak is one of Kocković's earlier monumental works before he begins making more non-figurative creations. This work is composed of a bronze sculpture of a charging female Partisan fighter situated on a 6m tall pedestal, while in front of that is a wide bronze sculptural relief of 13 figures in various stages of suffering at the hands of, as well as resistance against, fascist forces. In current times, this monument is still relatively intact, however, news reports indicate that it is occasionally subject to damage, vandalism and instances of fascist graffiti. The exact coordinates for this memorial sculpture are N45°29'10.4", E16°22'34.6".
Monument to Fallen Fighters - Slideshow
Monument to Edvard Kardelj:
Located roughly 7km as the crow flies from the Brezovica complex is situated the southern Sisak working-class suburb of Caprag. About 500m southwest of the suburb's train station is a monument dedicated to the Yugoslav-era Slovene politician Edvard Kardelj located at the center of a park called Slovene Square (Slovenski trg) (Slides 1 - 3). As one of the leaders of the Slovene Partisan movement and creator of the Yugoslavia's 'workers self-management', a monumental work dedicated to Kardelj would have been a natural choice during the Yugoslav-era for a park dedicated to their Slovene neighbors. Created in 1980 by notable Zagreb sculptor Dušan Džamonja, the work is characterized by a cluster of angular and geometric bronze shapes that resemble sharp organic crystals. The entire work sat at the center of an elevated rectangular concrete platform, within which was a thin pool of water. This pool feature gave the monument an impressive reflective quality.
The Monument to Edvard Kardelj in Slovene Square - Slideshow
Meanwhile, the east face of the monument originally contained a relief sculpture made of thin metal lamellas which depicted an image of Kardelj's face. However, this relief was destroyed in the post-Yugoslav era. A close-up image of the Kardelj relief sculpture can be seen in Slide 4, while a historical photo of what the relief looked like during the Yugoslav-era can be seen in Slide 5. The monument is in poor physical condition, with many of its lower sections experiencing rusting and degradation (probably for having been in contact with water for so long), while much of the work's surface is covered with graffiti. I found no information on commemorative events being held here. However, in discussions I had with Dušan Džamonja's son Fedor in 2018, he indicated to me that he is working on coordinating rehabilitation efforts for this monument. The exact location of this spomenik complex is N45°27'21.5", E16°23'03.9".
Monument to Vladimir Lenin:
A bronze sculptural work depicting the Russian revolutionary and political theorist Vladimir Lenin was located at the center of the neighborhood of Caprag at what was then called "Lenin Square/Lenjinov trg" (now called "Square of Croatian Statehood"). Erected in 1975, the statue showed Lenin in a standing position with his left hand in his coat pocket while his right hand was held out facing upwards as if he was captured in deep discussion (Photo 8). As far as I've been able to determine, this was the only Lenin statue that existed in Yugoslavia, yet, despite this notable status, I've been unable to establish who was the author of this work.
Sources indicate that the statue was removed in 1991, yet I found no info about its ultimate fate after removal. Interestingly, while the statue was removed in 1991, the pedestal which the statue stood upon remained in the square for another 20 years, only being removed in 2012. In 2015, the former spot of the Lenin statue was used to erect a monument dedicated to the local Croatian Army fighters who perished in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. The precise coordinates for the former location of the statue are 45°27'27.6"N. 16°23'10.7"E.
Photo 8: A historic Yugoslav-era postcard image of the Vladimir Lenin statue in Sisak
And Additional Sites of Interest:
The Sisak Fortress: Located roughly 6km SE of the Brezovica monument complex is the Sisak Fortress, right at the confluence of the Sava and Kupa Rivers. Built in the mid-16th century as a defense against the increasing Ottoman attacks, this triangular-shaped fortress is excellently preserved and offers amazing views of the region. You can tour the castle and within it is located a musum complex. A photo of the fortress can be found at this Wiki link, while its exact coordinates are N45°28'14.0", E16°23'10.2".
Roman Ruins of Siscia: Located in the town center of Sisak, just on the east side of the Old Bridge (Stari Most) over the Kupa River, are some of the excavated ruins of the ancient Roman town of Siscia (from where Sisak derives its name) which existed at this location roughly 2,000 years ago. The exact coordinates for this site are N45°29'02.9", E16°22'19.6".
Photo 9: Entrance to steelworks with sculpture by Ivan Kožarić
The Sisak Ironworks Sculpture Park: In 1971, an artists' colony was established in Sisak that was centered around the town's substantial ironworks factory in the neighborhood of Caprag, all initiated in an effort to bring art and culture closer to industrial workers and laborers. To facilitate this connection, all of the sculptural works made as part of this artist collective were cast from the factory's iron-smelting operations, which resulted in the artists collaborating side-by-side with steelworkers, welders, machinists and other sorts of industrial technicians. Scores of the most notable artists from across Yugoslavia took part in the artistic workshops and symposiums which were enacted as part of this colony, such as Branko Ružić, Šime Vulas, Želimir Janeš, Aleksandar Srnec, Milena Lah, Ivan Kožarić, among many others. Over the decades, these artists created dozens of outdoor sculptures in a large park next to the factory for them to always be on public display (Photo 9). However, as the area around Sisak fell into conflict during the years after the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the factory was largely dismantled and thus the artists' colony came to an end. While some of the sculptures were lost in the war, the majority of them remain to this day, although many exist in poor condition today as the result of years of neglect. However, efforts are currently underway by local government to protect and restore the artistic heritage of the Sisak Ironworks Sculpture Park. The exact coordinates of the park are 45°27'20.5"N, 16°23'24.2"E.
To reach the monument complex in the forest of Brezovica, when travelling east on highway 36 out of the town of Sisak, in roughly 5km take a left at the crosswalk/bus stop as you are approaching the village of Novo Selo Palanječko. Follow this road for about 1km, then you will see on the left a wooden bus stop, then just past that you will see a brown sign on the left pointing down a gravel road. This sign, which is promoting the spomenik complex and has an image of the monument on it, is located right next to a large oak tree (click here for Google StreetView scene). This road turns into a gravel road, but it is of a good quality and easy to drive on. Take this road ~2km and it will lead you directly to the monument. Parking can be made anywhere available, but coordinates for a good parking area are N45°30'08.8", E16°27'29.0". Watch out for forestry and logging operations in this area, as they are often going on here.
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Selected Sources and More Information:
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