Milan Zajec, Survivor of Communist Horrors in Slovenia, R.I.P.

milan_zajecMilan Zajec, one of three survivors who made his way out of the pit of a thousand dead and dying fellow Slovenians at Kočevski Rog in 1945, recently died in Cleveland, I learned from Pavle Borstnik’s column in the Slovenian American Times.  As in other Communist countries, Slovenian freedom-seekers were forcibly repatriated as deals were made with Stalin.  The war was over, but 10,000 refugees staying in a British-controlled camp in Austria were told they were going to Italy.  As they looked out the slats of the rail cars and saw Partisan soldiers, they knew that they were going to their gruesome deaths in their homeland under the rule of victor Marshall Tito.  Slovenia, which gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, is the size of New Jersey, but has over 600 mass, unmarked graves of victims of the Communists.

Borstnik describes Zajec as a “simple, country boy,” from the village of Veliki Gaber, who along with his brothers wanted to lead a simple life.  “Then came war and revolution and Milan soon recognized the real aims of the people claiming to be waging a ‘liberation war’ against the foreign occupier.  Together with most of his brothers he chose to resist this philosophy. . . .”

Borstnik writes that Zajec retreated into “total privacy” during his last years.

Those who were killed in the pits are often accused of being Nazi collaborators, Communist propaganda repeated in the schools and media.  In my most recent copy of Slovene Studies, Professor Oto Luthar of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Ljubljana calls the Partisans “liberators.”

In the United States, scholars studying Communism are exiled from universities.  Communist propaganda continues to come from Russia, even as the Olympics take place.

A former political prisoner of Tito, whom I met a few years ago at a Slavic studies conference, pointed out all the “red” academics and journalists who had flown to Philadelphia from Slovenia, or who were comfortably ensconced in American universities.  These academics do “gender analysis” or “semiotics” as they deny firsthand accounts of survivors—and history.

Real life doesn’t fit the neat categories of theory or ideology.

Borstnik explains that the Communists in Slovenia began their social revolution by forming a vaguely “anti-imperialist front.” Heeding Stalin, they launched an insurrection in Yugoslavia on July 4, 1941 under the pretense of fighting the Germans.  One thousand out of the 300,000 population of Ljubljana were killed by the secret police.

In the countryside, the Communists terrorized farm families, demanding food.  They were “armed bands, roaming the country, executing the known or suspected ‘enemies of the revolution’ and pillaging their property.”  The Slovenians were then accused by the Italians of supporting Communists and sent to concentration camps.

So the men decided to form independent Village Guard units for self-defense.  After Italy went to the Allies, the Germans came in.  Under German occupation, Village Guards became the Home Guards to protect Slovenians from the Partisans.

When Tito’s forces became victorious at the end of the war, the British shifted their support to him from Draza Mihailovich, the military commander of King Peter, in exile in Britain.  The 20,000 Home Guards (Domobranci) who had fled to Austria were disarmed by the British and repatriated until Canadian Major Paul Barre confronted the British commanders, thus saving 10,000 from the same fate.

In order to advance their pro-Communist theories, the professors overlook the complicated stories of life under Nazi occupation, as Communists terrorized the people.  Borstnik expresses contempt for the Nazis who treated Slovenians like slaves, as they did all Slavs.

Metod Milac who was born in 1924 in Slovenia and wrote a first-hand account in Resistance, Imprisonment & Forced Labor: A Slovene Student in World War II, also describes how most Slovenians felt about the Nazis.  Only a teenager, Milac was captured by the Italian fascists, then the Communist Partisans, and then again by the Italians.  He resumed his studies briefly after recovering from near starvation in the Rad concentration camp.

Milac describes the day in 1944 when the Germans forced the Home Guard (which his older brother, Ciril, had joined) to take an oath of allegiance: “I felt pain and despair that day, knowing that many of my friends, acquaintances, and schoolmates who participated had no intention of pledging any alliance to the Third Reich nor did the majority of those taking part.”  He expresses relief that his brother’s unit was not selected to take part in the oath-taking.

Milac had decided to join the pro-Anglo-American underground group, “Slovene National Clandestine Resistance Force,” diverting from his brother’s choice.  He was captured by the Gestapo and eventually sent to Auschwitz, where he survived the labor camp.  One of the 200,000 displaced persons, he immigrated to New York, then Cleveland, and finally Syracuse.  He earned advanced degrees in music and then in library science and becamea librarian at Syracuse University.  He tells this story in his book, A Land Bright with Promise.

Milac knew Milan Zajec and another one of the three survivors of Kočevski Rog, France Dejak.  It was through Dejak’s account that Milac learned about the fate of his brother, who was with Dejak’s group imprisoned at the school, Bishop’s Gymnasium, which the brothers had attended.  Milac writes,  “Having spent four years as a student in the Bishop’s Gymnasium only a few years before, he must have suffered even more at being a prisoner in the chapel where he attended daily mass as a student.  Dejak did not know much more, except that he last saw Ciril, wired to another man, when they were loaded on the trucks to the place of execution.  Thus, I can assume that his murder took place on Saturday, 9 June 1945.  He was 22 years old.”

Zajec, as Borstnik writes in his most recent column, was “chosen to survive.”  Fortunately, he recorded his memories. This is Zajec’s description of being transported with other prisoners (quoted in Slovenia 1945 by John Corsellus and Marcus Ferrar):

We were all between 18 and 24 years old.  The wire cut into our flesh.  We were beaten by the Partisans at the corners of the truck.  I started to sob.  If I moved, everybody was hurt and we all fell on top of each other. . . We started to pray aloud and get ready for death.  We had been preparing for death ever since the Partisans got hold of us . . . I was afraid I would be sick and I could not get off the truck at Kočevski Rog.  The sun was strong and I was thirsty.

They approached “the killing site in a valley”:

We heard shooting and screaming of domobranci being killed.  Nobody cried yet.  We were just waiting.  I could not feel my legs any more.  They cut my shoe-straps and removed my shoes.  The knife went into my flesh and it bled.  I saw an 18-year-old boy with his eyes gouged out and his skull smashed.  He was still conscious, sitting quietly, not moaning, just sighing . . . We were forced to sit down and stand up, still tied together with wire that cut into our flesh.  We had to walk several metres and then back again.  It seemed to take about an hour.  We were made to sing Communist songs.  Some had their heads cut by the knives and were dragged along unconscious behind.

Speaking Slovenian and wearing British uniforms, Partisans tore gold teeth out of the jaws of living Domobranci.  The prisoners were forced into a pit with bloody corpses. The dying moaned beneath Zajec, new victims fell over him, and blood flowed into his mouth.  He wrote, “I wanted to die, but death would not come.”

Zajec attributed his survival to his Holy Mary of Carmel medallion.  The dying prayed for their atheistic Communist enemies, and a priest chanted in Latin.  The Partisans fired shots and grenades into the pit.

Zajec survived five days.  Eventually pulling themselves out of the pit by a tree that had fallen in from blasting that was intended to cover the bodies, the survivors got out and walked 35 kilometers to safety.

Milac expresses his disbelief that all this happened without any trials, in violation of international rules. It was evidence that the goal of the Communist Party was “a Soviet-style dictatorship under Tito.”

With the sadness that overtakes him when he talks about the war, Milac writes, “It is also hard to believe that in the small Slovene nation one would find so many people who would be able, willing, and possess so a complete disregard for another human being to execute acts of such unbelievable sadism.”  His book is filled with accounts of kindness and cruelty on all sides.

My own parents escaped Yugoslavia (specifically Slovenia) in the late 1950s with me as a toddler.  I knew only bits and pieces about the war from overheard conversations among the adults.  They told about being forced by the occupiers to learn the Hungarian language and about soldiers demanding food from villagers.  There were secret signals among women to avoid rape.  There were stories of survival in forests.  There was the story of the young man in the village, whose name I don’t recall, who was shot just as he looked over his shoulder.  There was the uncle recruited to fight, with a gun pointed at him, more than once.  But we did not learn this history in school.

In his epilogue to Resistance, Imprisonment, & Forced Labor, Milac writes that the enforced repatriations that killed his brother and several friends are “among the deepest wounds that are still bleeding.”  Efforts to cover them up, he writes, will last forever.

Borstnik continues to write about the political situation in Slovenia.  He calls Milan Zajec’s story “the final testimonial to the banality and criminality of the red ‘philosophy’ which, unfortunately, to this very day, continues to claim for itself the right to rule and judge the life of our unhappy homeland.”

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  • Consider

    Much moved by the fate of the ‘freedeom’ seekers’ from all parts of former Yugoslavia that were screwed up by the end of WWII in Slovenia, and border regions of Austria.
    That lot, that was quite confortable with the “freedoms” and “human rights” found in various creations of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy be it ‘independent states’, ‘protectorates’ or outrightly annexed territories, found themselves fleeing from Tito’s partisans (by that time already the Yougoslav Army,) because probably they feared that under communism they will not enjoy all the freedom and democracy that they were acustomed to under the Nazis.
    They refused to lay down their arms on May 8 1945 and continued to fight until May 15 causing thousands of unnecessary deaths, and made themselves ‘unlawfull combatants’.
    They do not deserve much sympathy.

    • Paul F

      The British told the Slovenians they were going to be sent to Italy to re-arm so they could continue their civil war against the godless and odious communists. Instead the British betrayed them back to Yugoslavia. The cowardly commies did not have to do any fighting: They simply unloaded the unarmed men from the trains, bounds their arms behind them with wire, and marched them off to be executed. Do you really think the British would have even made this phoney offer if they thought the Slovenians were German allies?

      Your callous disregard for human life is consistent with the communist mentality. I suppose it is logical that you should defend them.

  • Jose`

    OMG! Powerful, Mary Grabar. I had no idea this had happened to the people of Slovenia. With the rise of the communists in the USA, I fear what may come.

  • emanuel appel

    This is a shameful whitewash of histsory,
    Yugoslavia was invaded by the Germans and their Italian allies. Any resistance ought to be celebrated and Tito’s was the most effective. To whine and complain about the Partisan methods of survival against the disgusting Nazis and Italian Fascists is to give moral support to the latter.
    The “Home Guards” were objectively helping the Germans. I do not condone mass murder of one’s fellow citizens but the leaders of this bunch should have been sent to jail for long periods.
    emanuel appel

    • Rebecca

      The Russians were on the side of the Germans before they were allies. They worked both sides of the fence. They kept records of what they did. Are you whitewashing history? Fascists were considered right wing Marxists by the Russians, and backed to a point.

      • emanuel appel

        The Geman/Italians invaded Yugoslavia and caused the chaos. If the only means of driving them out were the Partisans, so be it.

        • Rebecca

          Russian chains are better than German/Italian chains? How about no chains, no drooling and then fighting over what belongs to others. No Commie dictatorships. For all the pro-people talk, the Marxists of any stripe, have managed to bring nothing but misery into the world and they are still at it everywhere.

        • marQc

          Between 06 April 1941, the day that Germany invaded Yugoslavia and 22 June 1941, the day the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, not a single German soldier fell due to Partisan “Resistance”. Why? Because their was no resistance from the Partisans. They were not interested in driving them out until after invasion of the Soviet Union. The Nazis and the Soviets were allies and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) was obviously allied with the Soviets. So the friend of my friend is my friend. Incidentally, the position of the CPY is mirrored by the position of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). They too were not interested in the USA entering the war on the side of the Allies prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union either. In fact the late Pete Seeger, who was a member of the CPUSA, wrote songs with lyrics like “Franklin D., you ain’t gonna send us across the sea’. Then when the Nazis suddenly struck at the Soviet Union, the CPUSA did a 180 on orders from Moscow. All of a sudden too Seeger changed his tune and started singing about turning “in his banjo for something that makes more noise” i.e a machine gun. A Communist’s principals are as malleable as he needs them to be in order to serve his interests. They lie as effortlessly as they breathe, and the “useful idiots”–more than adequately represented in this Comment section–dutifully regurgitate their propaganda.

    • Tone

      The Communist Party leaders responsible for the post WWII, 600-plus massacres (mostly civilians), have not been prosecuted either criminally or for crimes against humanity let alone “been sent to jail for long periods.” Do you Emanuel (God with us) condemn this injustice?

      • emanuel appel

        I condemn any injustice or slaughter of non fighters. However, who slaughtered first but the Croat and Serb puppets of the German/ Italians? Tit for tat is valid.
        Who created chaos in Yugoslavia but the German / Italians? Who created extermination camps but the Croat puppets and the Moslem puppet troops? Shamefully, the puppet leaders found refuge either in the US or South America.
        When Tito visited the US, these shameless people picketed him in DC. I would have rounded them up and put them on Tito’s plane back to Yugoslavia as a parting gift.

        • Tone

          The subject of Mary Grabar’s article is Milan Zajec and the setting is Slovenija. The 600-plus massacre sites are all located in the Republic of Slovenija. The Slovenian Communist Party and its successors is proud to have played a key role in these massacres; further, the Slovenian Communist Party acted under the direction of the Yugoslav Communist Party led by Josip Broz Tito, an agent of Stalin. Since you “condemn any injustice or slaughter of non fighters,” and no Slovenian Communist Party leader has been prosecuted for any crimes or genocide related to the massacres of non-fighters in Slovenija, will you then admit there is no justice in Slovenija? In other words, the judicial system is purely political, and, therefore, a puppet show where the strings are manipulated by the Communist Party of Slovenija and its successors. You did express your judicial philosophy as being “Tit for tat is valid.” Even if your barbarian philosophy were applied to Slovenija, you cannot identify with any credible evidence and in detail (date, time, place, persons, means) the 600-plus equivalent crimes and genocides of the Village Guards and Home Guards against the non-fighters in Slovenija at that time. Why? Because the Village Guards and Home Guards were a defense militia that spontaneously arose in the villages to respond to the Communist violence, torture, and extermination. What crime did Blessed Lojze Grozde commit to merit being tortured and executed by the Slovenian Communists? Being a devout Catholic who was attending the seminary for training to become a priest? What crime did my uncle commit that merited his execution by the Communist Party? He was neutral. He was a humble tailor, minding his own business. My son-in-law’s great grandmother was pregnant. In the presence of her little children, her womb was sliced open, her unborn baby was ripped out, and an animal stuffed into it. Then she was murdered and buried in an unknown grave until just a few years ago. What nightmares her surviving children have suffered. The spilled blood of many innocents cries out from the soil of Slovenija. Since there is no justice, there will be no peace.

    • Paul F

      The Home Guards were objectively helping their own country and culture. If you want to know what the Home Guard fought against, all you need to do is to look at how the commies murdered the 12,000 unarmed Slovenes. The communists showed themselves to be murderous, godless, and treacherous. Is this just whining and complaining about a partisan method? Could you be any more absurd?

  • Consider

    The Nazi/facist servants from the whole former Yugoslavia, all tell the same story.
    Suddenly in May 1945 they turned from nazi-facists lackays to democrats that were fleeing from communist oppression while leaving behind them the comfort of ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, that they enjoyed untill then, under the German/Italian rule in various ‘independent states’, ‘protectorates’ or annexed terrirories.

    • Tina Trent

      “while leaving behind them the comfort of ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, that they enjoyed until then” — I think you’re going to need to explain what you mean here.

      Also, it’s interesting that you label these people servants and lackeys while making claims about their autonomy and enjoyment of rights.

      • Consider

        Partly is to blame this catastrophic system of posts and replies where what you write suddenly appears or disappears, all out of your control.
        For clarification, ‘democracy’ ,’autonomy’,and ‘human rights’ in those puppet regimes was meant as irony. People that have done well pillaging Jewish and/or other people’s property, killing, ‘genociding’ at the begining and during the larger part of the war, and who were perfectly at ease with dictatorship, racism, antisemitism, extremination, etc. , when war fortunes reversed, suddenly turned to victims of a communist dictatorship in the making and were unfortunatelly accepted as such, even as ‘democrats’ by the ‘West’.
        One of this filth was Milan Zajec

        • marQc

          The cruelty and terror perpetrated against the population of Slovenia by Tito’s partisans in many cases exceeded that of the Nazis because their so-called “Liberation Front” was used as a Trojan Horse to advance the cause of the Communist revolution. The book “Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies” by Walter R. Roberts (pgs. 106-112) documents the negotiations undertaken between the Germans and Partisan delegates as early as 1943 to undertake a relative cessation of hostilities so that the Partisans could concentrate their resources against their internal enemies i.e. Cetniks, Home Guard etc.–and thereby advance their revolution. It was the depraved tactics of the communists as well as their rank hypocrisy and naked lust for political power that drove so many men like Milan Zajec into the Home Guard. In fact they were heroic, in so much as they threw themselves between the Communists and their fellow-countrymen in order to save their nation from the destruction–cultural and otherwise–that inevitably results from a communist revolution. Your use of the word “filth” is inappropriate. Your comment is incoherent as I suspect is your attitude in general. Go look in the mirror before you judge men like Mr. Zajec.

        • Freedom lover

          What exactly do you mean by filth????? You should not make stupid comments like that since you obviously have no clue what you’re talking about! He was a hero as were all the other young men that were murdered and the few that escaped these atrocities!

    • Paul F

      If this is what you believe then you are either a complete ignoramus or a
      communist stooge. Try reading some firsthand accounts on the subject.
      Or better yet, talk to actual survivors of this debacle (like I have).
      The commies were and are rat bastards. Yes, they are still around in
      Slovenia. They changed their stripes as needed, but of course this was
      easy since they are masters of deception.

      They murdered innocents, betrayed their own countrymen, and stole their property. Your understanding of the complex civil strife in Slovenia in WWII only demonstrates your stupidity or willful malevolence. If you would like to know what “filth” is, just look in the mirror (as suggested by MarQc).

  • tionico

    such actions surrounding the “repatriation” of displaced citizens of much of Europe were largely the result of the wholesale “balkanisation” of the Eastern European nations… with Soviet, British, and US “leaders” gathering roung tables and deciding where new international “boundaries” would be placed, and which ethnic groups would comrise newly formed nations. The result was then, and continues to prove its efficiency in effecting, a plot to so divide ethnic peoples into functionally divided “nations” that never existed before, and do so in such a way that the ability to continue functioning as a people group would be forever neutered. Thus, today, we have many “nations” that comprise three or more people groups, and people groups divided between three or more “nations”, when, before all this mess, people groups comprised nations, and nations defined people groups. Thus, we have today Serbs, Czechs, Croats, Kurds, Magyars, Romany, and a long list of other such groups so divided between “naations” their ability to live peaceably within the borders of one nation is removed. They are forced to “coexist” with other “people groups” with whom they share a “nation”, leading to constant troubles…. and all this was carefully engineered by the very nations that “won their freedom” during that Second German War… perpetrating a lasting lck of peace and liberty that persists today, giving the “leaders’ of those nations doing the dividing constant excuse to meddle, and play the “peacekeeper”, when those decisions post Second German War are the root of the lack of peace, economic stability, prosperity, in those artifically created “nations”. Yet we, the US, persist in so meddling in the iinternal affairs of many nations, some of them the same ones we helped “create” out of whole cloth back then, expending billions, more likely trillions, in “peacekeeping”, when it was our actions sixty, seventy years ago that guaranteed a perpetual state of unrest, that state which will persist until the various people groups are somehow finally able to sort themselves into autonomous true nations. This same pattern is why we have Israel and the artificially created “nation” of Palestine in turmoil today,. and why the “nation” of Iraq will never know peace as long as we attempt to FORCE the Kurd, Sunni, Shiite peoples to peacefully “coexist”.

  • FrontPgSubscr

    Want to read about Communism and its rank murderousness, read Cornell Simpson’s “Death of James Forrestal” © 1966 by Western Islands. The book,
    very unfortunately, is out of print and hard to get … there’re a few used copies
    available and at a higher price … I ‘wonder’ why(???) Much of this investigative
    work takes place during and after the WWII years, specifically covering the
    state department under the Roosevelt and Truman administrations … continuing
    into the Eisenhower administration, as well -despite the Dulles brothers AND
    Francis Cardinal Spellman!!!

  • Jure

    Well relatives ware killed during WW2 by ‘domobranci or Home Guard’ unit. They ware brutally tortured in Bizovik next to the Church of ST URH where horrific crimes against humanity happened. The leader and the most brutal was Priest Peter Križaj and he single handedly torture my great aunt and after she was send to Mathausen concentration camp

    So dont say what Communism did after the war and dont forget what Dutch and French people did to collaborators just after the war..

    • Paul F

      Of course we should say what communists did! Should they be allowed to get away with mass murder? Ridiculous.