Slovene mass graves reopen historic wounds

Chicago Tribune

This country can't rest its bones.

Skeletons are buried in meadows, beneath parking lots and just beyond the rumble of trucks and cars near a major highway.

More than 570 hidden grave sites from World War II have been unearthed by a university professor intent on a fair accounting of the past in this former Yugoslav republic now riding high as the current holder of the European Union presidency.

A slaughter was conducted in Slovenia in the war's last days and aftermath by the troops of Josip Broz Tito, the partisan leader and Communist who would rule for decades across the region. Thousands of Germans, Croats and others on the losing side of the war were killed.

History has long known that Slovenia was a field of vengeance. But Mitja Ferenc, a mild-mannered historian, is uncovering the depth of the killing -- a level that few imagined.

The massacres were unexplored in communist times and given short shrift in the first decade after Slovenia broke free from Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But Ferenc's digs have cracked a psychological barrier in Slovenia and sparked political debates anew about the sins of World War II.

Ferenc's greatest -- or worst -- discovery emerged last summer. He returned to an old antitank trench near the city of Maribor that had given up 1,179 skeletons in 1999 when road workers preparing to lay asphalt cracked its perimeter.

This time, Ferenc explored further and found a dense pit of skeletons that he believes stretches for half a mile. Military gear found in the dirt indicates that these were Croatian and German soldiers. Ferenc estimates that as many as 15,000 dead lie in this one spot of Slovenian timberland -- a mass grave of historic proportions for Europe and especially for a country of just 1 million people at the time.

"Most people think all these graves are marked, that these are all known. They are not," Ferenc said, clicking through a computerized database in his office at the University of Ljubljana.

"My point is to find out what's out there. Without excavation, there is no way to know. But I've also had to deal with this question: If I start digging in search of 10 graves and then find 100, what do I do?"

That is just one of the questions for Slovenia's now 2 million people coping with Ferenc's macabre findings. His research has raised some practical issues of maintenance, stirred deep reflection and inspired revisionist debates among Slovenia's political class.

"There were rumors. There were always rumors," said Joze Dezman, a historian who runs the National Museum of Contemporary History and heads a national commission on concealed mass graves.

Dezman said Slovenia's first democratic leaders -- former Communists -- wouldn't explore the tales of the missing.

"People will tell you that nobody really knew the scale of the killing. But on a local level, everyone knew," Dezman said. "This is not just a problem of graves. This is a problem of memory. . . . There were victims. And there were killers."

Slovenia bore the killing from May to June 1945. German troops and collaborators, including thousands of Croats, rushed through its valleys at the end of the war with hopes of reaching Austria. They wanted to surrender to the British rather than to Tito's resistance fighters, who were seen as particularly brutal. Thousands of Slovenes, Serbs, Cossacks, Romanians and others who feared retribution joined the frantic flood.

But British troops in Austria turned back most, following orders by Allied Command. Those on the run were handed over to Tito's fighters, and many vanished. Ferenc said he had found skeletons bound at the wrist by wires.

Today, many people contend that the partisan fighters led by Tito were heroes of the war. They helped save the world from Nazi Germany. Although mass killings by the partisans were wrong, they should be honored as liberators, many believe.

Members of Slovenia's current right-wing government argue that Tito's forces were operating with a communist agenda and a clear plan for postwar dominance. Slovenes who died in the summer of 1945 may or may not have been German sympathizers, but they were also victims of a civil war over communism, according to those critics.

The revisionists want communism blamed for the mass graves. Their telling of history links the graves to communism's political heirs in Slovenia's present democracy, including former Slovenia President Milan Kucan, the first president under democracy, and other left-wing party elites.

Janez Stanovnik, a partisan fighter as a teenager, held high government positions under communism. Now 85, he wonders why the dead are being disturbed with modern-day political battles.

"There are tens of thousands of people you can't identify and for whom you can't provide graves," he said. There is hardly the money to properly excavate and "respect every body hidden in those graves."

"I'm not proud of what happened in May and June 1945," Stanovnik said. "But I am proud of what the partisans did during the war. Can you imagine Europe, North Africa or the world without them?

"I cannot forget what happened to me in wartime . . . but I'm an old man. Is this really something another generation has to pay for or see used for political capital?" he said.

Some analysts have said the graves are in danger of becoming a source of mythology, an unhappy turn for those who just want the facts of the past to be known.

"Before, we had the partisan mythology -- and with that came a strong ideological story. Now, we're seeing the construction of another mythology, n anti-communist line," said political cartoonist Franco Juri, a former member of parliament. "The truth is somewhere in between."

For Ferenc, the lonely grave hunter, the last days of World War II have become a life's work and in some ways an exploration of his personal history. His father, Tone Ferenc, was a partisan historian and helped put the gloss on communism's version of the war. The elder Ferenc knew some graves existed, but he could never hope to freely research them, his son said.

Mitja Ferenc, 48, said he began poring over newly opened papers and interviewing Slovenes in 2000 to end speculation. He has no aspirations to work like a team of scientists who are still in Bosnia identifying all the dead from an infamous war massacre at Srebrenica in the 1990s.

Instead, Ferenc wants to help end the lingering debate over an old war and establish how many people, Slovenes in particular, were killed and forgotten.

"I am not part of the dispute here," Ferenc said. "I'm a professional and I just want to very carefully follow the research. Slovenia as a responsible nation can deal with the discoveries.

"But I know the pressures," he said. "Even my mother is critical about this. . . . I'm just too stubborn to stop."

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