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A childhood stolen: memories of the (post)war period in the Dragarska valley (Suchenertal) and the surrounding villages

On the way to Dragarska valley (Suchenertal)

As I follow the road south of the Hrib – Loški Potok settlement, surrounded by peaceful green surroundings, enlivened in this autumn season by hues of red, warm brown and orange. I have left the hustle and bustle of the city far behind me, and now I am heading for places that are unfortunately scarcely populated. The path leads me through forests, and when I set my eyes on the familiar signposts pointing towards the road that winds across the forest-covered plateaus to Stari and Novi Kot, the former being the birthplace of my dearly departed grandfather, I cannot help but smile. I’m getting close.

After Lazec, I descend to Podpreska, and before me a view of the valley below the Dinaric plateaus of the Travljanska gora – the Dragarska Valley opens up, with the settlements of Podpreska, Draga, Srednja vas pri Dragi and Trava, and a little further towards the Croatian border there lie Podplanina, Pungert and Črni Potok pri Dragi encircled by hills. This area is closely intertwined with my family’s history and is familiar to me mainly from the intriguing stories told by my grandparents. Even though I haven’t spent much time in this part of Slovenia, every time I visit, I feel a strange, nostalgic sense of familiarity that encourages me to explore these remote, yet very beautiful places.

Dragarska valley, view from the front of the church in Draga (Suchen). Photo: Anja Moric, july 2020.

Monument in Novi Kot (Neuwinkel)

Recently, during a visit to Novi Kot, I came across a memorial dedicated to the inhabitants of Stari and Novi Kot who lost their lives during World War II – combatants, victims of internment and hostages. The names of my grandfather’s mother and sister, whom I knew had died in internment, are also commemorated on the memorial. I began to wonder about the situation which befell children when they returned home, for example my grandfather and his brothers, at the time boys aged between 10 and 14, whose father had been held up in America during the war, where many of the inhabitants of these places had emigrated in search of a better life. In my search for answers, I came across interesting facts that were previously unknown to me, and at the same time I had the opportunity to dedicate this article to this topic.

A memorial to the villagers of Stari and Novi Kot, who lost their lives during World War II that is located in Novi Kot. Photo: Lina Troha, September 2021.

Dragarska valley and its inhabitants

In the area encompassing the Dragarska valley and the surrounding villages, such as Stari and Novi Kot that are surrounded by vast forests, were marked by hardships and poverty, contraband in the 17th century, and the emigration of the Kočevje Germans during World War II, when during 1939 and 1945 some of the bloodiest pages of human history have been written, and after which the population has dropped significantly. Abandoned farmland, razed locales, immense material and economic damage, changes in political systems, broken relationships and, above all, millions of prematurely extinguished lives are some of the darkest consequences of the war and post-war period.

The Dragarska Valley area has been linguistically mixed in the past, to some extent due to its close proximity to Croatia. At the same time, German-speaking peasants, also known as Gottscheers, were brought here to accelerate economic development. They were settled in the Middle Ages by the noble Ortenburg family from Carinthia. But people also immigrated from elsewhere; for example, a short research paper on the origin of my surname states that the Troha’s originated from Bohemia, from where my ancestors first settled in Babno Polje in the 15th century, and Johann or Janez Troha married to Stari Kot in the mid-19th century.

In fact, during the years before World War II, life in the area was modest but peaceful. Marta Steiner told me that at the beginning of the 20th century, after many men had left for America, the area was beset by “great squalor”. Nevertheless, the remaining inhabitants “stuck together”, and divisions – for example between Slovenes and Germans – were not strict, even non-existent: “Back then all of us were one, and we lived together in unity.”

The whole valley that today seems devoid of life, used to be very lively. For example, in Trava, they held three fairs every year, they had a tavern and craftsmen. Therefore it was not difficult to get by, even if modestly. The village of Draga, with its two taverns, a store and a post office, was the social centre of the valley. People helped each other and socialised. The children from the surrounding area were taught by the legendary teacher Nada Vreček, known for her dedicated work, who started teaching at the Trava school in 1929 and continued to do so for 55 years, having taught three generations.

Objects from the ethnographic collection Pr ‘Mnčkenih, edited in August 2013 by members of the Slovenian Ethnological Society, testify to life in Trava before the Second World War. From right to left: Pavle Adam, Anja Moric, Marta Steiner, Tanja Kovačič, Anja Serec Hodžar, Blanka Bartol and Marko Smole.

World War Two

The war reached the Dragarska valley and the surrounding areas in 1941, when, after months of intensely monitoring the news, the first Italian boots entered Novi and Stari Kot from the direction of the Croatian village Čabar. In his notes, Alojz Miklič pointed out that the “Romans” promised them everything possible, complete freedom and equality and the use of their own language, but “they soon began with italianisation of various signs in offices and roadsigns. The name of the primary school was changed to “Scuola populare” and Italian language became a compulsory school subject. An Italian teacher took over the teaching duties, and the local teacher, Nada Vreček, fled for a while across the border to Croatia, to Čabar.

The Italian occupation of the area was one of the reasons for the eviction of the Kočevje Germans from the Dragarska valley in 1942. “However, when the Gottscheers moved, it was very tragic,” Marta Steiner recalls, describing how they were hastily loaded onto trucks, but there was not enough space for their belongings, which were simply thrown off the trucks. “All this was done so brutally,” she bitterly sums up the sudden departure of many neighbours, who were then resettled by German troops in the then-empty houses in Posavje Region, whose inhabitants had previously been deported to labour camps.

However, this was only the beginning of the horrors in the Dragarska Valley and its surroundings. In 1942, the partisans burnt down the church and school at Trava that were located on higher grounds to prevent the Italians from gaining a good view of the valley. In the same year, the Italians burnt the villages of Stari and Novi Kot to the ground and took the inhabitants to internment – first on the island of Rab and later to Gonars – this was done to prevent them from offering shelter and hiding places to the partisans. The inhabitants of the village Trava were temporarily relocated to Draga, but after three months they returned to Trava together with the other inhabitants of the valley that the occupying forces had fenced off and set up an Italian military outpost. At that time, most of the houses in the village were derelict.

The remains of the burnt church at Trava, and the abandoned white building in the background was the last school at Trava, built in 1964. Photo: Lina Troha, October 2021.

Memories of the war in the Dragarska Valley

Even though almost 80 years have passed since the Italian occupation, these events are still etched in the memories of the inhabitants of the village Trava, Marta Steiner and Rudolf Malnar, who were children at the time. Marta Steiner recalls that there were no men in the village: “If someone was hiding, say at home, they were quickly discovered. They were doing all sorts of inspections around the houses and these Italians who had outposts here, it was sheer horror.” Fear and hunger reigned in the village, and hungry children even went to ask the Italians, who had a kitchen in one of the emptied houses, for leftovers from dinner: “We children, who had nothing to eat, used to stand there with our canteens and wait to see if there were any leftovers from dinner that could be put inside them.”

The younger children, especially the boys, remained cheerful despite the difficult conditions. Rudolf Malnar, for example, tells us that he secretly took a pistol from an officer’s backpocket and then – also secretly – returned it to its place. He also remembers how the boys used to make wooden guns to play with so they could play partisans and Italians, and in their childish curiosity and ignorance they even played with dangerous weapons, a scene that is unimaginable today. “Those Italian bombs, they were called Red Devils, we dismantled them, and inside was one of those lead balls, and that’s what we were after,” he recalls, and tells how a bomb blew up in the hands of his friend.

A boy from Trava with a wooden rifle and a partisan cap like the ones Marta Steiner’s mother used to sew for her children. The author of the photograph is probably the partisan photojournalist Edi Šelhaus. The exact date when the photograph was taken is unknown, but it is stored in the Firefighters’ Home at Trava, in the memorial corner dedicated to the teacher Nada Vreček. Photo: Lina Troha.

Hope raised by teacher Nada Vreček

Although the locals who stayed in the Dragarska Valley were caught in the middle of a war zone, they could not imagine what was happening to their fellow villagers, neighbours or loved ones, who were being taken away by the Italian occupying forces for internment. The sad stories of the children who lived through these horrors are collected in two works, Testimonies of the Rab Internees (1942–1943) and The Young People of Kočevje Standing up against the Occupying Forces. Sad, frightened, starving and in several cases orphaned, the children returned to their homes in 1943, after the surrender of Italy. The return was difficult, the orphans were taken in by their surviving relatives, and many of the houses at Trava were home to several families, even up to four.

The teacher Nada Vrečekwas responsible for a brighter future of the children – both those who returned from the internment and those who survived the war in their home villages. At one time, she was teaching around eighty children. “After the war, we all went in the outside world, because after the war we went to schools, and Nada arranged schools for all of us,” says Marta Steiner, who, together with my grandparents, attended the Ribnica Grammar School. These young people growing up in the post-war period were the most educated, and jobs were waiting for them as soon as they finished secondary school. The fact that Nada Vreček has received several awards for her work and that the generations she taught are still grateful to her today speaks for itself. In the Firefighters’ Home at Trava, the locals have dedicated a memorial corner to her, which intricately connects both the beautiful and the bitter memories of those difficult times.

A part of the memorial corner dedicated to teacher Nada Vreček. Photo: Lina Troha, October 2021.

Much more could be written about the stories I heard during my research, but I think I have summarised some of the most important information in this short note. Further work is of course not out of the question, as I consider it extremely important to preserve the memory of this dark fragment of our heritage. We must be aware that the last generation that can still tell the story of the war in first person has entered deep into the autumn of their lives, and (too) many of these stories will simply fade away into oblivion. It is up to us, in the precious time we have left, to try to hear and preserve as many of them as possible.

Finally, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the three interlocutors who shared their memories with me without hesitation: to Mrs Marta Steiner and Mr Rudolf Malnar from Trava, who were happy to invite me to their home, and to my grandmother Anita Troha, who moved to Draga after the end of the war and was the first to tell me about these places.

Sources:
– Slavko Ožbolt v sodelovanju z Marto Steiner in Ireno Klepac, ‘Vas Trava.’ Zloženka, izdana s pomočjo donatorja Gojka Kende. Občina Loški Potok, Trava 2008.
– Suzana Kordiš, Where are my roots: Troha. Unpublished document on the origin of the surname, Stari Kot 2007.
– Marta Steiner, born in 1932 in Trava (Obergrass), returned to Trava after decades of work and life abroad and elsewhere in Slovenia. She has been living in Trava for over 30 years. Personal Communication, Trava. 10. 2021.
– Interviews with: Marta Steiner, Personal Communication, Trava, 2021; Anica Troha, born in 1935 in Zagorje, moved to her aunt in Draga at the age of 10 in 1945. Personal Communication, Trava, 2021; Rudolf Malnar, born in 1936 in Trava. Personal Communication, Trava, 2021.
– Lucija Miklič, ur., Kronika vasi Stari in Novi Kot. Samozaložba, Stari Kot 2002, str. 28-29.
– Herman Janež, ur., Pričevanja rabskih internirancev (1942–1943). ČZP Kmečki glas, Ljubljana 1985.
– Bogomil Gerlanc, ur., Mladi rod Kočevske proti okupatorju. Mladinska knjiga, Ljubljana 1953.

In our previous post, you can read more about Christmas time in Kočevska (Gottschee) area.

This post is also available in: Slovenian German

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