Martyrs Under Communism

On New Year’s Day 1943, amid the turmoil of the Second World War, a 19-year-old Slovene student, Lojze Grozde, was trying to get home to see his family. Slovenia, then part of Yugosla - via, was occupied by the Axis powers and travel was risky and uncertain. From a poor, rural background, the son of a single mother, Grozde had surmounted a lonely and difficult childhood. His mother rejected him at first and packed him off to relatives, but he worked hard, got into a good school and was gaining recognition as a poet. His verses reflected his own deepening Catholic faith.

Carrying a Missal

On the morning of 1st January Grozde went to Mass, then found he could not continue by train because the tracks were destroyed. So, he set off on foot. He had managed to get a lift in a cart when he was seized by a group of thugs, manhandled, tortured and killed, his body left under a rock and soon covered with falling snow. His murderers were not occupying troops but his own countrymen, a brigade of Communist Partisans. Their excuse was that he was an informer, working for the Italians. His body was found by chance the following month by children picking snowdrops.

Later a confidential Partisan document would prove that Lojze Grozde was no informer. As his friends and supporters had known all along, his real crime was that he was carrying a Missal, a copy of the Imitation of Christ and a booklet about Our Lady of Fatima.

On 13th June 2010, Lojze Grozde was the first Slovene martyr to Communism to be beatified.

2021 Anniversary

This year, Slovenia, a tiny, largely Catholic, nation of two million people, nestled between Austria, Italy, Croatia and Hungary celebrates 30 years of independence from the old Yugoslavia. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Slovenia identifies more with central Europe than the Balkans to the south. Scenic, with exquisite mountains, lakes, castles, churches and the best cream slices in the world, it markets itself as the “sunny side of the Alps”.It’s a democracy, economically advanced and a member of the European Union and NATO. Tourists who visit – in normal times at least– come back eyes shining, talking of fairytale scenery and warm, hospitable people.

Yet during the Second World War and its aftermath, Slovenia, like much of Europe, was a killing field. After the Axis powers marched into what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on Palm Sunday, 6th April 1941, a grim, multi-faceted conflict developed between the German and Italian occupiers, resistance groups increasingly dominated by the Communist-led Liberation Front, known as the Partisans and those caught in the middle, desperately trying to defend their homes and families. While ostensibly fighting the invaders, the Partisans, led by the Croat Josip Broz Tito, took advantage of the situation to mount a campaign of terror against anyone who stood in the way of their notion of a Marxist utopia. It turned tiny Slovenia into a land of graves. And secrets. It was only after independence that the full horror of what happened began to emerge.

Tyranny

All right-thinking people mourn the millions of victims of the evils of Nazism before and during the Second World War. The Church celebrates the many brave Christian martyrs who perished under Nazi tyranny. St Maximilian Kolbe and St Edith Stein are household names. Those responsible have, where possible, been brought to justice.

It is strange, then, that the victims of another form of tyranny, Communism, that lasted decades longer in the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (and still continues elsewhere) and caused even greater loss of life, including untold numbers killed for their Christian faith, have frequently not had the recognition they deserve, the perpetrators often walking free.

It may be something to do with the propaganda of the victors. Hitler lost the war. Stalin, the Soviet leader, was one of the victorious Allies and with Churchill and a dying President Franklin Roosevelt unwilling – or unable – to stop him, lost no time in taking over large swathes of eastern Europe. So the present – and the past – were adapted to suit him.

Victims

In Slovenia, after 1945 part of Tito’s Communist Yugoslavia, the victims of Communism – numbering, some estimate, at over a hundred thousand – were for decades a taboo subject. Those who had the nerve to mention them publicly were silenced. Until recently too many people who knew too much were still around, often in high places. With Catholic schools closed and the Church subjected to strict controls, two post-war generations of Slovene schoolchildren learned that anyone who opposed Communism – even those who died in Nazi concentration camps – was a “traitor” or a “collaborator”. Names were written out of history books, mass grave sites hidden in dense forests disturbed only by grieving relatives who came surreptitiously to hang rosaries on the trees. The stories of the victims lived on only in the hearts of their families and the many refugees who had fled the country. And in the west, people still lauded the Partisans as plucky resistance fighters and Tito as the “good” Communist who later dared to break with Stalin. Few people felt like getting at the truth.

After the fall of Communism in eastern Europe and Slovenia’s independence in 1991, things began to change. A new generation of politicians, writers and investigative journalists started to question the entrenched narrative. Catholics were no longer afraid to speak out.

Candidates for Canonisation

Now, in addition to Blessed Lojze Grozde, the Slovene Catholic Bishops have drawn up an initial list of 27 victims of Communism as candidates for eventual canonisation. Many more are being considered. (In accordance with official practice, there is a separate list representing victims of Nazism.) They come from a variety of backgrounds – among them priests, seminarians, a nun, a lawyer, a carpenter, teachers, a housewife, a high school student.

Heading the list is Father Lambert Ehrlich, a 63-year-old priest, theology professor, student leader and staunch Slovene patriot – he spoke on Slovenia’s behalf at the Versailles peace conference following the First World War – known for his asceticism and inspiring holiness, as well for his care for the poor and needy.

Ehrlich was a patriot in the best sense of the word, encouraging his students to live out their Catholic faith in the framework of their national traditions of language, history and literature. He dreamed of Slovene independence decades before it happened. After the Slovene capital, Ljubljana, came under Italian occupation in 1941, he reported to the Vatican, condemning both Fascism and Communism as enemies of his beloved nation. Tito’s Partisans loathed everything he stood for. The death threats started and grew more frequent. In his last talk to his students, Ehrlich spoke about martyrdom.

On the early morning of 26th May 1942, Ehrlich celebrated Mass as usual at the student residence in Ljubljana. As he walked from the chapel with a student who had acted as his altar boy, two Communist assassins confronted them and shot them both dead.

Witnesses described Ehrlich lying in a pool of blood surrounded by his horrified students. They rushed to find flowers to cover his body. His assassin was proclaimed a national hero.

In 1946, the Communists, now firmly in charge of Yugoslavia, desecrated Ehrlich’s grave to prevent it becoming a shrine. His body was exhumed and thrown into an unknown pit. He was portrayed as a traitor to his country. Unborn child Ehrlich had inspired many, especially young people in their Christian commitment. In 1941 he had officiated at the wedding of one of his former students, France Novak, now a chemistry professor. Novak’s new wife, Ivanka, was a teacher at the Ursuline School in Ljubljana, much loved by her pupils and their parents for her caring attitude and deep faith. After their wedding, the couple settled in Sodrazica, a town south of Ljubljana. The Partisans started harassing the Novaks, forcing their landlord to evict them from their modest flat. By May 1942 the Partisans had gained control of the town and stepped up the ideological fight, rooting out their perceived enemies. A neighbour warned France Novak to get out fast. Believing his heavily pregnant wife would be safer staying put, he said goodbye to her and sped off on his bicycle. A few days later the Partisans came for Ivanka. They smashed up her home, beat her, drove her to nearby woods and forced her to dig her own grave. She begged to be allowed to live until her baby was born but to no avail.

Her body was later recovered by fellow Catholics who reburied her in the village cemetery. In her pocket they found a scrap of paper on which Ivanka had scribbled a letter to her unborn child.

“Just sleep peacefully as your mother watches over you... The clock in the tower already announces the morning...which will take us on the last journey. I will not be alone...you will be with me my child and as she did with her son on Calvary, Mary will ...stand with us and take us to an eternally happy home.”

Young People

Like Ivanka Novak, many of the victims on the Slovene Bishops’ list are young people. The Communists considered them and their mentors, such as Father Lambert Ehrlich, especially dangerous. And while the inter-war period had seen the Soviet Union increasingly exporting atheistic Marxist ideas, Slovenia during their 1930s seems also to have experienced an extraordinary flowering of Christian faith among the young. Catholic youth organisations, prayer and study groups flourished in schools and universities, inspired by the Catholic Action Movement, by a big Eucharistic Congress in Ljubljana in 1935, by the recent martyrdoms of Father Miguel Pro and others in Mexico and of priests and nuns in the Spanish Civil War but also by the simple, deep faith of generations of families who saw God in the beauty of the mountains and celebrated their traditional feast days in the changing of the seasons on their farms. The rival ideologies were heading for a tragic collision.

The list of martyrs drawn up by the Slovene Bishops reflects only a tiny part of the picture. Every Slovene Catholic family has a story to tell, of parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends who suffered and died, often for simply being practising Catholics. Stories told by people like Father Vladimir Kozina, a priest who eventually emigrated to the United States , describing how, as a seminarian, he hid in a hayloft while Partisans massacred his parents and his disabled brother for refusing to turn him in.

Or by an elderly woman who had fled to Austria and then to Britain, reminiscing about a friend from her young days who had been stopped from studying for the priesthood by the Axis occupation. He wanted to do something to help the resistance. Innocently he went along to a meeting called by the Partisans. When he refused to embrace Marxism, they shot him. One of the saddest stories was that of some 12,000 Slovene Domobranci, or home guards. Catholic farm boys mostly, with rosaries in their pockets, forced to defend their homes, families and churches from Partisan atrocities, they mobilised themselves into a defence force. With the official end of war in Europe, in May 1945, they fled for protection to the British Army in Austria, still hoping the Allies would drive the Communists out. In what was described by Nigel Nicolson, then a British intelligence officer in Austria, as “one of the most disgraceful operations any British forces had been ordered to undertake”, the British, to placate Tito, whose forces had broken into Austria, packed the Domobranci into trains along with priests and family members and lied to them that they were going to Italy. In reality the trains turned not towards Italy but back to Yugoslavia, into the arms of Tito.

Tortured

A handful of survivors reported how Partisan murder squads wired the victims together and tortured them, gouging out gold teeth and living eyes. How a priest giving absolution had his hand cut off. How most of them were taken to pits into which the Partisans threw thousands of living and dead bodies. One survivor, Milan Zajec, had hidden a medallion of Our Lady in his clothing. He was convinced she saved him. Zajec splintered his teeth to shreds trying to untie the wires from his companions. Buried alive for five days in the mass of bodies, he heard people praying until they suffocated; a man shouting, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do!” until grenades silenced him. Some died emulating Mexican martyr Father Pro, calling out, “Long Live Christ the King!” Afterwards the executioners were sent to a spa resort for rest and recuperation.

One excuse often still bandied about is that the Domobranci were “collaborators” with the Germans and Italians, so technically the enemy. That assessment is far too glib. The home guards – by definition a defence force – had, if anything, prayed for an Allied victory. But faced with certain annihilation by the Partisans, they had to find help wherever they could get it. It did not make them pro-Nazi any more than Churchill and Roosevelt’s joining forces with Stalin made them pro the Gulag.

To their credit, some British soldiers wept openly as they followed their orders, and some risked their military careers to tip off the Domobranci refugees they had befriended about the true plans for their fate. True too, there were Partisans who were well-intentioned and fought valiantly against the occupiers. And true also that there were so-called Catholics in Yugoslavia, as elsewhere, who behaved despicably. The fascist puppet Ustase regime in Croatia imposed its own reign of terror, hand in glove with Hitler. War and occupation make for complex situations. But the propaganda of the victors preferred to tar all Catholics with the same brush.

A Troublesome Nun

Not all the Slovene victims of Communism died during the tumult of war. In its aftermath, in the 1940s and 50s the Communist campaign against the Church intensified. “This is a war between Church and State”, one official was quoted as saying, “in which the State will not give in until the Church falls to its knees.” Another martyr on the Slovene Bishops’ list is Sister Karmela, born Antonija Premrok, of the Society of the Sisters of Mary. Forced out of her convent when the authorities closed it in 1948, she went back to her home village. The parish church had no organist, so the priest asked her to take on the job. A talented musician, she revived the church choir, encouraging a lot of young people to join. That didn’t escape notice and in 1949 a Communist Party meeting discussed what to do with the troublesome nun. Shortly afterwards, in a sickening replay of the fate of Lojze Grozde, Sister Karmela was abducted on her way to choir rehearsal and tortured to death over several days. Her body was thrown into a lake.

Memorials

Of course, stories like these were not unique to Slovenia. Among others, recent beatifications by Pope Francis of 38 Albanian and seven Romanian martyrs have helped focus attention on the full tragedy of the Communist regimes’ campaign against the Church.

In Slovenia, which suffered out of all proportion to its small population, there has been some measure of atonement. While there’s still anger in Catholic circles that the perpetrators were never made to pay for their crimes, it’s a credit to the country and the innate decency of its people, that the atrocities are now, at least, talked about openly. The hidden burial pits have been turned into officially sanctioned memorials and Masses and other public ceremonies are held to commemorate the victims. The Slovene Catholic high school in Ljubljana, reopened after the fall of Communism, takes its students to visit the Domobranci massacre sites. A stunning mural in the school chapel commemorates the victims.

At Ljubljana university, a ceremony is held every year on the anniversary of Father Lambert Ehrlich’s assassination. There’s even a rap song about Blessed Lojze Grozde.

Against Complacency

The student’s 2010 beatification by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, representing Pope Benedict XVl, brought some 40,000 pilgrims to the Slovene city of Celje. On an earlier visit to the country, Pope John Paul ll had described Grozde as, “Just one of innumerable innocent victims of Communism that raise the palm of martyrdom as an indelible memory and admonition. He was a disciple of Christ.”

The fact that Grozde’s name couldn’t even be mentioned in public for fifty years because he espoused the “wrong” ideology has a certain uncomfortable resonance in our own times.

That uncompromising totalitarian ideas could so quickly plunge a civilized nation into darkness is surely a warning against complacency.

Reclaiming the martyrs’ stories is not just a pious exercise – it could also be a wake-up call.

Alenka Lawrence is a freelance writer and a former editor with the BBC World Service. Her grandfather, the Slovene Catholic politician Franjo Zebot, opposed both Fascism and Communism and died a political prisoner in the German concentration camp, Dachau, in 1945.