World War II ended over 70 years ago. There are plenty of books and materials on what happened, why it happened, what Nazism is etc. What we sometimes lack is the personal perspective. There are almost no stories about an average Jane and Joe who just happened to live somewhere in the area where the Nazis operated. This is a story of a family who managed to escape the notorious regime. Very personal and very political at the same time. It’s a piece of history that’s not in your school books.
After I had published an article about Lipa on Global Voices, Suzanne S. contacted me almost immediately. She lives in Australia and is a descendant of a couple that managed to flee the scene before the Nazis attacked it and executed genocide. Their history is about love, war and a surprising turn of events that made it possible for her family to survive Europe’s biggest mayhem.
Europe in 1941: something bad is cooking
In 1941, the war was brewing all around Europe. Rosina and Anton, Antonia’s parents, kept running their family business in the tavern. They never refused a customer, regardless of whether they were German soldiers, Croatian Ustashas, Italian fascists or any other party. The area was already roaming with partisan guerillas, and a number of people from the nearby villages have fled to fight the fascism. Can you imagine if Rosina and Anton denied a German soldier a drink or food? That would be the last thing they did. Not all villagers were happy with the serving policy of the Tavern, and one night, as Anton was closing the bar, he heard a loud bang. To his horror, he spotted his neighbor’s severed head lying on the floor. He found it with a note threatening that he and his family were next.
In fear for their lives, the family immediately packed what could fit on their horse and cart, and fled. In the middle of the night, Anton, Rosina, and their young children escaped to Italy. They became refugees in the town of Trieste, knowing they could never go back to their beloved Lipa. Anton became a gravedigger and Rosina started to work as a nanny and a housekeeper for a local family. Antonia met a man during the war, fell in love— and a fifty-five-year long love story began.
The Annihilation of Lipa
Lipa, the village the Barela tavern was in, is one of the three villages that the Nazis completely destroyed during WWII. The French town Oradour-Sur-Glane and the Czech town of Lidice were two other places with a history similar to Lipa’s. When we talk about the extermination of Lipa, we are talking about the killings of 269 people, of which 121 were children, aged from 7 months to 15 years. The Nazis burned the entire village to the ground and removed the incinerated corpses. Lipa was completely destroyed—all 87 residential houses and 85 outbuildings. Of all the villagers there that day, only one man and one woman survived.
Lipa served as an important path between Slovenia and Croatia during WWII. The tedious part began early in the morning on April 30, 1944. Around 2:30 in the afternoon, the village was surrounded by a group of German SS division officers and Wehrmacht members as well as Italian fascist militia. Allegedly, there were Chetniks and Slovenian Home Guards in the group. The group was commanded by Aurelio Piese, head of the fascist militia in Rupa, Croatia.
They stormed into the village around three o’clock and began stealing everything they could carry, including livestock. The group raped women and girls, slaughtered babies and the elderly. After torturing and murdering 21 people, they realized that they couldn’t destroy the village in this manner. They had to change the tactic. The murderers gathered everyone from the community, telling them to pack their valuables in a bundle. They told the people that they will be shipped to internment camps.
The Nazis led the people to the Kvartika’s house and put them inside. After they packed the people in the house, they began throwing fire bombs and shot into the house. The militant group then doused the house with petrol and burned everyone locked inside.
The Nazi group’s action was recorded on camera by the perpetrators, intended as boasting material for their superiors and friends. The film was later taken to the photography workshop and the staff made duplicates and hid them. When everything was over, the photographs were put in the studio’s showcase for somebody to recognize. It didn’t take long for passersby to recognize the village.
The photographs are now a part of Lipa Remembers Memorial Center that is located in the centre of the village and tells the terrifying tale of WWII in the Western Balkans.
“Terror against terror, eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
But why did the vicious group attack the peaceful village? General Ludwig Kübler was the commanding officer of the German XCVII Corps while the police and SS order were led by Odilo Globocnik, one of the largest Nazi criminals and the mastermind behind the attack.
While the Partisans proved elusive, the local population, which provided assistance and support for the Partisans, was an easy target. General Kübler had particular problems with the Partisans. Therefore, he brought his ten units to fight against what he called the “gangs.” He ordered and encouraged killing, looting and mass reprisals against the population. In the eyes of the Nazis, the villagers from the area were nothing but the logistic base for their sworn enemies, Partisans. Hence, he ordered: “Terror against terror, eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
New day, new hope
What differentiates Lipa from other two villages is that Lipa moved on. People returned, the survivors told their stories and finally, everybody helped rebuild the village. In conclusion, the village is now preserved as a reminder for posterity that such barbarity should not repeat. Lipa remembers. So should everyone else – Nazism is a deadly desease.
Antonia, who fled Lipa on time and was one of the few villagers who didn’t get killed in 1944, left Trieste with her husband in 1955 for a better life in Australia. She carried only a suitcase from which they managed to rebuild a new life. Suzanne feels a strong connection with her roots that emerge from Lipa. “It is with great honor I speak on behalf of my family in the hopes that all their heartache,” Suzana says.