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WHEN the Italians quit the war well over half of Jugoslavia was free territory, and, for a while at least, the Partisans were in full possession. The spirit of freedom was abroad over all the land. Man, woman and child rejoiced as only people can who are suddenly relieved from the horror and anxiety of a ruthless suppression. The determination to be free, so long tempered by the presence of a hated foe, and made the more inexorable by each of his intolerable insults against freedom, glimpsed for a moment the fulfilment of a purpose. Hope was kindled anew as the enemy's hold relaxed and the horizon of freedom advanced.
The unfailing characteristic inherent in all people to congregate in times of fear and great joy had ample scope for expression in those days. It was the, latter emotion which brought people streaming from villages and rural areas to the towns and cities, that they might in common share the first breath of freedom. Thousands of men, women and children assembled all over the country. Loved ones and friends so long separated were overcome to find each other again, and bitter was disappointment in the hearts of those who failed in their search.
The thought of being free to move about, the ability to speak and act naturally without thought of police, the sight of their own troops in great numbers, brought cheer and courage to a weary people, Demonstrations to express their gratitude for what the Partisans had done were held everywhere. Almost every place vied with the next to welcome the troops. They were hailed as the liberators of their country. Suppers, dancing and concerts were frequently held for their benefit. Of course, food was not too plentiful or of much variety, but what there was was sufficient to afford an enjoyable treat for men who had been long accustomed to much less.
The people, so long denied the right to assemble or indulge in national affairs, turned at once to their leaders for direction. They wanted to hear of conditions in other parts of Jugoslavia and to know what should be done to strengthen their position against the Germans. There were so many meetings being held that it was very difficult for the executive members to fulfil all demands made upon their time. Some speakers addressed as many as six meetings in one day.
Buildings were too modest for the great crowds that would gather. Many a town square, often reduced to a mere passage-way, would be turned into a great forum, and the entrance of a public building, a balcony or a temporary structure of wood, always gaily trimmed with evergreens, Allied flags and bunting, would serve the speakers as a platform.
There was so much to be heard rumour only tended to sharpen interest that people never wearied of listening to exciting reports of what was happening elsewhere and of hopeful plans for the future. It pleased them to hear their leaders so confident and strong. And how the cheers rang out whenever such words as "sloboda " (freedom), "demokracia," "Osvobodilna Fronta" (Freedom Front), Avnoj-A" (the Provisional Parliament of Jugoslavia) were uttered; cheers only surpassed by the deafening roars excited by references to a "free, united Jugoslavia" and "Tito."
One of these meetings which we attended was held in a small city of Slovenia, the normal population of which was about six thousand. We received an invitation from the citizens of that city to attend a demonstration to be held on September 10th, the day after the Italians had handed over their arms. We motored through 40 kilometres of delightful country to keep the appointment.
Along the way it was interesting to see how busy everybody was. Troops were on the move, many in lorries, but generally marching, long columns of vehicles carrying stores to the hills, automobiles and trucks running in all directions. The dust in places was almost blinding, though it mattered little as one of our party remarked :
"Nobody objects to this dust: the dust of freedom."
When we arrived the city was in an appalling state of disorder. Italian lorries, tanks, guns, mules and carts filled the streets and arms and equipment were lying about everywhere. Partisan guards, to be sure, were seen, and groups of men were busy salvaging and loading trucks and vehicles with the booty. But nobody seemed to be much concerned with what was going on in that respect, and our attention was soon lifted to lighter things. Gaiety, denoted by streamers, flags and thousands of people milling about; the honking of horns and good-natured jostling of the crowd as they made way for a car or a motor-cycle; the cheering when some leader or other was recognised, excited a carnival mood in the minds of all. By the time we were able to reach the city hall all thoughts and concerns of war had completely left us. The people of that city were determined to take time out to rejoice in their new freedom, and would not be denied.
Our party consisted of President Vidmar, tv. Kidric, tv. Ed. Kocbek, and other members of the Izvrsni Odbor, Gen. Ausnic and several army officers and the British liaison officer. We were greeted by the members of the local committee and taken to the dais at the entrance of the city hall.
The crowd, it seemed, filled the entire centre of the city. The wide plaza in front of us and all streets leading to it were filled with people. On the balconies, roofs, and at the windows of surrounding buildings, few gaps were noticed among the eager spectators. Between six and eight thousand witnessed that scene and shared the joy of new hope. They saw the end of tyranny and the light of a new world.
As President Vidmar and each member of the executive was called upon to speak the applause was loud and long. The speeches were quite similar in theme, each speaker in his own way reviewing the progress made, stressing the unity and freedom of Jugoslavia and appealing for still greater effort in the common struggle against the enemy.
As each speaker developed his subject, it was very apparent that beneath the excitement and enthusiasm the people were very conscious of the possibility of hard and bitter experiences yet to be endured. They clearly showed, however, that they were ready for the worst, believing that the forces of freedom would eventually prove victorious. The forces that would deny them freedom must be destroyed, and nothing else seemed to matter. Nor did the long speeches, necessarily repetitive, tend to weary them. They had committed themselves to a task from which there was no turning. Cost what it would in effort, material, or in terms of life itself, the war would be fought to the end. If life could not be free what had it to offer? The people of Jugoslavia knew too well what to expect should they fail in their struggle.
As each speaker dwelt upon the task yet to be done, and spoke of further sacrifices, it was overwhelmingly convincing how united the people were. They cheered and cheered, and were happy because of the leadership offered. The speakers had no apology to make for the stern measures which given circumstances dictated, nor would the people wish any apology. They had great confidence in their leaders, which they made definitely clear. The friendship and goodwill expressed by that meeting for the British people and their ideals of freedom and democracy was deep and sincere. As the shadows of evening fell and darkness approached the final speech was concluded.
But the city continued its celebrations throughout the night. Banqueting and dancing, song and sporadic outbursts of loud cheering dispelled all thoughts of sleep from our minds.
After a very excellent supper, served at one of the hotels, the members of the Izvrsni Obor sat in all-night session with the local committee and surveyed the whole field of municipal affairs. Provisional measures were discussed that should be made effective immediately to meet the emergency; the people's health must be considered and medical services provided; their safety and protection had become an important problem; it appeared expedient, in view of the probability of German bombing of towns, to remove a large part of the population to the villages: municipal services must be continued without interruption; commerce would have to be regulated and brought into line with supplies available, and black markets and privileges discouraged; food must be rationed and surplus stocks carefully secured; schools and instruction of the young must be organised without delay and courts of justice established. These were a few of the affairs discussed at that all-night session. It was the aim of those citizens to prevent further hardship and to begin the reconstruction of municipal life, even though the enemy still stood at the gates and might enter at any time.
To sit there and listen to those thirty-five or forty men and women earnestly discussing the public affairs of that city, seeking ways and means not only to ameliorate hardship but to organise themselves the better to meet the enemy attack which all knew to be impending, was a rare experience. One saw in that united unselfish effort and devotion to the cause of freedom the very soul of democracy. There was no thought of fear, no shirking the task, though well they knew their fate should the enemy return to their city. The quiet, determined resolve, and the faith that inspired them would reassure any weakling who, perchance, had feared that democracy had failed or could not manage its own affairs.
Although that city, after suffering long hours of aerial bombardment, was destroyed almost beyond recognition, and within three months had once again become occupied by the enemy, who would dare say that the rejoicing and the efforts of those people on that bright September day and the lives which have since paid the price, had been in vain?
But the experiences of that day spent among those citizens were not exceptional. The people of each city, town and village throughout the liberated areas of Jugoslavia rejoiced in similar manner. Huge demonstrations, endless meetings, intensive planning and activity everywhere characterised those eventful days and were expressive of the unity and courage of the people.
The people's executive in each State carried heavy responsibility. As the only responsible authority in the State, it was called upon to give lead and direction in everything. The members of those executives knew what it was to work all day and night and to go long hours without sleep. They accepted the responsibility and threw themselves into the work unflinchingly. Time was short and there was every reason to believe that the enemy would at any time, and perhaps very soon, attempt to destroy whatever they might do and to avenge his wrath upon the people. But was anything worth while in life achieved without risk and a price? The cause of freedom had survived those awful bloody days of 1941 and 1942, and now, well over half of the country was liberated; the people of Jugoslavia were united as never before and were not only ready to risk the worst the enemy could inflict upon them but were demanding that he be given no respite and that every effort be made to resist and destroy him. The people had chosen them to lead, and though the enemy had placed a high price on their heads there was not a fugitive among them. They toiled ceaselessly and gave their very best in recognition of the trust the people had placed in them.
Immediately the Izvrsni Odbor contacted committees all over the country and assisted in the conduct of local affairs. Food and relief commissions were appointed to aid in the distribution and safeguarding of food. Thousands of refugees were placed in areas where facilities were adequate to provide shelter and food. Clothing was distributed as far as it would go. Workers were sent to areas where there was a deficiency of labour. Italian mules and vehicles were given out to the farmers. Many small industries, chemical works, machine shops, sawmills, foundries and tanneries were supplied with raw materials and brought into production. But every service and department of community life likewise had to be organised: civilian hospitals and medical services, courts and police, schools and churches, to mention only a few.
Wherever one went one was impressed with the way things were being done. It was as though everybody in the new atmosphere of freedom was possessed of a deep sense of responsibility and a desire to do something. There was no waiting or holding back. People planned and worked together. Although anxious and frequently worried over the increasing shortage of food and materials, their belief in the freedom and unity of their country and firm faith that truth would point the way, sustained their hope of better days. Only such faith and hope could account for the predominating spirit of cheerfulness which we found everywhere among them.
But so many people of Slovenia were now free, and the duties of administration were becoming so extensive that elections must be held to obtain wider representation of the people in the central planum. In other words, a provisional parliament was needed to conduct the affairs of the State which would be representative of all sections of Slovenia that were so far free.
Croatia had already arrived at that point in its political life a few months before. The account of their first parliamentary session appears in one of the earlier chapters of this book. It was now for Slovenia and the other States of Jugoslavia to progress in the same way.
In Slovenia each village, town and city conducted its own election. People were free to nominate anyone of their choice, it mattered not what political party he or she belong to. It was a Freedom Front provisional parliament they were electing, and it was the common desire to see all people represented in it. Candidates were elected by secret ballot. Every man and woman over eighteen years old, and anyone serving in the army, irrespective of age, was entitled to vote.
The interest taken in the election was indicative of the spirit of the people. It was an exceptional case if one hundred per cent of the eligible votes were not cast at the polls, even in the larger cities and towns, where many persons were unavoidably absent; never did the vote fall below ninety-six per cent. In the evening, after the people themselves had counted the ballots the method always employed in their elections parades, singing and dancing were participated in by all citizens as an expression of united support to the successful candidate.
We had been invited to live with the Izvrsni Odbor in their sanctuary, where we met them on that rainly afternoon in June. Life was delightful in the wooded hills of Slovenia during the months of September and October. Fine sunny days, clear air and woods at their best. The evenings at that altitude were somewhat chill, but, gathered as we were almost every night about the bonfire, it was wonderfully pleasant.
Tida, apart from being a secretary, was first-aid expert in camp. She had won the confidence and admiration of all her patients, though we were never ill, by her skill in concocting a warming toddy each night at the fire. The health of her patients was her greatest concern. A mere call from anyone and she would be there as fast as her short legs could carry her. She made the toddy, which was always more or less a mystery, over the open fire, aided by our congenial interest. Whether the secret of her skill was to be found in the way she stoked the fire, or in a visit which she made to the hut about the same time each night, we were never certain, though the rakija (brandy) bottle in the larder seemed to require constant refilling. Whatever it contained or however it was made, the toddy never failed to "reach the spot." Toddy ready, it was passed around as melodious song resounded through the forest.
The attendance at camp was not quite constant from day to day. It was during our visit there that the elections were being held, and members of the executive would visit their constituencies at different times.
Almost every night some member would return with exciting reports of an election. In the messroom or about the bonfire we would witness the joy and satisfaction expressed as the reports were made known. Their countrymen were free to vote and were selecting men of their own choice to represent them.
On a bright, sunny morning President Vidmir quietly invited us to attend the first session of the Provisional Parliament of Slovenia, which was to open on the following day, September 30th, 1943. The elections were over and the delegates were on their way to one of the larger towns of Central Slovenia, where arrangements were being made for the great event.
In addition to the elected delegates, the staff of our camp, including the guards and details, were privileged to send one official visitor. To determine who should go the staff called a meeting and considered the matter together. They made their choice by ballot, which fell to one of the oldest couriers a democratic touch so characteristic of them, yet the more impressive because of the importance of the occasion.
We left the camp in five shiny Italian automobiles, and in thirty kilometres traversed two beautiful ranges of hills, which had nothing to show of civilisation except frequent piles of blackened rubble which marked the sites of erstwhile villages and houses. We arrived at the town a few minutes before the meeting and drove straight to the hall.
The hall, a large moving-picture house, was decorated in national colours of red, white and blue, with Allied flags prominently displayed in the front corners. Inscriptions in bold letters, reflecting the popular mind, artistically relieved the coldness of bare walls. Interpreted, they read : "Long live the Freedom Front of Jugoslavia"; "Long Live the Allies "; "Long Life Avnoj-a" (the provisional parliament of Jugoslavia); and the names of Tito, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. These were the chief among them. The boxed seats on the roomy stage were arranged in the form of a horseshoe, and a small speaker's table stood in the centre. A long table for interpreters, recorders and clerks stood at one side of the stage. A large balcony at the rear of the hall, and several ante-rooms completed the appointments of the hall.
The hall was filled to overflowing. A block of one hundred and forty seats accommodated the elected representatives from all parts of free Slovenia, who formed the planum or parliament. The other seats and all available standing room were occupied by visitors and local citizens.
Visitors had come from far and near : many of them by automobile or horse, others in good old Partisan fashion on foot. Long journeys over rough country and through forests, often delayed or pursued by the enemy, were made by men and women long since past the prime of life. They came from all parts of Jugoslavia to witness the first session of parliament in free Slovenia. An event which represented another milestone along the road to ultimate freedom.
In a large front room we met the members of the Izvrsni Odbor, and many visitors. Among the latter were Dr. Ivan Ribar, President of Avnoj-a; tv. Zecevic, a priest who later became Minister of Home Affairs in the National Committee; and tv. Dedija, from Serbia. Dr. Gregoric, Secretary of the Anti-Fascist Committee, Dr. Bakaric and tv. Opacic, from Croatia. Visitors from Carinthia, Stajerska, Gorjenjska, Gorizia and other areas of Slovenia still occupied by the enemy, were present. Tv. Bebler had once again successfully made the journey from Primorsko.
The members of the Izvrsni Odbor and a few of the guests, including ourselves, then occupied seats on the stage. As the brass band sounded the chord, everybody stood at attention, soldiers saluting, and sang the national anthem, while the standard-bearer unfurled the flag. The guard of honour then retired, leaving a single sentry, who stood on duty at the corner of the stage and was relieved each hour.
Preceded by a terrific applause, President Vidmar, in his opening speech, welcomed the delegates and paid high tribute to the spirit of the people, their unity and successful effort against the enemy. He referred to the programme of work before the session and appealed for earnest consideration in all matters.
Dr. Ribar, the popular veteran lawyer from Belgrade, when the cheering subsided, congratulated the people of Slovenia, on behalf of the Avnoj, on the opening of their first parliament. In his forceful manner he brought great encouragement to the Slovenes when he surveyed the national progress of the Freedom Front Movement. The applause was deafening when he gave out the message which he had brought from Tito.
About midnight tv. Kidric, secretary of the Izvrsni Odbor (executive committee) submitted his report on the work of the Executive, no less remarkable for its zeal and constructive reasoning than for its length. For about two hours he spoke in his fluent, easy, yet emphatic manner. Interest was held to the last, and, as he closed, the trace of weariness in his voice and the beads of perspiration upon his brow only confirmed in the minds of his listeners the strength and character of their secretary. In his shy modesty he returned to his seat, followed by the resounding cheers of the House.
Speeches filled the hours until long after midnight. Short intercessions to enable the listeners to relax gave us an opportunity to speak to many of the delegates and visitors. We visited the anterooms, which were all occupied by staff, reporters, interpreters, typists, deputies and assistants, were all working furiously trying to .keep up to the progress of the session. Last-minute touches were being given to reports still to be presented by the different executive members. Speeches were being printed for the benefit of the delegates. Resolutions were being drafted by a committee of legal experts. All that we saw was a miniature replica of that to be seen in the premises of any house of parliament. Orderliness and activity, pervaded by an air of responsibility, prevailed everywhere.
It was during the period of debate, which lasted until daylight, that we sensed how much the people of Slovenia were participating in the conduct of national affairs. The report of the record of the Executive Committee was duly and earnestly debated. Questions were raised, and not until satisfactory answers were given was a single point allowed to drop. The people held their executive accountable for everything that it had done during the preceding months which they were now examining. Interest was sharp and searching. Completely satisfied that the executive had performed a difficult task well and worthily, they endorsed their record in a tumultuous ovation. The joy, the relief and the sense of humility which filled the hearts and minds of the executive members at that moment were expressed in the words of the President when he turned to us and said, "Thank God that is done."
The enthusiastic and intense concern that each speaker contributed to the debate kept it lively, and yet good nature prevailed always. A speaker from Carinthia, a farmer, received a great welcome when he assured the house that conditions there were steadily improving and the enemy was noticeably withdrawing his forces to the larger centres. It was still very difficult, he explained, to move about, but the people were thoroughly united, and, as arms accumulated, they were hopeful of making important gains in the near future.
A young priest from Istria referred to conditions in Trst, and pleased everybody when he stated there was no local collaboration with the enemy, a fact which would enhance the prospects of ultimate unity in that area greatly.
A peasant woman from the Stajerska made such a stirring appeal for still greater effort against the enemy, declaring no sacrifice could be too great for freedom, that she drew questions concerning herself, and when it was learned that her husband, a quiet, peaceful farmer, had been brutally tortured and murdered by the Germans and three of her sons had already fallen with the Partisans and a fourth was then serving with them, it was too much for the restraint of the listeners to bear. The spirit of that woman found true affinity in their hearts. They broke into a touching tribute, and when their cheers subsided they demanded that the chairman invite her to a place of honour beside the President on the platform, whither she was escorted by two members of the Executive.
A delegation from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, then in German hands, presented a formal report on behalf of the underground organisations there. The report offered unlimited help in money, supplies and personnel, and pledged the whole city in support of the Freedom Front. Cheering was terrific.
And so we could go on depicting individual after individual who spoke during the debate that evening. Memories of the first Croatian parliament flooded our minds. Enthusiasm and joy were equally as great at this session. It was another milestone in the political life of the people of Jugoslavia. Song and spontaneous outbursts of name-spelling were frequent and thrilling. All night long interest never waned. The new Izvrsni Odbor (Executive Committee) was appointed, this time to hold office for the duration of the war, and as the first streaks of daylight appeared at the darkened windows we arose and retired to our billets to continue the debate that night.
Refreshed by several hours' sleep, we joined Dr. Ribar; tv. Dusan Sernec, ex-Minister of Interior; tv. Dedjer, tv. Vlada Zecevic, and other delegates. Between meals we contented ourselves by walking up and down the street viewing the surroundings, which we found to be very interesting.
We were in a village about two kilometres away from the main town, which we could see quite clearly. The committee whose responsibility it was to arrange billets and food had, through the local committee, detailed from eight to twelve delegates to each house, where meals were provided by women volunteers, who were supplied with the necessary meat, vegetables and bread.
The houses in that village were the large, semi-detached, two-family style, and so situated that the end of the houses faced the street, with their only entrance in the centre of the long side, at right-angles to the street. These characteristics were typically German, as the recent inhabitants of the village were pensioners of that country. They, of course, had been called home at the beginning of the war. The Partisans were most grateful for the use of so many large vacant houses at such a time as this.
At sunset we motored to the town and took our places in the hall for another all-night meeting.
From the very beginning that night the attention of the session was concentrated on solid work. Dr. Breclj, Minister of Economics, surveyed his field in a long, detailed report, which reflected the economic conditions of the country and suggested many policies which were thought to be essential to bring the country through its present difficulties. tv. Ed. Kocbek reported on the educational and cultural conditions, submitting many recommendations for debate.
When Dr. Metod Mikus arose the applause was unusually loud and long. He was the popular chaplain of the forces, who had served with the Partisans from very early days. His report on the spiritual welfare of the country was simple but reassuring. Such faith and trust in the Almighty as was evidenced everywhere throughout the Freedom Movement was the spirit that had effected unity and was leading the people on to final victory, when truth would be revealed in love and freedom.
General Ausic, as Minister for War, strengthened the hope of his hearers when he reviewed the progress of the Army in recent months. There was no longer need to fear the possibility of the Freedom Movement failing. Whilst there were yet anxious times ahead, the course of events was definitely in one direction that of final victory a free and united Jugoslavia.
Dr. Lunacek, as Minister of Health, reported a satisfactory state of health throughout the country. He advocated that greater efforts be made to care for the wounded. Facilities in that respect were being taxed to the utmost, and the shortage of medical supplies was becoming acute.
Again all night the debate continued in serious strain. Every delegate had the opportunity to present his or her problems to the session, and they made good use of it. Such problems were for the most part of a major kind and required national treatment, though nothing introduced was denied fair and just consideration. Business was conducted swiftly and in perfect order. It was a night of hard work to cover such an extensive programme. But as resolution followed resolution determination seemed to mount that nothing should be left undone. Direction to the executive made clear to that committee the will of the people as they concluded the agenda half an hour before daybreak. After Dr. Ribar and President Vidmar had spoken in closing, the national anthem was sung to the furling of the flag, and the first session of the Slovenian Provisional Parliament passed into history.
An hour of concert, song and recitation followed. A group of musicians from the Ljubljana Opera House, all in Partisan uniform, pleased everybody with their delightful singing.
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