Franja Partisan Hospital - A Hidden Gem of Europe

Story Natural
Milojka Magajne

The makeshift partisan hospital, built during the World War II in a remote gorge in the Cerkno region in western Slovenia, tells the story of courage, humanity and solidarity. Its heroes are ordinary people who left the safe havens of their homes to fight for peace and freedom. Their victims and suffering are the building blocks of today’s connected and democratic Europe. The Franja Hospital is now a place of memory carrying a significant symbolic value and encouraging the awareness of the importance of tolerant coexistence, reciprocal understanding and peaceful collaboration among European nations. “A hidden gem in Slovenia” was the comment of a visitor from the Czech Republic.

In April 1941, Slovenia was occupied and divided between the invaders. Partisan resistance, together with an extremely well-organised medical service, was quick to form. Taking care of the safety of the wounded, Slovenian partisan doctors decided to build hidden hospitals in forests, hard-to-reach gorges and underground caves, as the enemy army disregarded the agreements of the Geneva Convention aimed at protecting the wounded during times of war. The secrecy regarding their location was therefore a main priority in every hospital. From 1942 to 1945, there were around 120 hospitals active in Slovenia, giving shelter to more than 15,000 wounded and sick people of various nationalities who were fighting against Fascism and Nazism. Their existence and work were hugely dependent on the support of local inhabitants who helped transport and carry the wounded, organised undisturbed supply of food, medicine and sanitation, and protected the secret of their locations even at the price of their own security. The existence and work of the Franja Partisan Hospital were also heavily reliant on the support of the locals. During the war, people were forced to make very difficult decisions. One of those was undoubtedly made in the fall of 1943 by Janez Peternelj of Dolenji Novaki near Cerkno, who chose to give shelter to a larger number of wounded partisans and their carers, risking the safety of his family. Upon his advice, the hospital of the near-by Pasice gorge started taking shape soon after. Until the end of the war, his farm remained the main communication point of the hospital, through which all the necessary material as well as the patients were transported to Franja. The entire family was involved in the activities. In March 1945, German soldiers burnt down the house; they also threatened the family but finally chose to let them live. Led by Dr Viktor Volčjak, the first hospital cabin was built in December 1943. In January 1944, Dr Franja Bojc was appointed doctor and hospital manager, giving her name to the hospital already during the war. Dr Bojc was charged with a task that was far from easy. On the one hand, there was war and constant danger, on the other, she was a woman. Gender equality as we know it today was still a long way away. In her autobiography entitled No Endless Roads Exist; Letters to my Son (Ni neskončnih poti. Pisma sinu. Ljubljana 1984), she wrote: “My dear son, if you wish to have good standing and reputation with people, you must gain them yourself, with your behaviour and your work. They cannot be gifted, and no authority can grant them to you with a decree. They can appoint you to a high position, they can award you shiny medals, but they cannot give you good repute. Nor can they take it away. They can take away your freedom, they can even take away your life; but your repute and your standing are yours even after you die – if you had them.” Between December 1943 and May 1945, 14 wooden cabins of various sizes and for various purposes were built in the gorge, whereby all the necessary material was transported to the location on human shoulders. In addition to cabins that housed the injured and the staff, other facilities included a surgery cabin, an X-ray unit, a kitchen, a laundry and washroom, as well as an invalid care facility. They even had their own electric plant. Around 600 wounded and sick patients of various nationalities were treated in Franja; apart from Slovenians, the majority was from Italy and the former Soviet Union, but there were also patients from Croatia, Serbia, France, Austria, Poland, and the United States. The staff included people of other nationalities, as well: for a time, a Jewish doctor from Serbia, Vladislav Klein, worked at the hospital; one of the external wards was led by the Italian doctor Antonio Ciccarelli. Guards included two Croatians, Danilo Nakarada and Peter Sertić, and two Serbs, Milojko Roljević and Nikola Radojčić. After recovery, a former German soldier, Austrian Alois Trummel joined the staff as a shoemaker. Another difficult task was to feed all the patients and the staff – from 100 to 150 people. At first, food and medicine were supplied by the local inhabitants; later, a special service was organised. In the spring of 1944, allied aircraft started dropping aid in the Cerkno region. Much effort was put into keeping the location a secret. The main access to the hospital was a trail along the stream flowing through the gorge. In addition, the wounded were transported during the night and blindfolded so they could not disclose the location of the hospital after their recovery. Several defence bunkers and shelters for the wounded were built. Although enemies came to its immediate vicinity twice, they never detected the hospital. The hospital in the gorge was intended for those with serious wounds; others were treated on external wards that were not maintained after the war. At the gorge entrance, there was a cemetery, but security measures prevented the graves from being visibly marked. The majority of the deceased was buried shortly after the war in a common tomb at the Cerkno graveyard. The last grave was discovered only a few years ago by accident. Together with the remains, a phial was found containing the identification sheet with the data on the young, not even 18-year-old partisan Vili who could not be saved by the surgeon Franci Derganc. This was how they identified the 78 deceased during the war. Considering the conditions in which the hospital operated, treatment was relatively successful. As there were no educated nurses, they were trained on the way, during work and on courses. At the beginning, medicine was in shortage, especially antibiotics, and anaesthetics for surgeries. However, the hospital later acquired an X-ray machine which was a rarity for partisan hospitals. Along with medical treatment, the staff also focused on entertainment as they were aware that fear and despondency posed great threat to successful recovery. With that in mind, they set up a choir that performed on many internal events. The hospital also published an internal newsletter called The Hospital Bulletin (Bolniški list). For a year and a half, from 23 December 1943 to 5 May 1945, the Pasice gorge hospital provided shelter to the wounded and sick fighters for freedom and individual civilians. In 1946, it was turned into a museum. Thus came to life a wish written down by Dr Franc Podkoritnik – Očka who spent a short time working in Franja during the war: “Even when the war is over, this station must be preserved as a visible proof that shows all future generations what the love of freedom can do.”

European Dimension

During the raging war when life had no great value, the hospital staff adhered to a high ethical code. The Franja Partisan Hospital is a remarkable example of medical treatment in extreme circumstances and a symbol of humanity, solidarity, and camaraderie among the locals, the hospital staff, and the wounded soldiers of various nationalities who fought against Fascism and Nazism during World War II. Due to the important role it played in Europe’s history and culture, the European Commission awarded the Hospital with the European Heritage Label. The Hospital is a monument speaking to visitors of all generations and nationalities as it encourages the awareness of the importance of tolerant coexistence, reciprocal understanding and peaceful collaboration among European nations that wish to preserve and develop their own as well as their shared identity. In the book of impressions, two Italian visitors wrote that coming to Franja is “a strong experience that takes us back to the roots of all Europe”.