The History of Peršman’s family
The anti-fascist resistance in Carinthia was the most important and effective struggle against the Nazi regime inside the 3rd Reich’s borders. The Nazi policy towards Carinthian Slovenes consisted of repression, persecution, deportation, expropriation and gradual prohibition of Slovene language in public life. Only in this context, the resistance of the Slovene or the bilingual population, and the Carinthian partisans can be fully understood.
This Nazi policy however is not some sort of extraordinary occurrence in Carinthia. The Nazi regime, in its quest to exterminate Slovene language, was able to employ already existing organisations and political practices. Even after the Second World War the policy of denying the rights of the minority written in the Austrian constitution continued. The discrimination against Carinthian Slovenes can be felt all up to the 21st century and the history of Peršman memorial is just one of the examples thereof.
The massacre of the Peršman’s family
On the 25th of April 1945, a few days before the end of the war, the Pešman homestead - an important base of the partisan resistance – turned into a scene of one of the last war crimes committed on the Carinthian soil. After a battle with the partisans located there, members of the 4th company 1st battalion SS and police regiment 13 murdered four adults and seven children, members of Sadovnik and Kogoj families, which lived in the at the farm. Three of the children, some of them seriously wounded, managed to survive the massacre. “On that day we were transporting manure”, Ana Sadovnik, one of the surviving children, later described the events to the investigative judge. Her testimony, given on the 31st of May, 1946 continues: “Two policemen appeared in the kitchen of which one shot at me and Bogomir, that was sitting in my lap. The second policeman stated that he does not want to shoot at children and so he did not. […] The policemen left the kitchen, commenting that “everyone in here is already dead””. The homestead, one of the biggest farms in the area, together with its auxiliary building was left in flames and burned almost completely.
Only three children present survived the massacre: two daughters of the family - Ana and Amalija Sadovnik – were shot and assumed dead. Both were seriously wounded. The farmer’s nephew, Ciril Sadovnik, was able to hide. He was therefore the only one who was not wounded. The oldest son, Luka Sadovnik, luckily was not at home that day.
Murdered on the 25th of April 1945:
Franciska Sadovnik (maiden name Dlopst), born 26. 1. 1868, farmer
Luka Sadovnik, born 6. 10. 1906, farmer
Ana Sadovnik (maiden name Haberc), born 15. 6. 1909, farmer
Franciska Sadovnik , born 4. 2. 1932, daughter
Viktor Sadovnik, born 4. 4. 1941, son
Bogomir Sadovnik, born 4. 8. 1944, son
Katarina Sadovnik, born 25. 4. 1901, farmer’s sister
Albina Sadovnik, born 11. 2. 1938, niece
Filip Sadovnik, born 20. 5. 1940, nephew
Stanislav Kogoj, born 13. 11. 1935, nephew
Adelgunda Kogoj, born 28. 1. 1942, niece
Disfigured and partly burned corpses of the victims were buried on the 30th of April 1945 at a cemetery in Bad Eisenkappel|Želežna Kapla.
Judicial inquiry – Between law and justice
Between the years 1946 and 1949, the crime that happened at Peršman’s was a subject of an extensive judicial inquiry at the People’s court Graz|Gradec. Multiple suspected members of SS and police regiment 13 were jailed and the surviving children unanimously testified that the murders were carried out by the “policemen”.
In front of the investigative judge, the suspects – most of them citizens of the German Reich – all partially confessed. Two of the men admitted, that a higher-up ordered them to shoot. Despite this however, the trial was stopped in 1949.
These events resulted – depending on political orientation – to various conclusions. On one hand, the political right maintained that the men are innocent and that the murders were actually carried out by “tito-partisans”, that wanted to take revenge on the family. Carinthian Slovenes, on the other, assumed – based on the tendencies of court’s practice during 1948/49 completely justifiably – that the Austrian judiciary system once again decided in favour of ex-Nazis.
Neither of the conclusions is however true.
The discovery of the original court documents in 2004 enabled a reconstruction based on a firm source. The partial confessions of the men could have led to a conviction of a war crime and a small circle of SS and police force members was undoubtedly identified as potential perpetrators. Despite the fact that the political situation during 1948/49 did not particularly support persecution of war criminals, the court appears to have handled the case exemplary. The dismissal of the case was not a scandal. As it turns out, the actual issue arose from a principle of the legal system, namely “In dubio pro reo” – (when) in doubt, for the accused. In order to reach a conviction, the court would have had to prove the guilt of individuals, which was impossible due to mutal acussations of the suspects. The suspects were lawfully free, but the bitter taste of injustice remains.
The history of the location
Upon reaching adulthood, the oldest son of Sadovnik family, Luka Sadovnik, took over the farm of his parents and, with the help of neighbours, built a new residential building and outbuilding. In the 60’s, the farm was bought by a Slovene Carinthian rifel maker, who garenteed a liftime residental right to Ana Sadovnik. The farm began to transform into a memorial in year 1965, when a plaque, dedicated to the victims, was placed on the residential building and ceremonially presented on 25th of April, 1965. The commemorational 20th anneversery of the massacre was marked by personal memories of the family and of the days before the crime happened. The next commemoration only ten years later, in June 1975. It took till the begining of the 80’s for the commemorations to take place regularly. In 1981, the Association of Carinthian partisans rented the residential building at Peršman’s and swore to turn the place into a museum. After the renovation of the house, the museum and its permanent exhibition were officially open on the 25th of April, 1982. The exhibition, designed by Marjan Sturm and Peter Wieser, was dedicated to the history of Carinthian Slovenes and the antifascist resistance of the Carinthian partisans, and was the first of its kind in Carinthia. After the opening of the museum, Ana Sadovnik and her children continued to live in the same house. In fact, she shared a roof with the museum until 2002. Thereafter she moved to Bad Eisenkappel|Železna Kapla, where she passed away in the winter of 2012.
After the monument, which was blown up in 1953 in Völkermarkt|Velikovec, was rebuilt at Peršman's in August 1983, the place became a central memorial for Carinthian Slovenes. Since then, a large commemoration takes place there every last Sunday of June, which is visited by people from Austria and elsewhere. Peršman's homestead is however not only a place of remembrance, but a place of critical thinking as well – a perspective which was again underlined with the expansion and modernisation of the museum. Its new look was officially presented on 24th of June 2012, at the 30th anniversary of its existence.
The partisan monument in front of the museum
One of the central elements of the Peršman memorial is a antifascist resistance memorial, which is standing in front of the museum. The monument was built on 14th August 1983, one year after the museum opened its doors. Originally, it was built at a cemetery in St. Ruprecht|Šentrupert near Völkermarkt|Velikovec as the first partisan monument in Austria, but was blown up in 1953. The perpetrators were never found. Despite the endeavours of the Association of Carinthian partisans, Republic of Austria never rebuilt the monument in its original form, although it was, according to the constitution, required to do so.
When in year 1983 pieces of the destroyed monument were found in some warehouse, the Association of Carinthian partisans decided to restore it at Peršman’s – as a symbol for the spiteful relation of the majority population of Carinthia towards the minority.
The bilingual sign now no longer speaks of the victory over fascism, but rather about the eventful history of the monument:
“In memory of the partisans that fell at Saualpe|Svinška mountain – members of eight diffirent nationalities – the Carinthian partisans, in the presence of representatives of the allied forces, opened this monument in year 1947 in St. Ruprecht|Šentrupert near Völkermarkt|Velikovec. The monument is a symbol of Carinthian and international struggle against Nazism. Unknown perpetrators blew this monument up in the night from 10th to 11th September, 1953. The Austrian government did not restore it in its former state and therefore the Association of Carinthian partisans did, and placed it here in 1983.”