One Croatian Village's Memory Lives On, 71 Years After Nazis Destroyed It

Lipa houses

Some of the houses in Lipa destroyed during that 30 April 1944. The ruins are preserved to keep the memory of the horror of hate alive. Photo credit: Marinella Matejčić

On April 30, 1944, around 2:30 in the afternoon, the village of Lipa in Croatia 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, and they were under the command of Aurelio Piese, head of the fascist militia in Rupa, Croatia.

They stormed into the village around 3 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, so they changed tactics. They gathered everyone from the village, telling them to pack their valuables in a bundle, and ordered them sent to internment camps.

The Nazis led the people to the Kvartika's house, house number 20 at the entrance to the village, and told them to get in, after which they threw fire bombs and shot into the house. The militant group then doused the house with petrol and burned everyone locked inside. 

They murdered 269 people, of which 121 were children, aged from 7 months to 15 years. The Nazis burnt 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 who were there that day, only one man and one woman survived.

Nazis going trough victim's bundles, collecting valuables Original photographs, curtesy of Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral Rijeka

Nazis going through victim's bundles, collecting valuables. Original photographs, courtesy of Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral Rijeka, re-posted with permission.

The Nazi group's action was recorded on camera by the perpetrators, intended as boasting material for their superiors and friends, and the film was later taken to the photography workshop of Silvestar Marož in Ilirska Bistrica, Slovenia, just 17.5 kilometers from Lipa, for development. His sister made duplicates of the photographs and hid them, so they were preserved until the end of the war. When everything was over, the photographs were put in the workshop'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, which officially opened on March 8, 2015. Curator Vana Gović explains to Global Voices:

Fotografije zamišljene kao ratne trofeje mi danas koristimo za osudu tog čina. Ostvarili smo dostojanstven tretman memorijalne građe, jer ove potresne fotografije prikazuju se samo ako se pojavi osoba, koja može uspostaviti odnos prema njima. Prostor na katu je intiman, zagušenog osvjetljenja i namijenjen refleksiji, kako bi posjetitelji mogli uspostaviti odnos sa žrtvama i zločinom kojeg su pretrpjeli.

Photos conceived as war trophies we use today to condemn this act. We have achieved a dignified treatment for memorial items, as these seismic images are displayed only if there is a person who can establish a relationship with them. The room on the first floor is intimate, with dimmed lighting intended for reflection, so that visitors can establish a relationship with the victims and crimes that they have suffered.

A museum to mark that horrible day

The forerunner to today's Memorial Center was the Lipa Memorial Museum, which was first opened in 1968, while the ethnographic collection and the preserved ruins were incorporated in May 1969. The same building housed a school for preschool children, a nursery and an after-hours daycare center for children from Lipa who attended school in the remote villages of Rupa and Matulji. The museum and school was led by Danica Maljavac, a history and geography teacher, whose grandmother was one of the two survivors and who has often spoken publicly about the atrocities committed at Lipa.

The Memorial Center, located in the heart of the village, consists of a basement, ground floor, and first floor. The basement contains the ethnological collection of the region and is not yet opened, while the ground and first floors are open and tell the terrifying tale of WWII in the Western Balkans. The ground floor has a multifunctional space and a permanent exhibition on the history and life of Lipa and the whole Liburnian karst area. Besides the photographs with context, visitors can see the Slovenian documentary “The Day Lipa Died”, in which the living witnesses describe the terrible day and listen to the testimonies of informants. As the center is trying to continue the tradition of Memorial Center, the ground floor will be used as a communal room for meetings, various exhibitions, and other events.

Victims, which were later collected and burned. Original photograph, curtesy of Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral Rijeka,reposted with exclusive permission

Victims, which were later collected and burned. Original photograph, curtesy of Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral Rijeka, re-posted with exclusive permission

Gović says:

Stalna izložba u prizemlju posvećena je životu prije i nakon stradanja Lipe, jer namjera je, da svaki posjetitelj iz muzeja izađe sa spoznajom da ovaj tragičan i strašni događaj nije bio ni početak ni kraj Lipljana. Iako je teško stradanje pod nacistima obilježilo ovu zajednicu, riječ je o samo jednoj odrednici njihova identiteta. Kao i češke Lidice i francuski Oradour sur Glane, i Lipu su nacisti u potpunosti uništili i pobili svo stanovništvo koje su zatekli, no Lipa je specifična po tome što je jedina od ta tri mjesta nastavila živjeti.

The permanent exhibition on the ground floor is dedicated to life before and after the suffering of Lipa. Our intention is to make every visitor, after visiting the museum, aware that this tragic and horrible event was neither the beginning, nor the end of the Lipa people. Although the severe destruction under the Nazis marked this community, it is only one part of their identity. As the Czech Lidice and France Oradour Sur Glane, so was Lipa completely destroyed by the Nazis and everyone found killed. But Lipa is unique in one regard: it's the only place of that three that continued to live.

The first floor tells the story of the destruction, people, and hatred. When visitors climb up the stairs, there is a sound installation of the Nazi march, so-called “goose steps”, and the walls are covered with replicas of military helmets. Both the steps and the upper rooms are black, with dim light and in silence — so that every person can relate to the victims and read their story. Names of the people killed weren't put on one large collective list, in an attempt to maintain their identity. Instead, their names have been marked in little houses with individual names and addresses on it, mimicking the village that once was. The Lipa Remembers Memorial Center is a part of the City of Rijeka's Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral.

Never again

But, what were the events that preceded this horror? After the capitulation of Italy in September 1943, the area of Liburnia karst fell under fascist “Salo Republic”, which was founded by Adolf Hitler in northern Italy, for the Italian duce Benito Mussolini. However, both in the “Republic” and in the Operational zone of the Adriatic Littoral, which Lipa was part of, German Nazi troops were in charge.

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 death camps in Poland. Beginning in 1944, rival resistance movement Partisan increased the number and size of their actions in this area. Since Partisans were outnumbered by the Germans, they used hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. Attacking railways and roads, Partisan resistance troops destroyed infrastructure vital to the Nazi forces.

The Partisans were led by Josip Broz Tito, who was head of the underground Yugoslav Communist Party (KPJ), and received support from Stalin's Soviet Union. Broz was a Croatian-Slovene peasant, who after capture as an Austro-Hungarian soldier by the Russians during the Great War, had become a fanatical Communist.

While the Partisans proved elusive, the local population, however, which provided assistance and support for the Partisans, was an easy target. Because of his specific problems with the Partisans, General Kübler brought his ten units to fight against what he called the “gangs”. He ordered and encouraged killing, looting and mass reprisals against the population, which was, in the eyes of the Nazis, nothing but the logistic base for their sworn enemies, Partisans. “Terror against terror, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” were his orders.

Curator Vana Gović explains:

Nacisti su obilazili selo i nekoliko dana nakon ubojstava – njihove mete su bili svi koji su pomagali partizanima. Tijekom jednog kontrolnog posjeta su presreli starog seljana Josipa Simčića i njegovu kći,Vinku. Nakon što su ju silovali, pitali su ih tko će biti prvi obješen. Josip je rekao – ubijte nju prvu, jer će meni biti lakše gledati nju kako visi, nego ona mene. Obješeni su na raskršću između Lipe i Rupe.

The Nazis continued to visit the village several days after the killings — their target were everyone who was helping the Partisans. During one patrol, they stumbled upon old man Josip Simčić and his daughter Vinka. After raping her, the Nazis asked them who wanted to be hanged first. Josip said kill her first because it will be easier for me to watch her hang, than the other way around. They were hanged on the crossroad between Lipa and Rupa.

Kvartika's house, where nearly all of the village was murdered, is now a memorial and ossuary. The crossroad where Josip Simčić and his daughter Vinka were hangedthe crossroad mentioned earlier has a cenotaph. The whole village is preserved as a reminder for posterity that such barbarity should never happen again. Lipa remembers. So should everyone else.

Kvartika's house

Kvartika's house is now a memorial and an ossuary. Photo credit: Marinella Matejcic


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