This is Part Two of the piece by Helena Konda about the Slovenian rebel graffiti women in the second world war. (You can read Part One here.) Ljubljana experienced its first flourishing of what we would now call political graffiti and street art under the Italian fascist occupation of 1941 to 1943, when movement was restricted, a curfew was in force and acts of rebellion within the public space were mostly carried out by women.
In Part One I presented the broader social and historical context within which these women created their resistance street art. Here, I will try to show more clearly the form taken by these street interventions in practice. In so doing, I will draw on the personal testimonies of former members of the Liberation Front (Osvobodilna Fronta – abbreviated to OF) including Dr Zora Konjajev, Janez Stanovnik and Dušan Štefančič, who witnessed and were part of these activities. I have also spoken with researchers of that period and delved into the literature, the archives and recorded testimonies. And as promised last time, I will also present the moving story of the brave activist after whom my high school – Gimnazija Poljane in Ljubljana – used to be named.
Vida Janežič, Alenka Gerlovič, Ančka Cerar, Malči Belič, Majda Vrhovnik, Lidija Šentjurc, Francka Naglič, Mici Dolenc were just some of the many women and girls who became activists during the war. They were exposed to great danger and many of them were subjected to the worst violence of the occupier and its collaborators. Many were tortured, many lost their lives.
Women and girls carried out a wide variety of resistance activities, ranging from highly demanding tasks such as the planning of sabotage operations to operational ones such as courier work and the production and distribution of leaflets. Leafleting in the form of tiny flyers scattered in the streets played an important part in anti-fascist counter-propaganda. These flyers were usually created by high school students using a variety of art techniques that, ironically, they had learned in class. Political graffiti and street art was another extremely important part of it, with illegal resistance slogans appearing on walls.
Graffitiing was extremely dangerous during the Occupation, of course, but was nonetheless very widespread, carried out by both individuals and organised groups. In Ljubljana, the OF organised graffiti campaigns to raise awareness and encourage the population to revolt. In a slight modification to the system used by anti-fascists in the Primorska and Istria regions in the 1920s and 30s, whereby they banded together in secret organisations such as TIGR and Borba, the activists worked in groups of three.
In 1941 and 1942 the OF supplemented these semi-spontaneous actions with four major silent campaigns consisting of an hour-long boycott of the streets (hence the “silent” in the name) followed by street counter-propaganda, patriotic flags, fireworks, public ceremonies and illegal broadcasts from Radio Kričač (“Radio Screamer”). These campaigns were carefully timed to coincide with historical and contemporary events. The first took place on 29 October 1941, to celebrate the anniversary of the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and honour the emerging partisan resistance army, and was accompanied by graffiti across Ljubljana declaring “Long live the partisan army”. (The Supreme Command of the Slovenian Partisan Troops had been set up on 22 June 1941, the day Nazi Germany began its invasion of the Soviet Union. Its mission was to fight against the Italian fascist and German Nazi occupation. By the end of that year it had formed its first troops and battalions, as well as partisan detachments and groups of detachments.)
The second silent campaign was held on 1 December 1941, the anniversary of the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians (which soon became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), and involved the shouting or writing of slogans such as “Long live Yugoslavia”, “Long live freedom” and “Hey Slavs” (the latter being the title of a popular patriotic song that became socialist Yugoslavia’s national anthem after the war). The third was on 3 January 1942, and was dedicated to the memory of the victims of the war of liberation being waged at that time. Ljubljanans publicly commemorated those who had been killed, deported or sent to prisons or concentration camps by writing and shouting “Glory to the fallen for Slovenia”, along with the names of the fallen freedom fighters. The final silent campaign, on 2 February 1942, honoured the peasant revolts of the past, the 19th century Slovenian poet Prešeren, and the Partisans’ alliance with the Red Army. 
The success of these resistance activities inevitably met with a strong response from the occupying forces, who tightened security and introduced increasingly violent methods of control. Persecution therefore intensified, and OF members and other rebels were more and more limited in what they were able to do. Homes were raided and activists sent to prisons and concentration camps. The fascists banned skiing, cycling without a special permit, radios (which they also confiscated), long-distance phone calls, telegrams, the sale of backpacks and the manufacture and sale of heavy shoes for men. In addition, visits were carefully monitored, especially at night, and the whole of Ljubljana was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence.
Despite all these restrictions and prohibitions, a huge public event was held in Ljubljana on the evening of 30 April 1943 to mark May Day. This was how Zdenka Kidrič, one of the best-known female communists both during and after the war, described the spectacle:
“The evening before May Day, between eight and nine o’clock, women and young people took to the streets. They covered Ljubljana with slogans on walls and pavements, special plain paper flyers with ‘OF’, ‘LONG LIVE THE USSR’, and ‘LONG LIVE 1 MAY’ on them, and flags – red; blue-white-red; and white-blue-red – printed on paper slips. Young people walked through the streets, scattering fistfuls of flyers. Random people who spotted Italian patrols stopped and signalled to the young people to hide. Every wall in Ljubljana got its own slogan. The mass organisations competed to see which would decorate their street best.”
At nine o’clock that evening fires were lit on the hills of Ljubljana, rockets were fired and tiny boats made of paper and wood were floated along the Ljubljanica River carrying lanterns in national colours and the words, “Long live the First of May”. Slogans were shouted through megaphones in Tivoli Park, and a red flag and a Slovenian tricolor with star were hung from the post office. The success of these actions can be seen from the panicky reaction of the Italian army, which fired shots, set up blockades and went into hiding. According to Zdenka Kidrič, they were terrified because they thought the partisans must have invaded Ljubljana.
The moral victory after successful resistance operations often left a bitter aftertaste since the occupier took revenge on the population with ever harsher measures after each act of resistance. Thus, the streets gradually became deserted with almost no people and no traffic, as cars, cyclists and tricycles were no longer allowed to use them. The writer and politician Makso Schnuderl recorded in his wartime diary that “Almost 10,000 young men are known to be in Gonars and Treviso [concentration camps]”.
The late Dr Zora Konjajev remembered these harsh conditions, too. She was studying Medicine at the University of Ljubljana when war broke out, and immediately joined the Medical School resistance, which was highly organised. In 1942 she married Cveto Močnik, a partisan commander, but his death soon after left her a young widow and mother. Before being betrayed and forced to flee to the liberated territory with her daughter, Zora carried out a wide range of activities for the OF in Ljubljana. Like other young activists, she operated in groups of three, usually alongside two of her friends, Majda Vrhovnik, Nada Starkl or Sonja Gomzi. Sometimes it even became a family undertaking, since Zora’s sisters took part in the graffiti campaigns and their parents, who also worked for the resistance, acted as their guards.(11)
She had also become friends with Janez Stanovnik, who later became a politician and talked about his wartime graffiti work in various media interviews. He said his task had been to write “SRS” on walls, short for Slovenian Revolutionary Socialists, and added, “… you know, the way [the group operations] worked was for a boy and a girl to hug and kiss against a wall while the boy wrote ‘OF’ on the wall behind her back.” Zora also confirmed to me with a smile that the Italians had had a soft spot for love, so the loving couple disguise was very effective. Not everything was so easy, however. As an example, she was part of a group that had been tasked with cutting off some local girls’ hair to punish them for dating Italian soldiers. Zora and the other activists in her group did not do this, though, preferring to devote themselves to street counter-propaganda and other more daring tasks.
Activists mostly used dark red anti-corrosive minium pigment (“red lead”) for their wall-writing. They poured it into an empty can, to which they attached a wire that functioned as a handle, and then applied it to the wall with a brush. Other methods included scratching or chalking the inscriptions onto the surfaces, or even the use of acid, as in one famous operation in which activists used acid to write the letters “OF” on several glass surfaces in Ljubljana. One original wartime window marked in this way can be found in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia.
Activists, even minors, were severely punished for creating anti-fascist graffiti. Davorin Jeršek lists a few examples in his comprehensive article on Ljubljana’s silent campaigns. For example, a minor who had written an OF slogan on a wall in Celovška ulica on 30 November 1941 was sentenced to “only 2 years and 2 months in prison” due to his young age. If caught with flyers on them, however, they were sentenced to anything up to eight years in prison. Inscriptions on the walls of prison cells where activists served their sentences or even spent their final hours constitute a distinct category of wartime graffiti. One such prisoner was Vida Janežič, the heroine after whom my high school was named after the war.
“Ančka, an obvious recent returnee from the torture chamber, was measured from head to toe by a long look from an unknown, exhausted girl who said slowly, ‘You know, we are the foundation on which a new world will be built!’ This was Vida Janežič. She was still young and she did not want to die.”
This was how the OF activist Alenka Gerlovič described her friend Vida Janežič in what were probably the most difficult moments of her life. Vida’s final days were full of beatings, torture and forced medical treatment followed by yet more torture. “The police realised they would not be able to squeeze a confession out of her exhausted and agonised body, so they had to get rid of her. Most likely she was poisoned and later hanged. On the wall of her cell an inscription in French remained: ‘Freedom will come, but I will be gone!’”
The words of wartime prisoners engraved or even written in their own blood on cell walls are a truly shocking chronicle of that time. One such example was carved into a prison wall by the 18-year-old Francka Naglič, also known as Marica Naglič, and can be found in Collection of Photographs from the National Liberation War (Zbornik fotografij iz NOB): “I am alone, sentenced to death. Where is my sweet home, my dear mother?” Her words suggest she was running out of hope, but they are followed by a reversal: “Pardoned 1944.” Marica did not survive the war, however. After her pardon she was taken to a German concentration camp, from which she managed to escape to the partisans, but she and her fellow activist Mica Dolenc were captured and killed by the Home Guard, the Nazis’ Slovenian collaborators, shortly before the end of the war. A memorial stone has been erected to the two young women in the village of Vovše, where they were shot.
The daring graffiti stories from the time of the fascist occupation of Ljubljana also include a few lighter moments, however. The student Dušan Štefančič, for example, was betrayed and landed in a concentration camp at the age of 16, but described his experience of activism as the most amazing adventure. Then there was his friend, who escaped capture by wriggling out of his jacket and leaving it in the soldiers’ hands. “Our” Vida Janežič also proved to be an excellent improviser. She used a number of false names – Lučka, Vilma and Vanda. She and the activist August Jug, who had worked together on numerous tasks for the resistance, used their impressive acting skills to convince their interrogators that they did not know each other, and were both released without the authorities realising they were wanted OF activists.
Due to the general poverty in the city at the time, Ljubljana became known amongst its residents as Poorville (Revnograd) and the black market was very active right up to 1945. Activists had to be extremely resourceful because it was difficult to get the proper equipment for graffiti operations. The OF activist Alenka Gerlovič recalls in her writings that in the autumn of 1943, about a year before Vida’s untimely death, she and Vida Janežič used a garden sprayer full of dark liquid to write “OF” and “Tito” across a whole street near Tivoli Park and the Union brewery. Unfortunately, the first snow fell shortly afterwards, covering their diligent efforts. In short, although the times were as dangerous as they could possibly be, they did also have their amusing moments.
OF political graffiti and street art was an extremely important and highly recognisable symbol of the uprising against fascism and Nazism, and carried a strong message that reshaped many people’s thinking and behaviour. Its significance can perhaps be best understood through the words of Oton Župančič in his unfinished poem, Ljubljana, zajeta v žico bodočo (Ljubljana, encased in barbed wire). He describes the abbreviation “OF” as a kind of chemical formula that could be found everywhere – in every street, on every building and in the hearts of all the people of the city. Each time it was erased, it reappeared. And it was in this perseverance, this repetition that persisted right up to the final liberation, that the power of the Liberation Front (OF) lay. May it live for ever in our memory, just like the poem by Oton Župančič, a translation of which I have included below.
Ljubljana is encased in barbed wire –
In the mountains is salvation from death and captivity –
Only in the mountains is there freedom.
Behold on every street corner, written in chalk,
The new chemical formula, the new word: OF!
And they scratch and paint the letters out but
Again they appear … and the bullets burst forth
In the bright daylight of the streets.
And on the first of May the streets are red
With stars and flags, flowers and joy –
And with the blood that has been shed.
The traitor falls suddenly –
What is this OF? Is it an underground government?
OF, OF, OF!
OF unites us, OF defends us –
OF makes friends of strangers –
OF is the loyalty between us.
OF is inscribed on our hearts, on our eyes,
And in our land behind the barbed wire
It makes our souls as free as in the mountains!
Text by Helena Konda
You can read Part One here.
Cover photo by Edi Šelhaus featuring a member of the League of Socialist Youth (Zveza socialistične mladine) painting a slogan in the village of Osilnica in the liberated territories before the 2nd Congress of the League of Socialist Youth, 1945. Courtesy of the National Museum of Contemporary History, Ljubljana (MNZS).
Translation by Gregor Bulc
GraFEM project is run by Urbana Vrana Institute in co-production with RogLab.