Friday, 30 September 2016
Camp Fermo - The largest Croatian Refugee Camp in Italy - by Cristian Šprljan
The war was over. The summer of '45 was witnessing the first attempts to rebuild Europe. The winners of the war, after Yalta, had divided the world into two and those who until recently were allies, now looked at each other with suspicion. Throughout Europe, thousands of refugees and displaced persons traveled on foot, by carts, in cars or trucks.
Some were leaving, some were returning, others just wandered. In these rivers of men and women seeking their destiny, they were Croatians. Those who managed to cross the border before and had survived Bleiburg were to be found throughout Europe. The vast majority in Italy and Austria, but also had in Germany, France, Switzerland and Belgium.
In the new Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, state terror began to wreak havoc. The Partisans had total power over life and death. Anyone could be taken to the "people's courts", where the sentence was known in advance: prison, torture and death for any suspect.
But the chases and abductions were carried out not only within the boundaries of Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav government decided to export the state terror throughout Europe, where there were cells of Yugoslav spies searching for and kidnapping or killing the Croatians or making them return to Yugoslavia and eliminate them.
After Bleiburg, some Western allies had taken pity on the Croatians and, as appropriate, did not turn them to Tito’s army because they were sure of their tragic end.
When the commander in chief in the Mediterranean, Field Marshal Alexander, saw with his own eyes what happened in Austria, he began to change his policy towards the Croatian refugees.
Firstly he was more accessible to the arguments of the refugees who were interned in camps for displaced persons. On June 4, a new instruction to the British military in Austria dealing with Croatian refugees was issued.
These new rules aimed at not making compulsory repatriations following the following points:
1) No Yugoslavian will be returned to Yugoslavia or handed over to Yugoslav forces against his will.
2) All Yugoslavian who fought against Tito's will be treated as an individual who surrendered and sent to Camp Vitkring on disposal;
3) All such persons shall be considered as displaced persons and eventually moved to Italy.
With this new regulation, the situation of refugees who were under Anglo-American occupation troops improved. Those troops had to face the problem of feeding and housing hundreds of thousands of fugitives from Central and Southeast Europe. For the time being the deportations were suspended, but only temporarily.
In this way the British began to settle the issue sending Croatians to Italy. British authorities that were in Klagenfurt decided that the three thousand Croatians who were in the neighbouring city of Krumpendorf, were to be transported by train to Italy and housed almost entirely in the refugee camp that later became the most important for the Croatians: Camp Fermo.
Camp Fermo is located in the Italian province of Marche, on the east coast, with the cities of Ancona, Macerata and Ascoli Piceno being the largest in the region. The camp was on the outskirts of the city of Fermo which gave it its name.
This city was an ancient episcopal see. The construction of the houses were old and were surrounded by a wall. Most Croatians arrived on August 15, Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin. Over time more Croatians arrived from Italy and Austria.
"We were trucked from Austria to Italy. From there we were taken in freight trains across most of Italy. We looked like cattle. We were hungry, thirsty, and the children were sick. The elderly were dying. Great sadness seized us all.
When the train stopped at a train station, the soldiers did not allow people to approach us, we looked like a train full of lepers. The dirt and overcrowding meant that we all be filled with lice. Hunger was rampant among children. Survived only the most healthy and strong".
The refugee camp that had been assigned to Croatians was once a textile factory consisting of two buildings for housing and some ten warehouses for machinery and storage. In the halls to inhabit lived the British and had their offices there.
The barrack would be used for refugees. Each barrack had a capacity of between three and four hundred people. In many of the barracks were missing pieces of roof. The beds were very poor and were equipped with blankets and straw to serve as a mattress.
For each barrack a Croatian representative had to be choosen, who was called "Starješina". He was responsible for the barrack before the British and even earned a salary.
"After going through several cities and regions, we finally arrived at Camp Fermo, a real concentration camp. Were a dozen huge barracks, surrounded with very high walls that ended in electrified barbed wire. From the train station Fermo, they loaded us on trucks heavily guarded by British soldiers as if we were war criminals and taken to that prison that was Camp Fermo.
British soldiers were everywhere: at the entrance, in the booths, on the walls. Women and children were placed in a sector and men in another, separated by electrified wires. It was noon when we arrived. Each family was unloading their few belongings and gathered somewhere in these huge barracks. As it was summer time we had no trouble sleeping on the floor or on any bag or gender".
Despite the unfavorable first impression, the natural surroundings in which were and the organization within the camp was turned life in it more pleasant.
"The place where Camp Fermo was located was beautiful, surrounded by hills and far away you could see the snowy peaks of the Apennines. Nearby was a stream of clear water. The first day all the boys had their hair cut off and we are disinfected with a powder that I think was DDT. That first night was very sad.
In the darkness of the barracks, women sobbed thinking of his homeland and loved ones who were far away and may never see again. Children cried from hunger. In the other sector, men, many of them veterans, chewed their anger and powerlessness. Many cursed for having surrended to the allies rather than stay and fight in the mountains and forests of Croatia. They would prefer a thousand times to die with dignity in the fields of battle, to live in this cave of rats".
"Gradually people got organized in the camp. Those who were medical doctors began looking for a place to focus first on preventive medicine and then examine cases of varying severity, such as dysentery, anemia, or respiratory problems. Those who were teachers began to teach classes that consisted of songs, poems, all by hearth because we did not have books or notebooks. The first days as the weather was warm, we gathered in a section of the patio and there sitting on the floor, we learned to sing and recite verses in the Croatian language. "
As mentioned, the Croatian immigration after Second World War consisted of a broad social spectrum. This migration, which included professionals and illiterate, soldiers and housewives, old and young, rich and poor, etc. became one of the most characteristic facts of Fermo. The remarkable thing about this Croatian "small society" was, first, that the tragedy wiped out all social barriers.
In Camp Fermo did not matter whether one was a nobleman or a caretaker of goats; the pain for the suffered and struggle for survival was the same. Also, perhaps because that very human instinct, so wonderfully human, of building on what has been destroyed and managing to rescue a flower from the mud, the Croatians began to organize themselves according to their abilities. The doctors put together small offices, the builders constructed, women were sewing and making clothing, etc.
But they not only dedicated to rebuild bodies, houses and clothes, they also rebuilt souls. A printing shop was installed which published a magazine and even some books and the teachers organized makeshift schools for children from primary to secondary levels. With respect to culture, plays were performed as well as concerts by small Croatian folklore orchestras.
The pearl that grew out of Fermo was a choir composed of nearly two hundred voices that performed concerts throughout the region, even sang in the Vatican and from which came the chorus "Jadran" which for more than fifty years performs in Buenos Aires and carried Croatian music throughout Argentina. Even sports were performed as they practiced athletics, swimming and some even formed a football team "Nogometni Klub Croatia" who played and scored important victories against teams from Ancona.
Another group of refugees from Dalmatia and Herzegovina, devoted to more worldly pleasures. They installed a cigarette factory with the name "Macedonia", although this name had no reference to the Macedonian people. These cigarettes were sold all over central Italy, including Rome. The tobacco leaf was bought in Italy itself, then a group cut a very finite, another group put in an equipment to arm them, you cut the ends and was packaged. This action led to a major money income among the Croatians.
"What at first seemed as being hell and a cold jail, over time, it was becoming a beautiful habitat of solidarity and mutual aid. Each of the inhabitants of this area, working for the welfare of all. The social barriers collapsed as often happens in extreme situations. All were equal, there was neither rich nor poor. We were all equal. There was no distinction between professionals and illiterate, all contribute according to their capacity".
"Already at the first Christmas, in 1945, we gathered together around a large Christmas tree to pray for the repose of our dead who died for the fatherland and to give thanks to God for us being alive after five years of war. The Christmas songs were the best prayer on that cold Christmas. Snowflakes falling gently. Twas the Night of Peace".
In 1946, fate changed again. British and Yugoslavs sign an agreement to arrest and repatriate those refugees who were included in the list of "collaborators", made by the Yugoslav communist authorities. Thus, arbitrarily and without the British communicating the reason for the arrest, hundreds of Croatians were detained for being in the "blacklist." All returnees were convicted and executed.
In Camp Fermo similar situations arose. There were cases of British arriving with trucks and tanks during the night, going to the men's sector. There they tied their hands and feet, like bags of potatoes and piled them onto a truck. Only one was saved because he show a document which said that he had been exempted from military service. Also the British brought under any pretext, a large group of men, women and elderly, to other parts of Italy and then delay them in another detention centre and there took away those that were in their lists.
With all this the Croatians more than ever clung to the faith. Faith not only manifested toward religion, but also to believe in their own truth, values, traditions, in the future in the country, but mainly in returning someday. In the camp chapel that was installed in the centre of the Camp, Ante Turzan, who later emigrated to Cordoba (Argentina), painted a portrait of the Mother of God and under it the Croatian coat-of-arms, with the inscription "Advocata Croatiae Fidelissima". (Most faithful attorney for the Croats). Also were made pilgrimages to Our Lady of Loreto.
This faith was the main driving force to give life to the camp. From litter was passed to the iron and wood beds. Shoes that came from the Polish command in Ancona were refurbished for the poorest, while curtains were made with canvas to make divisions between beds and between families. In addition, the kitchen is organized for around two thousand to two thousand five hundred guests. Also they began to arrange the halls, garages and automobile service.
In the hope for a better future, the children were most privileged. School instruction was joined by religious teaching and even the formation of Boy Scouts groups.
"In the summer of '47, the teachers organized groups of Boy Scouts. The British army lend us tents. We were taught the rules of the Scouts, how to make different knots, how to pitch a tent, how to make a fire. During that summer the daughters of English Major in charge of the camp promised to bring us the sea. All the guys were crazy with joy. Each group began to organize. There were three groups of Boy Scouts: Bunnies, Cubs and Indians. My group was the Bunnies. We had an almost military discipline.
I was named standard-bearer. Our mothers along with other women, worked in the manufacture of uniforms and caps. The uniforms made them with a cloth that they dyed khaki. The handkerchiefs were made of other fabric, blue, and the triangle formed handkerchief embroidered on the back a fleur-de-lis, yellow, symbol of the Boy Scouts. The apparel caps ware made according to some cardboard molds. Our enthusiasm was so great that we would spend hours helping to cut the caps. Then our mothers sew them one by one. "
"Finally the great day came. British soldiers transport us in trucks to the shores of the Adriatic Sea, near Porto San Giorgio. They were wonderful sandy beaches. We unloaded the tents and other implements and started looking for the best place to camp. We were almost a hundred kids. By noon, all the tents were already set up.
In the afternoon we explored around the camp and then everybody to the water. At dusk we were forming in front of a flagpole where the Croatian flag was hoisted. The sun was setting on the horizon. The only sound was the sound of the waves. While two classmates slowly down our flag, Master Pedro, sang the Croatian anthem "Lijepa Naša Domovina" (Our Beautiful Homeland).
Almost in unison we all began to sing moved by an invisible energy, possibly what our elder call patriotism. One hundred children's voices rose from the beaches and were lost in the immensity of the Adriatic Sea. On the other side was Croatia. Our voices were pigeons carrying greetings to our loved ones: I was looking in my memories for dad, who stayed fighting in the forests and mountains of Croatia".
Fermo will not stop. Everyone tried to live as normally as possible while they were torn between the anxiety of other possible deportation and the hope of seeing a loved one or the arrival of money from a relative in America.
A surgeon performed more than a hundred operations, engineers improved the camp, built a swimming pool, directed the delivery of wood and other materials. Woodworking schools were outfitted as well as one school for driving cars and trucks. Meanwhile the teachers continued with schools, lawyers drafted a charter for the organization and regulation of the camp, which the British commander left entirely to them.
Were elected President and the executive committee, as well as tutors, cooks, drivers and cadets. The British commander received help from Croatian staff, secretaries and translators, both in offices and at the hospital.
In the chapel priests taught Catechism to children. There was a father, so big (he was almost two meters tall), as good, they called “Ošini po prašini”, (an old Croatian said he always repeated) was the one who performed the first baptisms of children being born at the camp, as well as first communions and even weddings.
"I received my first communion at Camp Fermo. Women who taught sewing made the white outfits, which manufactured from canvas cloth that we used to make partitions in the barracks. The parish priest went to Rome and got pictures of the Heart of Jesus and wrote the data back to the communicants.
My uncle Mičo, who lived in the barrack for men, made me my diploma reminder, embossing and molding artistically bits of can. It seemed to me a frame of pure gold. The church was full of people and we received with devotion the Blessed Sacrament".
By 1947, Camp Fermo was known throughout the area. Entertainment and religious celebrations were organized and personalities which came Fermo and Rome. Senior officials, the Archbishop of Fermo, Sicilian Cardinal Ruffini, the mayor, priests, teachers, lawyers and other persons in the area attended the celebrations, eventually becoming benefactors of the Croatians.
In just over two years, Camp Fermo became, as the Italians said, a "piccolo stato" (a small state). But the mood was still unstable. On clear days the mountains of Fermo could see the snowy peaks of the Velebit mountain in Croatia, which was revealing the nostalgia. Every so often new Croatians refugees arrived, relating more horrors about those who dared to stay in Croatia. This reopened the wounds and suffering.
Gradually the idea of emigrating became ever more present. The idea of returning to Croatia to fight was a crazy idea that many paid with their lives for trying it in small groups. Croatians realized that while they were in Europe would be safe and looked overseas countries. Many men saw their wives and children and crudely discussed the possibility of migrating to new lands with such different languages and idiosyncrasies. Finally they decided to ask for passports.
If any of them was hesitant to migrate, Tito agents roamed all over Italy and began to approach Camp Fermo. The Yugoslav spies, to win the consideration of their high command, send fanciful reports arguing that Camp Fermo was a military zone, where heavily armed Croatians conspired against Yugoslavia.
In late 1947 and early 1948, arrived to Fermo commissions mainly from Argentina, latter from the U.S., Canada and Australia, to offer the possibility to emigrate as refugees. Argentina was one of the most popular destinations, not only because her very name implied (for those who knew it) the idea of a thriving country with large reserves of food, and also many chose this location because it was neutral in the world wars: "My children will not live another war", men and women repeated in Camp Fermo.
So, little by little, Camp Fermo became gradually deserted. The Croatians started migrating around the world, leaving behind a destroyed Europe, which was hostile to them, to get on a boat and trust God for the good fortune to get a good destination.
Camp Fermo, still retains its mystique. It was a place of rather emotionally loaded situations. There it has been composed songs that spoke of the heroes of the homeland, the loss and nostalgia, that the Croatian immigration transmitted by word of mouth throughout the world.
Thousands of Croatians lived or passed through Fermo. This was a little break, if we can call truce being permanently threatened by Tito's spies, between war and the beginning of the most difficult: to start a new life in a new land ...
"Occasionally we hear about dad, who was in this or that place. All we wanted was to be with him. Some were telling us about his exploits ... others said he could be dead, but mom always hoped to see him again someday ...".