How My Father's Dachau Story Influenced the Way I Grew Up
I am a daughter of the Dachau internee Jože Nastran. My story is perhaps similar to the stories of many other children whose fathers have survived a concentration camp. My story's key characteristic is that my father has never spoken about Dachau. Yet Dachau has ominously hung over our family’s memory. It was only a few months ago that my father told me his Dachau story. He is still alive today, and in good condition.
My father comes from a big and wealthy peasant family with 12 children. He was the oldest son. He was born in 1918, just at the end of the First World War. His father sent all his children to schools and to study. In 1941 when the Nazi and fascist occupation of former Yugoslavia began, my father was a soldier in the old Yugoslav army in Zagreb. After being wounded he was released from the army. When he was returning home, the Italians were already penetrating his home region which in the first weeks of the occupation was occupied by the Italians, followed by the Germans.
In 1941 he lived at home for several months and then the first partisans appeared at the homestead. Due to its position in the hills the homestead was a perfect place for the partisans’ illegal meetings. Having a liberal orientation the whole family sympathised with the resistance movement. When the first wounded partisan was brought to their house, my father was so impressed that he decided to join the partisan resistance movement. He was 23 years old. His mother had asked him to keep his departure quiet to protect the family from being deported. At the same time their closest neighbour's family had been deported. So my father decided that he should first apply for a job. He applied at the labour office and, holding a degree from a trade academy, obtained a position as a trade assistant in Klagenfurt in 1942.
There were 12 Slovenians in his working collective. Towards the end of 1942 a colleague reported him to the boss saying that he had been propagating resistance movement ideas amongst his colleagues. It was true that the partisans had given him the task of spreading ideas of the resistance. The boss reported him to the Gestapo and in 1943 he was arrested and sent to a prison in Klagenfurt. After a month of being tortured there, he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp in February 1943. He was brought to Dachau in mid-winter. He was sent to the new arrivals' block where the new prisoners were selected and transported further forward. The block for the new arrivals was used to select people for transport, for various types of work, including outside the camp. Seemingly, by being chosen to work outside you had more chances to save yourself and survive so the prisoners liked to volunteer for transport. My father told me that the old prisoners who went past the new arrivals’ block gave them advice on how to behave so as to survive, telling them they should not volunteer for any transport.
My father was initially assigned to work at a plantation next to the camp. He worked there until late autumn 1943. Then for some time there was a danger that he would be put on a transport. Luckily, he received work in the sewing room where cloth was cut and tailored and where Russians and Ukrainians mostly worked. In 1945 they ran out of cloth and the tailors' room was closed. Those who remained in the sewing room made tent-walls until the camp was liberated.
Everyday life in the camp, as my father told me, was mainly characterised by food-related activities: looking for food, the distribution of food and thinking about food. My father says that the Dachau experience taught him moderation and self-discipline, lessons he has retained through to today. Moderation and self-discipline in eating were very important right up to the very moment of the camp's liberation. Unfortunately, by the time the Americans came only those who could force on themselves a degree of self-discipline in the transition to normal nutrition remained alive.
Moderation, tolerance and self-discipline were the virtues my father was trying to teach us, his three children, throughout our childhood. I remember that my father later occupied quite important social positions in the local environment; for example, he was the director of a trade company and the mayor of the municipality. Yet he was always careful to ensure that the three of us children would not experience this as a privilege. He was proud of the fact that his salary was the same as his driver's and he also expected more self-responsibility and laboriousness from us than was usual in those times. I think my father's message to me since my earliest childhood has been that life is a gift I have to earn.
In my father's opinion, there was great solidarity and mutual help among the Slovenians in Dachau, and that is why many Slovenians survived. One form of mutual help was the sharing of food which their families sent in packages. Another form of mutual help was the sharing of hope. Besides food, hope was the most important survival impulse. Those who had the will survived. Those who gave up died.
My father also believes that the Slovenian communists also played a very important role in Dachau by maintaining the will to live and to survive, as well as an ethical and moral stand. There were few Slovenians in Dachau up until 1943. However, after Italy's capitulation many new prisoners were brought to Dachau, including several intellectuals from Ljubljana, of whom many were pre-war communists. Since they were made to work in the offices in the camp they had access to certain information. They were all very well educated, exceptional personalities with a high moral attitude. After the war many were convicted during the infamous Dachau processes in Slovenia.
These are the specific facts which I learned from my father only a few months ago. I am his oldest child, born in 1947. My parents met during voluntary work in Yugoslav shock brigades just after the war ended. In the time my father had been in the Dachau camp, my mother has been a young partisan. When the war started she was just 15 and yet she joined the resistance movement. In 1943, roughly at the same time as my father was sent to Dachau, my mother joined the partisans. Although I did not know my father's story until this year, I certainly heard a lot about the partisans throughout my childhood. Partisanship was celebrated at school, we were taught about all the great battles on Yugoslav territory. But we heard nothing about the camps. My mother used to speak about partisanship with an ambivalent attitude. As a young girl full of ideals, towards the end of the war she also experienced the beginnings of the fight for power, pressures and little acts of corruption in the partisan lines, which disappointed her. That is why she was more realistic regarding the events and development of Yugoslav socialism after the war. My father, on the other hand, was and remains a big idealist.
I remember everyday conversations among adults, my relatives in my earliest childhood, and how they spoke about the injustice made to my father and other prisoners because their role during the war was unrecognised. While the partisans had many privileges in employment, housing, health care, the use of free holiday homes, bonuses in their retirement the prisoners received nothing like that. I also remember that my father always refused to take part in these conversations and never expressed the feeling that he had been wronged.
Today I think that the miracle of survival was so great for him that everything else related to this seemed relatively unimportant to him. For him someone’s main virtue was their personal integrity, honesty and joy of life, and that is what he is like even today in his nineties. With his personal dignity and broadness he had an extremely powerful influence on us, especially me, his oldest daughter. In fact, he never treated us like children, always as equal partners in discussions. That is why conversations with him were always very mature and serious. Very early on he introduced us to the world of knowledge and books.
My early childhood memories also include vague recollections of private conversations amongst adults about the Dachau processes. These were conversations about secret things one was not allowed to talk about and yet they evoked fear and dislike. Immediately after the war, my father was appointed Municipal Secretary in the northeast of Slovenia, where there was a complicated political situation at the time. This was the only region in the then Yugoslavia where those who had advocated retaining the kingdom and the old social system had won the elections. Of course, this was an outrageous scandal for the new political rulers. As Municipal Secretary, first and foremost my father had to carry out the Party's orders, regardless of the consequences. He viewed his task as some sort of trial of faith which would help him avoid the suspicions of the authorities which had then burdened all former prisoners, particularly those who had worked in more exposed positions. Eventually, when he was supposed to carry out some explicitly irrational and violent measures, so he stood up against this and lost his job. Being unemployed he was forced to move with his wife and two small children to a tiny room along with his wife's parents.
I remember that, long after the Dachau processes had ended, my father was nominated for Mayor and during this time he received an anonymous letter saying it was suspicious that he had emerged alive from Dachau and that such a person was unsuitable for the position of Mayor. In spite of all of these events he was an extremely loyal worker throughout his life. He is a capable, well educated man and has carried out every job with all responsibility. He passed on this »excessive« loyalty to us, his children. It seems this is the heritage which we have received as the second generation, at least in our family.
I recall that only once in my childhood was I faced with his Dachau. We had to write an essay at school about our parents' memories of the war. I nagged my father to tell me his story. Without saying a word he took me by the hand. We went to the attic, he opened an old suitcase and pulled out a striped uniform and a big photograph of a pile of skeletons. Since then, for me Dachau has been a metaphor for death, and surviving.
Mirjana Nastran Ule