© Manca Juvan

As a preteen, Albina Vogrin was deported to a fascist concentration camp with her family. They first stayed in a tent on the island of Rab, and later they were transferred to barracks in Gonars. Their transfer to the concentration camp in Gonars and the subsequent move into barracks at first provided a source of happiness for them in those desperate times of cold gripping terror, weakness and starvation.

I arrived to find a lively and spirited 83-year old woman who was patiently awaiting my first question to help awaken those distant memories for our face-to-face interview.
Historically her words are all that is left from her internment - an internment as lived by a 12-year old girl. There are no photographs, no personal items, no institutionalized collective memory of the Italian fascist concentration camps.
We began with her forced separation from her roots.

Like other families in occupied Slovenia, Albina's eight member family was violently forced out of their home. They ran into the nearby hills, taking almost nothing of their possessions. What they saw when glancing back was a fiercely burning fire where their house and their village once stood. "Seeing our house in flames hit me badly."
Only after the war was over, when Ms. Vogrin was invited to a bonfire, did she realize how deeply she had been wounded: "Seeing the fire I collapsed and ran away. After witnessing our home on fire, I wasn't able to stand the sight of fire for decades." 
Ms. Vogrin’s flow of memories brought her back to August 1942, when, for a short period of time, Italian soldiers had captured the whole family. They fetched the villagers and gathered all the men in a line, among them was her father. That was the last time the 12-year old homeless girl saw him. "There was a man pointing at three of villagers. He didn't speak Italian. He just said: "Partizans. Beng. Beng." Only after the war did she discover that her father was buried in a mass grave that he and the other hostages had to dig before being shot.

As I was listening to the witness's subjective testimony, I became aware that her word was the sole source of the interview's authenticity. And I felt that was appropriate at the first stage of oral history, which attempts to preserve memories that are at risk of loss. What follows is a very careful crafting of those memories, sensitively extrapolating the fragments of Ms. Vogrin internment experiences.


Memories of internment on Rab


Upon arrival at Rab concentration camp, Ms. Vogrin's family was housed in a weathered tent. She shared the stretched canvas shelter, made to accommodate maximum of four people, with eight others of her family: her eighty year old grandmother, her mother, two sisters, two brothers, her aunt and a cousin. Their tent was just one among hundreds of tents located within the concentration camp whose borders were marked with multiple rows of barbed wire. From the watchtowers, hostile armed guards maintained a vigilant watch. "We arrived on August ninth. It was hot. They didn't give us water. We got a little food. We could all fit into our tent only if we were lying down, one next to the other. It was horrible! And we were always hungry. I know that at that time I was always very, very hungry."

Immediately upon their arrival lice with their piercing mouthparts infested their bodies and feed on their skin. Her mother couldn't hide Albina when the military introduced haircutting as a measure to reduce the parasitic insects. She lost her long braid while the lice stayed. "They gave me the cut braid back. I didn't need it. I was terribly hurt. I was bold. It was hot … I was thirsty … hungry," Ms. Vogrin was re-experiencing her internment.

Occasionally the Italian military provided a reservoir of water, she told. "People crowded around. They were fighting, instead of each person waiting to get some water. Half of the water was spilled." Death soon flooded Ms. Vogrin's memories. It wasn't long after their arrival that people began dying. 
She discovered that death at a concentration camp arrives unnoticed. 
"I heard women's lament and looked into the tent close to ours. Three boys were lying in the tent, covered in lice. Their mother had died earlier and no one gave them food or checked up on them. Couldn’t anyone have taken a look into their tent?" Ms. Vogrin asked rhetorically.

"Many family members died only because they fought over food. They were screaming: 'You've got more. No, you've got more'," is what Ms. Vogrin recalled from her early teenage memories. Under their tent, they always took care that the little brother was fed. "We counted the macaroni we've got in a watery soup and shared them equally. That's why we survived."

One night a sudden wild storm developed over the island. "We didn't know how bad it would be. Suddenly water had run up over our sleeping bodies. We jumped up and rushed towards an exit situated at the highest point of the camp. The guards didn't let us stay out. They chase us back." Ms. Vogrin was speaking faster, her gaze focused on her fingers. The waters took people away. Some drowned; others were knocked over by the streams. "It was horrible. I remember the screams. I remember the cries. Children’s cries. Children were screaming." 
She said that the event was so shocking that later anyone could describe what happened that stormy night. 
"In my family we were all crying after two small bread squares that were swept away by the sea." She extended her arm and opened her palm to show the size of the bread. With a finger of her other hand she drew a square covering nearly half of her small open hand.


Fighting illnesses in Gonars


In December 1942 all members of the family were transferred from Croatia to Italy, to the concentration camp Gonars. "Regarding illnesses, we were not in such bad shape at Rab. The worse began in Gonars," Ms. Vogrin continued her story of the heavy past that was becoming more and more palpable.

"My grandmother died on May first, 1943. Then my mother got ill. She couldn't move her hands. My cousin got typhoid." That's how Ms. Vogrin began remembering Gonars. Next surfaced a memory of her mother putting together money to buy a kilo of onions. "I jumped on a largest one and ate it. I got a horrible diarrhea." Her mom brought her to the clinic. "I couldn't walk. I was just observing how they moved us from bed to bed. I've noticed that the helplessly ill were in bed closest to the door." The agony began when Ms. Vogrin saw that they covered the face of someone lying next to that door. "She was dead," she said. It was her understanding, death was waiting for the person in that last bed next to the door. Ms. Vogrin was three beds away. "I didn't want to reach that bed. I throw myself on the floor, grabbed the legs of an iron bed, and began pulling. That way I dragged myself to the toilet. I gained such a strong willpower."

"I've pulled myself out of the worst," said Ms. Vogrin and alleviated the heaviness of the past. 
With the capitulation of Italy, the door of the concentration camp in the Northern Italian city of Gonars opened, setting them free. It took them a month to reach the West of Slovenia where once their family home stood.  That journey is a story another on its own.
Although they survived the fascist internment, now they didn't have a home to return to. Ms. Vogrin was then 13-years old and weighted only 21 kilos. Her mother weighted 35 kilos, she remembered. World War II was still raging. Her mother began a new life by walking enormous distances, begging for food from village to village. They had made it to freedom.




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