© Manca Juvan

Stanko Kotnik (1925), whom I met at the presentation of a bitter graphic novel entitled Italian Winter, turned out to be an impressive voice of heavy memories from Italian fascist camps. We recorded more than eight hours of conversation, marked with his extraordinary diction, powerful articulation, dramatic narration, and improvised dialogues. 

Following his recounts of dreadful details on depravation was challenging. When memories were too painful to be disclosed, he paused them with silence. Frequently, my eyes were filled with tears. Weeks after our interview, I was still awaking in distress.

On a plateau of Kampor field on the island of Rab, turned by Italian army into concentration camp in the late July 1942, living conditions were outrageous. There was a severe shortage of water in the seething summertime. The diet was scarce and low in nutrients: a cup of watery coffee in the morning, watery vegetable soup containing some macaroni or rice for lunch, and a piece of bread the size of a child's fist with a small cube of cheese for dinner. Parcels of food sent from home were considered a treasure. An internee was allowed to receive a maximum of five kilos of essential goods per month. There was enough food, yet the regime denied it to the internees.

At the dissolution of the camp, hundreds of rotten, mold-covered parcels were found in the concentration camp storehouse.

Mr. Kotnik described how unbearable thirst and starvation aroused barbaric behavior among the internees. Some were stealing food from others. Others were deliriously accusing others of theft or selfishness. Some were begging for a tiny piece of bread, rashly promising a cow or a piece of land for it. Yet, some were willing to share what little they had. In such agony many people were driven insane. They were hallucinating, swearing, crying, praying in despair ...

"We were living in worse conditions than monkeys in a zoo, clustered in tents on everyone's sight, without privacy for months ... We were creeping skeletons dressed in dirty ragged clothes, ... starving, stinking, ... our bodies were full of wounds, we were enduring pain ... We were completely dehumanized."

In January 1943, when exhaustion brought Mr. Kotnik close to death, he was ordered to prepare and leave the camp. On the way to the concentration camp of Visco and Gonars in Northern Italy, where he was kept untill the capitulation of Mussolini’s Italy, they stopped at the sanatorium of Reka (nowadays Croatia). "There we've had nothing to eat for the whole day. Finally they called us for dinner. All of us, miserable internees, formed a line. I was among the last. I saw they filled everyone’s mess bowl full with macaroni. ‘They're gonna run out of food before it's my turn!’ I've panicked desperately. Finally, when my bowl was filled with pasta, I've realized I might survive and see my home again. I've sat down on a staircase and began to eat. I started crying. Tears were falling into the bowl, full of macaroni, but I kept eating while trembling.”

The aluminum mess bowl, which he brought back home, holds a memory of one of the gravest periods of his life. At the same time it is a symbol of survival in extreme inhumane conditions. On the outer side the names of fascist concentration camps of Rab, Visco and Gonars with the dates of relocations, are engraved. Surrounded by a large heart shape, Reka holds a special place on the bowl. I instantly understood why.

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