The refugees recognised as their authority the Slovenian National Council. As soon as the refugees' advance guard made contact with the British Army on the Austrian side of the frontier, the Council sent a delegation to treat with them.
"Dr. Meršol was with us at the hunting lodge [where some refugees had taken shelter] and some domobranci came to fetch him by order of the Slovenian National Council because they needed a good interpreter for a meeting with the English. With him went our fellow lodger, Father Odilo.So once again a fluent bilingual was drawn fortuitously into the double role of interpreter and of advocate for one side in the encounter.The Slovenian negotiators, helped by Dr. Meršol and others, including John Corsellis, eventually succeeded in saving most of the civilians by keeping them under British protection, but not the domobranci. The latter, who had been disarmed by the British, were delivered up to their fate at the hands of the partisans.
"Dr. Valentin Meršol [was the] son of a railway level-crossing keeper, he had attended as the first Rockefeller fellow from Slovenia the prestigious Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore and acquired there fluent English. He was a specialist in infectious diseases and one of Yugoslavia's leading doctors. Short and unimpressive in appearance [see photo], balding, with a round face and rimless glasses, he spoke precisely and dealt with British officialdom with infinite patience and a tentative smile... Father Odilo Hajnsek was a well-known Franciscan friar who also spoke English.
"The representatives of the Slovenian National Council, with Dr. Meršol as interpreter, went to Klagenfurt and asked to see Field Marshal Alexander [the British commander-in-chief] or the general in command locally to explain to him that the domobranci had indeed fought in self-defence against the communist partisans, but never against the British or Americans. They didn't get beyond a staff captain but were also received by the head of the Department for Displaced Persons and Prisoners of War, Allied Military Government, Carinthia, Major William Johnson, as Dr. Meršol recorded:
"We told him a great number of Slovenian civilians and military had fled to Carinthia, because of communists and the atrocities committed by them during the war, and in their name we were asking to be put under the British protection and given food and shelter and the means to survive. Major Johnson told us the military were of no concern of his, but Military Government would gladly receive the civilian refugees and help them."
Meanwhile Valentin Meršol's medical training in infectious diseases proved invaluable for establishing and maintaining hygiene in the refugee camps. Which brings us to another interpreter...
To be continued.
John Corsellis, Slovenian Phoenix. See previous post.
Image: Front cover from Moder Janko, Valentin Meršol in slovenski veliki teden, Celjska Mohorjeva Družba, 2005.
Among the concentration camp prisoners who built the Ljubelj (aka Loibl) tunnel, through which many of the refugees scrambled into Austria, there happened to be a group of French deportees. The experiences of one of them were told in a memorable book in French, Le Tunnel, by André Lacaze (Julliard, 1978). For readers' impressions of it, see http://www.amazon.fr/tunnel-Andre-Lacaze/dp/B0000DXTHB. There's also an English translation: The Tunnel at Loibl Pass, translated by Julian Evans and Anne Gray, Hamish Hamilton, 1980.