The Shattered Memory
At dawn, Goli Otok is pale. Grey. A featureless island against which break the oily waves of the Kvarner Gulf. Viewed from the mainland, no vegetation appears, neither trees nor shrubs. Only an expanse of livid and sterile rock emerges from the water. In the summer the sun dries everything, in the winter the wind freezes what remains. In the eternal pursuit between life and death, it is always the latter that wins on Goli Otok. Looking at it, people began to give it many names. Some called it “bald”, others “naked”. But the most suitable adjective, perhaps, is “secret”. The ridge of the island, a cliff over two hundred meters high, prevents you from seeing anything that happens there. It’s like a cloak that conceals and effaces everything. Goli Otok is a perfect natural prison, which is why Josip Broz Tito chose it as a place to isolate those who remained loyal to Joseph Stalin after the break between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. So it was that, starting in 1949, Goli Otok became a re-education camp where dissidents were reduced to the orthodoxy of Yugoslav communism. Those who ended up in the crosshairs of Tito’s secret police, the fearsome UDBA, were loaded onto a ship called “Punat” and, finally, left on the west side of the island.
The first forty steps were the longest. As soon as you disembarked, you ended up running the gauntlet of the kroz stroj, in which you were beaten bloody by the other inmates and then, battered, left to fend for yourself. That screaming crowd – made up of men who were both victims and the executioners of themselves (the camp was self-managed) – is no longer there. In its place is a tall black cross that contrasts terribly with the red and yellow train that tourists use to tour the island and with the restaurant called, with terrible irony, “Przun” (prison).
There are three streets on Goli, but everything revolves around the central one, with the numerous workshops where the internees worked wood, marble or iron. It was here that the inmates wore out their strength. The machines were only driven by manpower, as the survivor Gino Kmet recalls: “The rudimentary machines were operated by muscle power, with four people, usually the ones singled out for boycotting, the toughest ones who had failed to tell the the version of the truth that was expected of them. With a large crank and special pulleys, they worked the lathe, the drill and the grinding wheel” (Luciano Giuricin, La Memoria di Goli Otok – Isola Calva).
Those machines today are all rusty, worn out by time and bad weather. The camp is derelict and we can only imagine how the over 30,000 prisoners who were sent to the island lived from 1949 to 1956.
There are only few plaques commemorating those years and they make no attempt to describe life on Goli Otok. To find out what a typical day was like, we need to retrieve the memories of those who survived from the archives, such as Gino Kmet, mentioned above. “We had to wake up at five in the morning, even in winter when it was pitch black, at the signal from the hut leader who would yell like a madman, “Ustaj.” We immediately had to put on clogs which we left outside the hut, because inside we had to walk barefooted. Our outfit was brown in colour, a kind of military fatigue uniform, always with a military cap. There was nowhere to wash. Breakfast was a kind of ersatz coffee with a sort of liquid porridge . Then we went straight to work. You had to leave through the camp fence, passing in front of the soldier on duty, taking off your cap to him with your eyes to the ground and not looking up at him. You had to learn these rules at once, otherwise you would get a thrashing.”
Then the real work began, intended solely to wear out the body and spirit of these damned souls. “Everything had to be done at the double,” recalls Kmet, “with the famous ziviere.” A punishment similar to something out of the Inferno, like the outcasts described by Dante, forced to race after a white banner while the ground covered with worms receives their blood.
The memory of Goli Otok is made up of rubble, doors torn off their hinges, abandoned machinery and even old ice cream refrigerators thrown into a corner. The memory takes the form of a chair that can no longer accommodate anyone and was abandoned in the middle of a room goodness knows how many years ago. Or in peeling useless sinks, with no water to cool the thirst brought on by the scorching sun. Or even beds without springs no longer providing rest.
But it was in the “pit” that everything became unbearable. This was where the toughest dissidents were sent, those who refused to ever give in. In this hole the heat clung to you together with insects. Every movement became difficult. Every step heavy. Like life. Its official name was “Radilište 101” (Department 101), but no one called it that. The prisoners gave it other names, such as the “Monastery” or “Peter’s hole”, in honour of Peter Komnenic, one of the earliest deportees who had some political weight. This pit, eight metres deep by twenty-five wide, is where the highest party officials ended up: soldiers, politicians and intellectuals. Or those who had the misfortune of having visited the Soviet Union. It was in this infernal pit that Goli Otok’s highest death rate was recorded.
Today, the abandoned mattresses are reminiscent of the many bodies that this island, greedy for blood, has devoured under the weight of physical and psychological torture. The worst was undoubtedly that of the tragacs, or “boycotts”. These were sometimes very long periods when an inmate could be mistreated by everyone. Insulted, beaten and forced to work the night shifts, where his only job was to stand guard and carry out the containers in which the other inmates urinated. The goal was to reduce the tragacs to shadows. Bodies without a soul. Without a will.
On the walls of the island seventy years of history are tangled together. There were the lovers who swore eternal love, the thugs who smeared the walls with obscene writings and, finally, the prisoners who found the strength to leave a memorial of themselves. Someone, probably during his imprisonment, painted a hammer and sickle, perhaps to record loyalty to the Soviet Union. Someone else covered a wall with small vertical strokes in an attempt to keep track of time. Always the same. Always eternal. Four vertical lines. One oblique. End.
Where there are no writings, it’s the plaster that speaks – or shrieks. Or what’s left of it and that draws screaming faces that still seem to ask for mercy today. An act of pity that had no place at Goli, as the inmate Sergio Borme recalls. Here it was replaced by suspicion: “After a while you no longer trusted anyone. If someone told you something, you had to report it immediately, otherwise they would go and report it themselves, often operating as agents provocateurs. A surreal system that unfortunately was practised by almost everyone.”