Goli Otok. In some ways it was reminiscent of Alcatraz, in others a Soviet gulag. Its inmates recall it simply as a living hell.
Sailors call it Mountain Canal or Bad weather canal due to the constant year long, hot and cold winds. Here, in the Gulf of Kvarner in Croatian territory, Goli Otok can be found, sometimes known as 'Bare Island'. It is a five square kilometer rock cliff of blinding limestone, bare and almost devoid of vegetation. The northeastern wind chills the island during the winter. The southern wind scorches it in the summer.
The coast overlooking the mainland is steep and inaccessible. The sea is up to thirty meters deep. The south coast is more sheltered. You can dock a boat here and see bushes and pine trees dotted about. The nearest point to reach Goli Otok from the coast is Lukovo, a small village of eleven inhabitants, about two nautical miles from the island. There are three islands surrounding it: Prvić, San Gregorio and Rab. Like Goli Otok, the first two are uninhabited.
Before the Second World War, Goli Otok was owned by Rade Vuković, a wealthy merchant from Brinje. Under the impression that the island provided an important source of bauxite, Vuković commerically granted the island to a few Italian companies that soon realized their investment would draw little profit due to the poor quality of the ore.
In 1939, under the monarchy dictatorship of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, General Dušan Simović proposed to turn Goli Otok into a concentration camp for communists. The proposal was rejected, but ten years later an irony of fate marked the destiny of this island.
“Citizens! Comrades! (...) The year 1948 will remain written down in the history of our people as the year of all evidence, when once again it has been proven that the people of our country are able to endure. This has been the year of great tests for our Party and for its unity, but this unity is so strong that it could overcome even the most violent storm in its history. From the ranks of our Party two dozen despicable traitors were revealed who had joined for their own ends while keeping one foot out...”
This speech was delivered on New year's day of 1949 by the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, exactly one year after his expulsion by Stalin. Estranged from the Soviet bloc, Tito felt the need to defend himself against real or alleged internal conspirators, namely those who followed a Soviet-style socialist ideology.
Tito organized actual deportations to an isolated and difficult to reach place able to accommodate thousands of people. A prison that looked something between an Alcatraz and a gulag. A place wanted, created and managed by Communists to punish, reeducate, and deprive other Communist comrades of their dignity and freedom.
And so from 1949 until 1956, Goli Otok become the prison of those who were condemned as enemies of the people of Yugoslavia. All its captives remember it simply as a living hell.
Generals, officers, partisan captains, communist activists, writers, intellectuals, poets, all ended up on Goli Otok on charges of being “Cominformists”. Many Montenegrin, Serbian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian Communists featured among them as well as many Italians including those who had decided to go to Yugoslavia after the war to build a socialist state.
“Eighteen thousand prisoners ended up on Goli Otok as a result of administrative sanctions. Their punishments could be extended from six months to up to two years. Approximately thirteen thousand prisoners ended up on Goli on the basis of civil and military court convictions, suggesting that around thirty-one to thirty-two thousand people passed through the Goli Otok lager. A precise figure can not be determined since the documents were destroyed”.
Ante Rastegorac, a senior official of Goli prison, divulged these figures in a letter to the historian Vladimir Dedijer, contained in the third volume of new contributions to a biography of Josip Broz Tito.
According to the same source, three thousand, eight hundred deportees to Goli Otok died from torture and starvation. People died in many other ways: from physical exhaustion, disease and suicide. Sadism and ferocity were commonplace. The more the ‘inmate torturers’ punished their companions, the more powerful and respectable they became. None of the survivors of this hell remembers those responsible for these tortures ever being punished for their ferocity.
The Hrvatski leksikon (the Croatian Encyclopedic Dictionary) states: “According to present available data, about seventeen thousand people passed through Goli Otok; however, it is extremely difficult to establish the exact figure as people ended up in the camp more on the basis of administrative orders rather than court rulings. Living in appalling conditions, subjected to all kinds of torture, the prisoners were forced to admit their guilt, to blame each other and to discover new ‘plots’. This inquisitorial system overcame the same Soviet models by the brutality of its application, however much it was short-lived”.
Domenico Sciolis, class of 1922. Detained in Goli Otok from 1950 until 1952. Everyone calls him Uccio. Uccio Sciolis.
I only ever called him Uncle as I always heard my father call him that. His loud and full voice always kept me nailed to my seat. He always told me the same story, but every time it sounded different. It was the story of a vague war without duration or references. It was a war that seemed to continue even inside the house.
My aunt spent all her time in the kitchen but the only thing she would ever cook was broth and cabbage. She would come into the living room from the kitchen and before uttering a word would close the shutters and windows. Only by doing this would she feel entitled to silence her husband. The neighbors will hear you, she rebuked him, more with gestures than with words. But his voice was loud and penetrating. If anyone had been listening outside the walls, they would have only heard a few fairy tales.
In 1949, Uncle Uccio was arrested by the Ubda military, the secret police of Tito. He spent four months in Valdibora prison in Rovinj. All he had to keep him company over the insults of shameful bandit was a single small window over the sea and one meal a day. In October of that year, Uncle was dragged out of his cell and thrown on a truck. It stank of fish. The trailer was wet with fetid water and through the bars he could just make out the statue of St. Euphemia on the bell tower of Santa Croce. If the wind turned toward Valdibora, it meant bad weather. It was October and throughout the trip the rain didn’t spare soaking his already wet body.
He was transferred to Rijeka prison, no longer in isolation but in a dormitory of twenty detainees. He was told that Ubda spies were there so he felt it better to keep quiet and wait to be summoned to court. The reason for his arrest was not yet clear. A few weeks later he was brought before the judges, refused the right to speak and simply forced to accept – on behalf of the people – a sentence of twenty-four months of community service for anti-people and anti-socialist activities. That same evening he was handcuffed along with another convicted man and loaded onto a truck. The zeal of the guard’s tightening of the iron cuff was completed with a single phrase sounding like a final judgment: Your wife will be forced to divorce, bandit. All your wife and daughter will have left is a life in the gutter.
It often came down to my cousin to provoke Uncle over lunch. He raised a clenched fist and out to amuse himself repeated: Viva Stalin. On cue my Aunt would jump up, close the windows and put an end to this performance. The gesture would have been enough as my uncle had turned quite deaf. At the head of the table, always in the same place, he imagined the words of others; but when it was time to intervene, it turned out not to be the case. Almost as if his deafness was selective. The war was to blame, my father told me, the fighting in the air artillery and then his time on the Island...
On the Island, there were many of his fellow citizens born in Rovinj together there with him too. Many Italians from Pula, Rovinj, Labin and Rijeka, many leading figures of the social and political life of their cities, were deported to the Bare Island.
One of these was Virgilio Giacomini, twice deported to the gulag in the sea.
Uncle said that Giacomini was a friend. He said there were few like him. On the island, they swapped each other cigarettes for hard bread. In their own way, they tried to protect themselves from the rest.
Cigarettes and stale bread were as rare a commodity as people worthy of the name Friend on Goli Otok. The tortures and beatings were by the hands of former party colleagues, fellow citizens, friends, not by the guards. The prisoners were both convicts and spies at the same time, accomplices and slaves of the kapos (the inmate functionaries). The punitive regime on the island was based on a kind of pain and torture self-management.
This way the punished were sentenced to confess beyond the truth; they were forced under torture to betray old friendships, to reveal the names of fellow party members, traitors and other bandits.
And when their human dignity was destroyed, it became necessary to betray those beyond the confines of the prison and beyond the borders of any ideology.
It was as if Goli Otok was a Russian doll of labour camps. My uncle along with other prisoners, oppressed by their physical and mental efforts, completely ignored the structure of the camp. Hell wasn’t just what they could see. In the same five square kilometers, in addition to theirs, there were at least two other places of torture.
The main camp near the Riva I quay had 17 cabins. Then there was Radilište V, namely Labor Camp V, intended for women and later transferred to the Island of San Gregorio.
The last one, secret and feared, was camp R-101, destined for prisoners considered to be most resistant to confession. R-101 was also known as the “hole” as it literally was one. Excavated by Italians in search of bauxite, this karstic dolina eight and a half meters deep and 25 metres wide was prison to twenty detainees. It often became a tomb. Inside, prisoners were subjected to forced labor, frequent torture and complete isolation. Here you got sick, died or went mad very quickly.
Fumbling in his pronunciation, my uncle told me that this was the song of the prisoners as they carried gurneys laden with stones. Wounds would open in their hands and their blood scarred over old blood turning white with dust.
The loaded gurney would weigh towards the prisoner unable to keep up with the pace. Brzo banda, move yourself, bandit, screamed another inmate, who as soon as he was given the opportunity wouldn’t spare him a beating.
Uncle and other prisoners, his fellow citizens, were deported from the Bay of Bakarwas to Goli by a ship called the “Punat”. This houseboat plowed the waters of Kvarner, at times with its hold full of bodies of men, other times with its belly full of women prisoners. Regardless of their sex, prisoners were treated like animals for slaughter. Uncle couldn’t remember how long the journey lasted. The anticipation of the worst cancelled out any sense of time.
The female camps were at first on Goli and then on nearby San Gregorio. Treatment reserved for female prisoners was the same as those for men: exhausting work, accusations and interrogations, hunger, thirst and disease, torture and humiliation.
When the “Punat” opened its hatches, the male and female prisoners – forcibly torn from the boat’s stomach – heard the very same sound: a pandemonium of human cries. Waiting for them on the dock was their first torture: the “welcome greeting”. The kroz stroj awaited them, a human corridor of kicking, punching and spitting.
A dvomotorac wore shorts with a red stripe on the side and a black shirt. The uniform was your condemnation, marking you as one who had returned to Goli Otok for a second time. It meant your fellow inmates could beat you like a dirty animal and be well rewarded for their effort.
My uncle’s voice, Virgilo’s voice, and all the evidence gathered from others who survived seem to overlap. They form a choir, building a network that preserves the memory of those no longer with us.
They preserve the memory of Mario Quarantotto, a man who died following a vicious beating a few days after his second arrival on the island.
His companions remember Mario screaming in his refusal to wear a black shirt. Not even under torture and forced imprisonment by fascism would he do it. But he was a dvomotorac and more than likely was buried in a black shirt. His family never knew where they could grieve over his body and for a long time they knew no other truth than his official cause of death: sunstroke.
The inmates at Goli were divided into prisoners favorable to measures of rehabilitation who in turn became torturers of their fellow inmates if not their murderers; and prisoners who refused to cooperate with the aforementioned system and continued in their mistaken ways of criticizing the party’s top leadership.
The Arringatori (orators) were those who complained of the work camp’s conditions or had spoken to the outside of Goli Otok as a lager and not as a worksite; kuferasci, the veterans of the USSR and therefore treated with special torture; the tailless ones, i.e., those who had left their “tail” outside the camp as they had played for time by denouncing their relatives and friends who were still free; and the two-faced, those who according to investigators in the camp, had repented only in words. Their punishment was to torture their companions to prove their loyalty to the system. The two-faced included the dvomotorac, the repeat offenders who proved as much after returning to freedom.
Then, at a certain point, after an incontestable as much as arbitrary assessment, the prisoners could become revidirci: those who had spilled the beans, those who had reviewed their positions and in the end had repented for their treachery.
There were other work camps outside Goli Otok for the revidirci. Anything outside Goli Otok was considered a great privilege. They worked on the construction of public works such as the Lupoglav-Stallie railway, the construction of the Zagreb-Belgrade motorway, and the Bosnian Breza-Vareš railway.
It came to Uncle and Virgilio to carry out forced labor for the construction of the Vinodol hydroelectric plant.
“Please don’t question me or ask me where I’ve been, because I have to be as quiet as a wall”
It was the only explanation either prisoner could have given to their wives, their children, their families. The prison on Goli Otok remained a secret long after Tito’s death; or a nightmare in the memories of the ex-prisoners.
The first time Goli Otok was officially spoken of, at least in Italian, was in 1990. A series of stories written by journalist Giacomo Scotti began to be published in the La Voce del Popolo, an Italian language daily newspaper published in Rijeka, followed later by letters and the reactions of some of the prisoners who had survived.
Going home was not always synonymous with freedom. Often the veterans of Goli Otok remained marginalized and discriminated from work and political activity, forced to live in poverty along with their families.
For some, going home meant finding their relatives had gone to Italy; in some cases, some would find their home had since been occupied by other people during those confusing years.
This is the story of Libero Sponza, held twice on the Bare Island. Once freed, he was trapped in a land that no longer felt his. During his detention on Goli Otok, Libero had on several occasions requested to opt for Italy, but he was always denied. Indeed, his insistence was severely punished. Once released, his requests for repatriation were again rejected so much so that he tried to escape. He was betrayed and the Militia found him a few kilometers from Trieste. Sentenced to two years in prison, he came out three months early when an amnesty was declared. Once again he tried in every way possible to be reunited with family, but met only the same refusals. So he organized an escape by sea. He reached Venice by a stolen fishing boat where the Italian police handed him back to the Yugoslav police. He was once again imprisoned for two years. Whereas the Yugoslav media never spoke of his case, it scandalized the Italian media. While this was happening, Libero’s brother was trying to help him from Italy. A member of the Interior Ministry in Rome told him that he had been sent back to Yugoslavia because he was a communist and Italy was already full of communists. After nine years in camps and prisons, the Yugoslav government decided to release Libero Sponza’s passport. It was April 1957, just in time to see his family again, tell his story and die.
Around the middle of 1956, Goli Otok stopped being a camp for political prisoners to become a “House of punishment and correction”, a prison for common criminals until 1988. 1956, however, was not the end of the penal colonies for dissidents: political prisoners for many years to follow were imprisoned in the nearby island of St. Gregory. Many prisoners were deported here who had already served their sentence on Goli Otok.
Few traces remain nowadays in Goli Otok of what was once a camp for political prisoners. The last “common” detainees broke anything that could before they left. Someone stole the copper from the electrical conductors and others took away doors, windows, and anything that could be reused.
The only remains on Goli Otok are semi-dilapidated shacks, crumbling and dangerous buildings, eaten away at by salt dust and the little vegetation. The calcium carbonate stones, carved one by one by the hands of the prisoners, are being dissolved by the salt air forming small sculptures of stalactites and stalagmites.
The nature and negligence of man are turning what should be a memorial into an abandoned cemetery of iron, wood, concrete and asbestos debris.
In memory of the victims of the Communist regime killed on Goli Otok. The 23rd of August is the day to commemorate the victims of all totalitarian regimes.
Installed in 2011, this plaque along with a wooden cross a little further ahead represent the symbols of atrocities committed by the inmate torturers on the island and the pain suffered by the prisoners.
The plaque and cross can be seen almost immediately. They can be found between the restaurant for tourists on the pier where the boats dock, among the smell of fried fish and the sad souvenir shop.
Tourists come here in boats of all sizes, in private tours and organized excursions. Some people come to take a plunge in the crystal clear water and some come to learn the history of the island. A small exhibition of panels and photographs has been displayed for some ten years now in the building of the cinema. For a few kunas you can see a 11 minute film that summarizes the significance of the place.
The jurisdiction of the island is currently under dispute between the municipalities of Rab Island and Pag Island. What is certain is that much has been speculated about the fate of the island. The central government in Zagreb has put Goli Otok up for sale to contain its deficit. A dozen projects for the redevelopment of the place have arrived at the table of the State Office for the management of this Croatian public patrimony, such as a proposal for a remembrance park for the promotion of cultural tourism to the more commercial proposal of making the island into a luxury resort for homosexuals.
There remains on this island, then as of now, a problem that makes it unmarketable: the lack of water. During the prison years, ships transported water to pump into a cistern. The amount needed put the problem into perspective: the prisoners were mostly dehydrated and were allowed a maximum of one shower a week.
Without water and with an unforgiving climate, Goli Otok remains an island that can hardly be explored. The heat, the lack of shadow, the sharp and inhospitable rocks seem to protect the island from the eyes of all. They seem to protect the memory of those places from foolish intrusions. They seem to hold the memory that here was granted a pure sentence, without any practical value.
(English translation: Luke Basham)
This work is distributed by a Creative Commons License: Attribution - Noncommercial - No Derivative Works - 4.0 International
The project began in 2007 when I realized that I wanted to tell a recurring story from my childhood. It’s a story – a piece of history – that speaks of my origins and reminds me of the journey my grandparents took from Rovinj to Modena back in 1952 as many Julian Dalmatian refugees had taken.
It all began with a documentary project, thanks to the help and technical support of Christian Caiumi. The project began with a proposal for the Historical Institute of Modena back in February 10, 2009, on the title, “Reflections on Il Giorno del Ricordo”. The “giorno del Ricordo” is an Italian memorial day intent on preserving and keeping alive the memory of the tragedy of the Italians and all the victims of the ‘foibe’, their exodus from their lands of Istria, Fiume and Dalmatia after World War II and the most complex sequence of events on the eastern border.
The project remained little more than that for a long time: indistinct but always there. Then a call came that started everything off again: it was Marco Mensa who gave me his photos of the island. His photos transformed those distant rumblings. Everything else came flowing out like a waterfall just as Marco had imagined. And this was only just the beginning.
The audio and video interviews were made between 2007 and 2008 with the specific authorization of those interviewed.
Domenico Sciolis died at the beginning of 2016 at the age of 93 in Rovinj.
Virgilio Giacomini is now 97 years old and lives in Florence.
The story drew on survivors’ testimonies and a short bibliography:
- Goli Otok. Italiani nel gulag di Tito, Giacomo Scotti, Lint
- Il gulag in mezzo al mare. Nuove rivelazioni su Goli Otok, Giacomo Scotti, Lint
- Martin Muma, Ligio Zanini, Passaggi
- L’inferno della speranza, Ante Zemljar, Multimedia Edizioni
- La memoria di Goli Otok - Isola Calva, Luciano Giuricin, Centro di Ricerche Storiche, Rovigno
- L’isola nuda, Dunja Badnjevic, Bollati Boringhieri
If you feel like sharing this project, you have to
Here you can read the Italian version.
The English translation was made possible by a crowdfunding campaign.
Thanks to all those who believed and supported the project:
Claudio Dutto, Adriano Derriu, Andrea Gentile, Xano Maria, Davide Coero Borga, Giovannina Calabrese, Enrico Poli, Angela Simone, Maria Tarozzi, Allegra de Mandato, Marco Malaspina, Vincenzo Napolano, Giulia Annovi, Lara Rossi, Tommaso Gallo, Elisabetta Tola, Francesca Conti, Francesca Iannelli, Fieza Avila, Andrea Salemme, Enrico Bergianti, Natascha Sacchini, Beatrice Montevecchi, Emiliano Della Casa, Massimo Bassan, Eddi Bisulli, Federico Nicolis Preto, Lisa Lazzarato, Daniela Garutti, Giacomo Pollastri, Rita Levoni Bemposti, Lara Gibellini, Francesca Negri, Francesca Rocco, Daniela Crescenzi, Silvia Mattavelli, Marcello Bindi, Vincenzo Belluomo, Marisa Sciolis.