Partisan Doctors and Nurses

Nurses from the Franja Partisan Hospital, 1944. Standing from right to left: Jolanda Žagar, Anica Štucin, Adelina Zanitti, and Mira Mihelin Nataša. Cerkno Museum

Between 1942 and 1945, female partisan doctors and nurses and their fellow male combatants ran the most extensive resistance medical service in Europe in secret hospitals.

Between 1939 and 1945, the world was at war. The resistance movement against Nazism and Fascism also developed in Slovenia, but the occupying forces did not acknowledge the partisans as a regular army, thus killing their wounded and sick. The main task of the resistance medical service was to give the wounded first aid, then take them to a safe and secret location – a hospital in the woods, an underground cave, or another remote place. The only people who knew the exact locations of secret hospitals were the staff and the closest associates, mostly the locals. Due to their strict safety measures, the occupying forces managed to find only a handful of the 120 partisan hospitals.

The first and the largest hospital opened in 1942 in Kočevski Rog; among the staff were paediatrician Dr Božena Grossman and gynaecologist Dr Ruža Šegedin. Thanks to them, the (still very high) maternal and infant mortality in this forest hospital was lower than in Ljubljana. In the Primorska region, larger hospitals only started to emerge after Italy capitulated. The two most important were Franja in the Cerkno region and Pavla in the Trnovo Forest. Already during the war, they were named after their respective managers and doctors, Dr Franja Bojc Bidovec and Dr Pavla Jerina Lah.

The entire partisan medical network provided care for 15,000–22,000 people of various nationalities.

Franja and Pavla were friends and fellow combatants. They ran the Ribnica Partisan Hospital together, barely survived the German offensive and were imprisoned in Trieste. When the Nazis let them go, they established contact with the Liberation Front that sent them to Primorska. Their paths separated after New Year’s Eve 1943 in Lokve, where they sang Holy Night and danced until morning with the other partisans and the locals. That same day, on 1 January 1944, Franja was sent on an 18-hour walk to Cerkno, while Pavla set off to the Vojsko Plateau.

The Pavla Hospital had approximately 1,600 patients during the war. Franja had a staff of more than 150 who treated approximately 900 wounded. The entire partisan medical network provided care for 15,000–22,000 people of various nationalities. It brought together 244 doctors, including Dr Božena Ravnihar, Dr Sabina Praprotnik, Dr Zlatica Hribar and Dr Zora Konjajev, who made a big contribution to the development of public health care in Slovenia after the war. In addition to medical students and qualified nurses, many farmers and workers were trained to help the wounded. They came from various professional backgrounds, but the war turned them into nurses, builders, guards, litter-bearers, and stewards. Some farmwives and workers’ housewives also joined the hospital staff, most of their tasks consisting of what they had known before the war – cooking, washing, sowing, and serving. The monument outside the Cerkno Library is dedicated to them. Only a stone’s throw away, by the entrance to the Cerkno Museum, stands the only statue in the region dedicated to a woman bearing her full name: a bust of Dr Franja Bojc Bidovec.

The resistance movement promoted equality and opened new opportunities for women, including the opportunity to join armed combat. However, as the patriarchal tradition could not end “overnight”, the war brought new problems that added to their old burdens. Nevertheless, women were prepared to give everything for the movement – including their lives. How was that possible? From the preserved testimonies of female partisan doctors and nurses, personal sacrifice and fate were of secondary importance to them on account of the joint struggle for liberation from Nazism and Fascism. The fact that, even during the war, liberated territories were “a magical land of good people working the vineyards who listen to the Liberation Front Radio during the day and go to the partisan theatre in the evening” (Dr Zora Konjajev) must have kept their spirits up. And it was the partisan values of cultural life – equality, diversity, inclusiveness, and solidarity – in secret hospitals that wrote one of the bravest chapters of the resistance movement in Europe.

Franja Partisan Hospital

In the Pasice Gorge in Dolenji Novaki, Cerkno, stands the famous Franja Partisan Hospital. Soon after the war, it became a cultural monument and a symbol of the struggle, humanity and heroism of the people who fought against Nazism and Fascism. In 2015, it received the European Heritage Label. It is managed by the Idrija Municipal Museum, which advises blind persons and persons with reduced mobility against visiting the hospital.