Photography of Liberation by Dabac: Istria as Fiction-Faction Artefact

photographer Tošo Dabac
written by Milan Rakovac

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Perhaps Tošo Dabac took a picture of me too on the Baderna crossroads in the spring of 1946, while we were waiting for our allies ‘Four in a Jeep’, the entire community – never were there so many people; to tell them nothing else, but that we were all Croats!


Leafing through photographs by Tošo Dabac brings me back to the time of freedom, the catharsis of Istria; the urban idyll of Zone A, Buje; the suburban political revolution of Zone B, Bale – ‘Vogliamo vivere nella Democratica Federativa Iugoslavia![1]. Petrified Lapida Histriae; the whiteness of the stone façades, grey dynamics – a donkey with a tub and one woman on the donkey, and another two women, the women’s shadows blacker than a pit and a stone on a cobbled road.


I grew up and grew into this archetypality, and grew further in the great liberation of the Slavs; that ‘cursed boat’ of Nazor’s was sunk; the winners, warriors and the exiled returned to see if ‘my white home is there / and my mother well again’...


And four of our mothers in black, ancient heroines; proudly despairing, together more powerful than their own tragedies, staring at Dabac’s lens with irony: it is far from ‘Say cheese’ and ‘Say banana’, and the four mothers look at ‘the heart of darkness’ of history that revived their humanity and killed their husbands and sons; Flossenburg bei Dachau for the father, a bullet in the forehead for the son, who was in the 43rd Istrian Division, at Ilirska Bistrica on the 1st May, in the year of 1945. And above all, these sopile[2] howl our persistent tananinenaaajjj[3].


By leafing through Tošo Dabac’s photos, I leaf through my own insides; by reading his laconic signatures and explications of what is recorded, I read my own life; because I was making this Istrian history, of course, unaware of this quest, with my own hands, an innocent and diligent protagonist – when I was four, they moved me from one village to another to save me from being killed, my grandfather Ive and father Joakim and cousin Đordan were killed when I was five, I carried Tito’s framed photo and was part of demonstrations for our cause when I was six, and cleared ruins all over Pula and planted pine shoots all over lungo mare when I was seven.


I have already written about Dabac’s Istrian Diary; it is a colossal record of faction, literary and historical, although it has a dull auxiliary function of explaining what the Master photographed. But it is also sublime documentary, a literary and historical artefact! It has the same value as the photographs themselves! Fiction? Oh yes, Dabac astralizes, artizes life, his exclamation is ‘Watch the birdie!’ a frozen moment transformed into a paradigm, and motion jumps out of it as easy as magic!


I ripped some of these recordings of Dabac’s out of the Diary (magnificently put together by Marina Benažić & Jerica Ziherl, MSU Zagreb and Lapidarium Novigrad) almost inadvertently:


Repairs to the ship Croatia.


Unloading UNRRA aid from the ship Neti.


Boat for mine-sweeping, known as dragging.


Diver Jožef Brezelj, 73 years old, has worked for 52 years now and even today stays underwater for two hours. By birth from Barkovlje near Trieste.


Election campaign meeting on the National Square in Rijeka.


Frančeska Kregar, 61 years old, had seven sons who were workers. One son was interned in Italy, he came back. The second was interned in Germany. No-one knows anything about him. By birth from Kastav, she has lived in Rijeka for 40 years, but does not speak Italian.


On the road over Učka. The place where the Gortan Brigade was formed. (A photo of the very forming of the brigade is in Rijeka’s Propaganda Department. The negative is currently with Grgić.).


The village of Vela Učka, 98% burned down by the Germans.


Glagolitic tablet from the church in Beram from 1431.


The youth of Sušak Technical Secondary School, together with the Croatian Boarding School in Rijeka unload a shipment from the Canadian Red Cross from the ship Timok on 7 March.


‘Old man’ Viktor Udovčić, a partisan, was a groom in 13th Coastal Division, machine-gun battalion. The old man’s pals raise the anti-torpedo net. The old man browses through shellfish taken off the anti-torpedo net (for the shellfish he has handed over, the old man has received 10,000 liras so far, which he has given to the Navy’s invalid fund. And he showed receipts).


Hegenberger and Giustinović, innovators and elite workers. Before, the shipyard produced hardly enough oxygen to cover its own needs and now, thanks to the above two, production has been simplified and increased by 50%, so the shipyard provides oxygen to all the factories in the neighbourhood, and even in all of the Croatian coastal region.


Article on Pino Budičin Battalion (all of them Italians).


Commander-Major Tomini Bruno, by birth from Jesenice, former officer of the Italian Army, operative officer in 3rd Brigade, 43rd Division since 1943.


Guido Milivoj, 11 years old, was hiding from the Germans, was wounded, and his leg was amputated as a result. He was given a red neck scarf as a sign that he was an elite pupil in the 3rd class of elementary school in Labin. The smartest boy in his class.


Book from 1729, register of births with pure Croatian names, written in Italian.


Marija Kozlović, was never photographed before.


The place where a tablet with Glagolitic inscription from 1557 was set. ‘In the time of parish priest Kirin Sirotić, who is the head of church and a neighbour.


Motovun County gave 985 fighters against fascism.


The place where the Italians carved a Glagolitic tablet in Vižinada in 1921.


Frescos, facing the southern doors in Beram. Painted by Vincent from Kastav in 1474. Since 1749, nobody has been taking care of the church, and therefore the frescos were preserved.


The village of Kresini, burned down by fascists and Nazis on 7 October 1943. Children were thrown in the fire alive. Of 85 villagers, 58 was burned to death or killed.


Mateo Benussi, joined the Yugoslav Army on 3 December 1943. An Italian from Rovinj, born in 1906, a saboteur. On Christmas Eve, he blew up the first train to Siane (near Pula); later on, the House of Fascists in Rovinj, 3 bridges, 20 trains, a power plant in Svetvinčenat, etc.’



FICTION-FACTION PHOTOGRAPHS: In my new exodus (first Rahovci – Pula in 1947, then Pula – Zagreb in 1953), still at the beginning of my secondary school, I read Wilder and Dos Passos, Bulgakov and Babelj and I know I will be a writer, my adapting to the Zagreb way of things is flourishing, I have to cross to the other side of the road in Masarykova to avoid saying ‘Hello to Tin, and I am a poet! But, I especially earn my Zagreb initiation by reading Fra-Ma-Fu.


And: watching (in person and in the photos) Dabac’s sawyers sawing wood for us, country women who trade cheese-and-cream for Istrian flour with us, idlers, partisans, workers, wandering day labourers and smugglers and fakers and ruffians and welders – I feel exactly as if I am watching frozen Einsenstein.


And if I close my eyes, I see that diver from Rijeka, emerging from the sea in front of me, I can hear the gargling of sea drops, hissing of air from the black rubber tube and I see myself in this Einsenstein-Dabac, I become my own photograph.


Yes, I created history (the same one Tošo Dabac recorded and created), and this with a photograph in my hand; cut out from Glas Istre, sectio aurea (golden section) format, fixed on a cardboard square, installed in a slit on the top of a slim cane. The photograph was a record of that famous sepia drawing of Josip Broz Tito, the work of our Istrian, Croat Božidar Jakac, a Slovene by culture. An irrelevant difference, at that time, because coastal Croats and Slovenes know exactly who is who and where they are heading, they respect each other, each talking in his own way, precisely knowing what belongs to whom around the Soča and Dragonja, and have organization together under the Austrians and Italians, ‘Unity’, and shared formula for survival, ‘Mutuality’.


This mutuality was paid for by many with their lives; I have to visit that place above the Piran Bay, I have to find out if there are still the four anonymous partisans buried there, from the photograph by Tošo Dabac taken on 18 March 1946. Were they Croats, Slovenes, Italians, Serbs? I pay visits to the graves of ancestors in Baderna, I notice warnings that the date has expired for some graves; relatives (if there are any) have to say what they will do with the graves. One little concrete pyramid with a star and inscription: Cvetko the Serb. I remember that our people buried Cvetko in our village, secretly, during the night, in the garden of Aunt Roža ‘Matelićeva’, and then when freedom came, all of us took him to the graveyard in Baderna. Another little pyramid, Ana Tivan, nobody can remember this female partisan, could she have been from Friuli? I do what is necessary so that Cvetko the Serb and Ana the Italian remain at peace in the Croatian soil, for which they died; they died for us.


‘We are Croats!’ we carry laconic and lapidary banners; as if this is all that is needed to send away any dilemma of Our Allies. We wait for Our Allies with excitement, and on edge; because, could there be anybody who can even think about challenging our will: on Mussolini’s aqueduct across the Mirna, there below Motovun where Nazor’s giant Veli Jože demolishes the hated alien bell tower, even today simple-mindedly aggressive graffiti of ours stands: ‘We fought, and this is why we want to live in Democratic Federative Republic of Yugoslavia!”


The same as Italian antifascist graffiti of the same kind even ‘more bizarrely’ provoke the Allies all around Istria: ‘W Tito!’ ‘Vogliamo Iugoslavia!’[4]


Tošo Dabac was in this artistic brigade, which we wisely chose and sent to Istria; everybody should have been shown ‘who we are, what we are, where we are going’, because again – like in 1918 – we could have remained without Istria in 1945 as well, remained poor Slavs. Dabac’s photographs of Istria are therefore today one living memento of an era, a time of creating history. At the same time, they are a clear foundation of Croatian modernity, a high urban takeoff into science & fiction, a global sign of quality, a magnificent European timbre without which we cannot be Europe.

[1] ‘We want to live in the Democratic Federative Yugoslavia!’

[2] Woodwind instruments of Croatia, similar to the oboe

[3] tananinenaj – frequent refrain melody (little Mare-ninenanananajj)

[4] ‘Long live Tito!’; ‘We want Yugoslavia!’