To those of you who have no idea what I just said, I know the feeling. This annual commemoration started about 60 years ago at the Marian Shrine on Chardon Road. My parents took me every year until I was twelve. A sea of people, talking in a language I didn't understand. Dozens of colorful national costumes. People singing Marian hymns loud enough to bring down the heavens. Eventually everybody was in tears. I had no idea what they were saying or why they were crying. I just cared about playing imaginary Cowboys and Indians on the trail of the Stations of the Cross. I had no idea why I was there. Decades later, I learned. Much too late. I regret I missed so many commemorations. I want to share the reason for my change of heart.
Bad history is repeating itself. Every day we hear news about atrocities by Isis terrorists in the Mideast. They overrun towns then cut off heads of men, women, and children. The victims are Christians who refused to give up their Faith. A fanatic believes: if you are not one of us, then you must be killed.
This is exactly what happened in Slovenia 70 years ago. During World War II, Hitler added Jugoslavia to his belt of scalped European countries. The conquerors tried their best to wipe Slovenia off the face of the world. The Slovenian flag could no longer be flown. The official language became German or Italian. Everything was German or Italian: newspapers, radio, school classes, street signs, names of towns, money, even sermons. Young Slovenians were itching to fight back. Several underground resistance groups were immediately created by various democratic political parties that existed before the war. But a few months later, whispers came about a new kid on the block: the Slovenian initials were OF  - the Liberation Front. What a patriotic name! Its slogan: Death to Fascism, Freedom for the People! Who could argue with that? Join our fighters, the Partisans, they urged. Young Slovenians rushed to join these guerrillas. The Partisans quickly chalked up quite a body count of enemies. One hundred, then one thousand, then two thousand. But something seemed strange. The dead were not German or Italian soldiers, but fellow Slovenians. The Partisans always gave the same explanation: they had just killed an "Enemy of the People." But each victim was always the same type: a good Catholic Slovenian who would never become a communist.
The list of "Enemies of the People" contained every sex, age, and profession: a priest, a university student, a husband and wife, a pregnant woman, a paralytic, a fourth-grader, an entire family. Each one I mentioned has a name: Rev. Henrik Novak, Lojze Grozde, Mr. & Mrs. Franc and Helena Kolenc, Mrs. Ivanka Škrabec-Novak in her 3rd trimester, Janez Kozina (age 35) who was crippled, Štefan Jakopin (age 9), the entire Mavsar family. Real people, names like yours and mine.
But not simply killed. The killings were always sadistic. University student Lojze Grozde had his toes, ear, and eyes cut out before a blow to the head with a pick-ax. This was "Death to Fascism"? Parents Franc and Helena Kolenc and their 4-year old daughter were shot at home. Death to Fascism? Pregnant in her last trimester, Ivanka Škrabec-Novak begged them to wait until her baby was born, but no mercy: she was forced to dig her own grave. Death to Fascism? A schoolteacher was gang-raped before she was shot in the head.  Death to Fascism? Seven members of the Mavsar family were tossed alive into a fire (the youngest, Stanko, was only a 4th grader). The remaining 3 members of this family of 10 were killed by the end of the war. Death to Fascism?This is just a sample of the hundreds of killings.
The OF was unmasked. The Liberation Front was a con game by the Communist Party. A smokescreen for their sinister goal: to have a communist Slovenia at the end of the war. In the meantime, while World War II was in progress, they were going to eliminate any obstacle to their goal. Who was their enemy? Not the Fascists, not the Nazis, but any Slovenian who could not be converted to their philosophy of Godless communism. Any Slovenian, any age, any sex, who refused to renounce his Catholic beliefs. "If you are not with us, we will kill you!"
The real Fascists, the Italian occupation troops, refused to lift a finger, even if they heard these killings nearby. After all, Slovenian not Italian blood was being spilled. Civilians were not permitted to own guns. Defenseless farmers in their fields were constantly looking over their shoulders. Families spent each long night in fear of a Partisan rifle butt beating on their door. Can you imagine how hopeless and helpless they felt, day and night, month after month?
The men of one village  had enough. They dug up some rifles and stood guard from dusk to dawn. They called themselves the Village Guard. They successfully repulsed an attack by the communist-led Partisans (fellow Slovenians!) and the concept of self-defense spread like wildfire to other villages. The Village Guard was later replaced by the Slovenian Home Guard, the domobranci, who kept the Partisan terrorism against fellow Slovenians at bay until the end of the war. As bad as the war years were, the worst was yet to come.
After 5 years of war, the end was only a few days away. But not how Slovenians had hoped. They expected the British or the Americans to liberate their country. Instead, it appeared that the Allies had agreed to hand Jugoslavia to the Soviet Red Army and Tito's forces. The Homeguard had no choice but to retreat to Austria. Slovenian civilians panicked. Their wartime protectors were leaving and they knew what to expect when Tito took over. To save their lives, they joined the flight to Austria, known as the Slovenian Exodus of May 1945. World War II ended the same week, but for thousands of Slovenians it was a week of running for your life, with the Partisans in hot and bloodthirsty pursuit. The lucky ones reached the British lines in Austria and created a tent city in the vast open fields around a village named Vetrinj. Eleven thousand domobranci, the same number of Slovenian civilians, and thousands of POWs of every nationality who had fought against Tito – Serbs, Croatians, Montenegrins, Cossacks.
The POWs and the refugees assumed they were now safe under British Army protection. They were wrong. They were safe for only ten days. The British said they would transport everyone to Italy. The British lied. They handed the Homeguards back to their mortal enemies, Tito's forces. In the last week of May, ten thousand Homeguards and several hundred civilians were back in Slovenia. The communist killers were even more sadistic now than during wartime. Here are two examples. The domobranci had several military chaplains. As groups of 40 were being led away to death, Chaplain Rev. Franc Kunstelj gave them a final blessing. The guards spotted this, knew he was a priest, and broke his bones from fingers to wrists. He afterwards continued to try to give his blessings, so they cut off his hands with a hatchet. Second case. The British allowed wives with babies to accompany their husband Homeguards, otherwise the "to Italy" ruse would be exposed. The communists wrestled the infants from their mothers arms, placed them on a flatbed farm wagon where they cried and writhed under a hot sun until they died. Their helpless mothers stretched their bloodied arms through the barbed wire fence, screaming in agony, and in vain. By the end of June, virtually all the repatriates were killed. Thousands. History calls this "The Vetrinj Tragedy".
This is one reason we are here – to commemorate the Tragedy of Vetrinj. Mass graves continue to be discovered in Slovenia. Hundreds of mass graves. Here lie the thousands of anti-communist forces that the British repatriated from Austria – Slovenians, Serbs, Croatian, Montenegrins. Also the graves for the thousands of Homeguards and civilians who remained behind. In the two months after World War II ended, the communists tortured and slaughtered tens of thousands. The victims were not traitors or Nazi collaborators, as some continue to insist. They were not "Enemies of the People." They were not pro-German or pro-Fascist or pro-Hitler. They were pro-God, pro-Faith, pro-Slovenia, pro-democracy, pro-freedom. They faced a choice: join the communist cause – in other words, give up your Faith – or die. Today we salute them for making their choice and paying the ultimate price – would you have been brave enough to do the same?
There is another Tragedy of Vetrinj, rarely mentioned. The Exodus broke apart many familes. Some of you are here today. Many a refugee left behind in Slovenia a pregnant wife, a baby, or a sick child, with good reasons for this painful choice: the life-or-death race to Austria had no guarantee of success; second, they honestly believed that they would return in 3 weeks, after the postwar chaos subsided – they expected the pre-war democratic Jugoslav government to be restored. It never happened. We have the luxury of hindsight, they did not. The 3 weeks turned into 10 years of separation, as babies grew into children, children grew into teens. Those left behind in Slovenia also suffered very much, too much. Ten years later they were reunited, but as virtual strangers, to resume some sort of family life. Both sides had permanent psychological scars. I am sure such exodus refugees plead from their graves: Forgive us, if we had known that we would not return, we never would have left you behind. Today is a good moment for the separated children to forgive back.
Today we must also commemorate the Miracle of Vetrinj. The British actually planned to repatriate all the civilians after they finished repatriating the Homeguards. On the last day of May, Mary's month, the civilians were spared, thanks to the brave protest by a Slovenian physician, Dr. Meršol, and a Canadian officer, Major Barre. The Canadian knew his military career would be finished because he challenged a direct order, but he saved thousands of Slovenians. But there is more to the miracle. The spared Slovenian refugees were removed from the tent city in Vetrinj to 5 scattered DP camps (Displaced Persons). Barracks for wartime workers. In each DP camp, the very first thing the Slovenians did was to convert one barrack into a chapel. Each chapel displayed a large picture of Our Lady of Brezje: Mary, Help of Christians. She saved them during the exodus run and then from repatriation. They needed Mary's help now more than ever. They were scared, wondering what would happen to them.
My father told me when I was young that their five years in DP camps were the happiest times of their lives. Wow, how lucky, I thought, it sounded like a 5-year vacation. Little did I know what he meant. They struggled to survive the 5 years of war, the exodus, and the repatriation. They would continue to struggle for the next 5 years. The British failed to repatriate them in May of 1945, but continued their efforts, deviously. They would make life so difficult that these refugees would want to return to Slovenia of their own accord. The tools were starvation, travel restrictions, job restrictions. No travel meant no jobs, no jobs meant no money, no money meant no food or clothes. Anyone who strayed too far from the camp or tried to smuggle food into the camp was sentenced to one month in jail. To the DPs, Faith and Freedom were more important than their stomachs, so they tightened their belts, literally. They chose to starve rather than go back. And starve they did. In the end, the British gave up after countries opened their doors to immigration. Immigration - another trauma. All hope of returning home was gone. The refugees were dispersed across continents, to strange lands with strange customs and strange languages, to start a new life at the bottom of the heap. A former mayor of a Slovenian town got a job in a railroad yard, the CEO of a publishing company worked in an electronics factory, a shoemaker worked in an automobile assembly line, a high school professor in a mattress factory. Many mothers cleaned offices at night. They didn't mind the sacrifices because they had saved their lives, their freedom, and their Catholic faith. Not for themselves, but for their children, and their children's children, who today can own a car, own a house, go to college, go to church – with no fear of a rifle butt breaking down your door at night. I now understand what my father meant by those years of hardship being the happiest: the DPs left all their material possessions behind in Slovenia, but they kept their spiritual treasures: their Catholic Faith and Christian values. Our Lady of Brezje, Help of Christians, did not let the DPs down. They survived. That's the Miracle of Vetrinj.
This is why we are here today. The Homeguards who died and the DPs who survived pass on their legacy to you and me. First – no matter what the cost, never surrender your love of God-Family-Country. That was the Homeguard motto. Secondly, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing." 70 years ago, many good people refused to surrender their Christian values and paid with a bullet in the head, and many good people became refugees who paid with a lifetime of hardships. Sooner or later, all of us will face the same choice. God is under attack everywhere today. Ideologies are always trying to remove God from every facet of our lives. Back then, communism and socialism, now liberalism and materialism, all in the name of "political correctness" and "open-mindedness" and "anything goes". Bad history is repeating itself. What's your choice? Do nothing? Just give in? Simply hope that the future becomes brighter for your children? Or will you draw a line in the sand like the Homeguards and the refugees?