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Slovenia's Archives: To Remind Everyone of Their Past
by Alenka Puhar

Excerpted from Rodna Gruda, English Section April 1986

It was on March 25th, 1616 that a very ill man wrote, with a shaking hand, below a text that another hand had written, these words: "By me, William Shakespeare". A few years later, probably in 1619, when the Archduke Ferdinand II became Emperor, an unknown clerk wrotedown the following oath, which had to be taken by all the citizens of Ljubljana:

"Iest N- persesqm pruti Guspudi Bogu, Ozhetu nebeskimu, d!a iest otzhem nasimu Suctlimu Cesariu inu Deselskimu Firstu Ferdinandu, Inu tudi Gospudi Burgermaistru, Richtariu, inu postenim Ratu, tiga Puglauitiga mesta Lublane eden fuest, pernareden, pocom Burgar biti, nieh postaue, ordnunge, sapouidi, prepouidi pocorno dersati..."

"I, N., swear by Almighty God, the Heavenly Father, that I shall be a good and humble subject of our Great Emperor and Prince Ferdinand, and also of our Respected Mayor, judge, and City Council of this Capital City of Ljubljana, and shall humbly -obey their laws, ordnances and prohibitions..."

Most people, on reading the contents of these two old documents, covered in ink of a kind no longer made, are moved: how far these two documents have come, and how familiar they sound! The first was the signature beneath a will. William Shakespeare, the writer, whose equal practically cannot be found, was so ill at that time that he did not succeed in writing his own name properly. He died a few days later. The second document is moving not because of the mistakes which may have arisen due to the age and infirmity -of the writer, but, on the contrary, because of the expression of life strength and the self-awareness of Slovene speaking people. Far back, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the citizens of Ljubljana had sworn in Slovene that they would respect the law and order of the time.

Old documents do not awaken our emotions just on account of those who wrote them, but also on account of those who have preserved them. Such old documents; must have passed through many hands. And how many times have people wondered whether or not they are worth keeping? Yet, every time they have decided not to throw them away. And that is how such old papers have been preserved.

In the Archive of S. R. Slovenia, where the Citizens' Oath from the 17th Century is kept (Shakespeare's will is, of course, kept in England), a whole mountain of papers, hundreds of years old, are kept. Among these papers are land registers and plans of buildings, wills and birth certificates, accounting books, imperial decrees, court orders, and notes from police interrogations ... Here and there among these papers, one can find, in some old account book or among the minutes of a meeting, a slip of paper marked: "For waste paper" or "useless". But nevertheless, somebody has always had the patience to take one more look at such papers, to pick them up, dust them, take them to the Archive, have them entered in the records, and put into suitable folders. In today's Archive of S.R. Slovenia there is a total of approximately 15 thousand linear metres of material. This means that if all these books and papers were arranged in a line, standing upright like soldiers, one would have to walk fifteen kilometres in order to pass them all.

Why did Man first think of keeping archives, and why does he spend so much energy on preserving them? On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the official and independent existence of the Slovene Archives, Dr. Matjaz Kmecl, who prepared a special speech in honour of this occasion, was of the following opinion:

"Memory is the only way that Man can keep track of time. In this way we do not just rush headlong from the present to the future, like an animal with no mind of its own, but we learn from the past, we find out about ourselves through the past, so that we know who we are, what we have done and what we have to do. An archive is a kind of memory which belongs to society as a whole. For this reason, along with its cultural importance, such archives are an important governmental institution, representing to a considerable extent an expression and confirmation of sovereignty. For this reason it is not surprising that the Archive of Slovenia was one of the first institutions to be established, after the liberation of 1945, by the first Slovene government - at the moment in time when Slovenes first achieved true freedom."

Old documents are witnesses to the fact that, before today, yesterday existed, and that something actually happened, not that it just seems to us to have happened. The great importance of this is often only realized when all proof has disappeared. In the same way that we only realize what health is when we fall ill, it is only in the absence of written sources that we realize their importance. The life of Winston Smith, the hero of Orwell's book "1984", is enough proof of this. Winston belongs to an army of workers whose job it is to make suitable corrections to historical documents and in this way make sure that is impossible to say with certainty that something happened, to say that it happened like this and in no other way. When no documents exist, then it is impossible to prove things one way or another. And then, clearly enough, it is easy to claim that aeroplanes were invented by the Party.

However, to prove the importance of archives, which are a record of history written black on white, we do not need to turn to science fiction or to a negative kind of utopia like Orwell's. For half a century something has been happening here in Slovenia which goes to prove this point even more convincingly.

When, in 1918, the old Austro Hungarian Empire broke up, evrything which represented the property of the country was split up: the land, the people, and other possessions of one kind or another. As far as the archives were concerned, in 1923 an agreement was concluded between Austria and Yugoslavia in which it was carefully and accurately defined what belonged to whom. Nevertheless, for decades Austria has avoided fulfilling the terms of this agreement. The important men of Austria's cultural life determined that the Austro-Hungarian Empire would be able to live on, in some way, if the proof of its long period of rule was preserved. The preservation of old sheets of parchment to which the Emperor's seal was fixed, of yellowing documents with the signatures of Baroque noblemen, of humble petitions written by serfs, and of moving oaths of loyalty and obedience ... all this was supposed to help to preserve at least something ,of the greatness of the former days, to prove that there once existed a mighty empire whose borders stretched all the way to the Adriatic Sea, and which included many towns and villages with almost unpronounceable names.

On the other side, there was also a belief in something, but turned round the other way. In the newly sprung up, practically fledgling state of Yugoslavia, which was, on top of everything else, burdened with a self-reproaching idea about "nonhistorical" nations, the important men of culture and politics wanted, equally stubbornly, to obtain the archives, too. Their object was to prove that these nations had not sprung up just yesterday, that their languages were not just something which had been invented; and that all kinds of things had actually happened, not just that it seems to us that they happened. And it does not really matter how important individual events were. In the Archive of S. R. Slovenia one can find, for instance, very carefully kept, a sheet of paper on which it is written that Jurij Polanec, "po domace" Cepec, who was a fisherman's servant, and lived at Polhov Gradec, made a ceremonial oath that he would carry out his work faithfully and cause no loss to the fisherman.

If such care is given to such simple documents, then how much more care is spent on other, more important documents which are kept at "Gruberjeva palaca" and its modern annex. Such documents describe, for instance, who granted privileges to a town, and when, who granted a noble title to which family and when, to whom and whence does a particular piece of land belong to somebody, when and how land registers were drawn up, why people joined together in a revolt, who gave money for the work of the town's almshouses, when a school was founded and what was taught there, when the members of the government held a meeting, what was said and what was concluded . . ., etc., etc. practically to infinity.

In recent years a few Iorry-loads of material which originated in Slovene territory, and has been admitted after long decades to be the property of Yugoslavia, have been returned from Austrian safes and museums. The long and difficult discussions will continue, since the archive-keepers of Yugoslavia are pressing for the handing over of large quantities of documents which the Austrian archive-keepers do not intend to return. Among these documents is one item of almost inestimable value: the complete archives of the Zice monastery, the first Carthusian monastery in Central Europe. There are also the archives of three more monasteries, removed to Vienna when the Emperor Joseph II disbanded the monasteries and the court offices took hold of their possessions.

However, even though it is true to say that the Archive of S. R. Slovenia encounters such difficulties in the obtaining of these valuable documents, on the other hand it is a fact that people sometimes offer their own private records to the Archive of Slovenia, even though nobody has asked them to do so. And this does not include only people from the towns and villages of Slovenia, whose name our Archive bears. Several years ago the Archive of S. R. Slovenia received a visit from a man living in Germany who wished to hand over the documents belonging to his ancestors to the archives of Grubar's Palace in Ljubljana. These ancestors were the owners of Castle Hmeljnik, an imposing building which stands not far from Novo mesto. The family had been driven away by the Second World War, when the castle was ruined. After four decades a lot of important documents had returned once again to Slovenia, since their owner felt that they belonged to the country where they had originated, and that they would be of greater value in Slovenia than in a country where they hardly know how to pronounce the words Hmeljnik and Dolenjska.