Traces of World War I in My Library

There are plenty of books about World War I in my collection, as well as books that were printed during the war years – however, these aren’t what I am referring to in the title of today’s post. Instead, I’m interested in how the war left its mark in books through notes and annotations made by readers. The stories and images printed within our books have the power to move us, but sometimes it’s the little marginalia that can be the most memorable, and even the most moving.

Perhaps this is especially true for the first book on the list, a prayer book titled Kvišku srca! (Rise, Hearts!), which is also one of the smallest items in my collection, and among the rarer ones. Not even the National Library of Slovenia holds a copy of this tiny book, printed in 1906 and luxuriously bound in soft, padded covers. There was even a clasp, but it had fallen off, hence the book’s affordability. Pencilled inside is a signature by Mici Marinko from “Rudnik near Ljubljana” (nowadays very much a part of Ljubljana). We don’t know who Mici was, but given that she came from a smallish village, her prospects in life were probably rather modest.

On the page opposite her signature, there is another, brief inscription: “Vojska se je pričela 27/6 1914.” = “The war began on 27/6 1914.” Nothing else is written anywhere else in the book, which makes the owner’s short comment all the more sinister. Did she write it down to remind herself to pray for her relatives at the front? In any case, the date she wrote down is completely wrong. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, and what Mici had in mind was probably the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which happened on June 28, 1914. This error makes me think of a schoolgirl who was perhaps too young in 1914 to fully register or care about the outbreak of hostilities. As the years dragged on, the population of Ljubljana would be increasingly affected by the war – food shortages, Italian air raids, and a climbing death toll – and might increasingly turn to God to help bring the nightmare to an end.

Left: cover of “Kvišku srca!”; center: Mici’s inscription about the beginning of the war; right: title page of the prayer book.

In the case of the second book, we know a bit more about how the fighting had changed the owner’s life. The book in question is Svetloba in senca (Light and Shadow), a 1916 tale by Fran Detela, a now almost forgotten turn-of-the-century author. Detela was a conservative Catholic, which made him ideally suited to write for the Hermagoras Society (Družba sv. Mohorja) publishing house, by far the largest publisher in pre-WWI Slovenia. This particular copy of one of their books is signed by Ana Rozman on the title page, and on the reverse, there is the following inscription:

Ignaz Volčič / Kriegsgefangener in / Kolonien Gubernie / Hersonski / Russland

Or translated: “Ignaz Volčič, prisoner of war in a colony in Kherson governorate, Russia.” I suppose that when news came of the location of their relative, the closest paper object at hand was this book, and hence the owners wrote down his whereabouts inside. Alternatively, they could have noted his address in order to have it at hand when writing letters and sending parcels. In any case, nothing else is written beneath to indicate whether Ignaz survived the POW camp, or how he fared during the Russian Revolution.

Left: title page of “Svetloba in senca”; right: reverse of title page with the address of POW Ignaz Volčič.

The next book has less of an emotional impact, but it provides us with more of a window on what was actually read during the war. It is a schoolbook, titled Homeri Iliadis Epitome or Excerpts from Homer’s Iliad, and published in Vienna in 1915. “Norbert Dolinschek” signed himself inside, along with noting the school year 1917/18: the last year when he would have to sign himself with a Germanized version of his name. Since he took Greek classes, he apparently went to one of the classical high schools in the Slovenian territory, and between October and January, his class was working through selected passages from Homer. We know this because Norbert wrote dates next to a number of the passages, which probably means that he had to study or memorize them until the specified date.

On October 15, they were making their way through Book VI, The Episode of Hector and Andromache, where Hector rallies the Trojans and saves the defenders of Troy from being routed by the Greeks. A month later, on November 23, the students started book IX, The Embassy to Achilles. At this point in the epic, the tables are turned, the Trojans have chased the Greeks back to their ships, and the Greeks are desperately petitioning their gods for help. There are a bunch of annotations, mostly in Greek, but none of them refer to the world outside of the book.

During the time these students were analysing the siege of Troy, the game-changing Battle of Caporetto (Kobarid) took place to the west of Ljubljana: lasting from October 24 to November 19, it repelled the Italian army from Slovenian territory and pushed them over a hundred kilometres back to the river Piave. After two years of exile, the inhabitants of western Slovenian borderlands, some of whom might have been Norbert’s classmates, could finally start returning home. For a while, the breakthrough on the Italian front, and the capitulation of Russia, even made it seem that victory was imminent for the Central Powers. It’s hard to know whether the students, or their teachers, liked to draw parallels between the fictional war between the covers and the very real war outside their windows.

Left: cover of “Homeri Iliadis Epitome”; right: beginning of Book VI of the Iliad, with the date October 15, 1917 noted beside it.

The last of my selection probably wasn’t annotated during WWI, but it serves as a fitting coda to my post. The book itself, which came out in 1887, is titled Zvončeki (Snowdrops) and it is an anthology of poems suitable for schoolchildren. The selection isn’t too strict, and most major Slovenian poets are represented inside, though didactic ones such as bishop Slomšek receive pride of place. Before I acquired it, the book had spent the previous decade or two in a library, but earlier than that its provenance is unknown, and there are no signatures anywhere.

Whoever the previous owners were, at one point they decided that some of the poems weren’t suitable for young people anymore. With a pencil, they crossed out the first eleven poems, which praise the Habsburg monarchy in general, and several members of the royal family in particular. This could in theory have happened at any point after WWI. It could even have happened during or before it, but most likely it took place just after the monarchy’s collapse, when emotions were still running high and the Habsburg family was personally blamed for all the suffering that had taken place during the war.

A number of books came out immediately after 1918, describing both real and fabricated abuses committed by the Habsburgs. The physical environment of Slovenian towns was also considerably changed, as numerous monuments were taken down and sent to museums or foundries. Within this context, the pencilled defacement of Zvončeki probably happened as well. By the mid-1920s, the anti-Habsburg sentiment had receded, as it became clear that the family wasn’t coming back. In its stead, a number of new threats, such as Italian fascism, Hungarian revanchism, and Serbian centralism, had come to haunt the Slovenian public.

Left: cover of “Zvončeki”; right: the poem “To His Majesty Franz Joseph I. Upon His Arrival to Ljubljana on July 11, 1883” (author: Simon Gregorčič) crossed out with a pencil.

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