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Franja Hospital – The Secret WWII Mountain Hospital

What’s one of the last things you’d expect to find hidden away in a seemingly inaccessible rocky gorge? How about a hospital? And not just any hospital, an efficiently run, well-equipped hospital functioning under the constant threat of discovery and attack. These were the conditions under which the Franja Partisan Hospital in Slovenia ran for two years until the end of the Second World War. 

Setting the Scene

At the start of the war, the Cerkno area of Slovenia was annexed to fascist Italy and after the Italian armistice in 1943, the Nazis stepped in to fill the void. The Slovenian partisans weren’t recognized as an army by the Nazis so any wounded soldiers would just be killed instead of taken to a hospital or captured. Not surprisingly, this created a lot of Slovene resistance groups who, amongst other things, set up a whole network of hidden hospitals to treat injured partisan fighters and civilians alike. It is estimated that over 15,000 people were treated in one of around 120 secret hospitals throught the country. One of the largest of these was what became known as the Franja Partisan Hospital in Dolenji Novaki. Due to the secret nature of these hospitals and their efforts to protect the Slovene people from their enemies, it was important to hide them as well as possible. 

In 1943, doctor Viktor Volčjak was made aware of an area within the Pasica gorge that would serve as a great hidden-away spot for an illegal hospital. The gorge itself had been used by climbers since 1908 and a trail had been made through it but since the Italian occupation it had not been maintained so had been almost forgotten about. The first wooden hut was quickly set up with locals helping to carry supplies through the gorge. This cabin had two rooms and was large enough to house 50 patients. The Slovenians also liberated windows, beds and other bits of furniture from an abandoned Italian barracks. The building work carried on until the end of the war in 1945 with 14 huts being built in total, including an x-ray room, operating room, isolation room, kitchen, store rooms, shelters under the huts for the evacuation of the wounded and an electricity station. To further maintain the secrecy of the hospital, the huts were painted gray to look like the rocks and branches were put over the roofs, disguising it from the air. It was only accessible through the gorge itself, which meant climbing up through running water and using makeshift bridges which could be retracted for protection. Patients were blindfolded before being transported through the gorge so if they were captured later, they wouldn’t be able to reveal the location. If the naturally unwelcoming terrain and the camouflage weren’t enough, the hospital also set up guard bunkers, a machine-gun post and even a minefield nearby. And it all worked. Although enemy soldiers did attack the vicinity of the gorge twice between 1943 and 1945, the hospital was never discovered. 

Taking its name from Dr Franja Bojc Bidovec who started running the hospital in January 1944, it was known as the Slovenian Military Partisan Hospital Franja at the time. It was unusual for a young woman like Dr Franja to a) be a manager and b) be a doctor in the first place but the facility ran efficiently and effectively under her care. In fact, the hospital was named after her by the founder, Dr Viktor Volčjak, specifically to give it a human connection and to shout out her role as a woman in the medical field. 

Thanks to the network the partisans had set up, qualified surgeons were able to carry out operations in these hidden hospitals but there was plenty of on-the-job training too, especially for locals who became ad-hoc medical staff. While some people completed a few basic nurse training courses, only one nurse on the Franja staff had completed any training at a nursing school so it was straight in the deep end for most of the volunteers.

Patient Experiences

war world prisoner
WWII by Adományozó/ is licensed under CC-BY-SA

It was only open for about 2 years but the Franja Hospital treated almost 600 people at its site in the Pasica gorge, including soldiers from France, Italy and the USA. Because this was an illegal hospital operating during a war, patients couldn’t be rushed to it as quickly and easily as they can now. Secrecy had to be maintained for the safety of all involved.

Let’s say, for instance, that your name is Franc-Rafael Likar. You join the partisan army in 1942. In 1944 you’re in Cerkno on a training course when your group is attacked by German soldiers. Running to help a friend, you’re shot in both hands and play dead in a ditch. You are shot a further 4 times without making a peep. You are not found until the following day. 

You are hidden in a nearby farmhouse, then carried, blindfolded, at night, through the gorge to even get to the hospital for treatment. Luckily, the hospital is surprisingly well-equipped for a wooden hut in a crack in the mountains and you go on to make a full recovery. Hooray!

Or take the case of American pilot Harold C. Adams. His plane was shot down in February 1944 so he parachuted out and shattered his leg on landing. He was rescued by partisan resistance members who strapped his leg and transported him by cart to the Franja hospital. This took 14 hours. During his stay there, the hospital came under attack. A male nurse carried Adams on his back for several hours, during which time they had to cross the water rushing through the gorge twice. At one point the nurse slipped and they both fell in but managed to eventually make it to a road where they were transported to a safer spot. If that doesn’t scream selflessness in the face of danger to you, I’m not sure what would. And Adams sent a letter to his wife in the States in March and it got there in June which is seriously good going because, you know: wartime. The two men stayed in touch after the war and Adams’ son donated some of their correspondence back to the museum. 

During one German attack, the wounded patients were moved to a shelter underneath one of the cabins and had to remain there for several days. A surgeon could talk to them through a pipe and one man had what was described as “severe flatulence”. If you can imagine anything worse than being stuck underground for a few days, it’s being stuck underground with this guy. Anyway, he thought his stomach might explode so the surgeon had to advise him on how to operate on himself through the pipe. According to the surgeon it all worked out fine and presumably those in close proximity also breathed a sigh of relief. 

Considering the effort it took to even get the wounded to the Franja hospital, it’s quite remarkable that so many made it back out again. Not everybody did make it, of course. According to the scrupulously kept hospital records, 83 people died there. To maintain the secrecy of the hospital’s location, they were buried without grave markers but had glass phials with their identity information inside buried with them. After the war, the bodies were disinterred and any not claimed by relatives were reburied at the hospital’s cemetary. 

The hospital itself was only successful thanks to a huge effort from medical staff and the full cooperation of the locals who hid the wounded, helped build the hospital and kept it stocked with food and supplies. They delivered bandages, medicines, surgical instruments and someone even donated an x-ray machine. This was kept in its own special hut and the walls were lined with cardboard and black parachute material.

Medical supplies couldn’t just be bought at local pharmacies as these were controlled by occupying forces so the resistance network passed along packages, some of them coming from as far away as Milan.  In 1944 the Allies started dropping more medical aid which helped the field hospitals but even so they did suffer shortages of things like blood and plasma which resulted in Dr Franja herself donating her own blood twice.

The aim of the Franja Partisan hospital throughout was to help the people fighting for peace and they treated everybody, regardless of nationality. To try and lift the mood a bit in the gorge, there were lectures, choirs, drama plays and music performances although they had an accordion which may have led to patients trying to discharge themselves as early as possible. There was even a newsletter containing staff and patient stories, drawings and songs.

After the War

Following the end of World War 2, Franja Hospital was open to visitors in 1946 as a museum and monument to the power of humanity – and to show off how good the Slovenian partisans were at setting up a decent free healthcare system in pretty adverse conditions. 

Unfortunately, the following decades were not kind to the hospital site. After extensive reconstruction following avalanches in 1952, 1957 and 1989, the Pasica gorge flooded in 2007 and the entire area apart from two cabins was totally destroyed. Because of the national importance of the Franja hospital, work began almost immediately to rebuild it per the original blueprints and an almost exact replica site was finished in 2010 with over 1000 people visiting on the first day of reopening. Franja Partisan Hospital received a European Heritage Label in 2015 and has been nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Today, you don’t have to climb up a wet, rocky ravine blindfold to visit the huts, although I’m sure you can if you really want to; there’s an access trail that leads you through the gorge. You can see the huts just as they would have been and exhibits like creepy old scalpels, cool partisan jackets and even the accordion. There are staff lists, monthly reports, detailed patient records, surgery protocols and evacuation notices. It certainly seems that Franja Partisan Hospital was one secret that was definitely worth keeping. 

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