Sculptures linking Slovenia and Austria in tribute to WWII prisoners

Ljubelj – A sculpture by Japanese artist Seiji Kimoto has been unveiled at the Slovenian side of the Ljubelj Pass tunnel in memory of the prisoners of the Nazi concentration camp who built the tunnel during World War II in an exact match to the one on the Austrian side.

The piece, entitled Unforgotten – Unbroken, was unveiled at a ceremony on the platform outside the tunnel on Tuesday, celebrated as Culture Day in Slovenia, after one such was unveiled on the Austrian side of what is called Loiblpass in German.

Prisoners from 13 countries interned in the labour camp that was a branch of the Mauthausen concentration camp worked on the tunnel from June 1943 to May 1945 in inhumane conditions. The two sculptures seek to honour them and preserve the memory of their hardship.

“The tunnel dug through hard work used to divide, but today it links and brings us together,” said Tržič Mayor Borut Sajovic, who spoke of the culture of cooperation, gratitude and lasting memory.

Jana Babšek, director of Tržič Museum, which manages the Ljubelj camp site, spoke of the power of art in cherishing the memory of the victims and values such as freedom, democracy and human rights, and its constructive reaction to hardships.

As a child in Japan Kimoto experienced the tragedy of war, which shaped his art. “Using an elaborate sculptural language, he gives an image to the victims so that we can feel their suffering,” she said, adding that his art also inspired hope, and emphasized the unbreakable quality of spirit, power of revolt and uprightness.

The idea of the sculptures on the Slovenian and Austrian sides of the Ljubelj tunnel was floated when Kimoto made wooden sculptures in tribute to the Ljubelj prisoners in 2016 and presented them to the Tržič Museum.

The project on the Slovenian side was financially supported by the Culture Ministry and Tržič municipality as well as the German federal state of Saarland.

Kimoto was unable to attend the ceremony for health reasons but his message was read by his daughter and granddaughter. His sculpture was to direct the attention of today’s travellers through the tunnel to the crimes of those who had it built nearly 80 years ago.

“To commemorate the victims who built the tunnel, a double visible sign is now erected on the north and south sides of Ljubelj to prevent forgetting. On both sides of the tunnel, dug by slave labour, the victims and the crimes of the perpetrators are now visibly remembered under the motto Unbroken – Unforgotten,” said the artist.

Professor Peter Gstettner of the Carinthian Committee for Mauthausen offered his interpretation of the artist’s installation, which features a giant threatening hand, a man humiliated into slavery and a door that can lead to hell or freedom.