Plečnik's National and University Library
On 29 January 1944, an airplane crashed into the National and University Library (NUK) in Ljubljana, and badly damaged Plečnik’s just completed "pride of Ljubljana". The 75th anniversary of this disastrous event is commemorated at the Plečnik House with an exhibition, made in collaboration with the National and University Library.
On 29 January 1944, an airplane crashed into the National and University Library (NUK) in Ljubljana, and badly damaged Plečnik’s just completed "pride of Ljubljana". Besides the Great Reading Hall, which was destroyed completely, more than 50,000 books also disappeared in flames as well as a large portion of catalogues. It is only thanks to luck that the reading hall was empty at the time, and that the crash did not have a larger causality count, as one person died alongside the airplane crew.
The 75th anniversary of this disastrous event is commemorated at the Plečnik House with an exhibition, made in collaboration with the National and University Library. Even today, the accident is relatively unknown to the public, also due to the censorship in place during the war. The exhibition presents plans and documents that shed some light on the planning and construction of Plečnik’s unique library, it reveals the secret lives of librarians during World War II, document the story of the original airplane, which returned to the NUK after 70 years. It also presents hitherto unseen photographs of the reading hall after the fire, and its reconstruction all the way to the reopening on 8 February 1947, which was attended by all of our cultural and political elite.
"The most important political event of this year’s cultural landscape was when our current ban Dr. Marko Natlačen put the first shovel in the ground for the construction of the university library on the site of the former Ducal Court at the Auersperg Square… The Slovenian University Library is being built and there is no one who could now stop, or even trick, us!"
The commentary by Tine Debeljak from October 1936 reflects the elated atmosphere that took over Ljubljana at the long-awaited beginning of construction of the University Library, today the National and University Library (NUK). Libraries have become such a self-evident part of our lives that it is hard for us to imagine people had to fight for them once.
Slovenes really received our first public library in 1774. The Lyceum Library changed its name several times through the years, and with its new functions the number of its users and books also rose accordingly. The part of the current Poljane Grammar School, where the library was relocated after the 1895 Ljubljana earthquake, was right away too small to accommodate the needs of the librarians and users. The decision to annex the library to the University of Ljubljana solved the situation with the then National Study Library as well as the needs of the newly established university. Already in 1930, Plečnik published his vision of the library building as a temple. Construction finally began on 5 October 1936 with ban Natalačen’s first shovel.
In April 1941, the Second World War engulfed Slovenian towns and villages and suddenly threatened the almost finished project of the University Library. The university’s authorities eventually succeeded against the confiscation of the building, despite soldiers already occupying parts of it. From autumn of 1941, the library thus provisionally operated from its new location.
“Everything was solved now. An enormous house, books with weight in history and the roles they had played. A really spacious house, which no one knew and only about fifteen people, many among them ready for anything,” librarian Cene Kranjc recalls moving into the new building.
Not even the library staff knew everything that transpired behind the walls of the National and University Library. The library was secret spot of illegal publishing, and almost all members of its staff collaborated in diverse actions; from graffiti writing, spreading leaflet propaganda, innumerable secret meetings, forbidden literature, to courses on handling weapons, and sheltering food, materials and illegals. “Our work would easily be discovered, if it wasn’t for the fact that NUK was a proper anthill. Every hour throngs of people would come and leave the building,” writes Vida Gaspari - Tausig, “but in such a crowd, it went on for unusually long.”
Three librarians – Ludvik Thuma, Avgust Pirjevec and Jože Rus – paid with their lives for their activities. The war’s blood-stained hands reached inside the library. As chance would have it, Fran Majcen was also going to return his books on Saturday, 29 January 1944. “Citizens of Ljubljana became alert of a fading, bumbling rattle of an engine,” writes Miloš Rybar. A German aircraft carrying mail crashed directly into the Great Reading Hall, after its engine died. The accident transformed the monumental space into ash and rubble. More than 50000 library units went up in flames, among them also a large part of its catalogue collection. As the reading hall had been closed to the public just five days earlier due to insufficient heating, the accident claimed, besides the crew, only one causality on the ground.
“First matter of order on day one was to remove the surviving books from the scene of the fire. Soon after, the librarians began to tackle the books with wooden knives with which they scraped the burnt edges, and with cloths… How much work had to be done with turning wet pages knows just the person who had to do it,” remembers Melita Pivec - Stele. By autumn the building was at least partially in order — except for the main reading hall, which was ceremoniously reopened for the public on 8 February 1947.
We often realise the importance of libraries and other public goods only when we really need them. This goes for individuals in search of information — or just space — as well as nations in search of support to their identities. Perhaps this self-evidence can somewhat explain why the much-needed NUK 2 building is still no closer to being built, even though librarians and users have now been dealing with a lack of space for more than 50 years.
The story of our oldest library is nicely summarised by librarian Cene Kranjc, “NUK is just one of the buildings in Ljubljana. If we wanted to survey all of them, that is beyond human capability. History of all buildings would only, in other words, repeat the same: that nations which are unified in their goals can never be defeated.”
Žiga Cerkvenik, author
Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana, Plečnik House, represented by: Blaž Peršin, Director
National and University Library, represented by: Martina Rozman Salobir, Director
Author of the exhibition and texts: Žiga Cerkvenik (NUK)
Curator: Ana Porok
Production of the exhibition: Maja Kovač
Photographs: MGML documentation, Plečnik Collection, NUK archive, National Museum of Contemporary History, Peter Naglič, Matevž Lenarčič – Aerovizija, Matevž Paternoster
Exhibited artefacts: MGML, Plečnik Collection, NUK archive, National Museum of Contemporary History
Graphic and exhibition design: Bojan Lazarevič, Agora Proars
Language editing: Katja Paladin
English translation: Matic Šavli
Promotion: Maja Kovač, Ana Modic
Exhibition layout: OKvir, Technical services of MGML
1 January, 1 November, 25 December: Closed
24 and 31 December: 10:00–14:00
Visiting the Plečnik House (permanent exhibition Plečnik and a guided tour of Plečnik's home)
Adults: 6 €
Students: 4 €
Children: 4 €
Adults over the age of 60: 4 €
Families: 14 €
Unemployed visitors: 4 €
Visitors with disabilities: 4 €
Free admission for carers
ICOM, PRESS, SMD: free admission
Visiting the Plečnik House with a prior reservation
Groups of up to 4 persons: 30 €
Groups of over 4 persons: 7 €/person, reduced 5 €/person
Visiting the permanent exhibition Plečnik
Adults: 4 €
Students: 2,5 €
Children: 2,5 €
Adults over the age of 60: 2,5 €
Families: 10 €
Unemployed visitors: 2,5 €
Visitors with disabilities: 2,5 €
Free admission for carers
ICOM, PRESS, SMD: free admission
*Visits of the original Plečnik’s home are only possible with a guided tour.*