Ludvik Zabret (1923-2010)

Ivo Coelho sdb

When I was asked me to put down something about Bro Ludvik, I thought I would write from memory. Bro Ludvik was a sort of legend among us when we were young. We had heard some vague stories about his younger days, so whenever we met him we would invariably ask him about his escape from Yugoslavia. His first reaction was to get angry. "Stupid fellows, why you want to ask about that?" Then a pause. Then he would start his story, in bits and pieces. I don't remember the details any more, but I think as a young man he escaped into Italy after some use of violence, which he was either ashamed of or else found too dangerous to talk about (we must remember that Yugoslavia continued to be Yugoslavia for many years that Ludvik was in India. The dismemberment of the country took place only very recently). I have the impression that Ludvik had already made his novitiate and profession when this happened. I think I recall him telling us that the Rector and council of the aspirantate had decided to send him away. The Rector called him and told him to go. But Ludvik simply told him he would not go. And he stuck on, made his novitiate, and professed as a Salesian Brother.

Interestingly, all this is confirmed by Ludvik himself in an account written at the request of Fr Ivan Rodrigues (Ivan was collecting material for the famous Missionary Animation Notes of our province some years ago). The account is written in his own inimitable English, and he was quite aware of this, for at the end of the account he writes: “I do not know English had no time in the begining to seat [sit] and studi I know only what I learn as children learn by hearing.” I have resisted the temptation to touch up the spellings and the grammar: best to hear Ludvik talking directly.

But let’s begin from the beginning. Ludvik was born to Joseph Zabret and Rosalia Borc on 9th August 1923 at a place called Topole in what was then and is now the beautiful little country of Slovenia, tucked in to the north-east of Italy and south of Austria, and surrounded by Croatia on the other two sides. He was baptized two days later, on 11th August 1923, at Menges.

Salesian Vocation

My memories are interestingly confirmed, in greater detail, by Ludvik himself. This is what he writes. “When I was 5 years old my father told me, nex year you are going to school and here are to [two] rabbits and to [two] pegions. There is a hip [heap] of planks, what you will sel it will be your poket money, I will not give you a peni. From that time I have always money in my poket.

“When I was 10 year old my mother took me everiyear to wher the Salesians have a shrine of M.H.C. of feast day in May everiyear. I liked the seting and cheerful boys everiwhere. When I finished 8 years of elementary school and got marks sheet in mai hands I went for a interview with the Salesians. How?

“At the age of tirtheen on every Sunday with mother went to parish church 5 km away from our village to be free to atend house work. We where a big Family of 11 members. On Sunday after Sunday mas in the parish Mamy would cook for the big family and I would care for animals minveil rest of the family would go for 10 h. mass.

“I had independent poket money so in 6 h. parish mas I sleept [slipped away] from the church at the end of mas without mother noting it run 2 km away railway station and tok the train to capital wher there was shrine of Mary H.C., I met the administrator of the salesian House ho askt me what I wonth [want]. I said I wish to be accepted to the Institute. He anser, you so smal nothing doing, come some years from know and we shal see now you are to [too] smal. If you give me good food I will grow big as you. That enseteld [unsettled] him. O.K. here is the list of cloths required and you can come when you want but in company of Father or Mother. Late afternoon I reached home. My Father said nothing only wolk to me bent me on his nee and gave mi a good trashing, you will never go to Salesians. Mother was not advers. After 3 weeks all the requred [required] was redy, my Father has send me to the Salesians with the words ‘go, after one week you will be back.’

“Tovrts the end of the noviciate nov. Master cold [called] me after night prayers and told me ‘tomorrow morning Bro so-and-so will take you to the station we are sending you home because you have no vocation you are not for us.’ Discusins lasted till one oclok in the night. He said go to rest tomorrow we shal see. Next day I met him several times but said nothing. After night prayers cold me again. ‘House chapter has a meeting and all agreed that you go home.’ I am not going home was my reply. Discuson gone on till 2 h. in morning. ‘You are exeptionaly stubon [stubborn] may be somthing can be made out of you.’ My companions profesed on fiest of Our Lady 5 of august. I had prolonged noviciat and profesed on the fiest of Christ the King on 20 of October 1940. The Lord had mercy on me.”

The records of the province of Mumbai indicate that the young Bro Ludvik worked in the vegetable gardens (1940-41) and then on farms at Lisiefe (1941-43) and Bostary (1943-44). In 1944-45 he is listed as doing military service and then in the concentration camp. Once again we turn to his own account of what happened in those years, when the Great War began. Some of his sentences defy construction; I have left them as they are, because I think they reveal the strong emotions behind the experiences even at a distance of 60 or 70 years.

The War and the Escape

“On year 1941 started world wor 2 our small Slovenija was dividet by Germany, Italy and Hungary. Simultanesly also Komunist revolution. Ker so komunisti in night [the Communists came in the night] from homes taking influential people and in ju[n]gle shot them ded. Slowly the tretened [threatened] men organized themselfs and the night spend together in one place to defend themselves with arms not to be kiled.

“Salesians in Capital have hired a casel with hundred acres of land to produse food for confreres in capital where every thing was ration an where wore starving. So 2 priest and two coadjutor Brothers to start to produce some food. Becose many priest were kild in parishes extra priests was going on sunday to diferent parishes for holy mass. This was year 1943. We had a good crop of potatos (8 wagons) plus maze and plenty of hay (2 tausend tons).

Here, as we come to the core of his story, Bro Ludvik’s account gets really convoluted: “On 8 sept 1943 Italy capitulated to American and British forces. Comunist forces agried to help them to go bak to Italy after the communist defetit only comunist forces. [This part is not clear. I think the Communists were fighting against the Germans, so they were on the Allied side.] So our farm was atakt [by Communists] on 12 of september 1943. Avery night boy and young man come with there guns to spend the night in the castle to defend themself from communist atac. Italians military gave canons to communist in stem so level all anti-comunis forces. [??] Casel where we tuk refuge was leveled on 19 september 1943. As prisoner of communist we were in smol groop of 30 or so to work as and ordered. German occupaing forces have started ataking these comunist camps in the jungles. After 3 day in the jungles haiding without food we vere marched on a makadom road towards east. A motociclist came from oposit direction and asket our comandant where we are going. We have no mashin gun, he ansered; for these cats you do not need mashin gun. We were ol tide up two and two with barb vires. On both sides of the road were jungles. So we wer led some distanz in to jungle and made sit down in a cirkle. Ol day we where siting in cirkel hands tied with barb wire two by two. In the evening comandant gave order to commandant gards to take plyers and tide [tighten] the vires on hand that may not come loose. Later on have come to know that he was curir [courier] for anticomunist forses. He was goin from place to place in old wornout jacket and old agriculture tools. When he was captured by comunist patrol was saing, ‘I am going to work in the fields.’ So he was mobilised in comunist forces. By Divine Providence he was commandant [guard?] smol group that was garding us and to him comandant of comunist forses [told] to titen the barb vire wit which we were tied. With plyers. Hi neld [knelt] behaind each of us and vispered I am going to loosen the vire. When I give the signall you jump on the gards. When he finished went up to comandant saluted and reported ‘I have caried out your comand’ and spraied comandant and politcommissar with tomy gun. It was night. We jump up, gards surendered at ones and started to run away. Sudenly we so [saw] in distance a fire and when we come near we so [saw] they were distributing food, thik rice with meat inside. A voce came ‘Dise are cetnik, a diferent organisation of anti-comunist.’ So we were not afreed to take the food. Litle furder on was a smol fire and a tol oficer standing there. So I aproched him but before I reach him sudenly fire blesed [blazed] up and I notice he is not a chetnik but a comunist becose he has a comunist star on his cap. An I slept [slipped] away no body notist us. That is how the Lord gave us food after 3 days, if I new [knew] that they where comunist I would never have aproched them. God in his goodnes has fed us. Glory to God!!! We run in the night for our life. We were 5 in numbers, 2 Salesian Bro. and 3 young men from near by vilage wher was our agricultural big Farm, to produce food for the Salesians in town where every thing [was] on rations was burned up.”

So this is Ludvik’s life and death experience, something that I believe marked him all through. The pain was not lessened by his awareness of the ‘Realpolitik’ played by the Allied forces, and it is good to let his remarks be on record: “Eventualy I landed up in Italy. May compinions in Slovenija have not been so fortunate. After the victory of Tito in Jugoslavia the anti-comunist forses [this is incomplete]. After the victory of Tito the British have helped the anti-comunist forces that have taken refuge in Austria. The British sent them bak with pritensed they are sending thro tunel to Italy have send them one tunel thro Alp to Titos Jugoslavia. So 20,000 Jugoslavians were send back to Tito and were put to dead in mines tunels of Kocevje. 20,000 young men oll thanks to British.”

In Italy and Spain

“In Italy after surendering to British army [we] were put in concentration camp. Our Rector Major has made a rekqest to American General Aleksander and Salesian prisoners of war wher were alowed to travel to Salesian house in Turin.” Bro. Ludvik seems to have been assigned to the Cumiona Agricultural School near Turin, where he spent the year 1946. “After one year Provincial of South India Rev. Fr Carreño came to Turin and invited me to come to India that was December 1947.” Fr Carreño, a Spaniard (Basque, really), was provincial of the Southern province, which was later to become the Madras province. Ludvik seems to have gone to India via Spain: in 1947 he is listed as a refugee in Spain, and in the same year, as having arrived at Don Bosco Kotagiri, India.


In 1950 Bro Ludvik was assigned to an unfruitful waste of a huge piece of land at Uriyurkuppam in Tamil Nadu, which he transformed into Our Lady's garden: Sagayathottam. He had made 'super-8' movies of the transformation, and used to show them to us in the days when we still had 8mm and 16mm movie projectors. He is still writing about these movies to Fr Ivan Rodrigues in 2004: “My apostolate in India will send you video casete so you can see for yourself. I hope you will recived it in month of May. Casete is made of films on ‘Super 8’ 20 years bak and put on video casete 2 year bak.” He seems to indicate that he has also sent these, or else a narrative, to the Provincial Archives in Mumbai: “This story I have nareted on casete in India may be some where in archive in Bombay. If you have some friend in Bombay he may fish it out.” I don’t think Ivan ‘fished it out’ – but as Provincial Secretary he is certainly now in a position to do so, which I hope he does. But returning to Ludvik, besides being an agriculturist, he was also into communications, though I think he would have thought dimly about joining our contemporary associations of communicators.


In 1965, after 15 years in Sagayathottam, Bro Ludvik was sent to join Fr Giuseppe Moja at Sulcorna, in the southern-most jungles of Goa, where a benefactor had donated 200 acres and more of virgin forest land. Once again he worked wonders on the land, planting cashew trees and sugarcane. He brought several of his workers from Sagayathottam to Sulcorna, and if Sulcorna is what it is today, it is thanks to the hard work and creativity of Ludvik and his group of dedicated workers from Tamil Nadu. Several of us still remember the damming of the river at various places, the low 'bridge' over the river (paralleled much later by the 'high' bridge), the unique irrigation system, the large well dug a little away from the river to take advantage of the ground water all year round, the abundant pineapples and the wonderful pineapple wine, the chickoos as large as cricket balls, the endless plantations of cashew trees, the large mangoes, and the fields of sugarcane.

But marketing expert he was not. His forte was growing things, and growing them in abundance. Marketing – he had the disadvantage of his white skin. I am told that he had to let go of his produce, both at Margao and later at Nashik, at throwaway prices. People would simply not buy from him, and wait for him to get fed up, by evening, dump his produce, and return home.

And of course Ludvik was a hunter. And he had his hunting stories: the huge female wild boar that he had disturbed, and that almost gored him to death; the many magnificent golden-maned Indian bisons that had the misfortune of disturbing him and his fields, so that some of them now adorn the walls of the old residence at Sulcorna....


From Sulcorna, after exactly 15 years, Bro Ludvik was sent in 1980 to the newly set up novitiate house at Nashik – from farmation to formation, as some wag would say – where again he transformed the land into a farm, with grapes, rice, wheat, a piggery and a dairy. There are photos in the Divyadaan chronicles of the vines hanging heavy with grapes, there are memories of young novices putting on several kilos and added visible inches to their height thanks to the healthy and abundant food. And of course there are the Ludvik stories: If you don’t eat it, I will give it to the peegs; if the peegs don’t eat it, I will give it back to you. Or the super-abundant guavas and the guava jam that came on the table every single day of the year, till it came out of the ears and the noses, in the laments of the people of Israel in the desert. Or the formation tips in typical style: Don’t pat the goat, man, tomorrow you will be patting the gurls.

Back to Goa

Bro Ludvik remained in Nashik about 7 years. In 1987 he went to Lonavla, and in 1988 he returned for a brief stint to Sulcorna as assistant farm manager. In 1992 he was administrator in Fatorda, in 1994 in the new house at Loutolim, and in 1997 he came to the delegation house at Odxel. These must have been difficult years for him. Either the farms or the jobs he had were small compared to Sagayathottam, Sulcorna, and even Nashik. The wonderful hams and wines and liqueurs would still appear, but the expenses would be too heavy for small houses to bear, given that the incomes were almost nil. But one impression remains uppermost in my mind: Ludvik was a man of prayer. He had his faults, his defects, his temper. But he prayed. He laughed at the then current philosophy of self-fulfilment: feel fool, fool feel, he would say in his typical way, dismissing it as nonsense. He was convinced that religious had to pray, and that their lives had to be filled with God.

Home again in Slovenia

Reasons of health led him to return, in 2004, to his native Slovenia, where he was assigned to a lovely house for senior Salesians. I had the fortune of seeing his homeland during GC25. He was on home leave, and he made arrangements with the provincial of the place to bring Romulo and myself over to Slovenia. We went by train to the border, where he had come to meet us; then we drove into Slovenia. I can't forget the pristine beauty of the place, and above all the food: tables groaning with food at breakfast, then again the same spread at the mid-morning break, and then lunch, and then supper: hams, sausages, salamis, vegetables fresh and pickled, butter, bread, coffee and milk, cheese, and even a shot of the local grappa – both for breakfast and for the mid-morning break. I began to understand then Ludvik's love affair with food. Good food, home-grown, fresh if possible, preserved when not: these are things that any Slovenian values, because the land is covered with snow half the year; the other half is for growing and storing. So Ludvik did what he knew best to do: he grew food, he knew how to prepare it lovingly and preserve it when he had to, and he enjoyed doing it for his confreres, his community, his friends. And he did it as a man of God, a man of prayer, a man without pretences or agendas. He was all there, for you to love or to hate.

Another great example of the life of a Salesian Brother: a life lived fully, unpretentiously, without unnecessary complications, in faith, in hope, and in the love that comes from God and enters into our lives till it takes them over completely and draws us to him.

God bless you, Bro Ludvik. And thank you for the blessing that you have been to us in this land of your providential mission.

1 comment:

  1. There should be in the Divyadaan Audio-Visual hall a VHS tape with the memories of Casa, Moja and Ludvik... if my memory serves me right...
    That was a recording of the three missionaries reminiscing about their life, etc. Unless of course that has been discarded as useless (in these days of blu-ray)!!