About Luka Knafelj and his Foundation

As we were relatively late getting our own university, Slovenians studied at the universities of Vienna, Graz, Prague and, in somewhat smaller numbers, Krakow right until its establishment in 1919. It would take a fair amount of imagination to try and recapture the geographical, cultural and social distance that separated young knowledge-thirsty men from Austrian university centres in the previous centuries, and particularly the Austrian capital where most Slovenian “scholars” went to study until the decline of the Hapsburg Monarchy. For Slovenian students, who largely came from the countryside due to the predominantly agrarian structure of the Slovenian population of the time, study in the big city far away from home involved great costs; a student could rarely cover them all by himself, with help from his family or through “freelancing”. For this reason, scholarship foundations offering financial aid to ease students’ material hardships during studies or even making them possible in the first place, played an important role in the emergence of an educated class of Slovenians. A major foundation of this kind was the Knafelj Scholarship Foundation for Carniolans. The Knafelj scholarship was awarded without interruption from the foundation’s establishment in 1676 until the break-up of Austria-Hungary in 1918. Throughout this time, Knafelj’s aid was received by over 1200 Slovenian students who studied at the Viennese university, including at least a third of the prominent figures in the Slovenian cultural and political arena.

Today, Luka Knafelj is still a relatively little known figure in Slovenia on account of the scant information we have about his life. We know that he was born in 1621 in Ribnica in the Dolenjska region and that he received schooling from Cistercians in Stična and Jesuits in Ljubljana and Graz in Styria. He was ordained a priest in 1648 at the diocesan chapel of St Andrew in Vienna by the Viennese bishop of the time, Philip Friedrich Breunner. After his ordainment, he first served as a priest in the court hospital, where he seems to have established close ties with the court because he became the parish priest of a rich imperial parish in Gross Russbach in Lower Austria in 1658. The parish and its appurtenant estates were the main source of Knafelj’s income, sufficient to allow him to buy a house in Vienna, where he lived when not in Gross Russbach. As he grew weak and was dying from consumption in the spring of 1671, he wrote a will leaving almost all of his property to a scholarship foundation. In accordance with the terms of the will and the existing administrative partition of the Slovenian provinces, the foundation was intended for students born in Carniola, i.e. Slovenians and Germans. This meant that its scholarships could be received by young men from only a third of Slovenian territory, but it is significant that this third was the most Slovenian part of all our territory, so it largely went to students with a Slovenian ethnic background.

It is not really known how the barely fifty-year-old Slovenian priest struck on the idea of leaving his property to a scholarship foundation. But it is very likely that he was inspired by his fellow countryman, friend and executor of his will, later the rector of the Viennese university, Jurij (Georg) Wohinz. Wohinz, a distinguished professor of law, was also the one who drew up its charter in 1676 (during his term as rector) and grants have been awarded without interruption ever since. A superintendent, appointed by the university consistory (or later, the academic senate) was put in charge of its proper management. Under the diligent management of the superintendents, not infrequently former Knafelj scholarship recipients, the number of scholarships grew from the original four to thirty-nine each year by the time of the First World War, and the scholarship sum was high enough to cover about 80 to 90% of a student’s costs of living in Vienna.

The foundation had a small capital stock, invested in bonds, but its chief source of financing was a house in present-day Seilerstatte in the first district of Vienna. In the mid-19th century, when the assiduous Ferdinand Suppantschitsch was the superintendent, the house had just been built. The superintendents were fully aware of its importance and steadfastly resisted various suggestions to sell it. Perhaps they were not really aware of their own foresight, but the house and its income were the only way the foundation managed to survive not only all the financial shocks in the old monarchy but also both world wars.

After the monarchy disintegrated, the scholarships stopped on account of the diminished number of Carniolan students coming to Vienna. Soon after the University of Ljubljana was established, it made some attempts to claim its management. But although the Knafelj Foundation as a property, which would pass into Slovenian hands after the break-up of the monarchy, was even referred to in the St. Germain peace treaty, these efforts soon faded away. They were not revived until 1935 on the initiative of the Ljubljana university students, gathered around the so-called Academic Action, but the foundation was stopped from being handed over to the university’s management by the outbreak of the Second World War. Negotiations did not resume until the early 1950s and, in 1961, the Knafelj Foundation passed into the management of the Ljubljana university, since it was originally placed under the Viennese university’s management rather than its ownership. The Ljubljana university may likewise only manage it according to the charter provisions but may not appropriate it or even change its purpose, since this has not been provided for by its founders. From 1961 to the mid-1980s, the University of Ljubljana thus duly awarded a few modest scholarships for the study of junior university experts in Vienna and, at the same time, remodelled one of the flats for its scholarship recipients and other associates staying in the Austrian capital for study purposes.

Knafelj’s aid was received by students of law, medicine and philosophy, but not divinity. In the last decades of the 19th century, when a bitter conflict began between the catholic and the liberal party, the supporters of the liberal camp argued that Knafelj “overlooked” divinity students because he was an “unhappy priest”, but there is no proof of this. It is much more likely that Knafelj did not include divinity students because they already had their own supporting institutions. Most of them came from the countryside and from the lower social classes. Knafelj scholarship recipients included: the lawyer Tomaž Dolinar, the linguist Jernej Kopitar, the missionary and later “Indian bishop” Friderik Baraga, who studied law at first, the poet France Prešeren and a part of his circle (Miha Kastelic, Matija Gollmaier and others), the politicians Luka Svetec and Valentin Zarnik, the poet Simon Jenko, the politician and historian Fran Šuklje, the writer and politician Ivan Tavčar, the writer Fran Detela, the historian Franc Kos, the poet Oton Župačič, the literary historian Ivan Prijatelj, the social democrat Henrik Tuma, the writer Fran Govekar, the mathematician Josip Plemelj, the professor of Slavic studies Rajko Nahtigal, the geographer Anton Melik, the art historian France Stele, the literary critic and historian Koblar, etc. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Knafelj scholarship also began to be awarded to the first female students. It is understandable that the foundation figured prominently at home in Carniola and there are several records by various authors dating from the second half of the 19th century that speculate on who the founder was and celebrate his decision.

The Knafelj scholarship fund thus brought Vienna closer to Slovenian students so they could overcome the kilometres and the years of development separating their home community from the Austrian capital. The Viennese university and the superintendent awarded the scholarships adeptly; there were very few dropouts among the scholarship recipients and the subsequent creative contribution made by more than a third of students supported by the Knafelj Foundation to Slovenian cultural and political history shows that the awarders indeed succeeded in selecting the most competent candidates. The Knafelj Foundation and its place in Slovenian history are therefore also the results of the Viennese university’s scholarship policies, which in many ways can be taken as an example in Slovenia even today.
(by Peter Vodopivec)

Introductory Article from the Knafelj Foundation Brochure

“Look, our dinner!” a penniless Carniolan student cried happily to his friend at the sight of the Knafelj Foundation building as they were searching for shelter and a roof over their head. In its three hundred years of history, the institution supported many Slovenian students in Vienna.

The foresight of the eminent Luka Knafelj ensured the development of Slovenian culture and firmly linked it to Vienna, the cultural centre of Central Europe.
From its establishment onwards, the foundation was run admirably by the University of Vienna. Even in the face of great historical upheavals, it made sure that the foundation carried out its mission. Equally committed to this aim is the University of Ljubljana, which understood the signs of the times and restored the foundation’s verve in the years of European integration. Its determination, along with ample support from the republics of Austria and Slovenia and the city of Vienna, are noble investments into the development of cultural and scientific cooperation between nations.

It is now the task of the Foundation’s head committee, Mrs. Marjeta Vilfan and Mrs. Mihaela Kranjc as its main secretaries from the University of Ljubljana, Dr. Anton Koren, the director of Mohorjeva družba, Klagenfurt, which handled the renovation of the house, and me as trustee – to revive the founder’s wish and the Foundation’s purpose: providing support for students.

The Foundation’s key asset is the house in the first district of Vienna. Its renovation concept was prepared by Dr. Jože Kušar, the president of the Foundation Supervisory Board, and its renovation was headed by the Viennese architect Adelio Espinosa.

On behalf of Luka Knafelj, the members of the trust and myself, I would like to thank everybody who helped breathe new life into the Foundation.

 President of the Management Committee (trust), Anton Levstek, MA