The Auschwitz of the Balkans

The Croatian concentration camp Jasenovać is the site of fierce ongoing controversy, muddled by extremists and cover-ups, about the extent of its horrors

Dr. Efraim Zuroff

In every country in Europe where the Holocaust took place—meaning the entire continent with the exception of Great Britain and the six neutral states—there are iconic sites that have come to symbolize the Shoah. Outside of Eastern Europe, where the systematic mass murder of Jews occurred, these sites are generally transit camps and places where large numbers of Jews were murdered or rounded up. In France for example, two such places are the Paris Vélodrome d’Hiver cycling stadium, and the Drancy transit camp. In July 1942, 13,000 Jews were held in the stadium for days under awful conditions, prior to their transfer to the transit camp for deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the Netherlands, this site is the Hollandsche Schouwburg and the Westerbork Dutch transit camp. Tens of thousands of Dutch Jews were held in the former before being sent to Westerbork, from which they were deported to the Auschwitz and Sobibor death camps. In Belgium, there is the Mechlen (Malines) transit camp, from which the local Jews were sent to their deaths.

In Eastern Europe, where the Nazis systematically implemented the Final Solution, initially by shooting and later by asphyxiation in gas vans and gas chambers, the most significant sites are invariably sites of mass annihilation. There is Auschwitz in Poland, Babi Yar (Kyiv) in Ukraine, Maly Trostinec (Minsk) in Belarus, Ponar (Vilna) in Lithuania and Rumbula (Riga) in Latvia. Such sites usually host the official state memorial ceremonies throughout Europe, and some also include educational centers.

Besides the differences between the nature of the crimes committed in the iconic sites of Western and Eastern Europe, there is another issue that has plagued the history of the former Soviet and communist-ruled countries. Unlike the notorious sites in Western Europe, where the histories of the crimes committed and the figures of the victims have been meticulously researched, and are universally accepted as accurate, the sites in Eastern Europe often are the subject of intense controversy and highly disparate historical narratives.

These discrepancies, which are the product of ideological communist Holocaust distortion, manifest themselves regarding three very important subjects: the identity of the victims, the identity of the perpetrators, and the number of victims. As far as the latter is concerned, I will never forget my shock when I first visited Auschwitz in 1978 and came across plaques in many languages at the foot of the memorial at Birkenau commemorating the “4 million victims.” By that time I was a doctoral student in Holocaust studies at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University, and it was obvious to me that that figure was grossly inflated. Indeed, not long after the transition to democracy in Poland, a commission of reputable historians established that approximately 1.3 million people were murdered in Auschwitz, among them 1.1 million Jews. Also shocking were the Soviet monuments in sites such Ponar, Rumbula and Babi Yar dedicated “To the victims of fascism,” which hid the identities of both the victims and the perpetrators—although following the transition to democracy in Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine more accurate inscriptions replaced them.

Unfortunately, to this day, such accurate corrections have not been made at every Eastern European mass murder site, a situation that has had extremely grievous consequences in one particular region. I am referring here to the Croatian concentration camp of Jasenovać, which was nicknamed “the Auschwitz of the Balkans.” Jasenovać was neither the largest camp in Europe, nor the site where the largest number of victims were killed, but it did have four unique characteristics. One is that it was the operational center of three genocidal campaigns orchestrated by the government of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH-Nezavisna Država Hrvatska in Croatian) against Serbs, Jews, and Roma. Another is that it was the only concentration camp established by a Nazi satellite state which had a very high death toll. A third unique characteristic is that it was the only concentration camp with a separate subcamp especially for children. And the fourth is that to this day, the approximate number of its victims is being fiercely debated by Serbs, Jews, Roma, and Croats, with huge discrepancies between the figures presented by the extremists on both sides. While some Serbs continue to quote the communists’ original figure of 700,000 or perhaps even more, Croatian Ustasha apologists and extreme nationalists quite recently have claimed that Jasenovać was actually only a labor camp during the Ustasha regime of World War II, but became a death camp after the war, where the Yugoslav communist regime murdered its opponents.

In order to understand this ongoing controversy, it is important to examine the history of the territory of Yugoslavia during World War II, as well as the history of the camp itself. Yugoslavia (the Kingdom of the Southern Slavs) was one of the many countries established in the wave of post-World War I self-determination, which led to the dismemberment of the czarist empire in Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Unlike most of the other new countries, Yugoslavia was not the nation-state of a particular people, but rather a country whose population was composed of several ethnic groups. The Serbs were the largest, but there were also demographically significant groups of Croatians, Bosnian Muslims, Slovenes, Macedonians, Albanians, and Montenegrins. Germany and Italy invaded Yugoslavia in early April 1941, and quickly occupied the entire country, which was cut up into several pieces, each of which had a different fate.

On April 10, 1941, Germany and Italy established the Independent State of Croatia, whose territory consisted of what is today Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a small part of Serbia (Syrmia). Its population numbered 6.3 million inhabitants, barely half of whom were Catholic Croats. The largest minority was the 1.9 million Orthodox Serbs, and there were also 40,000 Jews and 30,000 Roma, besides hundreds of thousands of Croat Muslims, and smaller communities of Germans and Hungarians. Rule over this new entity was entrusted to the Ustasha movement headed by Ante Pavelić, who became the head of state (Poglavnik), a position modeled after Hitler and Mussolini, whom he admired. The Ustasha were a Croatian ultranationalist, fascist, racist, and terrorist movement founded in Italy in 1929, which sought to establish an independent Croatian state. Much of its ideology was based on Nazi racial theory that considered Jews, Roma, and Slavs (in their case Serbs), to be subhuman. Thus it was hardly surprising that from the very beginning of their rule, the Ustasha began to discriminate against minorities and within months began the mass murder of Serbs, Jews, and Roma.

The Jasenovać concentration camp played a key role in the mass murder of those considered subhuman enemies of the state. Established in August 1941, near a village of the same name at the confluence of the Sava and Una rivers, it was a complex of five different compounds spread over an area of about 80 square miles on both banks of the two rivers. The camp was constructed and run by Department III of the “Ustasha Supervisory Service,” a special police force. The majority of the inmates in Jasenovać were Serbs, many of whom were deported to the camp after refusing to convert to Catholicism. They were also the largest number of victims, with the lowest estimates (based on the more than 80,000 names collected after the war) ranging from at least 60,000. Jews were the second-largest group of victims, with estimates ranging from 13,000 to 25,000, though almost all were murdered before August 1942, when the deportations of Croatian Jews to Auschwitz began. The number of Roma victims was similar to that of the Jews, and several thousand anti-fascist Croatians were also murdered in Jasenovać. Among the 83,145 victims whose fate was documented after World War II, more than half were women (23,474) and Serb, Jewish, and Roma children (20,171).

Jasenovać did not have the apparatus for mass annihilation, but it nonetheless is often referred to, especially by survivors, as an “extermination camp,” a term usually reserved only for camps with gas chambers or gas vans. This is easily explained by the large numbers of murders that took place at the camp, and the exceptional cruelty of the Ustasha guards, who were notorious for the tortures they devised to increase the suffering of the inmates. For example, in the case of men, they plucked out eyeballs, inserted hot nails under fingernails, and tightened chains around heads until the skull fractured and the inmate’s eyes popped out. Their treatment of female inmates was even worse and included rape, cutting off breasts, and cutting out wombs of pregnant women. To these horrors, one must add the living conditions of the inmates, who were systematically starved and lived without the slightest condition of sanitation, while conducting difficult forced labor 11 hours a day, all under the constant threat of random torture and execution. Staying alive often depended on one’s physical strength and the duration of punishment. Anyone who arrived in Jasenovać with an indeterminate sentence, of one or three years or more, was immediately slated to be executed.

The executions were carried out in various ways. Some victims were killed by cremation while alive (in some cases after being drugged) in the ovens of the brick factory in Jasenovać, or were poisoned in the Stara Gradiska subcamp, which had gas chambers that used the cyanide-based poison Zyklon B. Other inmates were slaughtered by manual means, using knives, saws, hammers, and other blunt instruments. One of the locations for these executions was “Granik,” a dock on the Sava River used to unload goods. The notorious Vjekoslav “Maks” Luburić, who was in charge of all the Ustasha concentration camps, devised a way to use the crane as a gallows so that the bodies of the victims would fall into the river and be carried away by the current. Weights were attached to the arms of the victims, their intestines and necks were slashed, and they were pushed into the river with a blow of a blunt tool to the back of their heads. Later victims were tied in pairs back to back and tossed into the Sava alive. Another site of numerous murders was Gradina, where the Ustasha set aside empty areas near the villages of Gradina and Uštica for mass murders and graves. The victims were murdered with knives, or had their skulls smashed with mallets. Many Roma were worked to death at these two sites; and some Roma were used as gravediggers who participated in the crimes. Over 100 mass graves have already been found in Gradina, and 21 in Uštica. All these crimes were carried out under the direction of Luburić and the five commanders of the camp: Ljubo Miloš, Miloslav Filipović, Ivica Matković, Ante Vraban, and Dinko Šakić.

Unlike the notorious sites in Western Europe, where the histories of the crimes committed and the figures of the victims have been meticulously researched, and are universally accepted as accurate, the sites in Eastern Europe often are the subject of intense controversy and highly disparate historical narratives.Share→︎TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkCopied link

Toward the end of the war, the Ustasha tried to destroy the evidence of their crimes and began digging up and burning the corpses of the victims of Jasenovać. Nonetheless, the murders continued—in early April 1945, civilian survivors from Sarajevo and 1,590 inmates from Lepoglava prison were brought to Jasenovać, where they were killed. On April 19, Luburić commanded his soldiers to destroy the camp, and the Ustasha murdered the remaining medical staff, the sick inmates, and skilled workers who until then had been spared. Two days later, the remaining 700-900 women were executed. On April 22, 600 male prisoners (out of the remaining 1,073) revolted, but only 92 survived. All the rest were murdered and the structures in the camp were set on fire and destroyed.

Since the end of World War II, the precise number of victims murdered in Jasenovać has been a subject of fierce debate fueled by ideological agendas. Part of the problem is, as noted by historian Ivo Goldstein, one of the leading scholars on the Holocaust in Croatia and on Jasenovać, that the Ustasha tried very hard to hide their crimes. Thus many victims were taken directly to execution sites like the Sava River to be murdered, without being registered at the camp, and the registration files that existed were later destroyed by the Ustasha. In addition, much evidence was destroyed by them with the massive excavation and burning of corpses in the final months of the camp’s existence.

Internal Yugoslav politics also played an important role in crafting the accepted postwar historical narrative of World War II within the country. The major emphasis was initially on commemorating the victorious partisans, not on the civilian victims. The authorities identified the Nazi and fascist occupiers as the major villains and at first did not focus much attention on the Ustasha. Seeking to avoid ethnic strife, they did not emphasize the national identity either of the Ustasha or of the Chetniks (Serbian guerrilla units that initially fought against the occupiers, but later joined forces with them against Tito’s communist partisans). Given the Serbian political domination of postwar Yugoslavia, however, it was only natural that when dealing with the issue of the civilian victims of World War II, their version of the events would be adopted as the official narrative of the country’s history. Thus, for example, a November 1945 investigation of Ustasha crimes assessed the number of victims at Jasenovać as between half a million and 600,000, a figure which also was cited by Israeli scholars as late as 1990. During the 1980s, Serbian researchers, such as Dr. Milan Bulajić, who was the director of the Belgrade Museum of Genocide Victims, estimated the number of Jasenovać victims at between 700,000 and 1 million. A decade later, Antun Miletić, the director of the Belgrade Military Archives, claimed that the death toll in Jasenovać was 1.1 million victims.

By this time, Croatia had broken away from Yugoslavia and established its independence, a development that had a highly significant influence on a wide range of issues concerning Jasenovać—the main camp and state memorial of which were in Croatia, while the killing fields of Dona Gradina were in what became Republika Srpska, the Serbian part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Initially, the status of the memorial was reduced to that of a nature park and its funding was cut. But revisionist views began to surface, often with the support of the Catholic Church, and in 1996, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman proposed to rebury Ustasha perpetrators alongside camp victims in Jasenovać, an initiative which was thwarted by strong protests from the United States, Israel, world Jewry, and Croatian leftists. In the same year, the English version of Tudjman’s book Horrors of War: Historical Reality and Philosophy was published, in which he not only accused the Jews of inflating the number of Holocaust victims from 1 million to 6 million, but also claimed that the Jews ran Jasenovać until 1944, and that the number of Jasenovać victims was actually somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000. In response, Israel refused to establish full diplomatic relations with Croatia, which might have been one of the main reasons why Croatia prosecuted Jasenovać commandant Dinko Šakić not long afterwards.

It was Šakić‘s trial in Zagreb in 1999 that, for the first time since independence, put Jasenovać on the center stage in Croatia. Dinko Šakić, one of its six commanders, had joined the camp administration in spring 1941, became assistant commander in 1942, and served as chief commandant from April to November 1944. After the end of the war, he fled together with other Ustasha criminals to Argentina, where together with my colleague Sergio Widder and local journalist Jorge Camarasa, we were able to find and expose him on national television. At the time of his trial, he was the last living concentration camp commander. The testimonies of the witnesses, survivors of the camp, were a stark reminder of the horrors of Jasenovać, and an important history lesson for Croatian society. Šakić‘s arrogant lack of repentance (“I am proud of what I did and would do it again … I regret that we hadn’t done all that is imputed to us, for had we done that then, today Croatia would not have had problems. There wouldn’t have been people to write these lies.”) also helped convince the government that Jasenovać had to be able to convey the horrors of the triple genocide, but none of these factors could settle the dispute about the number of victims.

Thus Croatian society remained divided and ambivalent about Ustasha crimes, which was clearly reflected in the new exhibition launched at the Jasenovać Memorial Museum in 2006. Missing from the display were all of the Ustasha killing instruments, which had been shown in previous exhibitions, but even more significant was the lack of any explanation of the Ustasha movement, its bloody history, and horrific ideology. Nor was there a single photograph of any of the commanders of Jasenovać who were personally responsible for the mass murders. And last but not least, there was no mention at all of the trial of Dinko Šakić, the most important step taken by an independent democratic Croatia to fight against Holocaust denial and distortion.

More recently, the dispute over the number of victims of Jasenovać has again been ignited by extremists on both sides. In 2016, filmmaker Jakob Sedlar released his revisionist documentary, Jasenovać—The Truth, which drastically minimized the death toll during World War II and claimed that the camp was used by the communist regime after the war to murder its political opponents. Despite protests about the content, and proofs that he had staged false scenes, Sedlar was given awards and honors. On the other side of the debate, Israeli historian Gideon Grief recently produced a coffee-table album on Jasenovać, which claims that the camp took 700,000 victims.

If there is any hope for a solution, it might come from a very recent academic conference on Jasenovać held virtually at Uppsala University in Sweden this past December, with the participation of many of the top scholars in the field. Their conclusion was that the number of victims of Jasenovać was between 90,000 and 130,000. One can only hope, that at least for the sake of the victims and their families, this issue will finally be resolved convincingly and be accepted by Serbs, Jews, Roma, and Croats alike.

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