Thousands of children of anti-fascists, Serbs and Roma were interned in special camps by Croatia’s Nazi-allied Ustasa regime during World War II – but nationalist right-wingers have been trying to rewrite this tragic history.
Beneath the landmark red-brick bridge in the town of Sisak, some 50 kilometres from the Croatian capital Zagreb, there’s an unusual statue.
It depicts seven small children standing or sitting around a rock in a – now dried-up – pool of water. Nothing about it suggests its purpose.
As we walk around it, the parents of children playing in a nearby playground eye us with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity, no doubt wondering what strangers might be doing looking at the dilapidated statue.
But although it is unmarked, the statue is actually a monument commemorating one of the greatest tragedies in the history of this former industrial town: a notorious World War Two concentration camp for children.
“The creator of the monument, Gabrijela Kolar, personally knew the children who are portrayed,” Sanja Horvatincic from the Zagreb Institute of Art History told BIRN.
“The boy sitting down, Milan, was saved from the camp by her [Kolar’s] parents, and luckily survived the war,” she added. “The piece, called ‘Unfinished Games’, is a unique monument. The site of the former camp has been transformed into a public park with a children’s playground. Such a concept was intentional, and was meant to console and give hope to the survivors of the war and to the visitors who are faced with the brutal history of the site.”
Fifty-five years after it was built, the monument can hardly be said to be giving hope.
The way it has been defaced by vandals and the fact that the story of the children it depicts remains hidden to passers-by serves as a fitting illustration of current attitudes towards the memory of Croatian children’s camps from World War II.
Since the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia, attempts to reinterpret the region’s WWII history have increased. Such revisionism often includes attempts to negate the victims or the crimes. In recent years in Croatia, this has also been the case with the children’s concentration camps, and efforts by revisionists to erase them from historical memory has cast a shadow over the country’s ability to deal with its tragic past.
It is estimated that tens of thousands of children were interned in various camps in Croatia during WWII, sometimes with their mothers, sometimes alone.
The camps were run mostly by the Croatian fascist Ustasa movement, while one of them (Lobor) was under the control of the local ethnic German members of the Nazi party.
The internees were mostly Serbs, Jews, Roma or anti-fascists from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
There are still traces of the former camp in the town of Sisak. Across the street from the children’s monument, the camp’s main building still stands, now housing a cinema and a theatre. Somewhat eerily, the building today has the name ‘Crystal Cube of Cheerfulness’.
On the other side of the town, across the road from the cemetery, a small park contains several inconspicuous plaques which inform passers-by that there are around 2,000 children – victims of the camp – buried under their feet. It’s probably the last remaining public sign in the town that explicitly commemorates the victims.
Sisak is not the only place like this – Jastrebarsko, a small town some 80 kilometres west of Sisak, was the location of another notorious camp.
Its castle, which once housed interned children, has no sign to indicate what it was used for during WWII. The same can be said of another castle in the village of Gornja Rijeka, north of Zagreb, and other places too. But Jastrebarsko was also the centre of a significant controversy when a peculiar commemoration was held in August last year.
The organisers of the commemoration – which included the church and the Jastrebarsko authorities, the Croatian War Veterans’ Ministry and several right-wing associations – claimed that they were preserving the memory of victims of Communism. The date chosen roughly coincided with the European Union’s day of remembrance for the victims of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.
The controversy erupted when it was discovered that the people they considered to have been ‘victims of Communism’ were, in fact, the children who the fascists had interned in Jastrebarsko in 1942.
The Jastrebarsko camp itself – as no one seems to dispute – was established in July 1942 with the participation of the Catholic Church and the permission of the Ustasa government, which during WWII ruled most parts of today’s Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina on behalf of its protectors from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.
Furthermore, those who were interned were mostly children of captured or killed members or supporters of the Communist-led resistance movement, usually ethnic Serbs from western Bosnia or surrounding regions of Croatia. More than 3,000 children were held at Jastrebarsko alone, a post-war victims’ commission concluded.
The organisers of the Jastrebarsko commemoration however attempted to convince the public that the children weren’t really interned in a camp, but instead were cared for in an orphanage.
They also argued that an (only partially successful) attempt by the resistance movement to release them in August 1942 was basically an attack on a humanitarian institution and thus just another in a long list of Communist crimes.
Rehabilitating the Ustasa
The Ustasa, a Croatian fascist movement established in Italy in 1929 and responsible for implementing the Holocaust, the extermination of Roma people and numerous crimes against ethnic Serb civilians in WWII Croatia and Bosnia, wasn’t well-known for its humanitarian activities.
But a score of state and church institutions, as well as amateur and professional historians that participated in the Jastrebarsko commemoration, didn’t allow themselves to be deterred by the implausibility of the story that the Ustasa would have attempted to organise care for the children of their victims.
In November last year, an even bigger event was organised in Sisak. Again, its organisers were local church authorities, but this time the participants were chosen more carefully and included many young historians, particularly ones employed at the Catholic University, an educational institution based in Zagreb and owned by the Church. This meeting in Sisak was dubbed a “scientific conference”.
But the dominant narrative of the event remained the same. The Sisak children’s camp was cited as key evidence that the Ustasa regime, despite its reputation, couldn’t have been as bad as it’s usually portrayed, having ‘taken care’ of the orphans as it did.
The participants ignored testimonies given after the war about the terrible condition in the camps, and the fact that some of the camps’ managers, such as Berta Pulherija – the nun who ran the Jastrebarsko camp and a close relative of Ustasa second-in-command Mile Budak – ended up with convictions for war crimes.
Mario Kevo, one of the historians who took part in the Sisak conference, claimed in an interview with Church newspaper Glas Koncila that “after the war… there is a real possibility that people gave statements… smearing and accusing [the Ustasa] so as not to fall foul of the new [Communist] authorities [in Croatia]”.
Historians like Kevo put a particularly strong emphasis on the claim that most if not all of the horror stories from such camps were fabricated by the Communists with the sole purpose of discrediting the Church.
Not everyone would agree – most notably the surviving victims themselves.
Novosti, a Zagreb-based weekly newspaper for the Serb community in Croatia, has been meticulously collecting survivors’ testimonies for the last couple of years and publishing them as a response to revisionist claims about the camps. Several former inmates have also contacted other media outlets themselves in an attempt to offer their side of the story.
One of them is 80-year-old Bozo Judas. His unusual story attracted attention early this year after a photographer called Ana Opalic published photos of a peculiar red dress which Judas claims saved his life while he was interned in the Sisak children’s camp.
Malnourished and neglected children in the camp wore what they could get their hands on, which is probably why Judas – although a boy – wore a girl’s dress. By a strange stroke of luck, a local bus driver and his wife decided to ask the camp authorities to adopt a girl, and they chose Judas.
“We were mistreated and beaten in the camp. Back then what is now the Cube of Cheerfulness was an unfinished building,” explained Judas in an extensive video testimony filmed by Zagreb-based NGO Documenta.
“The children were dirty, soiled and full of threadworms,” he added explaining the conditions. “When my future adoptive father came to the camp looking for a girl, I was near the entrance. Somehow, children sensed that the person who came had good intentions. I held him by the legs and refused to release him. As I was in a dress, he thought I was a girl and he took me.”
The adoptive family soon discovered the mistake but couldn’t force themselves to return the child to the hellish conditions at the camp. Paradoxically, Judas’s younger sister, with whom he was forcibly separated from the rest of their family before being transferred together to Sisak, remained in the camp after his adoption and later disappeared without a trace.
Judas still keeps the red dress, and plans to be buried with it.
Malnutrition and disease
The Sisak camp’s main building is now called the ‘Crystal Cube of Cheerfulness’. Photo: Nikola Vukobratovic.
The dress notwithstanding, Judas’s story is hardly unique, explained Milan Radanovic, a historian working in the Serb community’s archives in Zagreb and author of three books on WWII in the former Yugoslavia.
Judas belonged to the group of so-called ‘Kozara children’, named after a mountainous region in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina that was ‘cleansed’ of all inhabitants in the summer of 1942 by Nazi and Ustasa soldiers.
“Children were interned, usually with their mothers and siblings, originally in the Jasenovac camp complex and its secondary locations, where they remained for several weeks or months in the open, exposed to rain and sun, surrounded by wire and armed guards,” Radanovic told BIRN.
Interning children was part of a strategy to prevent resistance from the Communist Partisans, he said.
“Cleansing the region of the population was considered a part of the counter-Partisan strategy by both Nazis and Ustasa. They wanted to make sure that local peasants wouldn’t serve as support for the resistance movement,” he explained.
“The racist and chauvinist policies of the Ustasa regime played a key part in the levels of the brutality of this internment,” he added.
The reported high death toll of interned women and children, as well as news of the brutality that they endured, caused some stir in Zagreb.
One of the people moved to action was Diana Budisavljevic, an Austrian married to a Croatian doctor, who pleaded with the Church as well as with the German military authorities to spare the Kozara children.
In her diary, written during the war but not published until 2003, Budisavljevic chronicled her often unsuccessful attempts to provide humanitarian help to the children.
Through her connections to the remains of the Jewish and Serb communities in Zagreb, but also Nazi and Ustasa functionaries and Church dignitaries, she strived fearlessly to organise the distribution of food and clothes to the malnourished women and children in fascist camps. However, the aid was usually stolen by the authorities before any of the prisoners received it.
After many of the mothers captured in the Ustasa’s ‘pacification campaigns’ were transferred to Germany to work as slaves – including as sex slaves – their children were left alone in the camps.
“The poor little dead bodies were just left on the stairs, even their clothes were taken from them… Others were waiting to be transferred, constantly sitting on their chamber pots… their bowels hanging and full of flies…” Budisavljevic wrote in July 1942. This gruesome description of a combination of malnutrition, parasite infection and intestinal disease betrays sincere shock at the conditions in which the children were held.
The veracity of Budisavljevic’s story is generally not disputed, even if it clearly provides evidence against the Ustasa government and the claims that it was dedicated to saving the children.
One episode in her diary is particularly striking. When infamous Ustasa commander Max Luburic arrived at the camp in Stara Gradiska, he was so furious at people attempting to alleviate the suffering of the children that he threatened to make them “disappear”.
On the same day, children were brought out of the camp with the promise of food after days of starvation, then dressed in mock Ustasa uniforms, forced to do fascist salutes while being filmed, and finally left without any nourishment again.
The stories told in Budisavljevic’s diary form the basis of a documentary film called ‘Diana’s List’, made by young film-maker Dana Budisavljevic, a distant relation, which premiered in July and received multiple awards at the Pula Film Festival, the most prestigious festival of its kind in the country.
But Diana Budisavljevic is not primarily known for her attempts to provide food and clothes to internees, nor for the crimes that she witnessed. During the summer of 1942, she organised what she called an ‘action’ to save the children from the camps.
Using her status as the citizen of the Reich, she pleaded mercilessly with the Church and local authorities to take responsibility for the child internees. Grudgingly, they seemed to cave in, which led to further transfers from the camps and finally to a campaign of adoption.
Although Budisavljevic in her diary frequently despaired about the unwillingness of these institutions to help the children, the fact that control over the orphans formally passed from the military to the church and social authorities in August 1942 is often used as ‘proof’ of the benevolence of the church, and occasionally even the Ustasa regime itself.
Nikica Baric, a historian from the Croatian Institute of History in Zagreb, is particularly dissatisfied with the prominent role that has been given to Diana Budisavljevic lately. He has claimed, citing Ustasa documents, that it is quite clear that none on her work to save the children could have been done without the significant participation of the Ustasa themselves.
“If some journalists, commentators and politicians think that Diana Budisavljevic, secretly and against the will of the state, saved 12,000 Serb children, that makes no sense. It’s not 12 boxes of matches to be ‘hidden’ from the Ustasa,” Baric claimed in an interview with the far-right weekly Hrvatski tjednik in 2017.
“There are numerous documents that show how the Ustasa government participated [in the saving of children],” he added.
It could be argued, however, that it takes an amazing stretch of imagination to call the imprisonment of children after murdering their civilian parents because of their ethnicity an act of kindness. But that doesn’t seem to deter some people from doing so.
Changing children’s identities
The children’s cemetery in Dijana Budisavljevic Park in Sisak. Photo: Nikola Vukobratovic.
For many of the interned children, the camps were not their final destination, as they were often given up for adoption. As a rule, this implied changing their identities and background.
Natasa Matausic, a historian working at the Jasenovac camp memorial complex who is currently writing a PhD on Diana Budisavljevic, spoke to BIRN about this adaption plan.
“Only Catholics could adopt the children and had to raise them as Catholics even though everyone knew very well that the children were of Orthodox origin. Also, politically ‘suspicious’ people, those suspected of contacts with the Resistance, couldn’t adopt,” Matausic said.
Most of the disputes between historians in the last few years have concerned the issue of who should be credited with saving the lives of the children. This was mostly done through what was called ‘colonisation’ – adoption by Croatian families. It happened through the initiative of people like Budisavljevic, but also with the grudging acceptance of the fascist regime.
‘Stealing’ the children of imprisoned or executed anti-fascist parents was an established practise under other fascist regimes, especially the ones in General Franco’s Spain (1939-1975) and Argentina when it was ruled by a military junta (1976-1983). In those countries, the theft of babies remains an important issue and a source of great trauma to this day.
Last year, after years of struggle by families and victims, the first person was convicted of the ideologically-motivated theft of babies in Spain, where children of murdered or imprisoned anti-fascists were given for adoption to Franco-supporting families.
It is expected that some 2,000 cases of ideologically-motivated thefts of children await trial in Spain. But a Spanish NGO, SOS Bebes Robados, estimates that up to 300,000 babies were stolen. In Argentina, an association called Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo has been struggling to identify and return the children of the military junta’s political enemies for the last 32 years. It has managed to trace just a few hundred out of an estimated 30,000 of them.
Some of the descendants of ‘subversives’ – political enemies of the Argentinean military junta – have been returned to their families after genetic tests. Joint custody by both families was agreed on for a few others. In all of the cases, the trauma of conflicting identities is hard to imagine.
This was not Bozo Judas’s experience, however. He was aware of his real family but was perfectly happy with his adoptive one and doesn’t feel emotionally attached to his biological relatives.
His national identity? He identifies himself as a Croat, but didn’t think about it much as a child. Nor did others in the post-war period in Yugoslavia, he said.
“In my adoptive family, no one ever spoke about ethnic identities. The only difference was between Catholic and Orthodox Christmas,” he explained.
“Some have asked me how come I identify as a Croat, although my biological parents were almost certainly Serbs. It’s quite simple: without my adoptive Croat father, I wouldn’t be alive,” he said.
That isn’t a universal story, said Matausic: “You can see the differences. Some children insisted and searched for their parents, while others refused to go back to their biological parents even when they found them. There were also court cases about custody.”
But most of the children whose destiny Matausic researched – those that ended up in Zagreb – never even found out they were adopted, she believes.
Putting the ongoing dispute over the WWII children’s camps into context, historian Milan Radanovic argued that the political and religious authorities in Croatia have been involved in attempts to rehabilitate the Ustasa period.
“Recently we have been able to witness the government, especially some of the ministers, taking the lead in turning the Ustasa into victims, and the Church is participating more and more in the promotion of vulgar revisionism and negation of Ustasa crimes,” Radanovic claimed.
Wartime child detainee Bozo Judas has argued meanwhile that the victims are still not being given the proper commemoration.
“In every war, children should be treated as the biggest victims,” he said. “There is nothing more inhumane that putting children in camps.”
This article was produced as part of BIRN’s Balkan Transitional Justice grant scheme, supported by the European Commission.