by Jean Toschi Marazzani Visconti
On November 19, 2019, for the first time outside Serbian territory, a conference on the Croatian extermination camp of Jasenovac – where from June 1941 to the end of the Second World War in 1945, almost one million people were killed in Jasenovac – Jewish, Serbian, Roma men, women and children. The existence of this camp has been carefully hidden for over seventy years, despite the efforts and demands of the families of the victims. The conference in Jerusalem therefore assumes enormous importance for the Serbs, it means a first step towards recognizing the existence of this place of captivity and death, where almost all Serbian families, especially those originating in Krajina and Bosnia, had lost a family member.
This small miracle occurred thanks to the commitment of two women, Ambassador Liliana Nikšić and Dragana Tomasević – president of the Serbian foundation Jasenovac & Holocaust Memorial Foundation based in London – and to the contribution of Prof. Gideon Greif, researcher and author of books on the Holocaust and Auschwitz and of the first multidisciplinary study that analyzes and compares the similarities between Jasenovac and Auschwitz entitled: Jasenovac – Auschwitz of the Balkans. The Ustasha empire of cruelty.
This untouchable topic was finally addressed, and has revealed the crimes committed by Croatian fascism in the presence of three surviving witnesses: a man and two women, who at the time were children, Buhač Radojčić, Smilja Tišma and Jelena Mraović.
The conference was supposed to last three days with the participation of Israeli experts, but someone put pressure on the government of Jerusalem; consequently it was downsized at the last minute.
In that context, however, a centre of Serbian-Israeli Studies was inaugurated in the extraordinary university headquarters ONO Academic College, in exchange for the opening of a similar Israeli-Serbian centre, which took place a short time earlier at the Philology department of the University of Belgrade.
When the Independent State of Croatia was proclaimed on 10 April 1941, the Poglavnik Ante Pavelić – a pupil of Italian fascism and a follower of German Nazism – had already organized several operational prison camps, before even signing an official order on 2 June 1941 for the establishment of camps for the containment and elimination of various uncomfortable ethnic groups: Jews first, followed by Serbs and Roma.
These camps, including Danica, Kerestinak, Gospić and Jadovno, were closed by order of the Italian military authorities, horrified by the brutality and cruelty employed. For the first time, sinkholes were used to expedite the elimination of prisoners.
Serbs became the main target of the Ustashas in deference to an equation devised by the Minister of Culture and Worship, Mile Budak, according to which a third of the Serbs had to convert to Catholicism; a third to leave the territories; a third to be eliminated.
For the duration of the Second World War, the Croatian Ustashas employed the detention complex near the town of Jasenovac, located at the confluence of the rivers Drina and Una, in western Slavonia for this purpose. The Ustasha themselves called it the death camp.
Jasenovac stretched over an area of approximately 210 square kilometers and consisted of a complex of eight concentration camps. Almost all of them were next to a stream, useful for the easy elimination of corpses. Fields number one and two, located east of Jasenovac, worked only a few months, then were flooded by the Sava river. The main camp was number three, which occupied 124 hectares next to the town of Jasenovac. In the ovens of the brick factory, Ciglana, inserted in the the camp complex, the corpses were incinerated. Prison number four was located in the small town of Jasenovac in a tannery, Kožara. In the village of Uštice there was camp five, reserved exclusively for the Roma. Installation six, built around the Serbian villages of Mlaka and Jablanac west of Jasenovac, held exclusively women and children up to the age of fourteen. Prison Seven had been placed in the old Austro-Hungarian fortress of Stara Gradiška. Camp eight, exactly in front of field 3 across the Sava river in Donja Gradina, was a 125-hectare enclosure mainly used for mass eliminations.
In those installations and in other minor ones, from 1941 to 1945 about a million human beings were killed: forty-five thousand of them were women and children. The barbarity of the camp left the German allies astonished, in the absence of advanced technical equipment, the Ustashas provided for the killings with manual tools. The weapon used mainly was called ustaška kama and was a half-moon shaped blade, sharpened on both sides, tied to the wrist with a leather bracelet. It made it possible to lead tirelessly without knocks in the hand.
This place is unknown to most of the European public. How could they hide this atrocious reality?
It was political convenience and prudence towards the Vatican: Jasenovac had been directed by a Catholic friar, Miroslav Filipović Majstorović, nicknamed Fra Satan. During his war crimes trial, the friar admitted that he was personally responsible for the death of at least forty thousand humans. Another friar followed him to the direction of the camp. At least 120 Franciscan friars engaged in the persecution of the Serbs. The Vatican participated in spreading a thick veil over the existence of that tragic place. This ignored tragedy allowed Pope John Paul II to beatify the Croatian primate of that time, Alojs Stepinac, the one who had blessed Ante Pavelić’s Ustasha regime and ignored the unchristian violence of his subordinates, as documented by the extraordinary book of Marco Aurelio Rivelli: The Archbishop of Genocide.
Even Tito wanted to stifle grudges to encourage the unification of Yugoslavia and impose oblivion on this painful page of their history, after the war. Perhaps a thoughtless decision, not allowing catharsis between Croats and Serbs causing other tragedies after his death.
In 2011, as a member of the International Jasenovac Camp Commission, I visited camp 3 in Jasenovac, Croatia, and was amazed and outraged by the beauty of the place, it looked like a golf course. All traces of prisoners’ lives have been erased. Next to the pond full of reeds and wild flowers, some rounded and circular shapes, covered with grass, indicate the place where the brick factory Ciglana stood, in whose ovens hundreds of bodies had been cremated. No sign of the barracks, nothing that remembers the life and work and punishment and suffering of the victims of the fascist regime of Ante Pavelic and his Ustasha. Only vast fields of swaying grass, a clean little train with the HDZ plaque on one side, a huge, heavy monument. Nothing else!
On the other side of the Sava river, camp 8 had remained in the territory of the Srpska Republic. Here too there are only expanses of floating grass and a huge slab of marble where the map of the place is engraved. The drawing shows many squares, arranged in a U shape with the curved part facing the Sava river, that represent where the mass graves are. About seven hundred thousand bodies, men, women and children lie together, united without barrier of race or religion. Walking along the paths, visitors see waves of green grass under the trees that cover the rest of these forgotten victims: they are the mass graves. At this sight a huge sense of rebellion and anger rises towards those who have been able to commit these unpunished crimes and who will probably repeat them, because they believe they have the right to. These green wave dwellers await justice.
In Jerusalem, a marble plaque was placed along the Via Crucis in 2019 with a Latin inscription in memory of the visit in 1937 of Blessed Aloys Stepinac, Cardinal Archbishop of Zagreb and Martyr. Isn’t it ironic?