The Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941. Vladko Maček, the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS) which was the most influential party in Croatia at the time, rejected offers by the Nazi Germany to lead the new government. On 10 April the most senior home-based Ustaša, Slavko Kvaternik, took control of the police in Zagreb and in a radio broadcast that day proclaimed the formation of the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH).
The new Independent State of Croatia” was established as a pro-Nazi government. It was dedicated to a clerical-fascist ideology influenced both by Nazism and extreme Roman Catholic fanaticism. On coming to power, the Ustaša Party dictatorship in Croatia quickly commenced on a systematic policy of racial extermination of all Serbs, Jews and Gypsies living within its borders.
The NDH was ruled by Ante Pavelic under the title Poglavnik, or “Headman”. Pavelic served as leader of the Independent State of Croatia, a puppet state of the Axis Powers, throughout the four years of its existence, but since the Ustaše did not have a capable army or administration necessary to control the territory, the Germans and the Italians split the NDH into two zones of influence, one in the southwest controlled by the Italians (with Pavelić as Headman), and the other in the northeast controlled by the Germans.
Pavelić first met with Adolf Hitler on June 6, 1941. Mile Budak, then a minister in Pavelić’s government, publicly proclaimed the violent racial policy of the state on 22 July 1941. The Ustaša’s organization was a typically fascist organization and its military strength was an instrument for the implementation of the Ustaša’s Nazi ideology.
The first “Legal order for the defense of the people and the state” dated April 17, 1941 ordered the death penalty for “infringement of the honor and vital interests of the Croatian people and the survival of the Independent State of Croatia”. It was soon followed by the “Legal order of races” and the “Legal order of the protection of Aryan blood and the honor of the Croatian people” dated April 30, 1941, as well as the “Order of the creation and definition of the racial-political committee” dated June 4, 1941.
The enforcement of these legal acts was done not only through normal courts but also new out-of-order courts as well as mobile court-martials with extended jurisdictions.
The NDH Ustaša terror was also aimed at the Serbian Orthodox Church. Three Orthodox bishops and most of the Orthodox priests were murdered by the end of 1941 in the cruelest of manners. During the war, 450 Orthodox churches were demolished. Mass conversions were forced upon Serb villagers but the exact number of Serbs forcibly converted to Catholicism has never been established.
One Orthodox Serb from Okučani reported:
“The new government told me that I’d have to convert to Roman Catholicism if I wanted to keep my job. I refused and was fired in July 1941. I moved my family to the nearby town of Okučani where I managed to find work. But in Okučani I was arrested, once by the Germans and once by the Croatian fascists. Both of those times I was released. Now I’ve been arrested yet again by the Croatian fascists. My crime—being a Serb.”
The Ustaša army (Ustaška vojnica) was organized by Slavko Kvaternik, and it was made up of Ustaša units (filled out with volunteers) under the direction of the Central Ustaša Headquarters, of special police units (redarstvo) and the Home Guard (domobrani), and in August of 1941 the Ustaša Secret Service was formed by Ustaša Security Service Kommando Eugen Dido Kvaternik who also oversaw the concentration camp system throughout the sphere of Ustaša control.
In the early stages of the Ustaša rule there were no legal regulations about sending people to concentration camps or the length of sentences. Such things were decided by Pavelić’s emissaries, district prefects, deputy prefects, camp supervisors and other Ustaša commanders. Such practices remained even later, and when the regulations were finally passed, no one actually obeyed them.
The first camps in the NDH were founded on the island of Pag at the place called Slano, on Mount Velebit near Gospić at a place called Jadovno, and in Bosnia at Kruščica near Travnik. Besides Jasenovac, the larger camps were:
Jasenovac was established in August, 1941 and was dismantled in April, 1945. The creation and management of the camp complex were given to Department III of the Croatian Security Police (Ustashka Nadzorna Sluzba; UNS) which was headed by Vjekoslav Maks Luburic, who commanded the Jasenovac camp.
The camp spread out over 210 square kilometers, along the Sava River from Stara Gradiska in the east to the village Krap1je in the west, and from Strug in the north to the line between Draksenic to Bistrica in the south.
The choice of the wider region of Jasenovac for such a monstrous camp was made for several reasons. One of them was certainly the suitable geographic position. The Zagreb-Belgrade railway was in the vicinity and was important for the transport of the prisoners. The terrain was surrounded by the rivers Sava, Una and Velika Struga, in the middle of the swampy Lonjsko poije area, so that escape from the camp was almost impossible.
On the other side of the Sava, the Gradina region was hardly accessible and often flooded by the river, uninhabited and far from all witnesses. It was the ideal place for hiding mass murders.
Jasenovac became the largest and most important concentration camp (sabirni logor) and extermination camp complex in the Nezavisna Hrvatska Drzava (NDH), Independent State of Croatia, during World War II. The Jasenovac concentration camp complex would be crucial in the systematic and planned genocide of the Orthodox Serbs of the Srpska Vojna Krajina and of Bosnia-Hercegovina by the Croats and Bosnian Muslims.
Other concentration camps were established in Sisak, Stara Gradiska, Djakovo, Lepoglava, Loborgrad. In all, there would be 22 concentration camps in the NDH, almost half of which were commanded by Roman Catholic Croatian priests.
The first transports brought Serbs and Jews to the nearby village of Krapje, which was 7 miles west of Jasenovac. At this site, the prisoners were forced to build the camp that was called Jasenovac Camp No. 1. A second camp was built after the increase in the number of prisoners called Camp No.2.
Camp No.3 was built near the Ciglara brick factory, Ozren Bacic & Company, at the mouth of the Lonja and downstream from Jasenovac. Camp No.4 was built in Jasenovac itself near the former leather factory. The camp at the nearby town of Stara Gradiska is referred to as Camp No.5.
The maximum capacity of all the camps was 7,000 prisoners but usually only 4,000 prisoners were there at any one time.
Jasenovac was in fact a system or complex of concentration and extermination camps occupying a surface of 130 square miles, set up under decree-law, No. 1528-2101-Z-1941, on September 25,1941, legally authorizing the creation of ‘assembly or work camps for undesirable and dangerous persons.
The Ustaše interned mostly Serbs in Jasenovac. Other victims included Jews, Bosniaks,Gypsies, and opponents of the Ustaša regime. Most of the Jews were murdered there until August 1942, when they started being deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Jews were sent to Jasenovac from all parts of Croatia after being gathered in Zagreb, and from Bosnia and Herzegovina after being gathered in Sarajevo.
Some came directly from other cities and smaller towns. On their arrival most were killed at execution sites near the camp: Granik, Gradina, and other places. Those kept alive were mostly skilled at needed professions and trades (doctors, pharmacists, electricians, shoemakers, goldsmiths, and so on) and were employed in services and workshops at Jasenovac.
The living conditions in the camp were extremely severe: a meager diet, deplorable accommodations, a particularly cruel regime, and cruel behavior by the Ustaše guards. The conditions improved only for short periods during visits by delegations, such as the press delegation that visited in February 1942 and a Red Cross delegation in June 1944.
Following the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, where the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ was formulated, the Germans proposed through SS Sturmbannfuehrer Hans Helm that the Croats transfer Jewish prisoners to German camps in the east.
Kvaternik, agreed that the NDH would arrest the Jews, take them to railheads, and pay the Germans 30 Reich marks per person for the cost of transport to the extermination camps in the east. The Germans agreed that the property of the Jews would go to the Croat government.
SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Franz Abromeit was sent to supervise the deportations to Auschwitz. From August 13-20,1942, 5,500 Jews from the NDH were transpoted to Aushwitz on five trains from the Croat concentration camps at Tenje and Loborgrad and from Zagreb and Sarajevo.
Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler was on a state visit to Zagreb in May,1943 when two trains on May 5 and 10 trasported 1,150 Jews to Auschwitz.
Wholesale murder of the prisoners was also carried out in the forest near the Krapje Camp, near the „Versaj“ Camp and „Uštica“ Camp on the whole left bank of the Sava, downriver from Jasenovac to Jablanac and Mlaka. Furthermore, within the complex of Camp III there was also a crematorium which was actually an oven for baking bricks, that the Ustaša converted for the use burning the bodies of their victims.
The crematorium became known as “Picili’s Funaceo” after the designer of the oven conversion plan, Hinko Picili.
In addition to the horrendous conditions in the Jasenovac camps, the guards also cruelly tortured, terrorized, and murdered prisoners at will. Here the most varied forms of torture were used: finger and toe nails were pulled out with metal instruments, eyes were dug out with specially constructed hooks, people were blinded by having needles stuck in their eyes, flesh was cut and then salted.
People were also flayed, had their noses, ears and tongues cut off with wire cutters, and had awls stuck in their hearts. Daughters were raped in front of their mothers, sons were tortured in front of their fathers.
The prisoners and all those who ended up in Jasenovac had their throats cut by the Ustaša with specially designed knives, or they were killed with axes, mallets and hammers; they were also shot, or they were hung from trees or light poles. Some were burned alive in hot furnaces, boiled in cauldrons, or drowned in the River Sava.
The acts of violence and depravity commited in Jasenovac were so brutal that General von Horstenau, Hitler’s representative in Zagreb, wrote:
“The Ustaša camps in the NDH are the “Epitome of horror”!
Stara Gradiska was the most notorious camp in the Jasenovac complex besides the main camp (Ciglana), mainly due to the crimes which were committed against women and children.
Camp staff, Antun Vrban, Nada Luburic, Maja Buzdon, Jozo Stojcic, and especially the commandant and former-friar Miroslav Filipovic-Majstorovic, were notorious both in Jasenovac and Stara Gradiska, for killing scores of inmates with his bare hands, women and children included.
In in cellar 3 at Stara Gradiska, (known as the “Gagro Hotel”), starved inmates were first tortured and then slowly strangled to death by wire.
In the Dinko Sakic trial, witness Ivo Senjanovic recalled how people were locked there without food or water:
“The people were gradually dying. It was horrible to hear them cry for help.”
The treatment of inmates was so horrific that on the night of August 29, 1942, bets were made among the prison guards as to who could liquidate the largest number of inmates. One of the guards, Petar Brzica reportedly cut the throats of 1,360 prisoners with a butcher knife. A gold watch, a silver service, a roasted suckling pig, and wine were among his rewards.
The type of knife used for cutting prisoners’ throats became known as srbosjek translated as the “Serb-cutter”. Because of his expertise with the sbosjek, Petar Brzica was dubbed “King of the Cut-throats”.
It is estimated that close to 600,000 (depending on who’s statistics you agree with), mostly Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, were murdered at Jasenovac.
The number of Jewish victims was between twenty and twenty-five thousand, most of whom were murdered there up to August 1942, when deportation of the Croatian Jews to Auschwitz for extermination began.
Statistics for Romani victims are difficult to assess, as there are no firm estimates of their number in prewar Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The best estimates calculate the number of Romani victims at about 26,000, of whom between 8,000 and 15,000 perished in Jasenovac.
There are only loose estimates for the number of Croats murdered by the Ustaša. This group included political and religious opponents of the regime, both Catholic and Muslim. Between 5,000 and 12,000 Croats are believed to have died in Jasenovac.
In early April 1945, the partisans were fighting nearby Jasenovac and its subcamps, so the Ustase began eliminating traces of the camp, killing some of the inmates and transporting others to Lepoglava and from there to Jasenovac I.
The ultimate liquidation of the Camp was begun on April 20, when the last large group of women and children was executed. On April 22, 1945, under the leadership of Ante Vukotic, about 600 people armed with bricks, poles, hammers and other things, broke down the doors, shattered windows and ran out of the building. About 470 people were sick and unable to fight barehanded with the armed Ustaša, so they did not take part in the rebellion.
The 150 meter long path to the east gate of the camp was covered by the crossfire of the Ustaša machine guns, and many prisoners were killed there. A large number of them was killed on the wires of the camp. A hundred prisoners managed to break through the broken gate of the camp. Only 80 prisoners survived while 520 of them died in the first assault. The remaining 470 within the camp were later killed by the Ustaša.
Yugoslav Army forces entered the Stara Gradiska camp on April 23, and Jasenovac on May 2, 1945. Before leaving the camp, the Ustaša killed the remaining prisoners, blasted and destroyed the buildings, guard-houses, torture rooms, the “Picili Furnace” and the other structures. Upon entering the camp, the liberators found only ruins, soot, smoke, and dead bodies.
During the following months of 1945, the grounds of Jasenovac were thoroughly destroyed by forced laborers, composed of 200 to 600 Domobran soldiers captured by the Partisans, thereby making the area a labor camp. They leveled the camp to the ground and among other things dismantled a two-kilometer long, four-meter high wall that surrounded it.
The National Committee of Croatia for the investigation of the crimes of the occupation forces and their collaborators stated in its report of November 15, 1945 that 500,000-600,000 people were killed at Jasenovac.
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