1941 was a Biblical year for the Serb people!

That, for the most part, refers to the Serb people on the territory of the Independent State of Croatia having faced the prospect of total extermination, and furthermore, to the cruel reprisals they were met with under occupation and the breakup of Serbia. The Genocide of Serbs in the Independent State of Croatia is one of those historical events which had a fundamental impact on our identity today, as well as our understanding of endurance, and our own existence.

As is well-known in the scientific communities, the preparation for the Genocide of Serbs was achieved through the ideology of Croatian justice and the actions of the Roman Catholic Church, united into a joint idea of the Croatian state and historical justice, that is, into a concept of a single political people, which arose in the Croat circles in the mid-19th century, although the roots of the intolerance historically go a lot deeper. The result of this was that the Serbs became dehumanized and targeted as a group. Even before World War II, plans were being made to perpetrate a genocide in order to achieve an ethnically pure Croat state. During their emigration to foreign countries, the leaders of the Ustasha movement were considering methods of mass violence,such as the Turkish genocide of Armenians, in order to deploy similar methods against Serbs, and during the war they continued to consult with their Nazi allies and role models. Expelling Serbs and forcing them to convert to Catholicism was only a part of the project that was ready to be put into motion when World War II began and the Independent State of Croatia was formed. Apart from individual and mass killings, the drastic, most obvious part of the effort included establishing a large number of concentration camps.

According to some historians, there were 24 concentration camps operated in the Independent State of Croatia, and many sites for imprisonment and transportation. Two of the largest death camp complexes were Gospić-Jadovno-Pag, in operation from April or May 1941 through August 15, 1945, and the Jasenovac Concentration Camp, in operation from late August 1941 to April 22, 1945, when the last remaining group of Jasenovac prisoners carried out an escape effort. Most Serbs were killed at local execution sites across the country, while the large concentration camp systems became the symbol of the overall suffering in the Independent State of Croatia.

From the very beginning, the genocide was carried out with the approval and direction from the country. The Independent State of Croatia used its entire bureaucratic, military, police, traffic and other infrastructure. Apart from a large number of perpetrators, the majority supported the crimes, while some merely stood on the sidelines and did nothing to stop the crimes. Some, few and far between, who condemned it, were themselves sent to Jasenovac.

One of the characteristics of the Genocide in the Independent State of Croatia were children’s camps, and also the especially cruel nature of the crimes: victims were thrown into karst pits in Lika, Dalmatia and Herzegovina, as well as other areas. Another characteristic showing the monstrosity of the crime was the “direct contact between perpetrator and victim”, a hard-to-explain level of sadism: slaughter, murder with hammers and other blunt weapons, hanging…

When faced with total extermination, the Serb people countered with a mass uprising against the State Nation of Croatia and an anti-occupation effort with a singular goal — to survive. Some time later, the movement split off into a communist-revolutionary branch and a royalist branch, which gave rise to a cruel civil war and new losses for the Serb people.

Returning to the subject of the concentration camps, it is worth remembering the fact that two of the largest systems, Gospić-Jadovno-Pag and Jasenovac, operated alongside one another throughout the entire existence of the Independent State of Croatia. In a way, they form its essence, the axis of its (lack of) reason. First and foremost, the point was to destroy Serbs, and then, following the rising Nazi order, with very little outside initiative, to move on to destroying the Jews and the Romani. The list of examples of the evil in the Independent State of Croatia and Jasenovac can certainly count with a now well-known document stating that the camp systems have an unlimited capacity to receive new prisoners. That only meant one thing — horrendous mass killings.

Jasenovac Concentration and death camp

This camp system known for its particular cruelty was located in an area covering 210 square kilometers and consisted of camps (referred to by historians as camps I-V), execution sites, the largest of which is certainly Donja Gradina, and other camp locations and buildings. Camps I and II, that is, “Krapje” and “Bročice” (“Šuma”), were closed as early as November 1941 due to flloding, at which point the so-called “Jasenovac Camp no. 3”, named “Ciglana”, was established in the industrial objects of the company “Bačić i Drug”, about 1,5 kilometers down the Sava river. The camp no. 4 was located in the “Kožara” building in the actual town of Jasenovac, while the “Stara Gradiška” camp, that is, the camp no. 5, was a separate entity.

The things that happened in the Jasenovac camps and execution sites are difficult or impossible to fully put into words. It appears that the Serb people of today understand and remember it, rationally or irrationally, physically and metaphysically. It is already a part of what is known as the collective conscious, but also the collective unconscious. Faced with this symbol of evil, our ancestors wore the robes of martyrs and witnesses, that we still wear to this day, and which can be most adequately understood through the liturgical memory of our church and the Kosovo votive vertical. The science of history is merely one of the tools used in that effort.

The most horrific episodes of Jasenovac “blew up” following the martyrdom epic at Kozara and Potkozarje, which flooded the Jasenovac trails with slaves after the Ustasha-German offensive in the summer 1942. Waves of senseless swamped this system almost until the very end of the war in 1945. We will not go into the discussions that have been going for a long time in historiography, or still are, such as “Why was Jasenovac not liberated?”, or into statistical reviews of the exact number of victims, which is unfortunately not known to this day, and likely never will be. (Which is not to say that we should not be working on victim lists. On the contrary!)

Women and children from Kozarska Dubica transported to Jasenovac

What, then, is the point of understanding and observing April 22 in our history? According to the testimonies of the surviving prisoners, on April 21, 1945, aware of the impending end, the Ustasha took the last remaining group of women prisoners to Donja Gradina and executed them. There were a few hundred of them, and as they were forcibly dragged into the column, they were singing!

Watching this almost surreal scene, the men’s camp fell into a silence. Realizing what was about to happen, the surviving prisoners from the “Ciglana” camp, the bravest among them, concocted an escape plan during the night, as they were all set to die. Milutin Mirić, a Jasenovac prisoner and participant in the escape effort, testified that his assignment was to signal Ante Bakotić and the rest of the participants at exactly 10 minutes before 10 o’clock in the morning, which would mark the beginning of the breakthrough. Ilija Ivanović from Gornji Podgradci, son of a Jasenovac prisoner, later wrote in his book, “Witness of the Jasenovac Hell” (orig. “Svjedok jasenovačkog pakla”):

I run towards the exit, where prisoners are struggling to open the gates. To the right, on the road inside the camp grounds, prisoner Mile Ristić is shooting a machine gun. There’s a dead Ustasha at his feet. Now the Ustashas have to watch their back too. As I run, I keep saying to myself: —It won’t hit me, it won’t hit me, it won’t… I encourage myself. I’m hoping. I run past the gate. There’s a lot of dead and wounded. I jump over them, I step on the corpses. I’m on the road. To the right is the Sava river, deep, cold. It is filled with prisoners. Head to head.

(….) Before an incoming group of prisoners, the Ustashas scattered left and right. A particularly brave one stood in front of the rush of prisoners, intending to stop us. The group runs directly at him. He kills one, another, that’s as far as he got, he was met with the punishment he deserved. The prisoners simply trampled him. I was under the impression that they didn’t even stop. He paid a high price for his bravery. Exhausted, hungry, and until this morning, powerless prisoners have turned into lions, ripping and killing with their bare hands.

Same as the Serbs were forced to stage an uprising and save what could be saved in the early summer 1941, first in Herzegovina, and later in other parts of the Independent State of Croatia, history — or fate — determined that the end of the hell in Jasenovac was to come in the form of a breakthrough, a self-liberation, with the understanding that many would not survive. However, it was the only option that promised survival, at least to some. Out of a little more than 1,000 prisoners from the “Ciglana”, around 90 survived the breakthrough, and only about 12 of the 87 who were in the “Kožara”. In other areas of the camp, another 55 prisoners survived in different ways. 167 total, according to the research so far. A breakthrough, essentially doomed, was the only chance of survival.

And same as Ilija Ivanović sought the road to salvation in his town Podgradci, in his dreams the night before and in reality on the day of the breakthrough, only looking back at Jasenovac for orientation, it appears that in the 90s the Serbs from the erstwhile socialist republics of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia understood the old Ćopić quote that Serbs suffer when there is no country. Looking back at Jasenovac, Jadovno, Prebilovci, Stari Brod, Korita, they have built a wall which offered them a fight to defend themselves, and offered them a chance to prevent Jasenovac from happening again. And it didn’t, despite everything. It did not happen again, even though the Republic of Serb Krajina no longer exists, except in our memories. In Croatia and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbs have been euphemistically “reduced” to around 3% of the population. THE REPUBLIC OF SRPSKA DEFENDED ITSELF.

Jasenovac Orthodox Monastery

Because of everything, keeping in mind that Donja Gradina is located on the territory of the Republic of Srpska, and that the Jasenovac Monastery observes the holiday of the Holy New Martyrs of Jasenovac on September 13, the date of April 22, in addition to being the Day of Remembrance of Serb Genocide Victims, as well as the heroes of the uprising and the fight, also serves to remind us that we still have not paid in full the debt to commemorate this site with dignity. The site which Bishop Atanasije (Jevtić) called perhaps more sacred than Kosovo.

In the days when the Republic of Srpska is once again facing huge pressure in light of the global changes, it is our duty and our obligation to build a responsible culture and a policy of remembrance, now more than ever.

Predrag Lozo, historian