Holocaust in Croatia

Many Eastern European nations are diverting their guilt in the Holocaust by saying that they were occupied. To me, that is like the German Nazis saying “We didn’t know.”

Croatia cannot claim they were occupied. The Independent State of Croatia was ruled by the Croatian fascist Ustaša movement. The Ustaša immediately embarked on a campaign “to purge Croatia of foreign elements.” Hundreds of thousands of Serbs were expelled or sadistically murdered in camps established by the Ustaša. The concentration of Jews in camps began in June 1941. By the end of that year, about two-thirds of Croatia’s Jews had been sent to Ustaša camps, where most of them were killed on arrival.

The Nezavisna Država Hrvatska (NDH), The Nazi-allied Independent State of Croatia, operated a series of concentration and extermination camps within Croatia, the most significant being the Jasenovac camp system. While the total number of Jasenovac victims cannot be determined, the Jasenovac Memorial Site has so far identified 83,145 victims by name, including 47,627 Serbs, 16,173 Roma, and 13,116 Jews. In all, approximately 30,000 Jews (between 75-80 percent of the Jews within the NDH) died during the Holocaust, the majority at the hands of the Ustasha, although the NDH also transferred about 7,000 Jews to the Nazis to be deported to Auschwitz. Approximately 20,000 of the Jewish victims resided in the current Croatian territory. The NDH also killed an estimated 25,000 or more Roma men, women, and children, the vast majority of the Roma population under its control. The total number of ethnic Serbs the Ustasha killed throughout the territory of the NDH remains unknown, but estimates suggest that it was between 320,000 and 340,000 between 1941 and 1942.

Years before the war started, the Ustaše had close ties to fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In 1933 the Ustaše presented “The Seventeen Principles,” which proclaimed the uniqueness of the Croatian nation, promoted collective rights over individual rights, and declared that people who were not Croat by race and blood, would be excluded from political life. In 1936, the Ustaše leader, Ante Pavelić, wrote in The Croat Question:

″Today, practically all finance and nearly all commerce in Croatia is in Jewish hands. This became possible only through the support of the State, which thereby seeks, on one hand, to strengthen the pro-Serbian Jews, and on the other, to weaken Croat national strength. The Jews celebrated the establishment of the so-called Yugoslav state with great joy because a national Croatia could never be as useful to them as a multi-national Yugoslavia; for in national chaos lies the power of the Jews and, as the Jews had foreseen, Yugoslavia became, in consequence of the corruption of official life in Serbia, a true Eldorado of Jewry…The entire press in Croatia is also in Jewish-masonic hands…”

Theodora Klayman was born in 1938 in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. Dora survived hiding with her Catholic uncle and neighbors in Croatia. Her parents and many other family members were murdered by Nazi collaborators, the Ustaša, in the Jasenovac Concentration Camp.

This is her account of that time.

“My name is Dora Klayman. I’m a Holocaust survivor and Museum volunteer.

I was born in January 1938 in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, a country cobbled together after World War I. It was a country of differing historical alliances, several languages, and various religions.

By the eve of World War II, there were within Yugoslavia serious ideological and political disagreements, and one of the results was a development of an ultra-nationalist group, the Ustaša.

The Ustaša advocated withdrawal from the Yugoslav coalition and the establishment of a nationalist Croatian country. When the Ustaša failed to win enough votes in the elections, they turned to terrorist tactics.

Following the German invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941, and with the support of Germany, the Ustaša assumed leadership of the so-called Independent State of Croatia.

Hardly independent, it was a puppet government of Nazi Germany, eager to persecute anyone who was not aligned with them politically or was not Croatian and Catholic. Specifically, that included Communists, Roma, Serbs, as well as the Jews.

My maternal family members lived in Ludbreg, a small town in the north of Croatia. My grandfather, the town’s rabbi, had served the Jewish community there for many years.

Our family had a very cordial relationship with a predominantly Catholic population, and for the 40 years that my family lived there, there were practically no antisemitic incidents.

My Aunt Giza and her long-time close friend Ljudevit (Ludva) Vrancic, a local bank director, had all but decided not to marry. However, fear of the German invasion of Yugoslavia changed their minds. The hope was that Ludva’s Catholic identity would protect Giza from persecution.

By June 1941, just a few months after the Nazis marched into Yugoslavia, my parents and infant brother, Zdravko, were arrested. My father was deported to the Jasenovac Concentration Camp and my mother was sent to Stara Gradiska, a subcamp of Jasenovac. Neither survived.

Fortunately, my little brother was saved by our housekeeper and brought to Ludbreg, where I had been staying with my extended family. My brother and I were first sheltered by our grandparents, but by 1942, nearly the entire Jewish community of Ludbreg had been deported, including my grandparents and the majority of my family members.

All were soon killed in Jasenovac. We were left behind with my aunt Giza and her Catholic husband Ludva. In 1943, Ludva was arrested on suspicion of supporting the partisan resistance movement and was sent to Jasenovac.

In his absence, my Aunt Giza was denounced, arrested, and deported to Auschwitz, where she died from an illness shortly after her arrival.

During this time, my brother and I were hidden by our Catholic neighbors, the Runjaks, and we pretended to be their children. Most people in Ludbreg knew we were Jewish, but they never denounced us.

Sometime later, Ludva was released along with other political prisoners. Fearing the worst and having been warned that the local priest made threats toward us while we were with the Runjak family, my brother and I were baptized for added protection.

After liberation, we waited in vain for our family members to return.

Knowing that our parents would not return, Uncle Ludva adopted my brother and me and we sought to rebuild our lives in what became Yugoslavia.

The Nazis and the Ustaša killed hundreds of thousands of people they identified as “the other,” people they decided did not have the right to exist.

The history of the Holocaust, my history, highlights the precariousness of the persecuted peoples and the power of individuals, even whole towns, to stand up and do what is right, even in extraordinary times.

It also reminds us that people can rise and fight political oppression, but it takes more than just an internal uprising to achieve victory over a powerful and ruthless government.

Tragically, we all know that hatred, even genocide, did not end with the Holocaust. What became my country after World War II, Yugoslavia, experienced yet another genocide in more recent times.

We continue to witness, in many parts of the world, silence in the face of persecution based on religious or ethnic identity. Or—we profess despair but do little or nothing to help.

“We must not remain silent; we must all lift our voices in pleas and in protest, in calls for action to create a better world and to work to make NEVER AGAIN a reality.”