The term Holocaust refers directly to the destruction by fire. For those who went to the crematoriums in Auschwitz this name fit. For those who died in Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia the means of "destruction" was often a machine gun. And their killers, unlike in Auschwitz, were not SS guards.
When Hitler's horde rushed over the border into the former Yugoslavia they brought with them the ideals of fascism and Nazism. The government in what is now Croatia would never again be totally free from this poisonous ideology. Instead they would embrace it with a rather bizarre level of enthusiasm.
Like many countries the Nazis took control of during World War Two Croatia fell under the rule of a puppet government. Under the Nazi backed (NDH) Independent State of Croatia the Croatian people would submit to Hitler's will. Their country was now set to implement the "Final Solution".
On July 21St of 1941 Hitler gave a speech to the Croatian "government" officials. In it he gave the marching orders that would lead to a fully operational Jasenovac camps.
"The Jews are the bane of mankind. If the Jews will be allowed to do as they will, like they are permitted in their Soviet heaven, then they will fulfill their most insane plans. And thus Russia became the center to the world's illness... if for any reason, one nation would endure the existence of a single Jewish family, that family would eventually become the center of a new plot. If there are no more Jews in Europe, nothing will hold the unification of the European nations... this sort of people cannot be integrated in the social order or into an organized nation. They are parasites on the body of a healthy society, that live off of expulsion of decent people. One cannot expect them to fit into a state that requires order and discipline. There is only one thing to be done with them: To exterminate them. The state holds this right since, while precious men die on the battlefront, it would be nothing less than criminal to spare these bastards. They must be expelled, or – if they pose no threat to the public – to be imprisoned inside concentration camps and never be released." - from Hitler's speech to Slavko Kvaternik.
In August of 1941 the Croatians began to build and operate the first two camps that would form the Jasenovac concentration camp complex. These two camps, Krapje and Brocica, would be closed by November but the next three would be open and running. The final three camps Ciglana, Kozara, and Stara Gradiska would be operational till the end of the war in Europe.
The use of forced labor, starvation, exploitation of disease, daily beatings, and machine guns would drive the death toll up in Jasenovac. Their victims were always Serbs, Jews, and Roma. And the goal was always the same... extermination.
At times the camps would rely on the use of local police units, national military battalions, domobrani units, Muslim auxiliary units, and Hungarian or German Nazi support units. However it was most often, and they were always present, the Ustaška Narodna Služba (Ustaše People's Service) gestapo that served as camp guards. It was the UNS that participated in Nazi "competitions" that would encourage them to invent new methods of torture and maltreatment of the Jewish prisoners.
As with other Nazi operated camps Jasenovac guards greeted new arrivals with tattoos and Nazi camp badges. These colored clothing markers allowed camp guards to easily identify camp inmates by the shape and color of the badge. Serbs were given blue triangles, Communist were given red triangles (non-Serbian resistance fighters), Jews were given the yellow Star of David, while Roma were given no badge. By the end of the war however this practice was abandoned while tattoos remained till the end of the war.
Nearly all the prisoners who identified themselves, or were sent to Jasenovac for being identified as such, as Serbs were immediately sent to execution sites near the camps (Granik and Gradina were the most commonly used). Other prisoners however were often worked to death. Only prisoners who happened to be from valued professions were kept alive for an extended period of time (doctors, electricians, and shoemakers for example).
As far as the living conditions in Jasenovac... living was not the aim of the camps. Bodies were removed from the prisoners' living quarters at the leisure of the camp guards. Food consisted of what Nazis called "soup" but was simply hot water with a couple beans or a sliver of potato in it. A piece of bread may at times have been given to prisoners if the guards allowed it. But by the end of the war the prisoners were given what the guards called "turnip soup"... water the turnips were boiled in.
Sanitation was an issue that was once again designed to kill the prisoners. Toilets were holes that the prisoners were expected to "keep up" themselves. However the prisoners were not given tools to clean or even dig new holes. So often the "work" involved was designed to spread disease.
The water the prisoners were given was straight from the Sava river. This water was again given to the prisoners to kill them. The reason... it was contaminated with "ren" (a local horseradish). And thus the prisoners were once again drinking water that could spread disease amongst them.
Jasenovac however was a special camp in the Nazi program in one respect. In Jasenovac the camp guards helped introduce the practice of forcing its forced labor to work among the dead. This was achieved by hanging the corpses of the deceased from the rafters or along the walls of "workshops" in the camps. Then there was the lack of removing corpses from the barracks were prisoners had to sleep. All these methods helped to enforce the inherent fear of death amongst those not yet dead in the Jasenovac camps.
Jasenovac was also special to the Nazis for the simple fact that death was a reality from the first day a prisoner walked into the camp. The guards had already introduced the Nazi supervisors to the "Serb Cutter" or the srbosjek (a knife strapped to the guards wrist... used in mass beatings or new arrivals, mainly Serbs). The Croatian guards then implemented the use of gassing prisoners in "green Thomas" (vans with their exhaust being forced into the cargo compartment). The UNS would finally implement the stationary gas chambers in such a way as to rival Auschwitz.
By the end of the war these methods all combined would lead to Jasenovac being a leader in the Balkans camps. When liberated the camp had already killed 10% of all those who died in the Yugoslavia during World War Two. Nearly half of all the Serbs killed in the Balkans during World War Two died in Jasenovac. Nearly all the Jews that had lived in Yugoslavia at the beginning of the war were now dead at the hands of Jasenovac camp guards. And the entire Roma population of Yugoslavia were now deported or dead upon having been sent to Jasenovac.
As for the figures, Jasenovac led to the deaths of an estimated 52,000 to 70,000 Serbs, an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Jews, an estimated 50,000 Roma, and an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 communist and other minority ethnic groups (Ukrainians, Romanians,Slovenes and Montenegrians).
But what makes this camp unique to me is the fact that at no time in its history was it run by the Nazi SS. It was a camp run by and operated by the Croatian people. Its goals and history cannot be ignored. And yet the history of this camp is not taught in most of our history books... let alone in the country that founded such a Hellish place of torment and death.
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