Well well well. It took exactly a decade, but it seems The Baltimore Sun, which rued the day it published my since-famous article “When Will the World Confront the Undead of Croatia” (because of the firestorm that buried history unleashed), has come around. Last month, thanks to Liz Milanovic’s circulation list, I caught the following piece about a “little known WWII concentration camp.” (Imagine, as little-known as Jasenovac still is, that single article in 2007 was one too many.) Below the article is the letter I sent to the paper and the writer, Jonathan Pitts, which to my knowledge wasn’t published.

Family resurrects rare account of little-known WWII Croatian concentration camp (Baltimore Sun, June 16)

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com
twitter.com/jonpitts77

Every time Ruth Bloch’s favorite uncle traveled from his native Yugoslavia to visit her in the United States, he struck her as one of the gentlest, most thoughtful, most optimistic people she had ever met.

She never knew, because Berger never told her, that he’d endured nearly four years in one of the most barbaric — but least remembered — of the major concentration camps in World War II Europe.

Berger was one of the few survivors of Jasenovac, a camp in Croatia where tens of thousands were abused, tortured and killed. Even Gen. Edmund von Horstenau, Hitler’s envoy in the capital city of Zagreb, called the place “the epitome of horror.”

At least 80,000 people, including 50,000 Serbs and 20,000 Jews, were killed at the camp.

Berger died in 1988, but not before leaving a lasting mark: “44 Months in Jasenovac,” a gripping and unusually explicit Croatian-language account of the atrocities he witnessed and suffered.

The memoir, which was published in Zagreb in 1966, went out of print years ago. But Bloch, 80, is now bringing its contents to a new audience.

The Mount Washington woman, a retired businesswoman and grandmother of five, has spent the better part of four years spearheading a project to to get the work illustrated, translated into English and published in the United States.

The result is a fast-moving, excruciatingly detailed 77-page version of the memoir from the vanity publisher Sentia Press that is finding an audience among scholars of the Holocaust.

The Yad Vashem Center, a Holocaust studies institute in Jerusalem, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington have added it to their collections.

“It’s another strand in the tapestry of knowledge we have about the Holocaust,” says Beth Luers, a retired humanities professor at Garrett College in Western Maryland who has spent 30 years researching the genocide….Luers has made multiple trips to Europe over decades of studying the Holocaust. But she says she had never come across the story of Jasenovac, a collection of five detention and extermination facilities in a remote stretch of the Sava River about 60 miles south of Zagreb.

Historians say the fascist Ustase government, the puppet regime of Hitler’s Third Reich that ran Croatia during the war, kept few records of their deeds and twice incinerated what they did have — once in 1943, then again as they leveled the camp toward war’s end in 1945.

Political and ideological conflicts in the region in the decades since have made it hard for researchers to authenticate and verify counts of victims. One Serbian-American historian, Carl Savich, argues that historical and scholarly accounts of the atrocities committed at Jasenovac have long been “censored, suppressed, and covered-up in the U.S. and the West” for political reasons.

Good thing, then, that about 600 desperate prisoners, all on the verge of starvation, decided to stage a do-or-die mass breakout in April 1945.

As the prisoners breached the walls, machine gun-wielding Ustase guards shot about 520 to death. The rest, including Berger, made it to freedom.

Historians have used the escapees’ reports to help reconstruct what happened at Jasenovac, including an assessment of the numbers killed.
Elizabeth White, a historian with the National Holocaust Museum, says the remains of 80,000 victims have been identified on the former grounds of the camp. Many were in mass graves that had been described by escapees.

More than half of those officially accounted for were ethnic Serbs, a population the Ustase sought to exterminate. Thousands of Roma and members of the Croatian resistance were also victims.

But it fell to Berger and his fellow escapees to communicate what really happened at the Auschwitz of the Balkans. The details are grisly.

White says the Ustase regime, which never established full control over Croatia, was notoriously chaotic and violent, and bloody disarray ran rampant at Jasenovac.

Unlike in German camps, which used machinery such as gas chambers to kill prisoners on a larger scale, Jasenovac guards and officials were allowed to slaughter inmates at any time, for any reason, by any means they chose.

In Berger’s telling, they did so often, and with relish.

Guards used axes, mallets and sledgehammers on their victims. They sliced prisoners’ abdomens open and threw them, weighted down with stones, into the Sava.

They used the custom-designed, wrist-mounted knives they called Srbosjek — “Serb-cutter” — to dispatch victims, tossed prisoners into incinerators alive, boiled many in cauldrons, and placed bets on who could invent the most creative means of slaughter.

Unlike the Nazis, they routinely brought children to the camp, and exposed them to those and many other torments.

“It was unusually cruel and chaotic, an extremely brutal place,” says White, who spent nearly 30 years as a Department of Justice investigator on international genocide cases, including Nazi war crimes.

Historians say most Jews brought to Jasenovac were put to death immediately. But camp officials apparently kept the physically fit Berger alive in order to put him to work.

He writes of Ustase guards forcing him to help build a dam and several buildings in which fellow prisoners would later be tortured and exterminated.

He wasn’t the only family member brought there. Two of his brothers, Otto and Hugo, died at Jasenovac, both of starvation-related illnesses. Another brother, Leon, was a rare solo escapee.

Berger was also forced to dig graves. One cold winter day, he was ordered to move and bury some of the bodies that constantly littered the camp. He stumbled on the remains of an older man.

It was his father, Leopold. His throat had been cut. Egon had to dump the body in an open grave.

In April 1945, as reports circulated that the camp would soon be liberated, Berger and other prisoners feared the guards would kill them all.
They made crude knives and wirecutters and attempted their escape.

Berger got out, then survived in the nearby woods for two weeks before soldiers of the National Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia, an anti-fascist Communist force better known as the Partisans, rescued him. […]

Dear Editor:

Thank you for publishing the very graphic “Family resurrects rare account of little-known WWII Croatian concentration camp” by Jonathan Pitts. As soon as my eyes fell on the adjective “little-known,” I knew it was about the Jasenovac camp system, and was heartened that the obscure word had finally made it to the pages of a mainstream American newspaper — without benefit of my advocacy. I first introduced Sun readers to Jasenovac in January 2007; the Croatian backlash was swift and organized, your staff enduring a barrage of calls, emails, faxes and letters for three weeks while the op-ed editor at the time found himself having to justify printing historical fact. You see, the West-duping heirs of the Croatian Ustase were unaccustomed to seeing themselves in U.S. media as anything other than victims of Serbs, complacent as they’d been that this unexposed but darkest corner of WWII was so deeply buried no one would understand that 1991 had picked up where 1945 left off. History became invertible. Sadly, even our glistening Holocaust museums fell for the propaganda of the 90s, the 1993 opening of the DC museum featuring exclusively Croat and Bosniak victims of those republics’ in-progress secessionist wars, and no Serb ones. Meanwhile, as recently as 10 years ago at Yad Vashem — more than 60 years after WWII ended –displays about wartime Croatia and the Ustase were conspicuously absent. All of which helped Croatia in 2013 sail into the EU, which now finds itself regularly putting out small fires sparked by Nazi hiccups from its newest member. It may sound twisted, but seeing on your page the word “Serb-cutter” — an instrument that for years plagued my imagination until I started to doubt the existence of such a macabre, sadistic, ethno-specific weapon — was sanity-affirming.

******UPDATE******

Jasenovac came up again just this week, thanks to a book coming out by an Israeli professor who spent the last two years studying the WWII Croatian camp as well as the WWII archbishop of Zagreb, Aloysius Stepinac:

Greif: Croatian death camp Jasenovac was “worse than Auschwitz” (InSerbia/B92, Jul 26, 2017)

The canonization of Croatian Catholic Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac would be itself a crime, says Israeli Holocaust expert Professor Gideon Greif.

Greif, the chief historian of the Israel Institute for Education, Documentation and Research of the Holocaust Shem Olam, told the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti in an interview that he and Rabbi Avraham Krieger, who heads the institute, came to Belgrade to express their opposition to Croatian attempts to revise history.

“When it comes to Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, I will tell you briefly: his canonization is a crime in itself, and people who intend to canonize him are criminals mocking the victims. Anyone who has supported a criminal regime like the Ustasha one does not deserve any reward,” said Greif.
He noted that it was devastating that many of his colleagues, historians, do not know anything about Jasenovac.

They do not even know which state it was in, let alone locating it. And the history of those killed in Jasenovac is not only a history of death, but a history of atrocities, of evil, sadism, inhumanity…” the daily quoted Greif as saying.

He added that Jasenovac and other camps in its “system” were different from other Nazi camps because, according to the testimonies of the survivors, torture there was much more monstrous than in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. It is also different because it was established and operated without the involvement of German soldiers.

“It was hell on earth. That is why in Jasenovac, the Croatian hands are completely covered in blood,” Greif said.

The professor has been studying Jasenovac for the last two years, and has announced the publication of his book, “Jasenovac – the Auschwitz of the Balkans.” He observed that Jasenovac was unique in having death camps for children.

“The Germans had camps for women, men or mixed, where children were with the adults, but the Croats went a step further and even had children’s camps. Horror,” said Greif, adding that “the terrible and indisputable truth” is that even German officers visiting Jasenovac and other camps in Croatia were stunned by the brutality of they saw.

The professor then recalled that on July 10, 1941, the German military attache in Zagreb, Edmond von Horstenau, wrote to Heinrich Himmler that the German troops were “silent witnesses to the brutality of the Ustasha over the Serbs, Jews and Roma.”

The professor said that because of all the horrors he learned about the victims of Jasenovac over the past two years, he decided to devote some of his work to their lives, pointing out that he was certain that “their killers the Croats and their friends” will not succeed in “erasing the traces of the crime, rewriting history, and twisting the facts.”

Vecernje Novosti also published an article on Wednesday stating that the documents that hide the true truth about the role of Alojzije Stepinac are locked in the Zagreb Catholic Archdiocese, and inaccessible.

All compromising documents have been taken out of the Croatian State Security’s dossier on Stepinac and ended up locked away, instead of in the Croatian State Archives, the daily said.

This “triage” of documents was done by top Croatian Catholic officials, “while some documents were taken out by Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tudjman.”

The documents remain unavailable to researchers and historians, including the members of a mixed commission made up of representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) and the Catholic Church in Croatia, who have been in dialogue for a year hoping to clarify the role of Stepinac during the Second World War.

The SPC is opposed to the canonization of Stepinac, which is why Pope Francis last year suspended the proceedings.