“A Hell Called Jasenovac” by Erwin Miller, translated from Croatian to Hebrew by Miriam Steiner-Aviezer. Yad Vashem Publications, 143 pages, 68 shekels.
The one severs skulls with an ax, while the other refuses to hate or seek revenge: individuals light-years distant from one another, as far as East is from West – herein is the subject of this modest book. It is based on the articles, eyewitness accounts and memories of Erwin Miller, a young Jew from a small community in Croatia, who was imprisoned for four years, from age 17, in the hell that was named Jasenovac, the concentration camp that was considered “the Auschwitz of the Balkans.”
The articles he compiled during the war were a quasi-diary composed of letters he wrote nearly every day to his mother, letters he continued to write even after he learned that she and his sister were no longer alive. In addition, after World War II ended, he provided meticulous eyewitness accounts that were recorded; his memoirs have been published in a periodical issued by the Jewish museum in Belgrade. Excerpts of his memoirs were introduced as evidence in the trial of war criminal Dinko Sakic, who as deputy commander and subsequently commander of the camp, was considered directly responsible for what transpired there.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff, head of the Israel Office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, exposed Sakic’s wartime activities and brought about his extradition to Croatia from Argentina, where he was living in hiding. Sakic was tried in 1998 in Zagreb, was sentenced to 20 years in prison - the maximum punishment allowed by law - and died in prison after having served half of the prison term.
This is a jarring and heartrending document. It provides detailed description of the tortures and abuse and killings of Serbs, Roma and Jews by Croatians, who employed primitive, cruel, blood-curdling methods throughout most of the war years. The camp, which actually comprised a compound of five camps, was built by members of Ustase, the fascist Croatian nationalist movement that ostensibly ruled Croatia, the puppet state of Nazi Germany. Jasenovac existed from mid-1941 until the end of the war.
The purposes of this compound of camps were the imprisonment of Croatians who opposed the regime, and ethnic cleansing of others. No less than 600,000 people were murdered there, the vast majority of them Serbs, as well as approximately 14,600 Roma (according to the album published by the memorial site at Jasenovac), and between 20,000 and 25,000 Jews. Tens of thousands of rural Serbs were dispatched to the camp: the men were killed, the women sent to Germany as slave laborers, and the children were plucked from their mother’s arms and either killed or scattered among orphanages.
An international delegation eventually paid a two-hour visit to the camp, and a second delegation, from the Red Cross, visited in June 1944 – too late, of course - and without being shown any traces of the atrocities: the shattering of skulls with axes, the severing of body parts, beheadings and hanging of victims on the rows of trees, slitting open of prisoners’ stomachs with a unique knife, and disposal of their remains in the nearby river. The vast majority of killings were carried out with knives, hammers and axes.
“Even now, my hair stands on end whenever I think of the things that happened there,” writes the author. The rock bottom of the events described in the book, which the author recalls in minute detail, is the execution of a young man from his town who tried to escape but failed due to heavy snow that upset his plans: he was skewered alive on a pole that pierced his naked body, which turned blue. The screams persisted until the young man finally died. All throughout, the prisoners stood there, weeping.
This episode provided a historic and political background to the Balkan war that took place in the years 1991-92, in which Yugoslavia again crumbled into factions that vied with one another for their independence. The acts of murder and torture dating to World War II were well-remembered by members of the factions, either in the first person or as memories passed down through the generations.
The question that arises when reading about these acts of cruelty, and it is raised again and again when reading about WWII and the Holocaust, is whether cruelty is an inborn trait; is it implanted as part of local tradition or does it erupt only when afforded a framework that provides the background and tools for malicious brutality, and rewards those taking part in it? The question has been taken up by scholars ever since the Nuremburg trials, and the answers are far from unequivocal.
Another question pertains to the role of clergymen in the camp: the priest Miroslav Filipovi-Majstorovi, for instance, who with his own hands murdered dozens of prisoners, with a cruelty that was exceptional even at Jasenovac. He was in the habit of coming back from his killing sprees wearing his blood-stained priest’s cloak, the large cross around his neck, a dagger stuck in his belt and a spear in his hand. He would cut off dozens of victim’s ears with the dagger, and it was he who devised the unique knife with which the prisoners’ stomachs were sliced open. It is impossible to reconcile this contradiction, between the cross and the dagger, and it continues to arise in recent years, given the atrocities that continue to be carried out in various parts of the world in the name of religion.
Conversely, the author describes, in detail and with compassion, the relations between the prisoners in general, and primarily those from the town where he was born and raised; interaction between family members who were still alive and who helped one another; the closeness between himself and his father, with whom he was still able to spend some time – of all his family, only he ultimately survived – and the effort by people to hold on and keep themselves going within the hell of Jasenovac.
The word “friend,” not the word “prisoner,” is employed repeatedly in the book, alongside descriptions of the mutual assistance, the distribution of precious food, and the treating of the wounded and the beaten (and the vast majority were wounded and beaten). “There wasn’t a place on my body that had not ‘received its share,’” he writes, and only miraculously was he saved from having his ear sliced off by the priest’s dagger.
Relations between prisoners in the camps in general, as described in eyewitness accounts and memoirs, and as elucidated in the research, were a mixture of light and shadow, mutual aid and self-sacrifice, alongside the effort to survive even at the other’s expense. It may be, then, that the particularly severe circumstances at the Jasenovac camp led to a situation in which the prisoners tried to support one another as best they could, both out of the solidarity and compassion they felt toward one another, and also as a means of survival.
The book concludes with the words that Miller speaks to his wife Aniza, who stood open-mouthed in face of her husband’s attitude after the war’s end toward the Croatian who had beaten him during the war, and to a German POW, whom Miller took into their home, fed and clothed. “How could I explain to her,” writes Miller, “that I had sworn that I would not take revenge? Where is humanity headed if the hatred continues to burn in our hearts?”
In the same way that it is hard to understand how a human being descends to the lower underworld of cruelty, it is hard to understand the heights to which the human being can climb, and the reader feels a strong inclination to tip his hat to Miller, if only he could. Erwin Miller moved to Israel with his wife and children in 1951, living in Kiryat Shmona and then on Kibbutz Maabarot, where he was a watchmaker and an artist. He died in 1991.
The writer who edited Miller’s book prior to its posthumous publication in Croatian, wrote that by the time she’d read the first pages of his book, it was clear to her that an extraordinary document lay before her. Numerous books have been written about Jasenovac, she states, but “the tragic and the precise description of what was perpetrated in the death camp, by creatures that cannot be termed human beings is extraordinary.”
The precision of detail, the descriptions that bring to life this death zone before the readers’ eyes, the avoidance of sentimentality and self-pity, the delicacy in which the author describes his family members and the relations between them are what imbue this book with power and value.
Prof. Dina Porat heads the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University and is the Chief Historian of Yad Vashem.
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