Map Study Trip "Commemorating Wars" in Bosnia and Herzegovina
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Study Trip Commemorating Wars.
The Commemoration of the Second World War and the War of 1992-1995 in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Route and Destinations:

1. Zagreb 8. Jablanica
2. Jasenovac 9. Mostar
3. Donja Gradina 10. Sutjeska
4. Kozara 11. Gorazde
5. Prijedor 12. Srebrenica
6. Banja Luka 13. Sarajevo
7. Sarajevo
Sarajevo 2SrebrenicaGorazdeSutjeskaMostarJablanicaSarajevoBanja LukaPrijedorKozaraDonja GradinaJasenovacZagreb

Jasenovac

Page Contents


Overview

The small village of Jasenovac is located in Croatia, close to the Bosnian-Herzegovinian border. During the Second World War, a concentration camp was set up there and its history – especially regarding the number of victims – was already a highly politicised and tabooed topic during the times of the Socialist Yugoslavia. In the 1960s, a memorial for the victims of Jasenovac was inaugurated within the grounds of the former camp. Today, what was formerly one memorial, is divided into the Jasenovac memorial on the Croatian side, since 2007 home to a permanent exhibition which is controversially discussed in both Croatia and Serbia, and the Donja Gradina memorial, which was founded in 1996 and is located in the Republika Srpska.

Official website of the Jasenovac Memorial: : http://www.jusp-jasenovac.hr


Anna Konstantinova: Jasenovac – a Timeless Battlefield?

Located right at the border to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jasenovac has changed its political affiliation four times during the last 60 years. Until 1941, it belonged to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Between 1941 and 1945, it was located on the territory of the Croatian Ustaša state, and after the collapse of the latter became part of the Croatian Republic within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In the fall of 1991, Jasenovac was conquered by Serbian troops and came under the control of the Serbian “Republic of Krajina”. In May 1995, the Croatian army reconquered the region and consequently, Jasenovac was again integrated into the now sovereign Republic of Croatia.

Already in the 1980s Jasenovac had become a battlefield for Serbian and Croatian politics of remembrance. During this period, significant reinterpretations of the past(s) took place in all parts of Yugoslavia. These reinterpretations occurred especially with regard to the participants and events of the Second World War. Collaborators became patriots, heroes became criminals, black became white. Tito’s ideology of “brotherhood and unity” was replaced by ideologies of national victimisation which were to fill the “black gaps” of the past. The number of (pseudo)scientific revelations regarding the victims and war crimes of the Second World War increased dramatically and they were used to reinterpret the past in the light of nationalism.

The Jasenovac concentration camp was constructed following a direct request by the Croatian Ustaša authorities and was modeled on the concentration camps erected by the Germans in those regions of Europe they had conquered. With respect to the geographic dimensions as well as the total number of prisoners and victims, Jasenovac was the biggest of the 27 concentration camps in the Independent State of Croatia.

The first barracks of the future complex which would encompass five ”special camps” were constructed four months after Hitler’s attack on Yugoslavia and the foundation of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) in August 1941. After the flooding of the first two camp structures, camps III and IV were erected in the former brickyard and the leather factory of Jasenovac. The women’s camp in Stara Gradiška was attached to the complex as camp V.

At the end of November 1941, a law was passed in the NDH regulating the transfer of all “unwanted” and “dangerous” individuals into concentration and work camps. “Unwanted” individuals who were considered dangerous for the public order and safety or as endangering the peace of the Croatian people, could be transferred into a camp on the basis of a legally unchallengeable decision taken by the Ustaša police. This law primarily affected Jews, Roma and Serbians as well as Bosnian Muslims and Croatians supporting the opposition.

At the beginning of April 1945, the Ustaše began with the destruction of the camp and all documentation. On 22 April, the few remaining prisoners in the camp tried to break out and most of them paid for this attempt with their lives. The camp was already totally destroyed and burned to ashes when Jasenovac was freed a few days later by units of the Tito army.

At the end of the 1980s, the Serbian-Croatian dispute regarding the victims and perpetrators of Jasenovac and in particular the question relating to the number of victims had already escalated. While one party excessively downplayed the number of victims, the other party made the number of victims increase vastly. Then, in the 1990s, two researchers independently came to the same conclusion regarding the number of victims, a figure which is nowadays widely accepted on an international basis. According to these figures, approximately 85,000 people were killed in Jasenovac out of which there were 48,000 – 52,000 Serbs, 13,000 Jews, 12,000 Croatians and 10,000 Roma. Since other scientifically provable arguments were not brought up after this, the dispute regarding the number of victims in Jasenovac could have ended there. However, the opposite was the case.

For many, although not for all, Serbs, Jasenovac was and remained the “hidden chapter of the Holocaust”, the “largest Serb city under the ground”, the “third-largest concentration camp in Europe” and the “largest torture chamber in the history of mankind.” To them the Croatian nation and the Ustaše appeared to be identical and were seen as a nation with a genetically-anchored tendency towards genocide. Ultimately, Bogdanović, who created the flower of Jasenovac, was even accused of having erected a Croatian flower instead of a Serbian one.

On the other hand, for many, although not for all, Croatians, Jasenovac was “only” a “labor camp”, and at the same time the number of deaths resulting only from illnesses, infirmity etc. were played down considerably. To them, the Ustaša terror against the Serbs in the NDH was merely a reaction to the crimes committed by the Serbian Četniks and was thus justified.

While national-Croatian historians by adopting this stance try to treat Jasenovac as a closed chapter of history, for Serbian historians it stays an omnipresent and timeless part of history which does not want to pass. Milan Bulajić, the former director of the Museum of Genocide Victims, which was opened in Belgrade in 1991, declared at the end of April 1998 in front of the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague that the uprising of the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1991 to 1992 was a consequence of the crimes committed in Jasenovac.

For the Serbs, Jasenovac stays an indispensable component of their national identity and a key reason behind this is that many Croatians show little willingness to accept and treat Jasenovac as part of their own history. Consequently, these two ends of the same past cannot be brought together up to this day.

Sources:



Manuela Brenner: Remembering the Victims of Jasenovac before the Opening of the Memorial 1

Introductory remark by Heike Karge:

Every place has its own history. And likewise, each memorial, each sign of memory, which is erected at a certain place, has its very own history. This history does not only begin with the appearance of these memorials. Therefore, the following article outlines the history of the grounds of the former concentration camp Jasenovac during the first post-war decade in Yugoslavia – a point in time, at which (almost) nothing was reminiscent of the victims of the Jasenovac camp. As measured by European developments, this was nothing unusual; only few of the former camps had been transformed into places of memory for the victims during the 1950s. In this respect, Jasenovac was not an exception. And just like in other European countries, also here, in Jasenovac, in Yugoslavia, it was going to be the survivors of the camps as well as the surviving dependants who would play a crucial role in the creation of signs of memory. However, this aspect of the Yugoslavian culture of memory, to remember the victims of the camps did not play a role at all during the last decades – neither for Croatian nor for Serbian historians. The highly politicized discussion regarding the number of victims in Jasenovac dominated everything – and thus blocked the view on historical connections, which are of critical importance to our understanding of (post-)Yugoslavian history as part of European history.

The first indication for an initiative for a memorial dedicated to the victims of the former concentration camp of Jasenovac stems from the “Initiative Committee for the Construction of a Memorial for the Victims of Fascism in Jasenovac.” This committee, formed in 1951, drafted a letter to the Republican veteran federation in Zagreb. The committee founded their wish to have a memorial erected on the fact that Jasenovac was the most infamous camp and that so many people died there. The plan of the committee included the erection of a monumental memorial along with an international park as well as an 8-grade elementary school for the village of Jasenovac. The committee asked Zagreb for the permission to realize this undertaking as well as for advice and further ideas.

At first, the Republican veteran federation accepted the undertaking under to precondition that all further activities were to be cleared and agreed upon with the federation. Shortly after, however, the constituent republic of Croatia had its supervisory and decision-making competency also withdrawn – this time by Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. Therefore, from then on the erection of the memorial in Jasenovac was no longer up to a local initiative or to Croatia; instead, it was declared a “matter of all Yugoslavian republics” by the political leadership of the country.

Nonetheless, only very little happens in the following years: The process of decision-making in Belgrade was of a very arduous nature and centered on the question of how the commemoration of the Jasenovac victims could be realised regarding design and implementation. The difficulty of this process indeed surprises only very little given that the officially propagated numbers of victims in Jasenovac were excessively exaggerated. And also given the fact that asking for the perpetrators, who were responsible for the suffering in Jasenovac, would also always have entailed a question regarding the aspect of the “war within the war”, namely the inner-Yugoslavian civil war during the Second World War.

For how could this place even be remembered without endangering the official dictum of “brotherhood and unity”?

While Belgrade was having difficulties with the decision-making, the Croatian veteran federation once again became active in the mid 1950s with respect to the grounds of the former camp. In 1955, they began to fence in the land of the former concentration camp and sow grass there. At this point, the owners of the land had already been disbursed by the Croatian veteran federation. The first surveys by members of the veteran federation and the Croatian office for Heritage and Conservation took place and a small wooden memorial was erected in remembrance of the victims of the camp. Important points of interest within the grounds of the former camp were marked with preliminary wooden signposts.

Alongside this development, towards the end of the 1950s, camp survivors also began founding the first organisations of their own in Yugoslavia. In Belgrade, an “action committee of the camp inmates of Jasenovac” was founded and can be considered an important pioneer in the realisation of the Jasenovac memorial.

And – an increasing number of people was coming to Jasenovac to visit the site. In 1957, there were only around 700 visitors. In 1963, there were already 10,000. Victims and surviving dependants organised memorial services which were being perceived as “public demonstrations” by the political leadership in Belgrade. This form of public communication, which was exercised entirely without, or rather parallel to the activities (or more precisely the silence) of the political leadership with respect to Jasenovac, is likely to have been more than beneficial to the process leading up to the final decision in Belgrade.

1 Material from Karge, Heike (2010): Steinerne Erinnerung – versteinerte Erinnerung? Kriegsgedenken im sozialistischen Jugoslawien (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz)

Additional Article

Part 2: Manuela Brenner: Donja Gradina – Site of the Mass Graves



Esther Wahlen: "Bogdan Bogdanović and his Memorials"

Part 1: The Jasenovac-Memorial

Historical Background

Gedenkstätte Jasenovac: Die Krater markieren frühere Lagerobjekte.
The Jasenovac-Memorial. The crater in the foreground marks a former concentration camp building.

Bogdan Bogdanović, a famous and rather unconventional architect from Belgrade, received the appointment to design the memorial at Jasenovac. When he began his work at the memorial site at the beginning of the 1960s, nothing within the grounds of the former camp was reminiscent of the atrocities committed there by the Ustaše. Those had been keen to cover up any traces of the camp at the end of the war.

At first, the site was also abandoned during the post-war period. Although many memorials in remembrance of the war were erected during this period, most of them focused on the heroes, living and dead. In Jasenovac, there were no heroes to remember and neither was there Yugoslavian brotherhood, since in this place the ethnical belonging had made the difference between life and death.

Design of the Memorial

Die Steinerne Blume in Jasenovac.
The „Stone Flower“ built in 1966.

To Bogdanović, the remodeling of the landscape was of key importance: He expanded the ponds and marked the sites, where the respective camp elements had formerly been situated, with atolls and craters.

The “stone flower” is the most eye-catching part of the memorial. It is not made out of stone but out of concrete and is 24 meters high. Bogdanović sees the flower as a symbol of eternal renewal, as a connection between the victims and new life.

Furthermore, a small museum of about 30 m2 forms part of the memorial and hosts a plain and simple exhibition.

Effect

The flower as well as the ponds, the lawn, hills and craters fit into the landscape in a very harmonic way. Within the grounds there are storks walking around and one can hear the croaking of frogs. At first, for me this feeling of calm and harmony did not go well together with my knowledge of the occurrences at this place. However, I would repeatedly encounter this strange and disturbing calm at later points during our trip.

More Articles

"Bogdan Bogdanović and his Memorials”, Part 2: The Partisan Monument, Mostar

Bogdan Bogdanović – His Work and Achievements



Picture Gallery Jasenovac

 

More Pictures ...



Marion Forster, Julia Merl and Birte Richardt: Travel Diary Entry, 23 May 2010

Denkmal "Die Steinerne Blume"In the early morning, our journey continues. We are driving to Jasenovac. Just after our arrival, we already see the stony flower as we approach the site from the street. It looks very beautiful.

We meet the curator of Jasenovac, Djordje Mihovilović. He shares his knowledge with us and our tutor translates all the dreadful details he talks about. I look at her. You can tell that she finds it hard to translate it. Not because of the language but because of the contents.

During the Second World War, a concentration camp was situated on this site. It was erected in 1941. Together, Jasenovac and Donja Gradina constituted a work and extermination camp. Serbs and others were brought here from their villages and were killed either after a period of forced labour, or straight after their arrival. When the killing methods are described to us, we begin to understand (picture 2) how different the war must have been here. No gas chambers. More primitive forms of murder. A hammer, a knife goes through the ranks and simply murders. We find it to be more cruel. Then we wonder whether cruelty, murder, crimes can be measured on a scale. The dreadful movie which was formerly being shown here, under Tito, is gone. The stories have stayed though.

Originally, the two parts of the concentration camp, Jasenovac and Donja Gradina, which are being divided by the river and the new border, belonged together. Both sites together, along with other elements, constituted one camp. Originally, this is also how the two memorials were designed. Nevertheless, since 1996/97 they are two separate memorials, in two separate states, belonging to two separate ministries. Some of the workers from both sides know each other and stay in touch. Officially, however, there is no cooperation, no joint projects, simply nothing.

Dieser Zug brachte die Menschen ins Lager zu Folter und Tod.We walk around in the grounds through the beautiful countryside, past the train which brought the people who were to find death and torture here. Grass, water, and storks. The site of the memorial is designed in a very abstract way. The gracious memorial of “the stone flower” by the artist Bogdanović sticks out of the landscape. I think he succeeded in realising his intentions. It looks very peaceful. Doesn’t provoke. A flower needs to grow. Peace needs to grow. You understand a lot more when you are standing in the shade of this flower and you look up, up to the flower, up to the sky.

My eyes wander across the hilly countryside – each crater, each hill stands for a building on the former camp site. What kind of hell must this have been here? And yet, the way we are standing here, in the middle of the sunshine, with birds singing and the rustling of the wind in the tree tops, it rather feels like being in some kind of national park. I have difficulties to take in what I hear, and to let it get to me. Surely, this is also due to the translation process which the highly disturbing accounts have to undergo first.

After having spent some time in the base of the stony flower, listening, remaining silent, we slowly go back towards the museum. Somebody asks the museum guide whether many schoolchildren visit here, how these groups are composed and how they react. His answer surprises me because for the first time, I have the impression that he is really interested in his work and that it is important to him. Yes, schoolchildren come here to visit, far too often the students come with precast ideas, no, this did not exist, no my father told me it was that way or that way… He feels happy, says our guide, if these students decide after their visit not to listen any more to their CDs by right-wing bands which are becoming increasingly more popular. If forgetting meant that peace could finally come into existence and something like this would never happen again, great, says our guide, he would be the first to say, sure let us forget everything! However, history has shown that it does not work that way …

Continue with the Diary ...