A book by Jasenovac survivor:
"The smell of Human Flesh
A Witness of the Holocaust
The train was slowing down and the wheezing of the steam from the engine was lower and slower. At the end, the train stopped. Through a slight slot of the cattle car, the dark night could be discerned. Suddenly the car's door was opened, we were pressed one to another into a standing position. The fresh, cold air penetrated at once into the car. Strong, firm voices were heard:
- Get out!
We jumped out fast, awaiting what would happen next. Everybody held in his hands the few belongings he had taken. We were brought to a big wooden shed in the vicinity of the rail tracks. The Ustashas shouted to us to enter this barrack hitting us with butts over our backs. We were pressed one against the other and standing. With the squeaking of the latch the door was closed behind us. It was much colder in the barracks than in the car, because a cold February wind was blowing through the slots between the planks. We were trembling with cold, while outside the steps of Ustashas, our guards, were heard. Time was slowly passing. The dawn took time to come. Then a young man shouted:
- We will freeze here, let us out!
From outside the rough voice of an Ustasha was heard saying with mockery:
- You don't think that you came here for a holiday, do you?
Frozen, we barely greeted the dawn of a grim, cloudy day.
The latch creaked again and the door of the barracks was suddenly opened followed by Ustasha cries to get out fast. We, the younger ones, went out of the barracks faster while the older people had a lot of difficulty in moving. We were lined up in two double rows. My father was walking beside me carrying a bag, I had the haversack on my back. There were a lot of old people; one sick, exhausted old man remained on a stretcher. We wanted to carry him, but the Ustasha ordered us to leave him there. We began walking along a path. On the left hand side there was the bed of a river, whose name at the time I did not know, as I did not have any idea where we were. On the right there was a dense barbed wire fence. The Ustashas were ceaselessly beating us on the back and heads, so that a few from our group remained lying on the path. These unfortunate men were finished off by butts. After a hundred meters, we found ourselves in front of a big double gate, interlaced with barbed wire. Above the gate, behind the Ustasha "U" sign: WORKING SERVICE - USTASHA DEFENCE - GATHERTNG
CAMP No. IIIwas written in black letters. Next to the gate there was a wooden tower, covered with planks, about 10 meters high. On its every side, at the top, there were openings for the guards armed with rifles and floodlights. The door opened and we found ourselves in a space like a huge courtyard lined with buildings on three sides. On the right hand side there was a brick kiln with pillars and arches on the ground floor, and on the left, low built edifices. We were brought in front of the brick kiln and lined up next to the arches. There were a lot of Ustashas in the yard, and others were coming out of the buildings, where, it seemed the offices were located. A few Ustasha officers stood in front of us and one of them, with a round head, smooth hair and glasses, who obviously was the commander, approached us and ordered us to hand over the sentences which we were given at the railway station at Tuzla, prior to the departure of the train.
The sentences read: a one-year stay in the working service of the gathering camp Jasenovac. When they picked them up, they called one of us who had been condemned to a three years stay in the camp. I was familiar with his case.
While we were in the prison at Kreka, in the close vicinity of Tuzla, a police agent had come and one by one he had called us into the prison office. I was accused of collaboration with the Partisans and told that I had been collecting information for them, as well as material resources. I denied all of that, but he did not insist on my confession. After me, he invited an old merchant, who upon walking out of the office told me what his accusation was. Our accusations were identical. I understood that a purely legal formality was at stake, since a month ago I had read in the Croatian newspapers that Ante Pavelic, head of the Independent State of Croatia had enacted a law according to which nobody could be condemned without previous legal procedure. The wife of one of the prisoners was a Hungarian and he was certain that she would get him out of the prison. She used to come frequently, since the prison was on the ground floor, so that we could talk through the bars and she kept persuading him that she would save him from the prison. But once we were driven to the railway station and received the verdicts, only his verdict read - three years.
When they had read the name of the camp inmate condemned to three years, they told him to step out; he believed his wife's promises. He stood in front of the camp commander, Ljuba MiloS, smiling at him, convinced that he would be freed. The commander held in his hand his sentence and told him to stay there, on the side. An Ustasha soldier approached him and took him to an office. Later on, I learned that the three-year verdict meant an immediate execution. His wife had made the effort to make sure that he would never return. We never saw him again.
Standing lined up in front of the brick plant we were ordered to spread our blankets on the ground and to throw on them the contents from our bags. At the start of the column there was a table at which three Ustashas were sitting. They told us:
- You are to place here all your valuables: watches, pens, gold, knives, and other things.
At first we shook out our bags. Every one contained bread and other food which we took for the journey. There were around us a lot of old camp inmates looking at us curiously. A short, thin young man approached us, looked at me and my father and said to us:
- I am not glad at all to see you here, couldn't you pull yourselves out?
I looked at him and I could not remember who he was. When he noticed that I did not recognize him, he told me:
- Braca, I am Nisim Montiljo from Kiseljak.
Only then I realized that my long-standing friend, from my holidays at Kiseljak was in front of me. Amazed, I said:
- Nisim, is it you?
He nodded affirmatively. I saw that he was starving and that he was exhausted. He asked us if we had some bread; we replied that we did but that we had thrown everything from our bags. He asked again, hopefully:
- Maybe you have a piece in your pocket?
Both my father and I put our hands in our pockets, but we found nothing. I saw that he was disappointed and unhappy. We asked him how it was in the camp and he told us that at present the regime was slightly softened, since a few days ago there had been an international commission with Swiss officials. In order for the commission to get a favourable impression of the camp, all the sick, exhausted and worn-out were killed prior to that, and the camp was tidied up. It was necessary to impress on them that it was not an extermination camp, but a working camp where order, work and discipline were the rule. While he was telling us all that, some confusion suddenly occurred around us. Surprised, I looked to see what was happening and saw the young men -inmates running towards the things thrown on the blankets, catching in the run the pieces of bread and continuing to run. I observed the faces of some thirty desperate men, emaciated youth, attacking the bread, as if it could offer them the safety and help to survive.
The Ustashas quickly took out their pistols from their holsters and started rapidly firing at those hunger-crazed young men. Some of them fell, shot to death, some were wounded, but there were those who managed to run away with the caught piece of bread. The Ustashas found this entertaining -- it was an occasion to show what good marksmen they were. When the assault of the hungry people calmed down, they approached the wounded lying on the ground and finished their martyrdom with a bullet in the head. When the shooting stopped, loud shouts of the Ustashas were heard:
- Gravediggers, gravediggers!
From somewhere a group of gravediggers with stretchers emerged. They too were camp inmates. The killed youth were taken to a space beside the camp gate, placed one next to the other as logs, and then the gravediggers ran back for the remaining wounded. The Ustashas turned over the belongings and took the things they liked. We were told to take our bags and a blanket each and start in the direction of the barracks for our accommodation. There we were lined up again and one of the Usatasha officers addressed us in soft, warm words; that we would not be badly treated provided we respected the camp rules and regulations. He stressed that it was most dangerous to keep hidden gold and other valuable things, asking us to hand over immediately all we had. There was silence. Standing behind me, Nisim was speaking in a low voice:
- The one who gives it, is condemned to death.
The Ustasha repeated that what he was asking of us was in our own interest and that it was better for us to obey him. Then my uncle, Haim Romano, the husband of my father's sister from Tuzla, stepped forward from the line, obviously believing the Ustasha's lies and said that he had several gold coins sewn in his pant's belt. Nisim then tightened his grip on my arm and said:
- No, no, he is finished!
My uncle showed where his gold coins were, and the Ustasha cut the belt with his sharp knife and took them out. Smiling with satisfaction at my uncle he told him to remain next to him, while we were slowly entering the Jews' barracks. Uncle Haim then went off with the Ustasha officer and we never saw him again.
Our group from Tuzla was divided into three Jewish barracks. In front of the entrance into the first there was standing a man of middle height, with a short thick neck, round head with pronounced rough and sharp features. He counted us and told us where to accommodate ourselves. When he saw my father, he said, surprised:
- Isidor, you too did not have much luck!
My father approached him and extended his hand:
- Bararon, Bararon, we're meeting in an evil place.
From their short conversation, I gathered that they had known each other from their youth and that they had not seen each other for a long time, as we had moved from Sarajevo to Belgrade.
Our barracks was divided in the middle by a narrow passage; on the left and right-hand sides there were three--level wooden shelves. We were looking where to settle and the voice of Bararon, who was the group leader, chief of the barracks, sounded above our noise:
- At the third level there are most places.
We climbed the wooden ladders to the third level and found several empty places. We spread our blankets, left our belongings and hurried down the ladder, as a voice was heard warning us that we had to go to lunch. We went out of the barrack and followed other camp inmates towards the cauldron from where vapour was rising. We stood in line; -holding our portions. I noticed an emaciated, worn-out man walking towards us with a lot of difficulties, holding in his hand an empty mess kit. I was wondering why he was heading right towards us. And he stood next to me and my father and said in a low exhausted voice:
- Isidor, Braca, you are here!...
I looked at him in amazement; it was not clear to me how I could not remember someone who, obviously, knew me very well. I looked at my father and I noticed on his face the same amazement - neither he recognized the man. In a weak voice the stranger uttered:
- I am Gido, Gedaja, your brother.
Only then I saw my father's youngest brother in that pale face with deeply sunken eyes. He was imprisoned back in the summer of 1941 in Bijeljina and taken to the camp. My father embraced him suddenly and started sobbing in a low voice, to stifle his weeping, after seeing the condition of his youngest, most handsome and most beloved brother. My uncle embraced my father with one arm, but no emotion could be read on his face. Obviously a terrible and long hunger had killed all emotions in him. When my father released him from the embrace I approached him and kissed him, looking sadly into that deformed face. To console him a bit, I said that his wife and son sent their greetings to him. In a moment I had made that up, hoping that he would be glad to hear that his wife and son were alive, but no change was visible on his face. He only said in a low voice:
- I am not interested in that any more. The only thing I am interested in is to eat to my satisfaction.
My father let him stand in line in front of him. We were walking slowly, nearing the cauldron, in silence. A very unpleasent smell was spreading from the cauldron hitherto unfamiliar to me. The cook, with a big laddie, filled our kits with some liquid representing soup. We went away from the cauldron intending to eat. With a spoon I took that thin liquid, put it in my mouth and felt disgust. It was stinking, warm water without any taste; it contained neither salt nor grease, but only a few dirty-yellow cubes. I took one, put it in my mouth and gathered from where came that unpleasant smell spreading from the cauldron. Those were pieces of cattle turnip. Gedaja at first picked up the pieces and then lifted the dish to his mouth and drank that tasteless and malodorous liquid. My father and I were standing next to him holding our portions in our hands, aware that we could not eat them. My uncle looked at us in amazement and asked whether we would eat.
We shook our heads and he took my father's portion first; he ate and drank its contents and then took mine, too. After that he said sadly:
- I am hungry.
My father asked him where he had been since imprisonment up to that day. He told us briefly that at first he was in the Jasenovac camp and then in camp II, prior to coming here -to camp III. Obviously, he had passed through the Golgothas of all those camps and a live corpse was all that was left of him; his sole remaining emotion being hunger.
We started towards the barracks to rest a bit and warm ourselves. Gedaja was in the third Jewish barracks and, walking with difficulty, he continued his way to it. In our barrack we found Nisim. He had many experiences gathered during his long years in the camps, and he immediately began to explain our situation to us. First he advised my father to shave his small beard as soon as possible; my father had let it grow at Tuzla in order to look older. He had hoped that in such a way he would avoid the forced labour to which the Ustashas sent us. At my father's question why he was telling him this he replied briefly:
- They first kill older and exhausted people.
He told us that out of five of them, he and his two brothers were still alive. Asked where they were, he pointed to the third level of births and explained that Sado and Sua were there, but that they were ill and exhausted and that for days they had been lying helplessly. His other brothers, he told us, had perished in a previous camp - Krapje. I wanted to see Sado and Sua and I climbed to the third level. I saw two live corpses and only I managed to recognize them by some features. Recognizing me, they said at the same time:
- Braca, weren't you able to run away somewhere? This is the end of everything.
I hardly managed not to start weeping. I went down the ladder and found my father and Nisim talking, and joined them. Nisim was saying that recently there was an international commission touring the camp. The aim was that it should establish Jasenovac as a working camp and that the prisoners were dealt with humanely. In order to accomplish this the camp administration took every measure to remove the proofs of the bestialities committed. In his opinion, the regime was now somewhat milder than before. I wondered what it was like earlier when on the first day I had seen such horrors.
The night fell fast and a weak light bulb in the middle of the hall was turned on. In the corner of the barrack there was the 'bubnjara' stove made out of a gas barrel. It was fired by the wood debris gleaned about the camp. While the fire was burning some warmth could be felt in its vicinity, but the wood would burn fast, and the cold was even more severe. Several meters on the left from it, there was a big tin bucket, also made of a shortened gas barrel, and during the night natural needs were done there. A horrible stench spread from it as there was no lid on it. The inmates used to gather around the stove hoping to gain some warmth. They would stand around the stove with stretched out hands over it. I would stand close by and listen to the conversations conducted there. The most frequent topic was the anxiety about one's beloved-wives, children, parents. They also talked about food. I listened to two starving men. According to the manner of their speaking I inferred that they were from Zagreb and that they were intellectuals. One of them spoke about what he would gladly eat for his dinner, quoting the details: entree, the main dish, sweets, salads, drinks and so on. The other did not agree with the aforementioned menu, and said what he would prefer to eat. So, instead of the breaded veal cutlet, he was proposing chicken with potatoes and peas and instead of the pancakes - hot doughnuts. They defended their proposals vehemently, obviously not comprehending that this was only a play of the imagination. I was sorry for them and simultaneously they were funny to me; I could not understand their unreality. But at that time, I was not starving. It was my first day in the camp, the long first day. My father and I lay next to each other, wrapped each in his own blanket. I fell asleep first, tired of all the efforts, the travel and traumas provoked by the first sight of bestialities. I awoke because of some bites and the itching of my entire body. I started scratching, but it was of no avail. I was tormented for a long time until sleep overcame me again. In the morning, when we stepped into the passage between the beds, I told my father what was tormenting me during the night, and he said calmly:
- My son, those are lice which will bite us to the very end.
The rough voice of the group leader Bararon, who was shouting, resounded.
- Line up! Line up!
Quickly we lined up in front of the barracks, expecting the daily work schedule.
Other excerpts from the book (in HTML):
Mr. Cadik Danon, Belgrade, November 2006
Click to enlarge.
(Photographed by Petar Makara)
Where am I? PATH:
The truth will free us all.
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First posted: September 26, 2007