A book by Jasenovac survivor:
"Witness to Jasenovac's Hell"
by Ilija Ivanović
Edited by Wanda Schindley, PhD,
Translated by: Aleksandra Lazić
The system of concentration camps Jasenovac was a true Hell on Earth. It was organized by Catholic Nazi fanatics known as Ustashas. Mr. Ilija Ivanović was only a thirteen (13) years old boy when he was sent to this hell. His only guilt was that he was born as a Serb. A rare survivor of Jasenovac Mr. Ivanović, now in Republika Srpska, the Serbian part of Bosnia, describes in his book the thousand days he miraculously survived in this WWII Nazi Croatia's death camp.
EXCERPT from pp. 145-161 of the above book.
In the smoke that was dispersed by the wind, I was looking for my loved ones faces. In a moment, I thought I saw the face of my father, but it quickly disappeared. I saw the face of my grandfather Jovo Ninković with a stick and leather bag. He was smiling. He was always cheerful.
No, No. People can't be destroyed. Ustashas are spending gasoline for burning the bodies for nothing.
My dead grandfather was smiling from the cloud like he was saying, "It's all in vain. You are making the effort for nothing, Murderers. Everything is known and seen. You didn't destroy us. You are afraid of us even when we are dead."
In that moment, from Kozara [majority Serb mountain in Bosnia, a hotbed of Partisan resistance], I heard short bursts from a machine gun that sounded like a confirmation of Grandfather's words-that they were telling the Ustashas, "There are still a lot of us. Kozara is full of angry avengers."
The sound of machine guns stopped my imagining, and I started to wonder whether the Ustashas would succeed in destroying the tracks of their crimes. Will anyone go alive from this hell and with live words be a witness of things that happened here? Or will we living prisoners, in time, go into ether andjly about Gradina?
No. Someone must stay alive. The truth must come out. The world has to know everything about Jasenovac.
April 21, 1945. The Ustashas were herding women to Gradina
to kill them. The women were singing. There were a few
hundred of them. In the men's camp-silence. Everyone was
anxious. Uncertainty was killing their nerves. Suicides,
hangings, became usual. The Ustashas were anxious, too.
They were running from place to place-back and forth-in
some awful hurry. We were asking what would happen.
Everyone was thinking, dreaming, about liberation, hoping
and then losing hope. That's how our thoughts were
changing-light and then dark. [Teenage boy] Dušan Prpoš, from Sovjak
near Bosanska Gradiška, and I were planning where to hide.
There were different suggestions. One of the possibilities was to hide in the stoves that had been used for baking bricks. We gave up that idea because we were afraid they would burn us there. Dušan always carried some old rope around his waist, and he kept saying he was going to hang himself. He didn't want to let them slaughter him. He would stop his torturers and kill himself. In some moments, he was completely losing hope for liberation. I tried to encourage him and stop him from doing what he wanted to do. I had hidden hope, and I believed in a miracle. Even if I didn't see any sensible exit, anyway, I was hoping--.
I watched the sun that was coming from behind the clouds. Am I going to see the sun come up again? Are they going to kill me? Why? I didn 't do anything. I didn't do any evil to anyone. I am a child. Maybe they won't kill me--.
And then, like from the fog, came the scene I had seen a year before when Ustashas were herding a group of women, children, and old people. Someone said they were from Kordun [a part of Krajina region]. I watched that poor line: Around them were Ustashas who were hurrying them and hitting them with gun butts. They were herding them toward the raft that carried people to Gradina. I knew they were going to death. One woman was carrying a child in her arms. She was asking an Ustasha to allow her to sit down and nurse her baby. Roughly, he was pushing her back into the line. She separated without permission and sat down by the road and started nursing her baby. The Ustasha noticed her. He came back and hit her with the gun butt in her back. The baby fell out of her arms. The Ustasha took the baby, threw it into the air, took his bayonet and waited for the baby to fall down on it. The mother lost consciousness.
Optimism was fading. Dark apprehensions were coming. If they killed a baby that was just a few month old, they will kill me too. There is no salvation. Does God exist? I was wondering. When I was going to elementary school, the [Orthodox] priest talked convincingly about God as Powerful, doing just good things and stopping evil. So why doesn't he stop this evil? Why doesn't he save innocent people? No. There is no God. Well, maybe I am wrong. Maybe there is a God Maybe he is going to save us. But no, there is not. If he existed, he wouldn't let Ustashas slaughter thousands of innocent children from Kozara [Serb majority mountain in Bosnia]. That's how my thoughts about God were changing.
Dušan untied the rope around his waist and asked me if it was strong enough, if it wouldn't break, if it could stand his weight.
"Leave that, Dušan. Throw the rope away," I told him.
"No," he answered. "They are not going to slaughter me."
The song of the last group of women prisoners was weaker and weaker. Already, they were driven across the Sava to Gradina. The two of us were still trying to solve the problem of where to hide. Any idea-had weak sides. Our planning stopped, interruped by the command of the group leader to take the most necessary personal things and be ready for a move.
It's over, I was thinking. It's the end. There was no way--. The sky is high, and the earth is hard. My master Altarac Moric and I were in the barber shop in the Brickyard, packing the tools.
"Maybe we will need that," said Master. We took one blanket and went out.
"In nastup, faster, faster," we heard the Ustashas yelling on all sides. We were standing in the line. They were herding us toward the gate. If they herd us toward the village, there is hope. If we go right to the raft, it's over.
They herded us to the left, down the Sava on the road toward the east entrance to the camp where women had been kept. We relaxed a little bit. You could see that in each of us, there was a little bit of hope. Maybe we are going somewhere to work. The Ustashas were rough. They were swearing, yelling, threatening, but they didn't hit us with gun butts, so that gave us hope that we were going somewhere to work. Maybe they still needed us.
All prisoners were out. There were a lot of us. The line was long. What is this? Moving of camp? Where?
I didn't see Dušan. What happened to him? Živko Gigović and Radovan Popović from Trebovljana were in the line close to me. I looked across the Sava [river] toward the Prosara Mountain. The tops of Kozara were blue. There behind Prosara was the village of Podgradci. My mother, sisters, and brother were there. How far it is? I would be there fast, maybe five or six hours walking. But obstacles were blocking me. Will I ever see my family again? Where are they herding us? Dark thoughts again: Maybe they are herding us into the forests by the village of Koiutarica. There they are going to liquidate us.
In my imaginings, I see a helpless line of prisoners with their hands tied. They are moving toward a huge dug grave. There, slaughterers are doing their awful jobs. The line is coming closer and is separating into two lines at the edge of a grave where one line, two Ustashas are slaughtering, and the other lie, two Ustashas are hitting them with mallets. Ustasha officers are controlling the work. I'm petrified. My legs, just like they are lead, are hardly moving. The line is shorter and shorter. It is becoming like a river which disappears into the earth in an aquifer. I'm closer and closer to the hole. I hear screams and dull hits with mallets. There's no exit. I'm completely out of myself. In my mind, the terror is continuing.
Suddenly a picture of my short life appears--the house where I was born, the Bukovica stream, the mill, valleys, fields, small forests, the winding path on which I walked to elementary school. There are my mother, sisters, and brother. But I don't see my father. He was killed. Everything, everything is here. Everything merges into one short movie. I'm saying goodbye to everyone and everything. My family is crying. They are sobbing. I don't. There are no tears. My eyes are dried out.
"We are going to the tailor building in the women's
camp," said Master Altarac and took me back to reality. We
were turning from the road by the Sava. They were herding us
into the building of the former tailor factory where, until
yesterday, the women's camp was. The building was huge. It
had a first floor, upstairs, and one more floor. They put all of
us in there. There were about a thousand people, maybe more.
They shut the doors. They put guards at all exits, even though we were in the camp area.
Around the building was a field. Windows on the east side looked into the wall and the bunkers on it. At each 50 meters on the wall was a bunker with an Ustasha crew and machine gun that was pointed toward us. Prisoners built this wall. It was high-about 4 meters. They had to make the fence for themselves, and now that wall, together with gun barrels, was our big obstacle to freedom. Even our field of vision was shorter. Toward the west, by the Sava [river], through the windows, we could see the camp where we had been working. There was Farm, Brickyard, Saw Mill, Chain Factory, Carpenter places where we worked until yesterday, where we were sick, hungry, and dying. On the south side was the Sava, separated with barbed wire which was braided into a few lines. It was said that during the night, they put electricity in it. To the north was a wall and bunkers, and behind that a railroad that went from [the town of] Novska through Jasenovac to [mountain] Sunja. We were completely circled. The Ustashas planned everything, especially the geographical positions. They used natural and artificial obstacles to make opportunity for escape at a minimal level. Actually, escaping from camp was very, very rare. And more rare were successful escapes. Successful escapes were achieved at the time when prisoners went out of the camp to work.
Master and I put the blanket on the floor of the first floor and sat down. Most of the prisoners did the same. But some of them were aimlessly walking in the building, going to other floors and coming back to the first floor. After a short break, I walked around, too, up and down, and I didn't really know what I was looking for. The night is coming. Are we going to survive? Dinner, the little bit of polenta, we didn't get. I guess they marked us off the list. Probably the slaughterers were tired from killing women that day, so probably we were on their bloody schedule tomorrow.
Anxiety in the building was present all through the night. Ow breath stopped when, from time to time, the Ustashas were opening the doors and coming in there with a list of names that they were taking. They were choosing the strongest ones. Maybe they were suspicious, apprehensive, or they had a spy among us. I don't know. But I know that that night swallowed a lot of good and respectable prisoners. Their aim was to destroy our heads in the beginning, to extinguish every thought about escape.
For a long time, I was awake and quietly speaking with my master. He was a man who was about fifty. Barber was his vocation, and Jewish was his nationality. Because he was Jewish, he ended up in the camp. Before coming to Jasenovac, he worked and lived in Zagreb [capital of Croatia]. Even today, I remember his address that he mentioned quite often, Paromlinska 70, Zagreb. He sent letters to this address a few times, but he didn't get any answers from anywhere. In the camp, he had a brother who was younger and a barber, too. But he was working in the central barbershop. In the winter of 1944-45, prisoners found him on the way between Small Lake and the baer. He was lying in a pool of blood with his throat cut. The prisoners recognized him, and they told my master. Master went there, and soon he came back. For a long time he was quiet, and then he said, "You see. Now I am completely alone."
We knew what he was thinking. He told us everything with that. He knew there was no one alive from his family in Zagreb.
We were awake until late in the night. I fell asleep first, tired from all the events of that day, but I didn't dream. I had a continuation of the nightmare. I dreamed I was in a line for liquidation in Gradina. On my legs are chains, and my arms are tied with wire. I am moving, groaning. I am trying to get rid of the binding, but it's not going. In front of me, I see bloody slaughterers above a huge pit. The line grows shorter and shorter. Suddenly, a miracle-. I'm freeing my hands and running from the line. I'm hiding in a hedge fence. I am hardly, very hardly moving. The chains on my legs are bothering me. Finally, the chains drop off. I'm running. I'm leaving the hell and coming to my home place at the hill of Ogorelica. Clearly (in my dream), I see the house where I was born, so, happily, I am going toward it--.
"Son, Son, wake up," Master called me and shook me with his hand. I was sorry my dream, my happiness, was interrupted. I didn't reach my home.
"Son, you are sweating. What did you dream?"
I told him, and then he said to me, "Oh, dreams-illusive dreams."
The dawn was coming. We heard explosions from the village of Jasenovac. When the dawn came, we saw what had happened. The working camp from where they took us yesterday was in ruins. The Ustashas destroyed everything to hide their evil crimes. In the autumn of 1944 and spring of 1945, they were uncovering massive graves and burning bones of victims. And now, they were making a last effort to destroy the tracks of the beastly acts they had done. It was clear they were retreating, and that's why they were destroying. Everything. The only thing that is leji is this big building and the prisoners in it. We, the last prisoners of the camp, had to be liquidated before the final retreat.
It was dawn. In the building, there was mumbling. From place to place, there were groups of people who were trying to make some agreement. I'm hungry. I was wandering around, and I came to one bigger group of people and went into the center, thinking that someone was eating something there. In the center of the group was Ante Bakotić, a man I knew before from the chemical shop in the Brickyard. He patted my head and said, "Son, we are not eating anything here. This is not for you. When we start leaving, you run after us."
It wasn't clear to me what Ante was thinking, so I went back. Someone hanged himself in the toilet, prisoners said. I ran there. I felt a cold chill. Since last night, I hadn't seen Dušan, my friend. I was thinking the worst, and really, when I came to the toilet, [teenage boy] Dušan was hanging on the long-prepared rope that he tied to the tank of the toilet.
He had been afraid the rope wouldn't be strong enough for his weight. Unfortunately, it was. A lot of people were in front of the toilet. No one even tried to put him on the floor. There was no purpose. There were tears in eyes and on cheeks. I felt guilty. I shouldn't have left him alone. Maybe 1 could have influenced him not to do that, but now it's over. The lifeless boy's body didn't feel anything any more. The psychological traumas were stronger than he. He didn't make it. He had raised his hand to himself an hour or two before destiny's events.
I came back to Master and told him sadly what had happened. He answered me, "Hush. Don't be sad. Maybe he did the right thing."
I watched through the window. It was raining really hard. It was thundering and flashing lightning, just like the sky had opened and wanted to swallow us. Master was lying on the blanket. Ante BakoliC, with a bigger group of people, was going toward the exit doors . . . .
Silence! Silence before the storm-.
Suddenly, it thundered, but now, the thunder was in the exit hall of our building. Yelling people merged with the sky's thundering.
I ran to see what was happening there. In the hall was about a hundred people who were trying to break through the exit doors with the pressure of their bodies. Fists were raised. In some hands, there was a piece of brick, and in one, an axe, probably found somewhere on the top floor. I heard shouting, "Yeah. Let's go, friends. Freedom or death!"
The door gave up. It crashed down. People went out, running like lava from the. building. They stepped over the first Ustasha guard. Hell. From bunkers all around, the Ustashas opened fire. Glass on the windows was breaking. Bullets were whizzing above our heads. It was still raining. I came back for a second to Master. (He was a good man. I loved him) I said to him, "Run away. Let's run away."
"No, Son," he answered me.
I screamed again, "Run away!"
"No, Son. Oh, what are you doing? Now everyone will be killed.
"We will be killed, anyway. Let's run away."
"Master, I listened to you until now, but from now on, not anymore. I'm going. Goodbye." And 1 ran toward the exit. My Master's last words that came to my ears through thundering and whizzing bullets were "Goodbye, Son. Good luck. Don't forget--."
What not to forget, I didn't hear.
I was out of the building. From all bunkers and all weapons, the fire was pointed at us. A lot of killed and injured people were around the building, and further down, the road was covered with bodies. The Ustashas fire was heavy. For a moment, I turned to see the building from which I had come. From all exits, people were running out and jumping through the windows of the first floor. Many of them fell down immediately, shot with fire from the bunkers.
I ran toward the exit where prisoners were trying to open the gate. To the left, on the road inside of the camp, prisoner Mile Ristić was shooting from a machine gun. Next to him was laying a dead Ustasha. Now Ustashas had to be careful. While I was running, I kept telling myself, They don't want me. They don't want me. I was reassuring myself. I was hoping. I was going to the gate. There were a lot of dead and injured, and I was jumping across them and stepping on the bodies. I'm on the road. On the right side was the Sava [river], deep and cold. It was full of prisoners, head after head.
I was running and thinking, If I jump into the Sava, I can drown. Injured prisoners can pull me down with them. And I could see space for swimming was limited. No. I'm not going into the water. I decided to run into the forest. That's where I have to go. The forest was about one kilometer away, and in front of me was a field--clear, blank space. If I make it to the forest, I'm safe, I was still repeating, They don't want me. A buckle on my shoe broke, and I was barefoot now. While I was running, I took off the other shoe because it was bothering me. Bullets were singing that song, and it was raining and raining.
It is good that it is raining, I was thinking. Maybe Ustashas will quit chasing in this weather. I was on the field.
From bunkers all around, Ustashas were trying to cut our paths, but their execution line was too thin. There were a small number of them, and we were more, even though a lot of us had been killed.
In front of the group of prisoners who were running, Ustashas were on the road and scattered in front of the stampeding prisoners. One braver Ustasha stayed on the road where prisoners were running in order to stop them. The group was running toward him. He killed the first, then the second, but he didn't kill anymore. He got his deserved punishment. The stampeding prisoners trampled him. I had the feeling that they didn't even pause. The Ustasha's courage was too expensive.
Exhausted, hungry, and until this morning, powerless prisoners changed into lions that were pulling apart and tearing asunder with their bare hands. We came to the forest. There were maybe fifteen of us when we went deep in the forest, and someone shouted, "Stop! Stop, people, to see where we will go." We stopped and gathered. We kissed each other. We are free. The rain was tapering off and stopping. It was cloudy, and it was hard to orientate. We could still hear echoes from shooting in Jasenovac. People, now ex-prisoners, as they called us there, were suggesting where to go. I was silent and waiting. A short dilemma. There was no outstanding opinion. They were pointing where to go. All ways were included, but no one was pointing back toward Jasenovac.
That lasted a short time until one man, anxious with uncertainty, started running. He was running forward, and all of us were running behind him. After about 15 minutes, we came to the path, and there guns and machine guns fired again. Some fell immediately, without any voice. We had probably come to the outside and last obstacle with which Ustashas were protecting Jasenovac. Wc spread all around and ran into the forest. In front of me was a young man who was running fast. I was yelling, calling him. I can 't keep up with his steps. I'm afraid to stay alone. He's not turning back. He's just running forward. I kept watching him and following his steps,
but the distance between us was getting longer and longer. We were running llke that a long time until we came to some field. The distance between us was becoming longer and longer. Again, I tried to call him but all in vain. I was putting effort, speeding, but without results. In front of us was the Strug River. My "escapee" was maybe 100 or 150 meters in front of me. He was stepping across the stream, and I was going behind him.
We were out of the field and in the forest again. He went into the forest where I lost sight of him, and until I came to the edge of the forest, I couldn't see him anymore. I continued straight, hoping that I would find him somewhere. I was completely wet. What the rain didn't soak, the Strug did.
Again, I came to a field, but now I was alone. I had a horrible fever. I don't know if it was from fear or from the cold. Probably both. I wasn't running anymore. I was watching my surrounding and looking for hay stacks in a desire to come to something dry. I found a place where there might be a hay stack, but there were just a few bits of hay left, and they were completely wet and mushy. I dug through the hay, but there was nothing dry in there.
Am I going to fieeze from the cold? I had avoided Ustashas' knives, but how could I save myself from the cold that was coming into my marrow. I'm shaking. I have to move, I concluded. I can 't stop. If I stop and sit somewhere, I will freeze.
I tried to discover where I was. The rain stopped, and it was getting brighter. In moments, I saw the sun, the first free sun after 1,000 days of imprisonment in Jasenovac. If it could just be brighter, so the sun could dry me and warm me--. I could stand the hunger somehow. For 24 hours, I hadn't eaten anything. The last camp meal was the day before, April 21, 1945.
I noticed the tops of some mountain. That's Prosara, I was thinking. Soon I will get to the Suva. I will swim across. I was a good swimmer. And when I get to Bosnia-that will be real freedom.
My thoughts were interrupted by the whistle of a train. I was surprised. Where is the train? On the Bosnian side under Prosara Mountain, there is no railroad, so that means that is not the Prosara Mountain. But which one is it? There, my modest knowledge of geography helped me. I discovered that I was going to the north and that in front of me was the Psunj Mountain. What now? Ustashas can circle this area and catch me, and that would be the real end. I decided that I had to cross the railroad to Psunj Mountain to avoid circling. I went carefully by the hedge fence that protected me from one side. The train passed by. I could see it clearly. It was a freight train. On the right and left by the railroad, I noticed bunkers. The distance between them was about one kilometer. Behind the railroad, under the mountain, I saw a village-a lot of houses, a whole line of red roofs. On the pedestrian path by the hedge fence, I hid from the closer bunker and from the other one that was further. I didn't have any protection. I hoped that if they noticed me, they would think that I was a boy from one of the nearby villages. I was going closer to the railroad and thinking, If they see me and try to catch me, I will run. I would rather be killed while running than be caught alive. Not alive in their hands anymore. Rather death.
I went across the railroad, and I saw a boxcar turned on its side. I had to pass by it. I didn't notice anything. I went further. And just when I was about to pass by the boxcar, a Croatian army soldier jumped from behind it. And before I could do anythmg, he caught me.
Completely surprised, I didn't resist. And even if I had, it would have been in vain. I was powerless, and the Croatian soldier roughly grabbed my hand. I was thinking it was over. The soldier started asking me, "Where are you coming from boy?"
"I'm running away from Partisans," I answered without thinking. It was strange to me why I said that.
"What's your name?"
"Stipe Franjić," I lied to as I decided to use the last thing I had--cunning.
"What is the name of your father?" the soldier asked me.
"Where do you come from?"
"From Dubrave by Bosanska Gradiska."
"So, what are you doing here in Slavonia?"
"Yesterday, I was taking care of cows with one girl on the fields further from my village when Partisans came and took our cows. They let her go and took me to herd the stolen cows. Last night a few Partisans came across the Sava with a boat, and they took me with them," I lied imaginatively. "We came to a village where Partisans spent the night. This morning in the dawn, I used the chance and ran away."
The soldier searched my pockets, where I didn't have anything except my mother's picture that I had gotten in the first parcel. He asked me whose picture it was, and I answered that it was a picture of my mother.
"Come with me to the bunker to the Ustashas," said the soldier, and he took me there.
When he mentioned Ustashas, my blood froze. Now they are going to take me back to Jasenovac, you know-, I was thinking. We were coming closer to the bunker. My brain was working. All the time I was repeating my imagined name and the rest of the story, so they wouldn't catch me in a lie. Every time, I have to tell the same story. I can't make any mistakes otherwise... (End quote.) Read more in the book.