An Encyclopedia of Horror

On Ivo Goldstein's "Jasenovac", Fraktura, Zagreb 2018

Week of The Festival: Goran's Spring, Zagreb and Split, Croatia

In the future literature about Ustaša concentration camps “there should be no fiction, because the imagination of Poe or Maupassant could not conceive that what came to mind and what was committed by the very average persons”. Croatian historian Ivo Goldstein has used these words of Ilija Jakovljević as an epigraph for his monumental, more than 900 page-long study titled simply “Jasenovac”, the infamous name known to every speaker of Serbo-Croatian language. In the vicinity of a village at the confluence of Una and Sava rivers in August 1941 Croatian fascists — Ustaše* — erected an homonymous extermination camp. Jasenovac was a crucial element of Ustaša systematic genocidal policies, by which they planned to annihilate ethnic groups proclaimed undesirable in the so-called Independent State of Croatia, a puppet state of the Third Reich: Serbs, Jews and Roma people. Thousands of Croats and Bosniaks were also killed in Jasenovac, mostly for being members of antifascist movement, as well as for completely arbitrary reasons. For the Ustaša “state” was a totalitarian criminal entity whose very essence was terror and mass murder. “In our revolution we will tread in blood up to the knees”, as one of the Ustaša leaders proclaimed. Jasenovac was the crown of that terror, which was not without reason called “Auschwitz of the Balkans”, a place where during the 44 months of the camp's existence close to 100,000 people were massacred.

The flower monument at Jasenovac memorial site.

“In Jasenovac everything was possible. It was a camp of impossible possibilities”, one of the survivors wrote, meaning that a normal person could never even think up events occurring there. Jasenovac had an important distinction from theGerman Vernichtungslager: in contrast to the industrial Nazi mass murder, the Ustaše death factory was a manufacture.**Most of the people killed were either slaughtered with knifes, or had their skulls crushed with wooden mauls and iron hammers. But the Jasenovac catalogue of dread encompasses much more: page by page, we read about fingers, ears, lips, women's breasts, male and female genitalia being cut off, about Ustaše killers licking their bloody knifes, toddlers tossed in the air and impaled on daggers, about human heads tossed on the playground, about people thrown alive in the ovens. Close to 20,000 children died in Jasenovac: many were starved to death. There are obnoxious testimonies of gnawed little children's arms or of distraught adult prisoners roasting the flesh of their deceased comrades — a picture that Ustaša guards would gather to watch, as if Jasenovac was a certain kind of diabolic theatre. Not to mention the mass rape of women before their murder. There were female killers present as well, such as Maja Budžon. Her male comrades in crime admired her for proficiency regarding torture, as slaughter effectiveness was the criterion for advancement. Some killed out of sadistic delight, as Miroslav Filipović-Majstorović did. He was also known as “Friar Satan” since he was a Franciscan priest who “baptised” Serbian children by cutting their throats. While him and certain others were clearly pathological minds, some Ustaša guards were naive idealists of Croatian nationalism, unaware that their organisation would turn them into mass murderers. One of the most horrifying facts is Goldstein's insight according to which none of the genocide participants were one-dimensional monsters: they were human beings, and even more — as Jakovljević, another survivor, wrote — they were “very average persons”. Goldstein here rightfully leans on Hannah Arendt's conclusions about Eichmann and the banality of evil. However, Jakovljević also wrote that “The psychology of prisoners is quite clear, although it does entail some surprises, but psychology of the one who kills is much darker and because of that entices greater curiosity”. In line with this, Goldstein documents not only the personal stories of numerous victims, but also those of more than forty of the most pronounced murderers. This is maybe the most fascinating aspect of his book: “The history of Jasenovac are the people themselves. I described many collective and individual fates, because these microhistorical fragments mirror the broader picture most vividly”.

Thanks to this narrative strategy, Goldstein's book reads as an impressive novel made out of a mosaic of intertwined existentialist dramas. We read about a hungry prisoner who eats dinner sitting on his father's corps; about a Jewish Zagreb merchant who dies pushed in a cauldron of boiling polenta while a starving crowd continues to eat; about an inmate who was taken out of the camp and left alone by the Ustaše, and who, “feeling strange distress and fear of loneliness”, decided to go back to the camp. Another prisoner tried to escape and was caught, and then the Ustaše threatened to execute all prisoners in his barrack if they do not kill him themselves, so they decided that each one of them would hit him with a bat once — to share the guilt. Male prisoners were writing love letters to women from the neighbouring camp district: they never saw them, but they took huge risks to get their letters delivered. One Ustaša fell in love with a Serbian girl: his comrades killed both of them. A naive and kind, young guard was new in the camp and behaved kindly towards the prisoners: he was soon transformed into a criminal. The Jewish star of the camp theatre group liked to joke with Ustaša officers who came to watch the plays: they laughed with him — and they killed him. The relations between inmates and guards were often intimate. They spoke the same language, shared a similar culture and often exchanged opinions. Croatian communist dissident Ante Ciliga, a prisoner as well, wrote that in Jasenovac there was no Übermensch killing Untermensch: in Jasenovac humans were killing humans — and as the murdering tools were knifes or mauls, during the act itself they would often stare into each other's eyes. If “Jasenovac” was a novel, it would doubtlessly be the heaviest one you could come across in life. The reader needs significant mental strength to go through the hundreds of graphic descriptions of torture and pain. Some emotional damage is guaranteed: Goldstein notes that his book is about 20th century hell — and you can't visit hell and return unscathed.

“Jasenovac” is meticulous scientific study, an encyclopedia of horror based on hundreds of testimonies and an enormous amount of archive material. It gives a chronological overview of events as well as the discussion of every single relevant topic: the structure of the camp, the reasons for deportation, the different prisoner categories, the various causes of death and methods of murder, life under different camp commanders, methods of survival, the possibility of escape, the prisoner's knowledge of the outer world, the shameful role of the Catholic Church, the final April 1945 rebellion in Jasenovac, the manipulations with a number of victims and other issues. During socialist Yugoslavia, the official numberof victims was inflated to 700,000, a fact which Serbian nationalists used to proclaim the Croatian nation itself as “genocidal”. Their Croatian counterparts answered by claiming that the whole story of Jasenovac was a myth, a lie invented to burden Croats with permanent guilt. The very notion of Jasenovac today functions as a litmus test, the shibboleth  about the political identity of Croats and Serbs. If you ask a person “How many people were killed there?”, by the number that person gives as an answer it is possible to broadly deduce his or her political position. 

At least three members of Ivo Goldstein's family were murdered in the Jasenovac camp. In contemporary Croatia,Goldstein is a renowned public intellectual and author of numerous books. However, even if “Jasenovac” was the single book he wrote in his life, he would have indebted Croatian culture forever. The experience of the Ustaša movement is one of the crucial traumas of Croatian identity, the one the nation has never managed to productively cope with. A rational debate about Jasenovac was not allowed in socialist Yugoslavia, and it is hardly allowed in  contemporary Croatia. The first Croatian president Franjo Tuđman supported historical revisionism which aimed at minimising Ustaša crimes and rehabilitating them as fighters for the Croatian nation. This process has until today made much progress: the monumental Croatian participation in the Yugoslav anti-fascist movement is seen almost as something shameful, while “experts”, who deny the existence of the Jasenovac extermination camp, are interviewed for public broadcasting. At the end of his book, Goldstein notes one of the paramount reasons for writing this book: “When you look the truth of Jasenovac into the eyes, you make Croatia a less horrible place. Maybe it is a battle lost in advance, but it is important to try”.

The article was commissioned and edited by Marko Pogačar