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The Ustashi Legacy: Remembering the Children's Concentration Camp in Sisak

Children sitting in front of one of the barrack's in the Sisak concentration camp. Public domain.

Children sitting in front of one of the barrack's in the Sisak concentration camp. Public domain.

In 1941, the Croatian radical right-wing Ustashi movement came to power and formed the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), led by Ante Pavelić. NDH followed fascist regimes in Europe by forming concentration camps, and killing and persecuting Serbs, Jews, and Romas, not to mention Croatian partisans and their families.

In August 1942, NDH built a camp in Sisak, Croatia, for both adults and children. The children's section of the concentration camp was dubbed the “Shelter for Children of Refugees“ and was the biggest of its kind in the Ustashi-run Independent State of Croatia. The so-called “shelter” was led by Dr. Antun Najžer, under the patronage of The Female Lineages of the Ustashi movement and Ustashi surveillance services. Today we have documents showing that Dr. Najžer and his team performed tests on the children held in the camp, starving to death some, and torturing in various ways others.

A monument in children section's camp graveyard says approximately 2,000 people are buried there, but there's never been an organized effort to exhume the bodies, so no one knows for sure. A recent article on the Croatian news site Portal Novosti describes the history of the camp, bearing the chilling headline “Sisak Also Had Its Mengele” (referring to the Auschwitz concentration camp's infamous physician).

The town of Sisak, subjected to another devastating conflict in the 1990s during the Croatian Independence War, holds an event annually at the graveyard on WWII Remembrance Day, laying wreaths on the memorial and inviting the camp's survivors to speak.

Dobrila Kukolj is one of the children who managed to survive the horrors of the concentration camp. Born in 1931 in Međeđa village, Bosnia-Herzegovina, she was placed in several children's camps during the war. Her life changed forever in 1941, when Ustashi forces attacked her village. In Portal Novosti's article, Kukolj says she best recalls the Sisak and Jasenovac concentration camps, both in Croatia, and describes what arriving at the camps was like:

Ulazak u logor bio je ravan klubu smrti u kojem su vladali bezakonje i ludilo, gdje se čuo samo vrisak, plač i jauk do neba. Prizor od kojeg mi se i danas ledi krv u žilama je bježanje ispred ustaša koji su hvatali djevojčice i nad njima se iživljavali. Tada sam nehotice stala na tek rođeno dijete na zemlji, a taj plač mi i danas zvoni u ušima. Mi preživjeli logoraši smo na izmaku snage, a naša svjedočanstva ne smiju pasti u zaborav i zato molim sadašnju i buduće generacije da se bore da se zlo koje je donio rat više nikada ne ponovi, kako kod nas, tako i u cijelom svijetu.

Entering the concentration camp was the same thing as entering a death club ruled only by lawlessness and madness, where you could hear only screams, crying and moaning, all the way to the sky. One sight that still freezes the blood in my veins is running from the Ustashes who were capturing little girls and then brutalizing them. That's when I accidentally stepped on a newborn lying on the ground. The cry it let out still rings in my ears. We who have survived the camps are at the end of our journeys, but our legacy shouldn't ever be forgotten and that's why I ask the generations who are here and who are yet to come to ensure that such evil brought by war never again returns—not in our country or any other.

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