Approximately 30km southwest of Zagreb, alongside the Karlovac-Zagreb highway, lies the town of Jastrebarsko - site of one of the former Ustaša concentration camps specifically for children. Although only operational for a few months in the summer of 1942, this Croatian town will forever be remembered as a site of unimaginable suffering.
Serbian and Jewish children, from as young as 1 month old, were taken from their mothers during their incarceration at camps such as Jasenovac - parent camp of Jastrebarsko, and gathered at sites such as Sisak, Gornja Reka and Jastrebarsko. Transports arrived during the summer of 1942 at the abandoned military barracks previously used by Italian militia, the former manor house of Hungarian nobles including Count Erdödy, and notably, at the Franciscan monastery near Jastrebarsko. Later, arrivals came from camps at Mlaka and Jablanac. One transport to Gornja Reka brought 400 boys from the camps at Uštica and Stara Gradiška. Of this quota, around 140 died of typhus soon after.
On arrival, the children's heads were shaved and they were herded into their new accommodation barracks - sleeping on the floor with no blankets, only a thin layer of straw. Within no time, dysentery broke out claiming many young lives. Food was very limited, with a small piece of bread or tiny serving of soup all that was provided. Many children ate grass in an attempt to stave off the constant hunger.
A large group of Serbian boys at Stara Gradiška were forced to undergo "re-education". This entailed wearing the dark uniforms of the Ustaša, complete with "U" insignia on their little hats, marching around the camp and singing Ustaša songs daily.
The camp at Gornja Reka, located around 3km north of Jastrebarsko, saw about 2,000 children through its existence. Together with Jastrebarsko, the number of children totalled 3,336. The monastery camp typically housed several hundred child inmates.
In Sisak, the town gravedigger - a man named Franjo Videc later stated that he buried up to 30 children every day. Franjo Ilovar, who held a similar position in Jastrebarsko recorded no fewer than 468 child burials from the camp in a 5 week period during the summer of 1942. Ilovar was paid for his work "per piece".
Sisak saw an estimated 5,000-7,000 children before it closed in January 1943. Camp mortuary records document over 1,100 deaths, although other sources state in excess of 1,600 children died. Local citizens later attempted to help, taking the youngest and sickest out of the camp.
The Jastrebarsko staff were notorious for their cruelty, yet these were not the twisted men of the Ustaša, but women from the ranks of the Catholic nuns of the Holy Congregation. Survivors later spoke of their masters who patrolled the halls with their jangling keys and birch twig sticks that they used to beat the children. One particular method favoured by the nuns was to dip the sticks in salted water or vinegar, prior to administering a beating. For many, the memory of these overseers haunted them - and in the case of survivors still alive today, still torments them now. Some are still shaken at the appearance of a nun, remembering the long dark robes and large white bonnets that the staff at Jastrebarsko wore. Noted individuals among the staff include Sister Mercedes - regarded by some as the cruelest of all, and the abbess Pulherija. Children at the monastery camp were forced to learn and recite Catholic prayers regularly.
In late August 1942, Yugoslav partisans freed approximately 700 children from the camps as part of their assault on the town of Jastrebarsko. The massive rescue organisation and relocation process for the thousands of children later liberated, was led by Diana Budisavljevič. Along with the Croatian Red Cross, Catholic organisation Caritas and Dr.Kamilo Brössler from the Ministry of Associations of the Independent State of Croatia, she managed to arrange the accommodation of over half the children with local families. Private citizens in Zagreb, Jastrebarsko and surrounding villages took in some 1,637 boys and girls. The filing system recored by Diana Budisavljevič registered over 12,000 children thought to have been in the numerous camps during the period.
A modest monument stands in the town cemetery, at which several wreaths were laid during the first small ceremony to remember the children - some 68 years after the event.
Below is a link to a documentary featuring several survivors of the children's camps - WARNING, some viewers will find images and content upsetting.
Children Behind The Wire (1/5) - Genocide in Croatia 1941-1945 - YouTube
Images (from Jasenovac memorial website)
1) Boys separated from their parents at Stara Gradiška.
2) Accommodation at the children's collection farm, Stara Gradiška.
3) Nuns and Ustaša pose with children at Jastrebarsko.
4) Serbian boys undergoing "re-eductaion" at Stara Gradiška.
5) The first children arrive at Sisak.
6) Croatian officials and Ustaša militia visit Jastrebarsko.
7) Diana Budisavljevič.