Testimony and visit to Slana by Josip Balaž – Joža

Datum objave: nedelja, 11 jula, 2010
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Veličina slova: A- A+

On the following pages we are going to read the testimony of Josip Balaž, Joža, a Hungarian, now retired living in Daruvar. In his written statement from October 9, 1970, which is located in SUBNOR in Pag, comrade Balaž writes that he was born in 1912 in Goveđe Polje, Daruvar Municipality. At age of six he lost both of his parents. His father died in the First World War, while his mother, brother and sister died of Spanish flu. Later on Joža was working for villagers watching over their gees and pigs, and later on also their cattle. For this he was given some food and allowed to sleep in stables. His uncle took him in when he was ten and was able to work in an oil factory and take care of a large number of pigs. He then started primary school, finished it and then finished three grades of crafts school.

In 1932 he joined the workers movement and in 1937 he was accepted into the Communist Party.

In this book, after Jožo’s statement, which is in fact a summary of a conversation with him in 1970 in Pag, we also provide excerpts from the conversation recorded on a tape. Us, the people who spoke with him, tried to go into details, so the conversation with the sick and old comrade was difficult for him, especially because we moved from one topic to another. In some parts of the conversation there are things already mentioned in his statement, but due to the fresh conversation there are many new things which will not hinder the validity (and we care for this the most) or the interest in the things we heard about from the article.

Both of testimonies have some unclear parts, despite our quite firm conclusions. We are certain there were two camps, because we know a lot about them. We had them measured inch by inch, but Joža – after all those years, confused with his memories of the camp as an inmate and now looking at this area as a free man – claims there was a third camp that must have been south-east from the Serbian camp, in the direction where they took inmates to swim amongst sea urchins. This area was not surrounded with wire, but only controlled by machineguns and guards. According to my calculation, this part of the camp was started around August 1 or 20 the latest, and lasted for few hard days, or it fluctuated so much that what people came there disappeared so quickly that wire was not necessary. But not even the Jewish camp was fully surrounded by wire while Joža was in it (right until the very end, as Dr. Radan claims, they were putting up wire).

A large part of Slana remains a secret even for those who spent time there, let alone for us who investigate it half a century later. We are not certain if we are close to truth when talking about the third camp, but we are more confused when we look at square areas surrounded by low stone wall, which rise one after another around Blaška Slana, in a short gorge towards the Baška Slana beach.

If we can say at all that there was some (or someone’s) protection, then the group that was with Balaž, Catholics, were to some extent “protected”. They did not go to work and that is why Joža lost the sense of geography of the place after thirty years. Besides constant fear from death and horror, the geography of the camp also did not make an impression on him, the impression we need today, except that it was a barren and vast rocky terrain, a small patch of sea (in Baška Slana) with images that still make his voice tremble and block his speech. After Slana, Joža went through several camps and prisons which are memories that entwine and confuse. All of these are elements we need to review with a human compassion in order to understand that this was the only way to experience that time. Blaž’s statements cause us some doubts which led us to believe we need to change (or not) some of our beliefs and stands. For example, from the county of Grubišino polje, around 500 Serbian men aged from 18 to 45 were brought to the “Danica” camp in Koprivnica, which was founded with these people that had been arrested on April 26 and 27, 1941. After them came Jews from Zagreb, Tuzla, Pakrac and Daruvar, etc.

According to a record by the sole survivor (because of mixed marriage), teacher Gojko Utješinović, around 3500 people were taken to Gospić. We have already described how they quite randomly loaded some people into trucks heading for Jadovno or Oštarije, or they tied them up and made them go on foot to Karlobag. We have no information that all people from Tuzla reached Slana, just as we do not have any information that all other groups who reached Gospić and Oštarije went to Slana. If Balaž claims that he saw names carved into beams, Popović, Popara, and next to them Grubišno Polje, then we have to believe him. Moreover, since we have the testimony of an ex Ustasha (later on a Partisan) Nikola Matijević who in his statement (given on February 24, 1946 in front of the Commission in Senj) independently from Balaž and long time before him said: “In July 1941, I joined Ustashas in Karlobag. I was sent to Slana and then to Metajna… I heard that there were Serbs there and Ustasha leaders said there were 1313 of them. Everybody said they were mostly from Grubišno Polje and Pakrac…”

Matijević, born 1923 in Prizna, was a pauper who probably joined Ustashas to get some hot soup and army bread, just as many people joined their ranks not knowing what they were getting themselves into. He had probably never heard of Grubišno Polje and Pakrac and when he heard them together he memorised them in all his horror and did not forget to mention them during his statement. Until we heard these two testimonies we could have thought that people from Grubišno Polje were killed in Jadovno. That might not be a mistake. This enigma is still unsolved. But, with these two statements there are grounds to believe that they did unfortunately arrived to Slana.

The SUBNOR in Grubišno Polje recorded the names of all arrested people according to their place of residence at the time. These are their sad numbers: Grubišno Polje 142, Velika Barna 111, Gornja Rašenica 67, Rastovac 45. Most of them were farmers, but people living in the town of Grubišno Polje were also craftsmen.

“… as a pre-war communist I was arrested on July 24, 1941 in Daruvar because of my activities known to gendarmes and Frankovci. Before I was arrested, I received from a member of the Communist Party District Committee, Mitar Lončar, from Gornji Daruvar (who still lives there at number 80) fliers titled “APPEAL TO THE PEOPLES OF YUGOSLAVIA TO RISE” which I all distributed. I would put it into pockets of people from neighbouring villages that came to the oil factory on regular basis. All over town I threw them through open windows.

People who were arrested with me were: Rudi Hanževački, Mato Pongrac, member of the Communist Party from 1940, and SKOJ member Vlado Klubička and a large number of Serbs from whom I remember Đuro Kovačević, Pero Kovačević, Matijević, Svetozar Milojević, Pero Miličić, Blagoje Gvozdić, Ljuboja Bosanac, Nikica Sudar and Kocorep, and few Jews such as Oskar Rohlitz, Draguting Goldberger, Josip Vajs, Gvido Rethy and Lukač. There were about 22 to 25 of us in this group.

On the same day, July 24, 1941, we were put on a train and sent to Zagreb to the southern station. There we were transferred to a freight car which then departed to an unknown destination. Only when we arrived at the station did we realize we were in Gospić. This yard and the whole building was filled with people so we were piled together with them and squeezed like in a can. In a short time one Ustasha from Daruvar came (we called him Popeye) with 500 Serbs from Banija, who were captured by Ustashas in their fields. When he noticed us standing next to the entrance he spat at us, shoved us, hit us with the butt of his rifle and cursed terribly. In all that commotion and horror, from all corners of the building and the yard you could hear the defying song “East and West are waking” (Communist song) and many others which raised our morale in this hopeless situation. We did not get any food here, but comrade Svetozar Milojević from our group had an acquaintance in Gospić who somehow brought us a corn bread which we divided into small bites. If someone had to relieve himself he would have to call a guard to let him, because Ustashas would shoot if they saw any commotion, in the air, luckily. On the fourth day of our arrest, Monday, July 28, 1941, they announced we would be moved from the yard. A line of trucks was parked ready and they cruelly chased us out from the yards and loaded into trucks. They kicked us like cattle, hit us with rifle butts, shouted and cursed to move quickly. I persuaded my group to keep together so they wouldn’t divide us, and so we did except for 3 to 4 Jews. One after the other, the trucks departed in various directions. Later on we heard that most of the trucks drove to Jadovno, and today we all know it was a human slaughterhouse. Our truck went to the top of Velebit to a place called Velebitske Oštarije with 4 to 5 houses.

They unloaded us in a stable with no cattle but with a lot of manure. We also relieved ourselves here, and sat and laid there until afternoon. Then a large number of Ustashas showed up, lined us up and drove us on foot into the unknown. This was a march into hell. Now that Ustashas had us lined up in a column there was no end to hitting with rifle butts. There wasn’t a single man in the column that didn’t have broken ribs. All of us tried to stop ourselves from crying with pain, because we would be hit even more.

Among us was a tall and slim athlete, goalkeeper, Perica Miličević. They beat him so much that he could not walk, so we carried him in a blanket in turns. Blagoje Gvozdić, a retired customs officer, wore a beard. We warned him already in Gospić to shave his beard, because with it he looked like an Orthodox priest, but he stubbornly refused. Our predictions came true. Ustashas thought he was a priest and on the way they were pulling out his beard together with pieces of flesh and he was bleeding all the time.

They often stopped us on suitable locations hidden from sight, next to the road, and searched us. People still had watches, rings and money and Ustashas took everything. To them it seemed we had very little so in their fury they molested us even more; one blow after another and another cracked rib. This savagery lasted until we reached Karlobag.

In Karlobag, before we were boarded into boats, came Maks Luburić, who commanded all camps, and started separating Jews, Serbs and “Catholics”. When he saw several of us “Catholics”, Luburić became very angry and started shouting that we were communists and that he would have us shot. Matijević and I convinced him that we knew Ustashas from Daruvar very well and that we played football with them before the war, which was true since I was living next to the football pitch. Balls and uniforms were entrusted to me by the Party and I played with the youth team. As the clergy had a great influence on the youth, I used football to dissuade many of them from Crusaders meetings. Luburić demanded that I name Ustashas I knew. I named them all, since Daruvar was a small town at the time and we all knew each other. Then Luburić calmed and said: “We’ll see what to do with you”.

Then they boarded Jews and Serbs into boats, each group separately, just as they did with us “Catholics”, and each boat sailed into a different direction, but all towards Pag. When we arrived to Pag we landed on a spot with two large barracks. They were in fact eaves, strongly built, but without side walls. In the distance you could see several more barracks and the area around them was bounded with a tall barbed wire fence with 10 centimetres in between the wires. Between each three such fences were coils of barbed wires, so-called drums. They said there were around 500 of us there, and for food we got around 20 kilos of potatoes and 10 kilos of flour. Unpeeled potatoes were boiled and raw flour was pored over it and this white pulpy and disgusting food was our meal for the day which made most people sick with dysentery. Our group from Daruvar was put here amongst some Jews we did not know, mostly merchants, who could not bear such food and terrible hunger. Just above the barracks, basically above our heads, was a pit – our toilet where we poured out our pots which were always full with faeces. But not everyone could make it to the pot, because bloody diarrhoea waits for no-one. People were dirty with faeces and flies were all over them just as they were all over everything else. Foul smell was everywhere, especially under the eaves. Dysentery epidemic and hunger were exhausting and someone would die every day. I do not know where they took and buried the bodies.

One day Ustashas moved us again and put us into those barracks that were surrounded by that barbed wire fence I mentioned, with the triple rows and some wire in between. We found nobody there, but according to names of people and places we found carved in, former residents had been Serbs from Grubišno Polje area, which was next to Daruvar. From there we had a better view on the road so we could see every day movements of prisoners in various directions. I recognised some Serbs and Jews from the Daruvar area, who were arrested before or after us.

From there they would take us for “swimming” every day in a bay which was filled with sea urchins so that the bottom was completely black, but when they forced us into the water it became red with human blood. People would cry with the pain, not just from broken ribs, but also from punctures, and this went on the whole time we were on Pag. We would take out spikes from each other. Clean salty water was helping many people, but for many people their punctures festered, and many died from blood poisoning.

There, where we had to go for a swim Jewish kids would bring leftovers from the Ustasha canteen to pour it into the sea. When they poured it in, they would jump after those leftovers and grab that waste in their little hands and swallowed it. Half-eaten watermelon skins were delicious to them. Even today I have that image before my eyes and I feel sick. We were also endlessly hungry, but we had awareness and pride, something that those starving children did not have. This was a wonderful sight for Ustashas, so they took pictures of these events for memory.

One day around 500 Serbs came from Banja Luka. They had to build barracks immediately. This was a bit further from where we were. One nice barracks was quickly ready. There was one good accordion player with them with a beautiful accordion like I had never seen. He played and sang all the time until late at night. In the morning when we got up there were no barracks or people there. They had been swallowed by the night and there was no trace of them being there, as if it was just a dream.

Suddenly news spread amongst inmates that people in Slana had a lot of cheese and wanted to sell it. Group leaders, inmates, collected money and asked for permission to go and buy it. They brought large amounts of cheese, but the condition was to eat just one small piece a day. After two days Luburić and his butchers came and took all the cheese and he had accurate information on who had money. In that way he collected a lot of money that Jews had stitched inside their clothes. Apparently, it was bait which the starving people took.

One day people started whispering that English submarines appeared near the island. Ustashas started transporting us inland and only then did I realise there were many of us there[15] all over the rocks, and we did not know about each other. But, in Karlobag some Italian officer took us over and putting us in truck and without molestation transported us to Gospić to the train stations, where Ustashas took us over. We were surprised to such treatment, but we heard that those areas would be taken over by Italian military and that we had to be moved as soon as possible.

During the transport, I don’t know where, our Daruvar group was joined by arrestees from Karlovac: Ivo Krznar, Miroslav Klemenčić, Zvonko Gregorić, Tobar and Korpar whose forenames I cannot remember. During our conversations and time in other camps we spent together, I concluded they were also pre-war communists, members of the Communist Party.

From Gospić we again embarked into the unknown. During the trip, train cars with inmates were connected with new cars in various stations. In some smaller stations, where it was possible, we poured out faeces from pots. In those new cars were Jewish men and women who were so much covered in faeces that they did not look like people. This is how we continued our road to more terrible suffering.

I spent about a month in Pag, and since I went through another 5 camps after Pag, I believe that Pag was the first camp in the NDH, besides the existing penitentiaries.

In February 1942, Croatian NDH Parliament held a session during which, for reasons of propaganda among Croatian people, they reached a decision to pardon a number of inmates.

I was one of 49 inmates from Jasenovac that were lined up and taken to Zagreb. They brought us to the main Ustasha headquarters, where the student campus is now, next to the Revolution Museum, or near the mosque as they called it then.

When we came there they simply told us that we were free and we could go home. We could not believe it. I remember telling our group leader to ask for some kind of document with which we could go home freely. The group leader asked for it while commenting how I always come up with something. We got a pass for a safe passage home, with a recommendation that we are not to be bothered on the way to home or when we get there.

So, this was a lucky circumstance that kept me alive and got me out of the Ustasha camp.”

[15] He meant to say: there were a lot of us in Slana; only then he could see how many




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