Testimony of Zlatko Vajler

Datum objave: nedelja, 11 jula, 2010
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Zlatko Vajler
Zlatko Vajler

 

While I was collecting testimonies about Slana camp, I rejoiced every time I heard that someone came out of Slana alive. It seemed that not all was black in this deepening pit in the soil of my ancestors’ island. I was grateful to the unknown force that still did something good in its attempt to save man.

Reluctant, I rang the door bell of Zlatko Vajler’s flat in Belgrade, trying not to disturb this man, who to me seemed resurrected! When he opened the door I realised: only such vigorous and solid man could have survived and escaped! I am grateful for his encouragement which made me relaxed and for his faith in survival, and he is the proof of that, and which infects the listener. Later on, when I saw his memory printed in the book “Jasenovac”, I decided to start the report from our conversation, recorded on tape for the sake of this book, with his human approach:

“Jasenovac… is the evidence of time ruled by the law of knife, mallet, crematorium, scaffolds and other means of murder which cannot be seen as reality by a normal human mind.

We, the surviving inmates, owe to ourselves and to this society we live in to constantly remind of the cataclysm which was brought by disunion of our peoples before the war, to talk about the time in which Ustasha and Chetnik knives ruled, the time in which you could hear shouts “Kill the Jew”.

– – – –

I was born in 1914 in Sušak, and as a 5-year-old child I came with my parents to Zagreb where I had lived until the day I was arrested, on June 21, 1941.

After I had finished school I started working as a clerk in the DTR (laundry factory), and the whole time I was active in sports and had great results (I was the champion of Yugoslavia in table tennis, I was excellent in gymnastics, etc.).

Since I was not particularly interested in politics, I was not worried by worsening situation in the world and in our country. Increased arrivals of large groups of Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany and their stories of persecution and killings had no particular influence on me until, in last years before the war, anti-Semitic incidents started to increase here as well. During sport events and elsewhere you could here more frequently shouts “Kill the Jew, kill the Jew”, so I started to look at the situation more realistically.”

But as many young men with humanistic views and integrated into the society in which he grew up he did not see on time what he now believes he should have seen first. If he had realised it, he would have not given himself up so easily. This is why his first words recorded on a magnetic tape in his flat, in March 1986, are: “I was arrested…”

“… on June 21, 1941 and on that day I was taken to the Petrinjska Street in Zagreb to the central prison. The next day I was transferred to the “Zagreb Assembly”[25], today’s Grand Fair where the assembly point was and several hundreds of people were already there. I was a member of SBOTIČ, but I was arrested for being Jewish, not because of my membership. At the Assembly I saw several hundreds of mostly younger people. We were in the Assembly for a day and on June 23 we left.” (Author’s note: Maybe it was June 22, maybe? I left his statement as it is, because Vajler was first taken to the prison in the Petrinjska Street, from where he was transferred to the Zagreb Grand Fair, or Assembly.) “We were boarded on train cars and we departed into the unknown. On 23rd or 24th, I am not sure when, we stopped in Gospić for a while and they opened the doors of those cattle cars and gave us some water to drink.

In Gospić we came across some of our friends who were arrested before as youths and deported to Koprivnica in Danica camp. They had been arrested in May. They were the first youth group, from age 17 to 20. They were just a youth group, transported to Koprivnica and there were… there in Gospić I met an acquaintance, because before the war I was a member of Makabi, a sports association from Zagreb that had several clubs: football club, table tennis, fencing, gymnastics… and with very good results. They were record holders, state champions in athletics, table tennis, boxing, etc… here I met a friend, his name was Božo Švarc[26]… there were about twenty of them in that group, from Koprivnica, and all of them were taken to Jadovno, only ten of them were kept in Gospić to serve as street sweepers. We met them somewhere around the station… This was just one meeting, unplanned…

We moved on that day and in the morning the next day we were in Karlobag. It was on June 24. On the same day in the morning they transported us in two boats to Slana… this is a part of Pag without a single blade of grass… just bare rocks and nothing else… as far as I remember, I don’t know… maybe, in my memory from Pag to Jasenovac there had been so many people that… I can’t remember always… nor can I place everything… amongst them was certainly Vrban… on that day, when we came there, at noon we got some potato soup…

The next morning around 6am there was a parade and some Ustasha delegation came, I don’t know, and among them was the chief commander of all of these camps, Maks Luburić. We were lined up all of us there and then we were informed that we had come there to work, order, work and discipline, arbeit macht frei, that each undisciplined action would be punished severely, but that we would be returned home after some time.

There was mostly crowd psychology, we had not been politically aware, but we were just products of a suburban environment who did their work, did sports, lived in belief that they had not tricked anyone ever, that they had not been unfair to anybody, so what could happen to them if they stay a week or two in a camp, and then everything would be alright. There was such blindness of youth and people during these first days, which led to all of us standing and waiting with our rucksacks at home to be taken away and then be returned. After that our gory life started… Although messages were here before, although there were emigrants from Austria… people had been talking…but man is just like a cancer patient, aware that he is about to die, but refuses to acknowledge his illness. This was same for us. I never did anything wrong to anyone. We had been raised in a town. When mother was slaughtering a chicken all of us would run away from the house or kitchen. We never thought that there are men who could slaughter people… these are the circumstance which brought us to the camp… On Pag we immediately started working. One group was working on building a dock, we would break rocks and build the dock on Baška Slana where we worked standing in the sea up to our waists, we were putting one rock onto another… and we worked on the road from there to the camp… the road was about three metres wide… (Zemljar: “… it exists. Will you come and see?” No. “Why?” No, no, I can’t. “But, why not? You’ll come with me and be my guest?” No, no. All those memories and reminiscence… no…). We were the first group, around 500 or 520… all of us from Zagreb. After eight days a female group arrived… this was approximately the frequency of arrivals, the second group after eight days, third group after ten days and all the way until end of July or early August groups arrived from Zagreb… In our first group there were all Jews who were mostly students, or members of gymnastics clubs, some members of Merkur, some of SBOTIČ, but it was not important that they were members of SBOTIČ in terms of politics, but because they were Jews. They probably received lists from the Jewish Municipality and then made selection and took the most vital people… there was almost the whole Makabi football team, gymnasts, athletics people and other sportsmen… so they were mostly such people…

As far as I remember there were two barracks… one or two…? Maybe one, maybe two… the gale came later… that’s why I think there were two… us… we started that work, this was where beatings started but no killings yet… Prisoners came, were searched immediately, everything from them was taken, and then they were sent to work… It seems that Pag was a camp in which they planned to destroy systematically through work, not by slaughter… We mostly got just tea for breakfast, for lunch maybe one or two potatoes and same for dinner, so in average we didn’t get more than 500 to 600 calories and your body requires 3 to 3.5 thousand… I was 25 at the time… That work was exhausting, people would fall down. I can’t remember if someone was killed at the time… Eh, in early august? … Somewhere between 5th and 8th?…[27] During a strong gale… one of the barracks came down, the one we spoke of, and two men got killed and 18 were badly injured by pieces of wood… injuries to spine, legs, etc… I think… this was in July, early July… Three of us immediately became good friends there… for example Pavao Löw[28], he was in the state team before the war, after war his name was Pavao Levković, a Zagreb man, than Gusti Hamburger and me. We agreed to try not to separate… so we slept next to each other (Pavao… he died two months ago) and when the barracks came down one of the beams fell next to us and on this Gusti Hamburger and broke his spine, and another man was killed, I don’t remember his name… Ustashas came around 6am the next morning to collect the dead and wounded and boarded them on a ship claiming they would be taken to a hospital in Karlobag. But after two days, next to a shed we called the rag house we saw all the clothes of those men, which meant that they were thrown in to the Pag Channel.

We continued working and living as much as we could, enduring taunts, molestation, beatings, and some time… I think in late July Kajzer from Vienna and Klajn tried to escape, two of them. This Kajzer was our state champion at 400 metres. He was Austrian, but also competed in Yugoslavia. At all internal state championships he competed for Makabi. Between 1934 and ’37 a lot of refugees from Austria came to Zagreb… Some of them stayed in Zagreb… and these men were accepted by the sports society as distinguished athletes. They tried to escape… towards Karlobag, but people said that because it was night they had no orientation… that they swam around and came to Pag again… They were caught close by. We hadn’t seen this Klajn anymore, but Kajzer came, he was brought in all in rags and beaten up… and they announced that there would be a public execution the next day… of Kajzer… For that occasion Luburić came again, and he was present… And I can say that it was both horrible and impressive to see Kajzer how he stoically took all of that, bravely, naked, bare-footed on those rocks, you know what those rocks are like… he went to the execution spot…When they told him to turn around he wouldn’t and they shot him like that… This was another opportunity for Luburić to hold a speech during which he repeated again… how anyone lacking discipline would be severely punished… But we had already become human ruins… During the first month we were there we started eating ourselves… all the reserves we had in us, so basically we weighed around 40 or 42 kilos… When we came there, in fact several days after that, a group of Ustashas came and asked for around 60 young, strong men to work at the Salt Factory in Pag… but that there would be food… and we wanted to go… the whole football team went… by accident Pavel and I didn’t go, because he had dysentery… during the selection he was at the latrine… so 64 of them were taken to Pag “to the Salt factory”, they said, “to work at the Salt Factory in Pag”, and I don’t know Pag… (they were separated, in the camp it happened during one gathering of inmates when they said: those who want to work in the Salt Pans[29] should come forward… according to my version… I will tell you my version… they were taken and worked for us at the Salt Pans)… August came and we were completely weak and as far as I remember on August 21 there was the liquidation of the camp on Pag… around 21st. I will tell you my version of what happened… basically, the area was handed over to Italians… The Ustashas who ran the camp, they mostly had connection with Pag, maybe also with Metajna, and I think, but I am not sure, they were all gone. Just before Italians came they managed to liquidate and kill people from Slana and women from Metajna. Basically, we had contact twice a week with a boat that brought food for us… and I think… that it was too late for them to kill us, because Italians were already there… so we were transported… on August 21 or 22, I am not sure, they put us on a vessel and transported to Karlobag to the same spot from which we had been sent to Slana. Before that Luburić came again and held a speech from which we could be convinced that we would be going home… They boarded us on train cars again in Gospić and then we departed. After a day we came to Zagreb, but we did not stop there but continued on and then we got out… it was August 23 or 24… near village Krapje, which is ten to twelve kilometres from Jasenovac… They had already prepared some camp there… we did not stop along the way… that journey from Gospić lasted for two days… Jasenovac did not yet exist at the time, just as a farm. The owner before the war was some Bešić and then I don’t know… they had a tanning and chain factory and a farm. Ustashas took all of that from that Orthodox Christian and… so we came to Krapje around August 24 or 25 and started working in the woods, on the dyke, farming on the Lonjsko Polje, they began to beat us terribly and we went to work… a dozen of us would never come back, in the beginning… later on even a hundred… and so I was in that Krapje until mid September when they formed the camp in Jasenovac. They probably wanted to legalise that industry of death as Germans did and form a work camp, which was in fact a death camp, Jasenovac.

You know what happened in that camp… construction group, forest group…they first asked to separate craftsmen and younger, strong men from Krapja… and they started to prepare that camp and the barracks. They were two barracks when we came… I came to Jasenovac about two weeks after the first groups and first I worked on building a dyke, later on I was transferred to the brick factory… I was relatively lucky because one man who deserves to be called a hero… in those later groups came people who were in Makabi just like me and so… people we knew and among them was this Minc[30] who was the leader of the forest group in Jasenovac… When he came to Jasenovac, I remember it as it was today, he brought one large Gavrilović salami and one wheel of Pag cheese… and he would take one slice of cheese and salami every day for himself and gave one to me one to this, Pavel Leković… Ustashas would throw away crust from cheese, and we would wash and ate them. Then we were in Krapje and worked in the forest, we found a hedgehog so we ate it and so… you could fall or fight, we were suffering from malnutrition…

From Slana to Karlobag came out alive…I think… not more than 300 of us… they probably never went to Jadovno from Gospić, because as far as I remember… Jadovno was liquidated two days before… Women were also young and from Makabi, age from 18 to 39, young women in the groups that came with us, gymnasts and so on. They were separated immediately and transported to the other side of Pag, to Metajna. They had been separated already in Gospić.

I could name some of those gymnast women. When we were at the Grand Fair, there were some students working on something, trying to get out, then they asked us who was married to a Catholic woman and so… some of us came out… different fates… I don’t know if he was a minister or an official, this Dumandžić (?) who came to release some of the prisoners… but there was solidarity amongst them… so those who asked to be released, because they were married to an Aryan… they spat at them and when this Dumandžić (?) came to release some of them, they said: Thank you, I’ll be staying with my friends here. As far as women are concerned, I lost track of them the moment we were separated and they had probably been killed before we returned, although I saw some of them in Međeđa working at a farm which was established near Jasenovac as an additional compound and where they made plum jam and so on… so there is a possibility that some of those women were transported to Krušćica near Travnik.

… After us came a group of citizens from Zagreb. I know that some Rada Ralek came to visit her boyfriend[31], pure Aryan and Catholic. In Karlobag they told her that every contact with inmates was forbidden, so she failed. So we knew immediately that we did not have any opportunity to contact anyone… We found this about her somehow… When I was in Partisans I already started writing, for newspapers and bulletins, about the escape and so on, also I was writing several years after the war… but… I also wrote about Slana camp… I don’t know if that was published…for People’s Army… for battalion or brigade newspaper, I don’t know, I don’t remember everything. I don’t know where it had gone. Just after the war I wrote a couple of things. They were accurate data… seeing the same event can be different… There they immediately formed the camp administration, because you know how it went, there was the command and it formed the camp administration from inmates… so group leaders were Bruno Dijamantštajn and Milenko Pajtaš (Mišo) from Zagreb. They were killed in that “gold affair” which is being described in a particular way, but it is not correct, although I personally do not have anything positive to say about Dijamantštajn (he was an animal, etc. and Špiler as well), but for this Pajtaš I don’t believe things had happened as they say they had. There are several versions, but what is interesting that the leader in that affair was the brother of Ivica Matković, Lieutenant Matković, an Ustasha, and it is true that Pajtaš was head of the farm, that Špiler was the group commander in Gradiška… This Špiler was unmarried, also a beast, he molested inmates just to show himself off, but Pajtaš wasn’t like that… Bruno was a group commander before coming to Jasenovac… I think when groups of people came to Jasenovac they would hand in their belongings and that they found that gold there… Matković ordered them to find gold and hand it to him. As an Ustasha 1st Lieutenant he was killed savagely because of that… they created the “gold affair” from all of that where allegedly these inmates wanted their share from it, I don’t know in what way… Nikola Nikolić thinks this was an affair… but that is not so… he portrays it badly… For example, he talks about Viner, who was the group commander later, as he was an Ustasha servant, but he tried countless times to save some of the inmates. He was a Jew, you know, and in that time the camp administration was being formed. It had already started on Pag and those people were the core of the administration… amongst inmates there were Jews who were mostly intellectuals and those poor Serb peasants taken from their villages…they still chose people who would be clerks, etc. and manage the work… so they were mostly Jews.

Pavao Levković

Pavao Levković

 

IN MEMORIAM DR. PAVLE LEVKOVIĆ

Unfortunately, we found out too late that a witness such as Dr. Pavao Levković existed. He is one of the heroic outcasts whose life was preserved by chance and bravery both in Slana and in Jasenovac, and finally in the People’s Liberation Struggle (NOB). Dr. Radan says about him the following: “During the last days we were nailing wire on the posts in the camp together”.

Since we were unable to hear his personal testimony about Slana, we give you here an article written on the occasion of his death in “Jevrejski pregled” (Jewish Overview), issue number 37, Belgrade, January – February 1986:

On January 1, in Dubrovnik, at the age of 76, died Dr. Pavao Levković, a retired JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army) colonel, descendant of a famous Jewish family from Zagreb.

He was buried on January 3 at the veterans’ cemetery in Dubrovnik with all military honours at the presence of representatives of all social and political organisations, a delegation of his wartime comrades and many citizens, friends and admirers.

Pavao Levković was born in 1910 in Zagreb. He graduated from the Faculty of Law in 1934, and got his PhD in 1936.

As a young man he was active in sports and he was a permanent member of the Yugoslav national football team from 1930 to 1933. He was one of the most distinguished members of “Makabi”. During the occupation he was arrested on June 21, 1941 in Zagreb and taken to Slana camp on Pag, where he started his race with death which lasted for 800 days. In August of the same year he was transferred to Jasenovac camp where he continued to fight the every-day struggle for survival. He escaped the camp in September 1943 and joined the soldiers of the First Proletarian Brigade.

In winter 1941-42, his father Alfred, mother Malvina and sister Elza were taken to the camps Jasenovac and Stara Gradiška, but they did not return.

Immediately upon joining the Partisans, Dr. Levković distinguished himself with courage and care for others and he became a company commander and got accepted into the Party. In November 1943, during an attack on Travnik, he covered the retreat of his company by himself with a machinegun and got wounded. For this he received a written commendation from the Headquarters of the First Proletarian Division for “bravery and skilled command”.

As a highly cultured man, with wide education and knowledge of several world languages, he quickly surpassed his military tasks and in early 1944 he was transferred to duty at the Supreme Headquarters to work with “foreign missions”. Until the end of the war he held high military duties in the headquarters of 1st Corps and 1st Army.

Immediately after the war was finished, as a JNA major he worked at the Commission for Determining Crimes of the Occupier and Its Supporters, and later at the Military Industry Management until his retirement. For his work during and after the war he was awarded with numerous wartime and peace decorations.

For health reasons he left Belgrade and moved to Dubrovnik, where he gained high reputation and many friends with his work and manners.

[25] This is the old Zagreb Grand Fair (Assembly), today the Students’ Centre is there, Savska Street

[26] Božo Švarc, arrested on May 27, 1941, almost a month before other groups. He was taken to Danica camp in Koprivnica, and then from there to Jadovno as a part of a group. From Jadovno he was returned to Gospić with a group of Jews and he swept town streets. This saved him from being killed in Jadovno where he was brought with a group of 170 Jews. Later on, around 2 to 3 thousand Jews from Zagreb were brought to Jadovno and countless numbers of Serbs. In Gospić, Švarc survived in the so-called “Ovčara”, a small camp near Gospić. Later on he was met with survivors of Slana there. From here he was sent to Jastrebarsko and finally came to Krapje (Jasenovac).

[27] Prisoners often confuse dates.

[28] Dr. Pavao Löw, Levković

[29] Vajler still believed that the group went to work in the Salt Pits, which was an Ustasha hoax.

[30] Majer Minc

[31] The only successful visit to Slana was done by the wife of Milan Fuks (see chapter: Famous people from Zagreb killed in Slana!)




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