By the late 1930s, southeastern Europe had come firmly under Nazi Germany's economic and political influence. Leaders of countries such as Bulgaria and Hungary thought that Germany’s expansion would reshape the Europe and enable them to reclaim territories lost after World War I. But the recently created state of Yugoslavia had much to lose from German expansion. With the annexation of Austria in 1938, the German Reich directly bordered Yugoslavia, and Nazi Germany began applying heavy political and economic pressures. Yugoslavia's leadership gradually harmonized the country’s foreign and economic policies with those of Nazi Germany. On March 25, 1941, Yugoslavia formally joined the Axis Alliance led by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Japan.1
But widespread popular opposition to the treaty with the Axis powers resulted in a military coup in Belgrade two days later. The Yugoslav government was removed in favor of a group of pro-British officers who did not support Nazi Germany’s influence in Yugoslavia. Less than two weeks after the coup, German forces invaded Yugoslavia, with the help of Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria. By the end of April, Nazi Germany and its allies and collaborators occupied all of Yugoslavia. They divided the conquered territories into a patchwork of different collaborationist states and annexed or occupied territories. The experiences of Yugoslav Jews during the Holocaust depended greatly on which of these territories they found themselves in after the occupation of Yugoslavia in April 1941.
Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported the creation of a collaborationist Croatian government called the Independent State of Croatia.2 The territory of this state extended over today's countries of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as part of present-day Serbia. Ante Pavelić, the leader of the fascist Croatian Ustaše, became the authoritarian leader of the new country.3 Ustaše ideology reflected many fascist and Nazi beliefs, and the new regime pledged to "cleanse" Croatia of those who were not ethnically Croat—meaning primarily ethnic Serbs, Jews, and Roma (but also ethnic Croats opposed to the new regime).4
The so-called Independent State of Croatia was actually propped up by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. They divided this newly created state between them and occupied it with their military forces. Jews in the German-occupied zone faced terrible conditions as they were deported from their homes and imprisoned in concentration camps. A letter from Srećko Bujas to the Jewish community of Zagreb records the anxiety and uncertainty experienced after the 1941 deportations of Yugoslav Jews. A letter from David Alkalaj shows how captured Jewish officers in the Yugoslav army who were being held as prisoners of war also agonized over the lack of news about their deported loved ones.
Local Jewish communities struggled to help Yugoslav Jews who had been deported and imprisoned. The Jewish community of Zagreb appealed for help as it tried to feed deported Jews routed through the city. A letter from the Jewish community of Brod na Savi also describes efforts to provide food and aid to Jewish deportees as they were transferred to a concentration camp. As elsewhere throughout Europe during the Holocaust, camp authorities often forced Jewish prisoners to take part in their own oppression. A letter from the Jewish administration of the Đakovo concentration camp shows how camp authorities—local Croatian police—forced Jewish prisoners to take responsibility for maintaining order and enforcing rules within the camp.5
The German army also occupied other conquered Yugoslav territories—roughly corresponding to present-day Serbia—that were not granted any political representation. The authorities in German-occupied Serbia and the Independent State of Croatia introduced anti-Jewish measures immediately. The diary of Đura Rajs describes how one young Jewish boy and his family were deported from their home soon after German forces occupied the region.6
As armed resistance to the German occupation of Serbian territories grew in the summer and early fall of 1941, German authorities installed a collaborationist government led by a former Yugoslav army general, Milan Nedić. German forces remained a strong presence, and the Nedić government pursued a Serbian variant of an antisemitic fascist ideology.7 This collaborationist regime also assisted German forces in the persecution and genocide of Jews in the region. A letter from Hilda Dajč reveals what life was like in a notorious concentration camp established at the Belgrade fairgrounds. A letter from Bukić Pijade shows how one Jewish doctor struggled to survive as a camp prisoner after most other Jews in the region had already been murdered.
Yugoslav Jews living in Italian-occupied territories also faced discriminatory policies, but they did not experience the same brutal conditions as Jews in the German-occupied regions. A 1943 letter from Jakob Kajon describes how Jews imprisoned in the Italian-occupied zone still lived in “great misery,” and a letter from Hinko Gottlieb notes that the extremely difficult living conditions faced by Jews there were still “relatively good” compared with the persecution experienced by Jews in other regions of occupied Yugoslavia.
In 1943, Italian authorities transferred Jews imprisoned in Italian-occupied areas of Yugoslavia to the Adriatic island of Rab. A report of the Communist Party Committee in the Jewish camp at Rab gives a glimpse into the political activities of some of those imprisoned there, while the diary of Elvira Kohn describes the liberation of the camp. Jews in territories annexed directly to Italy were also subjected to discriminatory antisemitic laws, but they were not imprisoned at Rab in 1943. That summer, a letter from the president of the Jewish community of Split—a city annexed directly by Italy—expressed “heartfelt thanks” to the Italian commandant of the camp at Rab for efforts to provide adequate food, housing, and sanitary facilities to the Jews imprisoned there. But conditions in the camp were still difficult. A letter from Adolf Renert after the liberation explains how the former prisoners continued experiencing physical and psychological difficulties as a result of their incarceration there.
Other areas of Yugoslavia were also occupied or annexed by Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria. In 1943, Bulgarian authorities deported Jews from the areas of Yugoslavia that had been annexed by Bulgaria in 1941 to killing centers in German-occupied Poland. A letter from Ester Ruben Menahem—one of the few Jews from the region who was not deported—shows how Jewish homes had been looted in the aftermath of the deportations.
As in other areas of Europe, the persecution and mass murder of Jews in Yugoslavia took place as other genocidal violence occurred. In the Independent State of Croatia for example, the Ustaše prioritized the murder of as many ethnic Serbs as possible while also participating in the mass murder of Jews in coordination with Nazi Germany. Several interconnected genocides and overlapping civil wars were further complicated by the existence of occupying forces, collaborationist regimes, and the communist resistance movement.
The items in this collection show some of the many different ways that Yugoslav Jews experienced persecution during the Holocaust. The timelines and conditions of antisemitic persecution varied greatly throughout occupied Yugoslavia, but these events were also closely related to one another. Authorities in German-occupied Serbia and the so-called Independent State of Croatia targeted Jews for mass murder almost immediately. In the areas occupied by Hungary and Bulgaria, genocidal policies targeting Jews were not enacted as quickly. Jews in parts of Yugoslavia occupied or annexed by Italy faced discrimination, but they experienced less brutal conditions. These rare primary sources show many different Jewish perspectives of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia—and often reveal connections between these different experiences.