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Diary of Đura Rajs

Rajs, Đura Diary 1941
US Holocaust Memorial Museum; Gift of Jovan Rajs

Just before turning to the fateful invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Hitler's armies overran the Balkans in one fell swoop in early April of that year. On April 6, 1941, Germany and Italy, along with their allies Hungary and Bulgaria, invaded Yugoslavia and Greece. Within three weeks, the swastika flag was flying over both Belgrade and Athens. Greece was occupied by Italian and German forces, and part of it was annexed by Bulgaria.1 Yugoslavia was partitioned into a patchwork of occupied and satellite states, collaborationist regimes and annexed territories.2

Unlike the Independent State of Croatia, which was established by the Germans and the Italians to become a fascist satellite state ruled by the ustaše, pro-Nazi Croatian fascists, Serbia was occupied by the German army and run by the German military administration. In the northeastern area known as Banat, the political organizations of the local Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans)—which had overwhelmingly accepted the Nazi worldview in the years leading up to the German invasion—held de facto power. In the days following the occupation, they introduced a number of anti-Jewish and anti-Serbian measures.

Đorđe Rajs, known as Đura, was an eleven-year-old boy living with his family in Petrovgrad, a town in Banat today called Zrenjanin. The family was immediately affected by the new atmosphere in Petrovgrad; antisemitic measures and instances of savage anti-Jewish violence were becoming commonplace in the new Nazi Banat. All this was unimaginable just weeks earlier, and it is probably out of this perception of radical change that Đura took up writing. The boy's writing project aimed to explain to the reader how it happened that his family and he were now forced into a "lager," and to describe their new life. As Đura describes in his school notebook, all Banat Jews were forced into camps especially designated for Jews. Several months later, in late August 1941, the entire Jewish population of Yugoslav Banat—several thousand people—was deported to Belgrade. The men were immediately transferred to the camp at Topovske šupe, while the women and children were in care of the embattled Belgrade Jewish community. By the end of 1941, most of the Jewish men had already been shot by the Germans in reprisal shootings; the women and children were soon transported to the camp at Sajmište, called by the Nazis Judenlager Semlin, where they were murdered in gas vans by the end of the spring of 1942.3 Đura's family shared the fate of other Serbian Jews: his father disappeared in Topovske šupe, while he and his mother perished at Sajmište. Only Đura's brother, Jovan, survived.

The text and drawings that the eleven-year-old boy left behind is a poignant source that has both documentary and literary value. While its documentary importance lies in the fact that it is not only one of the rare Jewish primary sources from the Yugoslav Banat from this period, but also a testament to Đura's budding literary talent, cut short by the Holocaust. In terms of style, Đura's writing fluctuates between a diary and a short story. We can only speculate whether the boy had stopped writing before he was deported to Belgrade with his family in August that year.

For a history of Greece under the occupation, see Mark Mazower, Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993).

The country of Yugoslavia was formed after World War I, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Today the countries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Kosovo are the successor states of Yugoslavia. For an extensive account of World War II in Yugoslavia, including the discussion of Banat, where this diary was written, see Jozo Tomasevich, War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).

Jewish men in Serbia had been registered and conscripted for hard labor in the early days of the German occupation. In the summer, communist and nationalist forces in the country mounted a serious challenge to the occupation, sabotaging numerous German facilities and killing German soldiers; as a result, the German occupation authorities introduced harsh retaliatory measures, executing a hundred civilians for one dead German soldier, and fifty for a wounded one. As the Jewish men had already been rounded up and registered, they provided a steady and reliable source of hostages for shooting; as Christopher Browning argues, sometime in the fall of 1941, the Germans resorted to shooting Jewish men disprpoportionately. As a result, most Jewish men in Serbia—practically all Jewish men the Germans could lay their hands on—were executed by the end of the year. It was at this time, in December 1941, that the Germans opened camp for the remaining Jewish women and children, which they murdered in a gas van by the end of the spring of 1942. See essays on Serbia in Christopher Browning, Fateful Months: Essays on the Emergence of the Final Solution (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985).

"Serbo-Croatian" was the name of the language spoken in Yugoslavia. Today it is spoken in the countries of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. For political reasons, after the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the languages of the successor states were named after the countries themselves: "Croatian" in Croatia, "Bosnian" in Bosnia, etc. Nevertheless, these languages are mutually intelligible and display less variation in terms of grammar, cognate nouns and spelling than British and American English.

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I have dedicated this book to the "Lager." Readers will be surprised and will wonder what a "Lager" is, and what kind of word that is. It's a German word, which, translated into Serbo-Croatian, means camp.1 All Jews of Petrovgrad were resettled into that camp. Earlier the camp was an army barracks, which had been totally neglected and thus full of lice and bedbugs. Before the Jews were moved into the barracks, it was a breeding place for infectious diseases. The courtyard was full of various military things which the retreating Yugoslav army left in great disorder. In the rooms, soldiers unloaded their things from suitcases, trunks, etc. Bedbugs promenaded among those things just like people taking an evening stroll in town. In a word, there was a big mess in this building, and the only inhabitants were lice and bedbugs. We, the children, still lived relatively well because we were together and we were able to play to our hearts' content all day long. But the adults could not boast anything like that. They worked and sweated very hard, and when they returned, the commissar would harass them. And so it went. This book cannot be written in the form of a novel, because it wouldn't have any content, and therefore I am writing in the form of short stories. The stories in this book are not fabrications but rather the plain truth which I lived through. Readers will see how a young boy of 11 feels and imagines the "Lager." Because I am writing this book when I am only 11 years old.

So, let's begin...


Petrovgrad, August 11, 1941 Đura Rajs

Moving to the "Lager"

After the entry of German troops into Petrovgrad, all Jewish males between the ages of 18-60 were taken to a former elementary school and locked up there. They were escorted by guards every day to work at various places. My father was also among them. So it went for about a month. On May 2, 1941, a fateful day for the Jews, an order was issued that all Jews must resettle to the former Hungarian army barracks. The resettlement began... Just to be safe we moved to the house of my grandmother who was also alone because grandpa was also in the school, to await the day when we, too, would have to be resettled. That day soon arrived. On May 8 a police vehicle pulled over with two auxiliary policemen armed to the teeth. They showed us an announcement that said that we must immediately resettle to the barracks. Dad and grandpa then came to help with the move. My uncle Franja, a medical student in Zagreb, who went to the school and voluntarily signed up for labor immediately upon arriving in Petrovgrad, came along with them.

The policemen allowed us to bring along two beds, a sofa, and an armoire. Also a table with four chairs, a wash basin, some food stuffs, and so on and so on. Then we loaded all of that on a cart, bid farewell to our acquaintances, friends, and relatives, and we took off in a carriage to our future apartment, actually to our future jail.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Gift of Jovan Rajs
Accession Number 2012.35.1
Date Created
August 11, 1941
Page(s) 13
Author / Creator
Rajs, Đorđe
Zrenjanin, Serbia
Petrovgrad, Yugoslavia (historical)
Document Type Diary
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