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The Holocaust in Yugoslavia

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Letter from Jakob Kajon to the Jewish Community of Zagreb

Kajon, Jakub et al letter 1943
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade

Once the Italians had occupied their zone of the Independent State of Croatia after chaos had gripped the country in the aftermath of wanton ustaša violence of the spring and summer of 1941, the situation in the southern and western parts of the country, including the entire Adriatic coastline, became relatively stable. The ustaše lost control of half of their "independent state" and the Italians effectively struck a non-aggression pact with Serbian nationalist guerillas operating in the forests and mountains of the Adriatic hinterland. The remaining force fighting both the Italian occupiers and the Serbian nationalists were the Yugoslav partisans, led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. However, in the first two years of the war, partisan operations were confined to the areas of the Independent State of Croatia dominated by the Germans.

In parts of Yugoslavia under Italian control Jews were relatively safe, as the Italian authorities routinely refused the demands by Ante Pavelić (the leader of the Independent state of Croatia) and his German patrons to deliver the Jews who found refuge in these areas.1 In November 1942, for complex reasons, the Italian occupiers decided to concentrate Jews from the so-called "Zone II" of the Independent State of Croatia, which Italy had fully occupied in the fall of 1941, in four major centers. The four camps included Dubrovnik, Kraljevica, Brač, and Hvar, with several sub-camps. In December, Italian military sources put the total number of Jewish internees in these camps at 2,661.

One of the four camps on the Dalmatian coast in which Jews were concentrated in the Italian zone of occupation was the camp at Kupari near Dubrovnik. The letter that Kupari inmates sent to the leadership of the Jewish Community in Zagreb in January 1943, featured here, illustrates several important aspects of their situation. Confined to the camp for about two months, the group was a collection of different Jewish groups and individuals who somehow ended up in the territory controlled by the Italians. There were "German Jews"—in reality, mostly Austrian and Czechoslovak Jewish refugees fleeing the expansion of the Reich in 1938 and comprising the "Čapljina group," named after the town in Herzegovina where they had previously been stationed—as well as Yugoslav Jews, who came from different regions of Yugoslavia. It is unclear how many people were in the "emigrant group Samobor," for example, but they had come to the Italian zone from the area around Zagreb that was firmly in the German sphere of the country.

Another important fact that the letter reveals is the dynamic of correspondence itself: it is addressed to the leadership of the Jewish Community in Zagreb. Nominally, in the absence of an umbrella Jewish organization in the country—the Federation of Jewish Religious Communities of Yugoslavia had dissolved together with the country itself—the Zagreb communal organization was the central Jewish organization in the Independent State of Croatia. Indeed, the "Fund for aid" in the camp is seeking approval from the Jewish Community in Zagreb for the financial transaction following an apparent personnel disagreement. But despite this nominal hierarchy, Jewish life in the two different parts of the Independent State of Croatia had diverged radically. In Kupari, as in other camps in the Italian zone, the movement of the Jews was constrained, and Jews lived as inmates in "camps," which were sometimes housed in hotels or other buildings in towns themselves. They were allowed to pool their savings, organize a "Fund for aid" and maintain their daily lives without a persistent threat of death. In contrast, even the leaders of the Jewish Community in Zagreb were living under constant pressure and threat of deportation and death. The numbers of community members kept dwindling—people being taken to camps, or going into hiding, fleeing to the Italian zone, or joining the partisans—and the leadership was overwhelmed by the simultaneously shrinking tax base and the rising demand for humanitarian aid for camp inmates. In addition, the threat of deportations was very real: the president of the Community himself, Hugo Kon, addressed in the letter, was deported to Auschwitz a few months after he received this letter, where he was murdered upon arrival.

We can assume that most people in the camp at Kupari survived the war.

The refusal to deliver the Jews to the Germans and the ustaše was not the result of philosemitism or active opposition to the genocidal Nazi "final solution"; rather—as was the case with some other German allies in the aftermath of the Stalingrad defeat and the shifting tide of the war—Italy was testing its relationship with Hitler. The "Jewish question" thus became a political issue for asserting Italy's policies independently from Berlin; in addition, it was also meant to demonstrate to the ustaše their irrelevance in the eye of the Italian protectors of the Independent State of Croatia. The Italian treatment of Jews in Italy proper, meanwhile, continued to be regulated by racial antisemitic laws introduced under Mussolini in the late 1930s. See Davide Rodogno, Fascism's European Empire: Italian Occupation During the Second World War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). All following data about the camp, including different Jewish groups in the camp, is from Rodogno's book.

The etymological origin of the word "capo" is unknown. The designation was used to refer to inmates who had been given some power by camp commanders (in this case, the Italians) to exercise over "ordinary" inmates to enforce discipline and smooth running of the camp. Because their status allowed them a degree of protection that usually came with perks (better food, for example, which in the long-run could mean the difference between death and survival), capos tended to defend their position by being ruthless and thus trying to ingratiate themselves with camp commanders.

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Fund for aid
Internment camp no. 2
Dubrovnik post office
January 19, 1943
To the Jewish Community in Zagreb

We are confirming that, after Mr. Ing. Zeilinger was removed from the position of Capo, we have taken possession, from the legal property of the emigrant group Samobor, of some food stuffs and a sum of kn. 17,239.75. We have deposited this sum into the Fund for aid. We are asking for your agreement for this transaction.1

We will take the liberty to introduce you briefly to circumstances here. There are 422 of us here, from 2 months to 85 years old, of that 290 Yugoslav and 127 German Jews, all of the latter were practically in the Čapljina group. Great misery reigns among us, which urged us to establish that Fund, to which we contribute monthly amounts. It turned out that there are only 75 people who can afford to contribute anything. Whereas the majority, since it had to leave their homes practically naked and barefoot, needs aid, all the more since there is a shortage of food stuffs and clothing materials. We therefore ask you to inform us whether you are able to aid us either financially or in clothing, or direct us to someone we could be able to address about this matter. We are noting that especially the emigrants of the Čapljina group are in great misery, since they have been living in emigration for 4 years already.

Awaiting with interest your esteemed reply, we are



Jakob A. Kajon


I declare that I fully agree to the above.



Rudolf Bier




Esteemed Dr. Kon!

I trust that you remember me! I am the brother of Selma Hiršl, who is currently interned, with her husband and daughter, in Kraljevica. If you can help our poor comrades (there are many who need aid), I will be very grateful.

Best wishes,


Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade
RG Number 49.007M
Date Created
January 19, 1943
Author / Creator
Kajon, Jakob
Bier, Rudolf
Kupari, Croatia
Kupari, Independent State of Croatia (historical)
Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dubrovnik, Independent State of Croatia (historical)
Document Type Letter
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