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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

The Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941 carved the country into a patchwork of different occupied territories. In summer 1941, there was a popular uprising against the fascist Croatian Ustaše regime in the Italian zone of the newly created Independent State of Croatia. Italian forces occupied the region to stop the uprising, and conditions became relatively stable in the southern and western parts of the country. The Ustaše were unable to control the territory they claimed, and Italian forces effectively struck a non-aggression pact with nationalist Serb guerilla forces in Croatia. There were also partisan forces led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia who were fighting the Italian forces and the Serb forces.1 

In parts of occupied Yugoslavia under Italian control, Jews were relatively safe. Italian authorities routinely refused the demands by Ante Pavelić (the leader of the Independent state of Croatia) and his German patrons to place Jews in Italian-occupied areas under German or Ustaše control.2 In November 1942, Italian authorities decided to concentrate Jews from the Italian-occupied "Zone II" of the Independent State of Croatia into four major centers. These included Dubrovnik, Kraljevica, Brač, and Hvar, along with several sub-camps. In December 1942, Italian military sources put the total number of Jewish internees in these camps at 2,661.

The featured letter was sent to the leadership of the Jewish community in Zagreb in January 1943 by Jewish internees of the Kupari camp near Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast. The internees were a wide variety of Jewish groups and individuals who all ended up in the territory controlled by Italian forces. For example, there were German-speaking Jews who had mostly fled from Austria and Czechoslovakia when Nazi Germany annexed their homelands in 1938. They made up the so-called "Čapljina group," named after the town in Herzegovina where they had previously been held. There were also Yugoslav Jews who came from different regions throughout Yugoslavia. Many Yugoslav Jews—like the so-called "emigrant group Samobor"—had fled to the Italian zone from the German sphere of the country.

The letter also shows how different the experiences of Jews in different parts of occupied Yugoslavia had become. The Zagreb communal organization was the central Jewish organization in the Independent State of Croatia, and the letter seeks approval from the leadership of the Jewish community in Zagreb for a financial transaction. In Kupari and other camps in the Italian zone, Jews' were placed in "camps" that were sometimes hotels or other reasonable places. Jews were allowed to pool their savings, organize aid, and maintain their daily lives as best they could without the constant threat of deportation and death. But Jews living in Zagreb—in the German zone of the Independent State of Croatia—faced much more desperate conditions. The Jewish community in Zagreb was consumed with its own problems as more and more people were deported, and it struggled to provide humanitarian aid to those in need.

The featured letter contains a personal appeal for help addressed to Hugo Kon, who was the president of the Zagreb Jewish community. But Kon and the other Jews in the German-occupied zone of the Independent State of Croatia faced dire conditions. Just a few months after the letter was sent, Kon was deported to Auschwitz and murdered on arrival. Because Italian forces refused to deport Jews in the zone under their control, it is likely that most people in the camp at Kupari survived the war.

During the first years of the war, Yugoslav partisan operations were confined to the areas of the Independent State of Croatia dominated by the Germans.


To learn more about the complex reasons behind Italian authorities' refusal to deliver Jews to German forces and the Ustaše, see Davide Rodogno, Fascism's European Empire: Italian Occupation During the Second World War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). 

The etymological origin of the word "capo" (also "kapo") is unknown. The designation was used to refer to prisoners who had been given some power by camp commanders (in this case, the Italian authorities) to exercise over other prisoners to enforce discipline in the camp. Because their status allowed them a degree of protection that usually came with perks (better food, for example, which could mean the difference between death and survival), capos tended to defend their position with ruthless behavior.

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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
Jakob Kajon
Rudolf Bier
Kupari, Croatia
Kupari, Independent State of Croatia (historical)
Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dubrovnik, Independent State of Croatia (historical)
Document Type Letter
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