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The Holocaust in Yugoslavia


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Letter from Srećko Bujas to the Jewish Community of Zagreb

Bujas, Srećko letter 1941
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade

Even though the newly-proclaimed Independent State of Croatia touted "independence" and "statehood" in its official name, it was a protectorate divided between Germany and Italy. A line of demarcation between Italian and German zones ran from the northwest to the southeast, dividing the "state" in two. North of the line lay the German zone, controlled by the Wehrmacht. South of the line was the Italian zone, which the Italians occupied fully after the popular uprising against the ustaša terror reached mass proportions in the summer of 1941.1

Today the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sarajevo was the second largest city in the Independent State of Croatia, and, like the capital Zagreb, located in the German zone. In Serajevo as elsewhere in the country, Serbs were the ustaše's primary target, but Jews were threatened as well. Sarajevo boasted two separate Jewish communities, a Sephardi and an Ashkenazi one.2 Soon after the ustaša takeover, in May 1941, two commissioners were appointed to supervise these communities. Srećko Bujas, the president of the District Court, became the commissioner of the Sephardi community, while Branko Milaković, a district judge, became the commissioner of the Ashkenazi one. Both men were well-respected ethnic Croat Sarajevans who took their new appointments to heart. Although they could not save the Jews, they attempted, on many occasions, to work in individual Jews' favor, arguing against the deportations of those Jews who had converted to Catholicism or Islam, for example, or trying to protect the employees of the two Jewish community organizations.3

The mass persecution of Jews started in early September 1941, when local ustaše, perhaps driven by the prospect of plundering Jewish property, deported about a thousand Jews to the ad hoc camp at Kruščica. Seizures of property and apartments continued into October and November. On November 15, the city was put under blockade, and Jews were seized systematically and rounded up for imminent deportation out of the city. It is amidst the chaos of these events that Bujas wrote to the Jewish Community leadership in Zagreb. In the absence of an umbrella Jewish organization, the Zagreb Jewish Community was the most important Jewish communal organization in the country, located in the capital and allegedly close to the authorities. It was perhaps Bujas's naivete to think that Jewish leaders in Zagreb could influence the ustaša authorities.

Because it was written and signed by a non-Jewish commissioner of the Sephardi community, the letter featured here is technically not a Jewish source. It is included in this collection not because of its representativeness, but precisely because it is atypical. It bemoaned the situation in which the Jews found themselves—referring to the "terrible tragedy that has befallen the Sarajevan Jewish community"—and was possibly written in consultation with local Jewish leaders themselves. Commissioners and trustees of Jewish organizations, firms and property elsewhere in the Independent State of Croatia and German-dominated Europe tended, in contrast, to be ruthless and bloodthirsty antisemites, who gloated over Jewish misery.

For a discussion of the occupation zones in the Independent State of Croatia as well as for the history of the war in Yugoslavia more generally, see Jozo Tomasevich, War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).

Most Jews in Bosnia-Herzegovina were of Sephardi origin, descendents of Jewish expellees from the Iberian peninsula, who had subsequently settled in the Ottoman Empire, and its frontier in Europe, Bosnia. With the Austro-Hungarian occupation (1878) and annexation (1908), waves of Jewish immigrants settled in the province. They were of Central European origin, and are called Ashkenazi Jews. "Spharad" in Hebrew means "Spain," while "Ashkenaz" is a historical name for the German lands. See the articles in the YIVO Encyclopedia for more on Sephardim and Ashkenazim in Eastern Europe. 

For a background on ethnic relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina during World War II, including a brief discussion of the two commissioners of the Jewish communities in Sarajevo, see Emily Greble, Sarajevo 1941–1945: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Hitler's Europe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).

The petition is not included in the file with the archival document.

This refers to an exorbitant amount of money. It is not clear what exactly was the occasion, and whether the transfer was initiated by the authorities or the Jewish communities in Sarajevo or Zagreb.

The camps mentioned here were sites of incarceration in which the Jews did not spend a long time. Most of the Jews from those camps were eventually transfered to Jasenovac, the largest and most infamous camp in the Independent State of Croatia, in which some 100,000 people perished during the war, of whom some 20,000 were Jews. At least a half of all Jasenovac victims were ethnic Serbs from Croatia. For Jasenovac and the broader camp landscape, see Ivo Goldstein and Slavko Goldstein, The Holocaust in Croatia (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016).

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Commissioners for Jewish Religious Communities in Sarajevo
Srećko Bujas, President of the District Court
Branko Milaković, District judge

 

Sarajevo, November 23, 1941

 

To the Jewish Community
Zagreb

 

Today, on the eighth day of the terrible tragedy that has befallen the Sarajevan Jewish community, and for which there are no words to describe it, amidst great uncertainty, and having no direct contact with the relevant commander of the police, left to the difficult fate, we are addressing you, putting all our hopes in you to do whatever you can for these unfortunate hapless ones, who are to be decimated, and perhaps annihilated completely, by the brush of death, disease, and contagion.

These people have spent eight days already without care, without medicines, without enough warm food, without milk for the children—in short, without anything. They are living in great filth that is threatening to bring about a contagion that would spread around the city itself.

We visited the Grand Župan [the district governor] yesterday, to whom we submitted a written petition, a copy of which we are enclosing to this letter.1 At the same time, in a lengthy conversation, we described the grave condition [of the Jews] and urged him to intervene with the authorities in Zagreb. The Grand Župan showed much understanding for our work and needs, and promised that he will immediately send, by radiogram, the suggestions from our petition, and also send by mail the petition itself to the relevant ministry in Zagreb. We are asking you to do the same.

Please confirm receipt of 600,000 kuna we have transferred to you.2

We have learned of the existence of a new camp for female inmates near Novi Marof, to which women from the last Sarajevan transport, and some from Lobor-Grad, have been sent. We are very interested in learning what is going on, where it is located, what are the possibilities for provisioning [food], and how many that camp can accommodate. Namely, we have received information from many quarters that the last transport of women would be returned to Sarajevo, but it has not arrived.3

In these times we especially need your daily briefings about your actions, whether on matters concerning us, or other general issues, and the issues of the Jewish communities. Especially the question of provisioning [food] and the parcels to Jasenovac.

Sincerely,

 

[signed] Srećko Bujas

President of the District Court

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade
RG Number 49.007M
Date Created
November 23, 1941
Author / Creator
Bujas, Srećko
Publisher
Jewish Community of Sarajevo
Language(s)
Bosnian
Croatian
Serbian
Location
Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Sarajevo, Independent State of Croatia (historical)
Reference Location
Jasenovac, Croatia
Jasenovac, Independent State of Croatia (historical)
Document Type Letter
How to Cite Museum Materials