Return to Bosnia-Herzegovina: In the Low-Tech Killing Fields of Jasenovac


The former World War II-era death camp of Jasenovac, located in Croatia near the Bosnian border, now a memorial and museum. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

I only had fifteen minutes in Zagreb to change trains from the Zurich sleeper to a local train that ran toward Jasenovac, a Croatian village and now a memorial for the Jews, gypsies, Serbs, and Croats killed there in a Ustashi concentration camp during World War II.

In my reading, I had come across mentions of a memorial at Jasenovac, but didn’t know it was open, as the camp is in Croatia and many of the victims were Serbs and Jews.

After some Googling, I figured out that the memorial museum would be open if I arrived in the early afternoon, which is why I hustled onto the local train. It helped that I was only toting a small backpack.

The Local Train to Jasenovac

Normally it would have been a two-hour train ride to the border village, but in Sisak—about halfway there—the few remaining passengers were shifted to a replacement bus that drove the route that the train would normally have covered.

The landscape was sparsely populated, but a pleasant mix of low rolling hills and open farmland. Entering Jasenovac, the driver asked me if I wanted to be dropped off at the small railway station (away from the town) or somewhere else. When I explained that I was going to the memorial, he told me to stay in my seat and drove the bus to the front gate, as if I had called an Uber.

I was the only visitor at the Jasenovac Memorial Museum, even though it was a Sunday afternoon and a late winter day of full sunshine. The complex of museum buildings, which includes a small education center for school groups, looked like a holdover from a Tito five-year plan.

In a small office off the main plaza, I found a security guard in front of a television, and he agreed to watch my bags while I went through the museum exhibits and walked the grounds of the former concentration and extermination camp, which operated from August 1941 until 1945.

Low-Tech Killing Fields

The dates are similar to those of the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia (Germany attacked Belgrade on April 6, 1941, which was Easter Sunday), but in this case the prison overlords and guards were homegrown Croatians loyal to the fascist Ustashi government in Zagreb.

Most of the 100,000 victims in the camp (the precise figure is disputed) were Serbs, Jews (many from Sarajevo), and Roma, but dissident Croats and Bosnians were also exterminated there.

Perhaps most gruesome of all, the victims were killed by hand—stabbed, shot, hit on the head with shovels, hanged on lampposts, drowned in the nearby river, or left to die in the cold. Jasenovac was a low-tech killing field.

I cannot say I liked what I saw in the display cabinets—lots of pictures of camp prisoners being sentenced to death and others showing a cheerful Hitler greeting his Croatian acolyte Ante Pavelić—but I appreciated making sense of what happened at Jasenovac and some nearby satellite camps, such as Stara Gradiška.

In many ways, Jasenovac explains why, as Yugoslavia dissolved in 1992, so many Serbs living in the Federal State of Croatia did not want to become citizens of a new country that, in its last incarnation, had tortured and killed thousands of Serbs.

In the breakup of Yugoslavia, Slovenia was lucky in that most of its citizens were Slovenes, but in the rest of Yugoslavia Tito had gerrymandered the Serbs, dividing them into the socialist republics of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia, as well as the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo—so that Serbia would not dominate the Yugoslav federation. In 1992, some 600,000 Serbs were living in Croatia, about 12 percent of the population, and the legacy of Jasenovac was what many of them thought about.

An Abandoned Serb Village

In the fields where the Jasenovac camp was located, there is a large sculpture of an open flower, and around it are various plantings and mounds to depict the barracks that housed some of the prisoners. There is also a steam engine and some wooden box cars on a stretch of track to show where captives were consigned to their fate.

A road and some paths lace across the vast plain that has the flower at its center. I walked for the better part of an hour, both in the fields and into the small nearby village of Jasenovac, which to my surprise was largely empty.

At the town center is a rebuilt Serbian Orthodox Church, as until the breakup of Yugoslavia this was a Serbian town. Thirty years after the war, former residents are still leery about moving home, and many of the houses are closed up or wasting away.

I don’t think I saw anyone or anything on my walk, except chickens and a few cats. Then I went back to the museum and bought a copy of a coffee table book that I had seen when I was walking around the museum.

Publishing Difficult Truths

The book is a definitive history of the Jasenovac camp, told with text and black-and-white photographs. What’s most impressive about the volume is that the publisher is the Ministry of Culture in the Republic of Croatia.

In the foreword, the minister of culture writes: “This memorial site is a place of examination and research, but most of all a place of learning for new generations, of expressing our commitment to further professional and scientifically-baseded research into the crimes committed in and the victims of the Ustasha Jasenovac Concentration Camp. The Jasenovac Memorial Museum is an important expression of our commitment to anti-Fascist values and an affirmation of European values, on the road to overcoming the past and on our path towards Europe.”

Nor do the subsequent chapters pull any punches about what happened at Jasenovac. Some of them read: “The Independent State of Croatia in Hitler’s Axis System”; “Of Tragedy, Trauma and Catharsis: Serbs in Jasenovac Camp, 1941-1945”; “Jews in the Jasenovac Camp”; and “Genocide Carried Out on the Roma.”

In all it estimates that 80,022 civilians died in the camp, which is less than the several hundred thousand that some Serbian sources claim, but more than the negligible figures that Croatia published in the 1990s.

In former Yugoslavia, history is an endless battle, but it is to Croatia’s credit that the memorial remains open and accessible.

Next installment: The slow bus across the Republika Srpska to Sarajevo.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck. His new book is: Our Man in Iran.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.