The Holocaust in Yugoslavia

A map showing the different ethno-states that were encompassed in the newly created nation. Main tensions arose between the two largest factions of Croatia and Serbia. Croatians in particular had a virulent, cruel aspect to their nationalist ideals.

Background

The nation of Yugoslavia was created in 1918 out of a nationalism that had arisen amongst the southern Slavic peoples (Croatians, Serbs, Bosniaks, Slovenes, etc.)  At the time they were united against their recently defeated mutual enemy, The Kingdom of Austria-Hungary.  The general sense of anti-Semitism was present throughout all facets of life in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, even by those who considered themselves more liberal.  In all, Yugoslavia did not really try to accommodate its roughly 70,000 Jews, until 1929.  In that year [1929] King Alexander proclaimed a dictatorship.  This brought about an almost complete stop to anti-Semitic incidents due to the tight security and control a dictatorship requires to function.  Jews in the nation were also happy because the King wanted to be pictured publicly as a ‘friend of the Jews,’ visiting many Jewish institutions during his reign.  The trouble began to take off in 1934 when the King was assassinated and Nazi-ideology started to garner sympathy (from Croatians, especially.)

The Invasion of Yugoslavia

There were many territorial changes as Yugoslavia was carved up between the Axis.  A puppet state was installed in Serbia and a satellite state of Croatian fascists.  The rest was cut up and awarded to various Axis powers:

  • Germany added northern and eastern Slovenia, occupied the Serb Banat, which had a significant ethnic German minority, and established a military occupation administration in Serbia proper, based in Belgrade.
  • Italy annexed southern and eastern Slovenia, occupied the Yugoslav coastline along the Adriatic Sea (including Montenegro) and attached Kosovo-Metohija to Albania, which Italy had annexed in April 1939.
  • Under Ante Pavelic as Poglavnik (Leader), the Ustase proclaimed an “Independent State of Croatia,” which Germany and Italy supported.
  • Hungary was awarded the Backa and Baranja regions in northeastern Yugoslavia.
  • Bulgarian forces occupied the region of Macedonia and a tiny Serb province, called Pirot.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

At its peak the Bosnian Jewish community numbered around 14,000 persons, of which 10,000 lived in the capital city of Sarajevo (20% of population of the city.)  These Jews were sephardim and they spoke Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language that was the mother tongue of 10,000 of the 70,000 residents of Sarajevo according to a census from 1921.  Apart from the Jews in Sarajevo there were about 2,000 other Jews living in communities in Banja Luka; Bihać; Bijeljina; Brčko; Derventa; Doboj; Mostar; Sanski Most; Rogatica; Travnik; Tuzla; Višegrad; Vlasenica; Zavidovići; Zenica; Zvornik; and Žepča.  Although the aforementioned cities are the only ones with official Jewish communities, there were a few Jews in nearly every town and city in the Yugoslav nation. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina came under the control of the Independent State of Croatia, and the Jews suffered the same fate as their Croatian coreligionists.  The majority of Jews from Bosnia and Herzegovina that perished did so in Auschwitz or in the camps of Croatia. 10,000 Bosnian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, out of a pre-war population total of 14,000 persons. The Jews suffered unspeakable cruelty at notable concentration camps such as Pag and Jasenovac, where Croatian fascists tortured and murdered them.  The 4,000 who survived did so by escaping to the Italian occupation zone, or by fighting with the partisans.

Deportation of Jews of Monastir

Slovenia

The Jewish community in Slovenia was already very small before the beginning of the war, but afterwards it was nearly non-existent.  Because Yugoslavia was partitioned between so many Axis countries, the fate of each region’s Jewish population depended on their occupiers.  The Jewish community in Slovenia, a majority of which was concentrated in the geographical region known as Prekmurje, suffered the same fate as the Hungarian Jewish population (because they were occupied by Hungary.)  This means that in 1944, the Germans came in and they were deported to Auschwitz. After the capitulation of Italy in September 1943, the Italian territory was occupied by Nazi Germany and all of its policies went into effect there as well.  Essentially, after the Italians left and the Hungarian territory was occupied, Slovenian Jewry was no more.  There was once a thriving population of Jews in the town of Maribor, where a synagogue still stands as a museum today.

Sign on a Tram in Belgrade reads "Forbidden for Jews"
Rab Concentration Camp where the Jews were protected from Germans by Italians
Murder at Banjica Concentration Camp
Jews interned in the Monopol Tobacco Factory awaiting Deportation

Serbia

Serbia had initially signed the Tripartite Pact and joined the Axis forces, despite protests from the citizens of Serbia.  Shortly thereafter Prince Paul of Yugoslavia was deposed and Serbia was ruled by Serb military guards who were on the side of the Allies.  Their power was usurped again shortly thereafter as they were overthrown by the Germans in 1941.  The murder of Serbian Jewry took place in two phases in the German-occupied zone.  After the initial occupation in July 1941, all Serbian Jewish men were murdered as a retaliation for German deaths in battle – they would kill between 50 and 100 Jews and Communists in reparation for each dead German.  By November 1941, it was only women and children left.  They were subsequently interned in Banjica concentration camp on the old fairgrounds in Zemun, near Belgrade.  The camp was called Sajmište and over 10,000 Jewish women and children were murdered there in the coming months, up through May, 1942.  In a telegram sent around that time, one of Hitler’s cronies in the Serbian government wrote that Serbia was the only place truly free of Jews and Romanis.

“Already some months ago, I shot dead all the Jews I could get my hands on in this area, concentrated all the Jewish women and children in a camp and with the help of the SD (i.e. Sicherheitsdienst – Nazi Security Services) got my hands on a “delousing van,” that in about 14 days to 4 weeks will have brought about the definitive clearing out of the camp…” Dr. Harold Turner – who was an SS-commander in Belgrade – writing in a letter to Karl Wolff, dated April 11, 1942

Of the 82,500 Jews living in Yugoslavia (including Croatia; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Serbia and Montenegro; Slovenia; and the regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina) only 14,500 (17%) would survive the war.