The concentration camps of World War 2 hold a macabre grip over the modern imagination. Books on the topic sell in their millions. Tourists with questionable ethics wield selfie sticks in the death chambers. Of these Nazi camps of horror, Auschwitz remains the best known.
Recently, however, a discussion with a girl on Goodreads led me to the website of Jasenovac, one of many Ustasha-run death camps and inevitably, when huge numbers and sadistic savagery are involved, the most notorious. Situated in Croatia near the border with Bosnia, Jasenovac was established in 1941 by the Independent State of Croatia, or NDH, a Nazi puppet state run by the Ustasha, the fascist terrorist organization nurtured by Mussolini and put in power over Croatia and Bosnia by Hitler. Its principal victims were the Orthodox Serbs, the Jews, and the Roma people.
I must be twisted because, once I was on the site, I wacked the family name into the search bar – MIKATOVIĆ – and to my dismay discovered a relative: Paolo Mikatović from Dekovići. My mother was born in Tar in Istria, seven kilometres away. All the Mikatović’s had lived in the same area since the sixteenth century, so poor Paolo must have been a cousin.
Google images of Dekovići reveal a farming hamlet so modest that it seems to turn its eyes from the camera. I was filled with sadness for its remoteness, its anonymity, and its slim connection with an infamous location.
Seeking further information about Paolo, I wrote to Poreć, the nearby regional centre. They replied, but couldn’t help me. I knew that there had been a strong Partisan presence in that part of Istria because I took a photo of the Partisan cenotaph in Tar, and the Tar/Varbiga Partisans even have a Facebook page. I can only assume, therefore, that Paolo joined the local anti-fascist fight, was captured by the Ustasha and subsequently imprisoned in Jasenovac.
I made the villain in Through Forests and Mountains a Ustasha supporter because I needed someone who was psychotic. When you read about the crimes of the Ustasha, psychotic is the only word suitable and I urge those with an interest in them to read the Balkan Essays of Hubert Butler.
Butler, an Irish writer who had taught in Croatia, set out to make ‘a study of the Christian crisis’ in Croatia from 1941 to 1945.
What Christian crisis?
First, a bit of background. The temptation for Christians under Fascism during the first half of the twentieth was that no matter how much they disliked Hitler, Mussolini, Franco or the Croatian Ustasha, they always retained their church. Indeed, the Ustasha were very devout Catholics. Theirs was ‘an extraordinary alliance of religion and crime’, writes Butler. Their leaders went to daily Mass and local priests blessed the troops before battle. One renegade priest, Father Ribar, was arrested and killed in Jasenovac for refusing to celebrate High Mass on the anniversary of the founding of the NDH and to sing the ancient hymn of praise Te Deum Laudamus. Communism, by contrast, was the atheistic villain. Communism was feared by the churches. Yet Butler writes that, after the war, the Yugoslav communist authorities were very careful not to lie about their evidence regarding the activities of the church.
The Christian crisis to which he refers was the mass murder by the Ustasha of their fellow Christians, the Orthodox Serbs. He continues, ‘I think there can be few parallels in European history for the religious massacres in Croatia in 1941 and ‘42 or for the lack of moral courage which Christians have shown in admitting them with honesty’. Four British authors, Hubert Butler, Stella Alexander, Evelyn Waugh, and Fitzroy Maclean, wrote that the Croatian church was sympathetic to the Ustasha, if not actually collaborating with them. A fifth, Marcus Tanner, noted that ‘the clericals were held back from opposing the NDH by their conviction that Croatian independence was a good thing.’ Many saw in the village massacres carried out by the Ustasha an opportunity to make converts of the terrified Orthodox peasants who queued up to be baptised Catholic in the hope of saving their lives.
I am a Christian so what do I think?
The French writer Celine Martin, sister of St Therese, noted that her mother had a ‘veritable cult for the church, for the Pope and for the priesthood,’ but Father Harry from St Agatha’s-down-the-road told me that Jesus didn’t come to found a church, he came to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth.
Let Jasenovac stand as a salutary lesson for all Christians who justify division and murder between brothers. Jesus told Christians to make peace.
Marcus Tanner, Croatia Yale University Press 1997
Hubert Butler, the Balkan Essays the Irish Pages Press 2016
Stella Alexander, the Triple Myth Cambrideg University Press 1987
Evelyn Waugh quoted in Hebblethwaite, Peter Paul VI the First Modern Pope, Harper Collins 1993.
Fitzroy Maclean, The Heretic: the life and times of Josip Broz-Tito. Harley and Brothers NY, 1957 (Published in the UK as Disputed Barricade)
Celine Martin, the Mother of the Little Flower Tan Books and Publishers 2005