It is an old black and white, grainy photo of a small child, maybe a year old, perhaps even less. It is hard to tell because the face is very serious. His dark eyes are not looking into the camera, but downwards, towards hands neatly folded on the breast. The child doesn’t smile, his lips are pressed together. The expression on his face is worried, grown-up somehow. He seems resigned to whatever might happen. On his lap there is a number: 84. What is the meaning of this number, clearly not a toy but a means of identification? Is this photo from an institution’s register, an orphanage – as it seems at first glance?
This is a photo of one of the children saved from the Jasenovac death camp in Croatia in 1942. Number 84 is already marked by hunger and negligence, beyond salvation.
But who were these children?
They were Serbian children from villages in Croatia whose parents, civilians, were killed by Croatian forces called Ustashe during WWII in former Yugoslavia just for being Serbs – deported to death camps or to Germany to work. During 1941-1945, Croatia proclaimed the independent state of Croatia (NDH). It was a Nazi puppet state with its own death camps for Jews, Serbs, Roma people, anti-fascists and communists i.e. political enemies. Some 80,000 perished in just one of them, Jasenovac, children among them.
Left to fend for themselves in desolated villages, thousands upon thousands of children, mostly orphans, were first collected and then housed in several refugee camps.
But in 1942 these children were deported to concentration and death camps. Some humanitarian organizations and individuals tried to get the children adopted by Croatian families and thus save their lives. Among them was a woman, Diana Budisavljevic, perhaps the greatest humanitarian in this part of German-occupied Europe. She was born in Austria and married in Croatia to a medical doctor, himself a Serb. Diana was appalled by the condition of the Serbian women and children in five refugee camps, some 24,000 of them. No humanitarian organization dared to help these children. At first, she organized the collection of medicines, food and clothes. When Diana realized that their fate was to be transported to death camps, she started working on having them adopted by Croatian families. As an Austrian, she had the possibility of contacting high-placed German officials, as well as the top echelons of the Catholic Church. In this way, Diana Budisavljevic saved the lives of some 7,000 children. She personally oversaw the release of 4,000 children, listed them and took photos of many more of them. She meticulously documented each case, with the idea that these children might perhaps one day be reunited with their relatives.
The photo of child no.84 was found in a forgotten album in the repository of the Jasenovac Memorial Center. It was one of five albums, totaling 537 photos of children from Ustashe camps who were saved and taken to Zagreb. Diana wrote a note on each photo. On the photo of child no.84, she wrote: “died on September 5th, 1942.” These albums were the remnants of a huge archive she kept. However, in 1945 the Ministry of Social Affairs of the new communist government ordered the appropriation of her archive and then – it got lost. Photo-albums, notes, documents, her notes… all of her life’s work was lost. Witness accounts of her humanitarian work were falsified or did not make it into the official history books. Were it not for the diary she left to her grand-daughter, which was published in 2003, she would have remained unknown to the Croatian public. The reason for the non-acknowledgement of her role in saving children was quite simple: Diana Budisavljevic was a foreigner, she belonged to a bourgeois “enemy” class. Besides, she was not a member of an organization supported by the Communist Party. The new regime wanted to present communists as the only saviors of children; therefore, it had to minimize or even erase proof of civil resistance to the fascist government. Diana Budisavljevic was not alone; in 1942 there was a network of ordinary citizens who helped find homes for thousands of Serbian children from the camps.
In 2019, a film by young director Dana Budisavljavic (not a relative) reconstructed her humanitarian activity. In it, four of the saved children, now in their old age, remember the misery, hunger, loneliness and fear of life in the camps. The director also recovered and used original documentary footage of the children, seen for the first time. These clips of small children, their heads shaved, poorly dressed, pushing each other to get to the people distributing meager portions of food – or sick, half-dead children not even able to get up off the floor – are perhaps the most painful part of this long overdue film about Diana’s fight for the children.
One can see all their pain and helplessness in the photo of no.84, the little, unsmiling boy who died in 1942, nameless.
Slavenka Drakulić is a well-known Croatian author, whose articles, essays and novels and non-ficition books (How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Cafe Europa, They Would Never Hurt a Fly) were translated into many languages. Her forthcoming book of essays by Penguin Random House is “Cafe Europa Revisited – how we survived post-communism.”
Image created by artist Kenan Aktulun; the images come from each of the families. (Fortunoff Video Archive).
This contribution is part of the larger forum engaging artists and authors, from very different places and writing in very different genres, in a conversation on “the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life.” The idea initially arose in response to the American presidential administration’s family separation policy on the southern border. A short documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them serves as a point of departure. The intention is to provoke a discussion that could be an Aufhebung of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’” debate: what can and what can we not understand by thinking in comparisons with the past?
The project is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Democracy Seminar, and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at the New School for Social Research.