Serbian scholar, in S.F., sheds light on Balkan Auschwitz

"When the Axis powers occupied Yugoslavia, they established a puppet state, the so-called Independent Republic of Croatia, which, in reality, was a super-Nazi state. With an ideology of genocide to eliminate the Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, they created Jasenovac," said Bulajic, a particularly tall and powerfully built man with a mountainous shock of hair combed back into a grayish-white part.

"The truth about this system of camps has been kept secret; few people know today what really happened during the World War II period," said Bulajic during a visit earlier this month to the Bay Area. He met with Leslie Kane, executive director of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, and several Serbian-American groups.

In an interview, he said Jasenovac "became a political issue, an ethnic issue, a religious issue. This has not been resolved because there never was a Yugoslavian or Croatian Nuremberg."

Many Croatian academics continue to downplay the impact of the "Balkan Auschwitz" — the nation's former president Franjo Tudjman, also a historian, claimed only 20,000 met their deaths there, while others accuse Serbs of perpetuating the "myth of Jasenovac."

Bulajic ridicules Tudjman's assessment, claiming to have documented by name 19,432 children under the age of 14 — including 1,911 Jews — who perished at the camp. According to some sources, as many as 600,000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies may have died there, though Bulajic has only identified roughly 80,000 by name.

"I can now safely say that there were hundreds of thousands," he said. "How many hundreds, I don't dare to say. The important thing is, Jasenovac was never liberated. Belgrade was liberated on Oct. 20, 1944, but six months after the Russians, English and Americans captured Yugoslavia, it was still working."

Even some of Bulajic's more strident critics have admitted that at least 85,000 Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats were slaughtered at the camp. As many as 25,000 of them were Jewish.

In addition to blaming Croatian fascists, Bulajic blames Germany for the "triple genocide" of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, which he calls "a unique phenomenon in the world."

"Because the Germans want to deny any responsibility for genocide in Croatia, they say it was a sovereign, independent state," said Bulajic.

"I am a Ph.D in international law. No occupying power has the right, during wartime, to establish sovereignty over a territory before a peace accord is concluded. Everything done in this part of Croatia, Germany is responsible for this. They cannot avoid this responsibility."

But the blame is not Germany's alone, according to Bulajic.

"Behind the Croatian Ustashe Nazi regime was the Vatican, which was against the Serbs who were [Eastern] Orthodox. For the Roman Catholic Church, this was a schismatic church, which should be completely destroyed. The Jewish and Romani [Gypsy] minority were destroyed as well," said the 74-year-old former Yugoslavian diplomat.

Ustashe war criminals escaped Yugoslavia "through the 'Rat Line,' where they took all the criminals to Rome, the Vatican, and then to South America."

One beneficiary of the South American express was former concentration camp commandant Dinko Sakic, who was extradited from Argentina to Croatia in 1998, found guilty of war crimes, and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Yet while Sakic was sentenced to a lengthy stay in prison, his wife, Nada, was released for lack of evidence.

"She was no less a criminal than him in the women's camp," claimed Bulajic. "They offered 29 surviving witnesses, but none were heard; the Croatian prosecutor freed her for lack of evidence."

A number of war criminals "walk freely in Croatia today," according to Bulajic.

Hoping to keep the Serbian-Croatian conflict out of the search for the truth of Jasenovac, Bulajic has helped to establish an international Jasenovac commission made up of Holocaust experts from the United States, France, Great Britain, India, the Czech Republic, France and other nations. The group's third annual meeting is scheduled for December in Jerusalem.

"It's a good thing it's taking place in Jerusalem. The Yad Vashem is there, and they have everything about the Jewish victims," said Bulajic.

The commission, he continued, "will tell the world what was Jasenovac, what are all these graves in this part of the world. Without that, without the Yugoslavian Nuremberg, without establishing the truth, there is no solution in this area and it is a danger to world peace."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.