Personal Reflections -
VERA SCHWABENITZ - "In Memory of My Sister Jelka"
We were a family of five - our parents, Arthur and Rebecca Schwabenitz and their daughters: three sisters, Jelka, Vera and Estera. Jelka was the oldest, born in 1919, Estera the youngest, born in 1930 and I, Vera, in 1921. All three of us were born in Osijek, Yugoslavia.
Given the small age difference between Jelka and me, we’ve always been not only sisters but also friends.
I recall an event that took place in our early childhood. Our mother had very pretty long hair that she used to put up in a braided bun. One day, Mom came home with a modern hairdo, her long hair cut short, and my father was offended that she had done it without discussing it with him first. My parents didn’t speak to each other for several days. In those days we were sleeping together in the same bed, crying, afraid that they would get a divorce. We confided in our housemaid Anka, and she comforted us “You’ll see, one morning everything will be all right again” - and so it was.
Our Mom had a friend, called aunty Mica. The two of us were always looking forward to seeing her. She used to talk to us as if we were adults, always discussing more serious subjects. She participated in the demonstrations for women’s rights, which opened new horizons for the two of us. Later we would whisper on about these conversations.
When I was about 9, and Jelka 11 years old, we started going to the HaShomer Hatzair meetings. (We used to call it KEN). It was a politically left-oriented Zionist youth organization, with the long-range plans of going to work on the kibbutzes in Jewish Palestine. Each of us was going to her own “kvuca” (group), mine was for the younger one, and Jelka’s for the older.
Our father was an architect and was a partner in a construction company, so we had a pretty good middle-class life. However, in 1929 there was the great “crash”, a world economic crisis, that affected also our country. Not much was being built and so my parents moved to Zagreb. I think another and main reason was for the move because my Mom’s entire family lived in Zagreb.
I have to mention that my grandfather on our mother’s side had been a rabbi in Koprivnica for 27 years. Our mother used to talk about him a lot. He was interested in Judaism, read and studied a lot, so that his sermons were famous in the whole town, even outside the Jewish community. The temple was always full.
The two of us continued our schooling, Jelka was in the in the fourth grade and I was in the second grade of the grammar school. Jelka was a straight-A student. She never had problems with mastering the material, yet I can’t remember seeing her studying a lot at home. In Zagreb we continued visiting KEN and we were very active. Our family was Orthodox and they were not happy with us going to that left-wing organisation. Many parents forbid their children to go to the KEN at the time, because they were afraid they would leave for Palestine.
At one time, my sister Jelka was supposed to take her school-end-exam that was going to place on a Saturday. The family council decided that she would not take the exam. However, frequently my grandmother would consult a rabbi, a pious, God-fearing man, whose advice was sought in all difficult situations (we called him “roiter Rebe”, because of his red beard). He was also consulted in this specific case. He locked himself in the other room with a big fat book and stayed there the entire afternoon. When he came out, he said that Jelka could take the exam, because it is important for her entire future. The joy we felt at that moment cannot be described.
Jelka was very active in the left-wing movement. In the meantime she entered the Faculty of Economics and successfully finished the second year. During her studies, Jelka got a job as a correspondent (she spoke German, French and English, that she learned from the records, it was the latest craze).
We were already grown-up girls – I was 18 and Jelka 20. We were best friends, telling each other absolutely everything. Sometimes Mom would talk our little sister Estera into eavesdropping on our conversations, who would then report back to Mom that we were “talking about boys”.
With great joy we celebrated all Jewish holidays, with an active participation of all members of the family. The Passover Seders were unforgettable, when all of us sang together (to be honest, Jelka sang off-key). We were so excited while looking for the piece of “Matzo”, wrapped in a napkin. Whoever found it, got the reward. I remember one Passover when Jelka found the napkin (the present was prepared beforehand) and got a book that made her so happy that she jumped up and kissed Dad. I remember how we all celebrated Hanukah and sang the Mo ois zur… Jelka wasn’t aware of how off-key her singing really was, and we wouldn’t make fun of her.
One day she came home and informed us that she would be singing in the school choir. Mom and I went to see the show, because we couldn’t believe that anybody would actually invite her to join a choir. The two of us could hardly hold back our laughing, given that her off-key voice, of which she was so proud, was clearly audible.
And this is how our middle-class family life was flowing, filled with the love we felt for each other, with little and big worries, with happy times spent with our closest and wider family and with lots, and lots of friends.
April 1941 arrived. On the 6th of April, Belgrade was bombarded. We were all terrified. The threat of war hung in the air. Is this really happening to us too? By then, Nazism was almost all over Europe, but we didn’t experience it yet. Our flesh crept. Our family became as one. Then, 10th of April arrived. The Ustashes (Croatian fascist collaborators) entered Zagreb together with the Germans. The rule of fear began. We lived in Masarykova Street in the heart of the city. That same afternoon, behind the closed blinds, we heard a group of about twenty young people sing: “Zagreb is not a Jewish city, out with them, out, we don’t want them.” Our little sister Esta, who until the day before had been an 11-year old playful child, grew up over night. She ran all our errands outside. She went grocery shopping and performed all other daily chores. We had to report to the authorities to pick up two yellow pieces of cloth each, one for the back, and the other to wear on our chest with a big “Ž” on it (“Ž” stood for “Židov”, “Jew” in Croatian). We were allowed to go out only with these yellow patches on.
Later on, these pieces of cloth were replaced by yellow badges with a big black letter “Ž” on them. In June they came for my Dad, and took him to the concentration camp, in the city centre, a former City Fair (Velesajam). In those big halls were the concentration centres for the Jews. My mother contacted her friend Marija Sirovatka (of whom I already wrote as of aunty Mica). I don’t know how she did it, but she saved my Dad. Only 5 or 6 people managed to get out of that concentration camp, and there were hundreds of them in there. Nevertheless, Dad spent a few days there, and my mother and Jelka brought him some food in a basket. Jelka carried the basket and in the courtyard, before they entered the hall, one of the Ustashes kicked the basket with his foot, and everything had fallen out. Jelka reacted and started yelling at him “how dare you”.
Jelka’s boyfriend was among the first ones to be arrested, as he was a leftist and was court-marshalled, which meant that they could have him shot right away. Everybody in the house panicked. We were burning all the photos, anything that could have been connected to him. My sister decided to go and talk to a high-ranking officer who knew her boyfriend’s family. My parents stood behind her on that. She went, and we stayed at home trembling, because we were terrified that something could happen to Jelka too. She succeeded, and he was punished by being expelled from Zagreb to his hometown, under the condition of reporting to the local police station on a daily basis.
It was Yom Kippur, September 1941. At around 7 o’clock in the morning somebody rang the doorbell.
I opened the door still in my nightgown, and a man whom I had never seen before, said “hide everything you can, the Ustashes are coming”. Before all this started to happen, I got my first pair of skis, which I hadn’t used yet. First thing that came to my mind was to take the skis and take them to our fifth floor neighbours. A few minutes later, there were two Ustashes at our door, armed with bayonets. We found out that they were father and son, who was practically a child, about sixteen years old. The older one said that we had half an hour to leave the apartment, and that all we were allowed to take with us was a small suitcase with the most necessary items. He left his son there to keep an eye on us, while he was away. Right after the older one left, Mom sent Dad to his brother, who was married to a Catholic. Mom started begging the boy to let her take a pillow, and a sheet, and I don’t know what else, for each of us. The pile of stuff was growing in the hallway. The older Ustashe came back and started yelling at his son, and he also forced us leave, carrying nothing but that small suitcase. We were escorted outside, in front of our home, and Jelka and I were crying. Mom said that “those are only things, and what matters is that we’re alive”.
The four of us went to Dad’s brother Otto, where Dad was waiting for us. While we were still at the apartment, Jelka obtained false documents for her and me. But we agreed that I would stay with my parents and Esta for a while, in order to help them. Also, that we would let one of my friends, who was in the same situation as we were, use my documents. While we were at our uncle’s place, at 10 o’clock in the evening a hackney-coach came in front of the house and Jelka left for Bosnia with the false documents. We followed her to the coach, in Đorđićeva Street, which was empty at that time of night. We were all crying so loud that the whole street echoed with our cries, as if we sensed that we were never to see each other again. Then Jelka said: “I have to go, we cannot let them kill us just like that”.
After the war ended, I met a childhood friend, Ivica Šorš, who had been in Sarajevo at the same time Jelka had been there. He told me that Jelka, was arrested in Sarajevo and that they were in prison together. He heard them questioning and torturing her in the next room, while she was screaming. After that the Party organisation managed to get her out of prison. During one of the deliveries of wood to the prison, they managed to furtively put her up on the cart with the wood and get her over to the partisans.
While I was still hiding in Belgrade, before I left to join the partisans, I got a postcard from Jelka (I will never know how she found out that I was staying in Belgrade at our aunt Reha’s house). She wrote to me from Sarajevo where she was waiting to join the partisans, I had no doubt about it. When I joined the partisans, I wanted to go to Bosnia, and one time I was actually on my way to get there, but they sent me back, because the battles there were so heavy that nobody could get through. While I was with the partisans, I was sending letters all over, looking for her. After the war I found out the real truth. I wrote to Belgrade and received response from two generals. Jelka was in Eastern Bosnia with the partisans. In 1942 the resistance divided into two groups: the partisans and the Chetniks. Conflict between the two groups caused animosity, with some of the Chetniks siding with the Germans, killing partisans - and that’s how my sister Jelka died at the hands of the Chetniks.
This is the sad story of a wonderful young woman, whose short life ended in such a tragic way.
In the context and under the aegis of a whirlwind occupation of Yugoslavia by the Germans, on
April 10th 1941, the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) was proclaimed. Since the first day of its creation, its character was Nazi-fascist.
The State no longer tolerated its citizens of non-Croatian origin, or anybody who was “different” in any way, be it on the basis of their “race”, nationality, religion, political beliefs or orientation.
The State publicly and officially denounced the racially, nationally, religiously and politically objectionable individuals (the Jews, the Serbs, the Roma and all political opponents of the regime), and it persecuted them openly and systematically right from the start. Already on April the 30th 1941, the official media published the Legal provision on racial affiliation and the Legal provision on the protection of “Aryan” blood and the honour of Croatian people, both of them destined to eliminate the unacceptable individuals from the social system.
The establishment of the NDH was almost immediately followed by an announcement that all government employees would be placed at the complete disposal of the State with the possibility to fire anyone without stating a cause, and everyone had to submit evidence about “their racial origin and the racial origin of their spouses”. The result was the immediate establishment of an obedient and efficient state apparatus, capable of establishing the Ustashe terror against the objectionable groups. In this way, they started breaking down the economic basis by seizing the assets of those considered unacceptable individuals, followed by the killings, partly motivated by the intention of eliminating the witnesses of the plunder. The death and the plunder of the entire Croatian Jewish community were publicly proclaimed.
The direct result of the implementation of the newly-passed racial laws, along the lines of the German laws, was the death of several hundreds of thousands of people, either as victims of the regime, or as members of the resistance movement. Most of the regime’s victims were, above all, nationally and religiously objectionable civilians, from newborn babies to the very old people, regardless of gender. They were murdered within little more than four years of existence of the NDH.
The Ustashes, to solve the so-called “Jewish problem” resorted mainly to murder. The Jews were an easy target considering that they were not very numerous, most of them living in the cities with known and easily accessible addresses, and there were multiple highly important motives for their swift extermination: “cleansing” of the NDH from what they considered unwanted citizens, gaining credit with the Nazis and plundering of the entire Jewish property under the protection of law.
Denounced as racially “undesirables”, the Jews lost their citizenship too, and the entire range of interdictions regarding acceptable conduct and contraction of family ties was implemented, above all the prohibition of mixed marriages, and the prohibition of sexual relations between Jewish men and “Aryan” women. In case of violation of the interdiction of mixed sexual relations, the Jewish man was guilty of a serious crime of “defilement of race”. Jews are banned from participating in the work of social, youth, sport and cultural organizations and institutions in Croatia in general, and from literature, journalism, visual arts and music, architecture, theatre and film in particular. Special orders were issued on forced elimination of those Jewish surnames whose spelling was changed to make them appear less Jewish, and mandatory reintroduction of the original ones, and on wearing of special yellow marks on the outer garment with a big letter “Ž” and on similar marking of the Jewish companies. The most severe punishments were announced for ignoring these orders in any way. That is why, at first, before the big waves of arrests started – after which the Jews were excluded from the public life – in the streets, one could see lots of citizens wearing a Jewish yellow band or other marks on their clothes (their form would change, ranging from bands to badges). Pedestrians, so marked, became “invisible” over night, meaning that their former acquaintances usually did not dare to greet them when passing them on the street. The Jewish doctors were banned from practicing medicine, their offices were closed and any inventory they had, down to the smallest items, was confiscated. The Jewish lawyers were thrown out of the Bar Association and were banned from practicing law. The provision on “regular business operations and prevention of sabotage in companies” enabled the confiscation of Jewish companies, in which, allegedly, sabotages took place. It was followed by a series of other “measures” and provisions, which legally regulated and approved the plunder of the Jewish property.
By the end of June 1941, a special legal provision and order was created, stating that “the Jews are disseminating false information with the purpose of agitating the public, and in their notorious underhanded way they are disturbing and aggravating the supply of the population”, for which “they are held collectively responsible and thereafter they will be treated according to their criminal responsibility by putting them away in outdoor prisoners’ camps. There was an announcement of mass arrests of the Jews whereby all of them were taken, including small children, to the Ustashe camps that were built especially for them, often without basic, hygienic living conditions. With close to outright bluntness, the Jews were “designated” to die from the very beginning. On 24th of August 1941, Ante Pavelić, leader (poglavnik) of the Independent State of Croatia, declared for one German newspaper: "As for the Jews, I can say that they will be eliminated as soon as possible."
In the NDH there were numerous concentration camps for different types of prisoners, especially for those racially and politically unacceptable for the authorities. The main purpose for establishing different Ustashe camps, regardless of the administrative categories they were divided in, was ethnic cleansing of people belonging to an “unwanted” nation or race, and elimination of political opponents.
From the summer of 1941 to the first few months of 1942, the majority of Croatian Jews was arrested and taken away to the Ustashe camps within the NDH, where they were murdered or died in appalling conditions, if they were not killed even before being brought to the camp. The Jews from North-western Croatia, who, for the most part, came under the rule of Hungary, were most likely taken "to the East", in German/Nazi controlled camps in the occupied territories, where almost all of them were murdered or, were killed. (As early as July 31st, 1941. Varaždin became the first city to be "clean of Jews"). About 5000 people remained free in the country but most of them got arrested during the massive police raids in the spring of 1943; they were handed over to the German Nazis and most of them were annihilated in German camps. Around 1,500 Jews were still not arrested, several hundreds of which were subsequently captured and killed before the end of the war. About 4000 Jews managed to emigrate from the NDH to the part of the Croatian coast occupied by Italians (although they were interned in several concentration camps, under the Italians they were not in direct, mortal danger), or to third countries (mostly Switzerland and non-European countries).
The concentration camp of Jasenovac was the biggest camp in the South-eastern Europe, and it was a kind of a paradigm of the Ustashe camps in general: the prisoners were mostly civilians – Serbian, Jewish and Roma men, women and children, elderly and pregnant women, infants, along with the antifascists and the "socially objectionable", such as Freemasons and similar individuals who were considered socially unacceptable, as well as the common criminals.
The methods of execution in the Ustashe camps were not as sophisticated as in their Nazi counterparts. The Ustashes performed the executions manually: using mallets, knives, and bare hands or shooting. However, the final goal was the same: annihilation of the “unwanted.”
Forced labour, terrible lack of food and hygienic conditions that were regularly causing diseases, abuses and torture, as well as mass executions with the purpose of eliminating as many members of “unacceptable” groups as possible were an everyday reality for the prisoners of Jasenovac. Mass executions were performed using the most primitive cold weapons, and after that the disfigured bodies, often in great numbers, would be thrown into the nearby Sava river. On the riverbank, the Ustashe established an execution area. Here, they performed mass killings of the inmates and of the groups of “racially” “undesirable” civilians who were brought there from all over country. These unfortunates would not make even to the camp but were taken directly to the trenches dug for them in advance and executed.
Upon the arrival of the prisoners to the camps, women and children were separated from men, among them the younger and healthier ones would be taken to do forced labour. A ferry transported those of the prisoners, who were sick and weak, along with the women and children, with a capacity of transporting 70-80 people, to the opposite bank of the river. There, along the river, already prepared trenches were waiting for them, ten or more meters long, several meters wide and 2-3 meters deep. The Ustashes used bludgeons and mallets to make their victims run towards the holes, and when they would arrive to the edge of the hole, both the ones that were passively giving in and the ones who would try to escape at the last moment, would be given a mortal hit. Groups of women and children were frequently killed in the dugout, where they were thrown still alive by the guards.
The Ustashe system came down hard on the Jews.
75% of them were killed, that is about 30.000 to 40.000 of Jews living on the NDH territory. In the NDH at the time, there were also several hundreds of refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria, annexed by the Germans, who were killed in the same way, and even in greater numbers than the “native-born” members of the Jewish community, because most of them had no friends or acquaintances among the non-Jewish population, they did not speak Croatian, and being foreigners, it was even harder for them to emigrate to the Italian territory.
Nevertheless, most of the Jews who survived on the territory of Yugoslavia and the NDH, managed to stay alive by joining the partisans’ antifascist movement. This was widespread and in war-torn Europe it was the first to rise as the only pillar of the antifascist struggle in these areas. It contributed greatly to the liberation of the country from fascism, and the Jews who participated in the movement made an important contribution to achieve this end, starting from the first days of resistance. After the capitulation of Italy and the liberation of the concentration camp on the island of Rab, where most of the prisoners were Jews and Slovenians, the Rab battalion was created and it was composed exclusively of Jews, which was a rarity in enslaved Europe.
Minor editing by Judy Weissenberg Cohen
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2007.