“Far more than shameless...”
A Survivor Talks About Croatia’s
Interview with Smilja Tišma
President, Organization of Survivors
Interviewer: Jovan Skendžić
1. The exhibits at the Jasenovac ‘museum’ are
inaccessible and incomprehensible.
Mr. Jovan Skendžić:
Would you have some time to tell us your impressions of
the opening of the Jasenovac exhibition?
Ms. Smilja Tišma: Of
course. I would find time for this even if I did not
They pretend that it is a Museum and a new presentation
- but it is not a Museum. You enter into dark corridors,
dark rooms with only weak electric bulbs illuminating
the so-called exhibits. At the places of presentation
there are monitors that show photographs in a loop. For
example, one depicts the transport of miserable, poor
children. You do not know who these children are, or
where they are from, or where they are being taken, or
whom they belong to. You do not know what is happening
At other places you will have to squat down almost to
the floor, as there is a bulb there, or bend all the way
down, if you are able to bend so much and have had the
luck to notice the light in the first place. Bending,
you will read a label telling you what will be
presented. After this you will have to wait what feels
like ten minutes until the presentation starts and then
you will have to quickly read the text they show on the
It is inaccessible for an average person and even worse
for old, frail individuals who are already under
considerable anxiety, as their families perished here.
2. The exhibition falsely cuts the number of people
murdered at Jasenovac and trivializes the genocide
against the Serbs.
Tišma: At another
place, just by chance, I noticed a panel which claims
that sixty-nine thousand people perished in the
Jasenovac death camp. That’s a fraction of the real
number. The Serbs are presented seventh on the list of
groups that were killed, after others, such as Slovenes
and Slovaks, who in fact comprised a small percentage of
the victims and who were killed because of politics, not
because of their ethnicity, whereas hundreds of
thousands of Serbs were murdered in an attempt to
eliminate the Serbian people.
3. The exhibition does not even name any Ustaša
(pronounced oo-stash-ah) leaders; it does not display
the Ustaše’s horrific murder weapons; it does not
display evidence of the key role of the Catholic Church.
Skendžić: Does the
exhibition contain Ustaša artifacts such as knives,
Tišma: The physical
tools the Ustaše used to murder people are nowhere to be
seen there. I was at the Croatian government’s earlier
exhibitions, in 2004 and 2005, and it was the same as at
this latest exhibition. They never display the artifacts
the Ustaše used to murder people.
Skendžić: Do they
present any documentary evidence such as clergymen’s
letters, church newspapers or testimony from post-war
trials, showing the role of the Catholic clergy in
sanctifying the Ustaše and carrying out the actual
Tišma: No. Nothing
Skendžić: Is there
at least a map of the Independent State of Croatia or
some information about Croatian fuehrer Ante Pavelić? At
least a photograph of him on the wall panels?
Tišma: Not even a
photograph of Pavelić; all the less of his henchmen.
4. Like the Ustaše before them, the exhibition’s
creators falsely portray Jasenovac as a ‘labor camp.’
Skendžić: Does it
say in the exhibition that Jasenovac was a death camp?
Tišma: No, they say
it was a concentration and work camp.
actually say it was a labor camp?
Tišma: Yes. They
have the same explanation in their brochure and that’s
also what they said in their speeches at the opening
I’ve written about this. What kind of a ‘work camp’ is
it when they take children, some of them just born, some
still in their mother’s womb, to be murdered there? In
Sisak [a camp 160 km from Jasenovac] where I was first
taken, there was a huge room where they separated
children from their mothers. Croatian Ustaša families
adopted some; others they sent to Jasenovac; thousands,
including me and my two sisters and brother, they sent
to Jastrebarsko, which they set up exclusively for
children. That’s without even mentioning Jasenovac
itself, or Stara Gradiška, or Sisak, or all their other
On 27 January 2007, which the United Nations has
designated as Holocaust Remembrance Day, the government
of Serbia and the Jewish community held a commemoration
in Belgrade. Mr. Cadik Danon, a former Jasenovac inmate
– he spent 17 months there, escaping in 1943 – gave a
speech. Braco – that’s his nickname – said that at the
end of the war the Croats managed to wipe out all traces
of Jasenovac. Now they have done it again, in a new way:
none of the Ustaša murder tools, the heavy mallets, the
knives, the brick factory oven that was constructed for
baking bricks but was used to burn people, who were
thrown in alive and fully conscious or already half
dead, none of that is on display or can be read about
Skendžić: What about
the infamous photographs that the Ustaše took, staging
phony scenes presenting Jasenovac as a labor camp in
preparation for the [World War II] International Red
Cross visit? Are those photographs displayed on panels?
Tišma: There is
nothing left of any of the photographs that were
displayed before, in the museum that was at Jasenovac
before the breakup of Yugoslavia, no photographs of any
kind on the panels. Again, you have to stand next to TV
monitors and wait until some photographs appear, but
these will be presented without explanatory text, so a
visitor enters some space and views something and then
exits without any notion where they were or what they
have seen. It is all really well thought out with a
clear intention to camouflage the crimes, the murders,
to camouflage who did it and how it was done and why.
Braco Danon mentioned in his speech that the Ustaše took
pleasure in their craft, mutilating their victims,
making them die over periods that easily lasted for
hours. The exhibition hides all this. The organizers did
their best to present Jasenovac as a labor camp.
5. The Museum committee contacted and made plans with
the Organization of Survivors, then snubbed them.
Skendžić: It seems
to me quite brave that you dared to go there, to that
place of your suffering.
Tišma: They invited
us. The museum contacted the Organization of Survivors
in Belgrade proposing that we contribute to the
exhibition. We agreed that they would film ten or
fifteen survivors giving eyewitness accounts about
various Ustaša death camps: Jasenovac, Jastrebac, Stara
Gradiška, Sisak, Jastrebarsko.
They were to send a cameraman, at their expense, in May
of 2006, maybe mid-June at the latest. I found the
survivors who were to participate. People started asking
when it would happen. I phoned the museum but nobody
answered. I wrote to Nataša Jovičić, the exhibition
director. Nobody replied.
Despite this, we went to the opening. Three of us
represented our Organization of Survivors: me, as
President; Mr. Dragoljub Acković, a Roma representative,
the child of a survivor; and Ms. Brigita Knežević, who
had been ‘arrested’ as a child, not two years old, and
brought to the Jastrebarsko camp. She was later adopted;
that is why she survived. All told, there were 40 to 50
survivors at the opening.
6. The survivors were ignored and abused at the
Skendžić: Did they
ask you to make a speech?
Tišma: They did not
even acknowledge our presence.
Skendžić: Not even
to introduce you and say – ‘We have some survivors with
speakers did not address us or even mention our presence
to the public.
We came by invitation. They gave us name tags. We were
told that right after speeches by Croatian Prime
Minister Sanader and President Mesić, and after the
ribbon was cut, then we, the survivors, would enter
first. You see, we were supposed to be important, but
when the time came to enter, we were pushed around.
The event was on a concrete-paved area in front of the
Museum. After the speeches, we were shoved aside by the
crowd, pushed off our feet, onto the grass. As there had
been some rain for a few days, we got quite muddy. We
were among the last to go in.
Entering the exhibition, many could not orient
themselves. As I told you, the corridors are barely lit.
7. The exhibition claims to be focused on the victims
as individuals, but in fact even their names are
Skendžić: In 2004,
Dr. Milan Bulajić, founder of the Museum of Victims of
Genocide in Belgrade, wrote that Croatian authorities
were planning a Jasenovac exhibition that would not
include Ustaša murder-tools or photographs of Ustaša
crimes and that this suppression of evidence was
justified with the absurd argument that, as Jasenovac
Memorial director Nataša Jovičić was quoted saying, "‘We
are not going to legitimize the killing, but will
instead commemorate the victims.’" As if it somehow
legitimizes a crime to show who did it, how they did it
and why. This goes along with what you reported – that
the museum deliberately fails to inform people about the
Ustaša crimes, personnel and beliefs, including their
fanatical and murder-justifying Catholicism, and falsely
portrays Jasenovac as a labor camp.
After the exhibition opened 27 November, Associated
Press quoted Nataša Jovičić saying that, regarding the
list of sixty-nine thousand names that you mentioned,
"The list’s aim was to ‘present victims by showing their
individual fates, collective and individual suffering,
their plans and hopes that were destroyed when their
lives were taken.’" And Associated Press quoted an
advisor from the US government’s Holocaust Museum in
Washington agreeing with Jovičić, "saying it was
‘important to present the individual victims. It’s about
me, about you, about everyone. It’s about human
So my question is, are there any displays that "present
the individual victims"?
Tišma: I don’t know
what they are talking about. The list of 69,000 includes
no details about the victims and nothing about how
families were destroyed. As for individual names, all
you can see, hung up high in the air and fluttering
around, are some plastic strips with prisoners’ names,
which you can’t easily read, and the areas they came
from, Slavonia, Kozara [mountain], Kordun or Lika [in
Serbian Krajina – J.S.]. It does not say whether the
prisoners were ethnic Serbs, Jews or Roma, or that some
few may have been honest Croats. Our estimate is that
ethnic Croatians made up 0.3 percent of death camp
prisoners - three in one thousand.
Again, these thin strips of plastic are high up, close
together, and the air circulating from the windows moves
them about making them very hard to read.
Skendžić: So, the
whole affair of the opening was shameless?
Tišma: It was far
more than shameless. It felt to me as if I had been
poisoned; I felt like that for days after the event. As
soon as I recovered, I wrote about it, and this was
published as a letter from the Organization of Survivors
in [the Belgrade paper] Politika. Even though I had to
shorten it twice to make it fit, and they published it
in abbreviated form, still they gave it a full three
columns, which is unprecedented for a letter to the
editor at Politika, and it included all the most
important issues. People in our organization were
Everything is difficult here, very difficult. This
government of Serbia is reluctant to do anything. We
have no help from them, as if we were foreigners in our
own country. There are still around a thousand of us
survivors, still alive. Almost all were children at the
time of the Ustaša genocide. Mr. Josip Erlih and Mr.
Stepanović are the ones among those [a bit older] who
broke out of Jasenovac and who are still living. Around
five or six of these older Jasenovac survivors are still
8. On the Ustaše’s mass murder of children; the
documentary work of Dragoje Lukić is discussed.
Skendžić: I think
most people outside Yugoslavia are unaware that the
Ustaše incarcerated so many thousands of children.
Tišma: At least
fifty-six to sixty thousand were murdered. I assume you
heard that Mr. Dragoje Lukić gathered information
published in a book documenting the deaths of more than
nineteen thousand of these children, all killed just in
the one camp in Jasenovac village and in Stara Gradiška.
Mr. Lukić and a group of volunteers worked for a couple
of years after World War II in five counties in the
Kozara mountain district, talking to families. [Kozara
is a Serbian majority area in Bosnia that had a strong
partisan resistance. It is the area where the German
force in which Kurt Waldheim, who later became UN
Secretary General and President of Austria, and who was
a Nazi officer in World War II, committed infamous
atrocities – J.S.]
They listed only those children about whom they could
find all biographical information - the first and last
names, date and place of birth, parent’s names - and in
this way documented that more than nineteen thousand
children from one district were murdered in two camps.
But what about children from Banija, Kordun [in the
Serbian Krajina]? What about other districts in the
Ustaše’s ‘Independent Croatia’? For example, for many
counties in my region, Slavonia [also in Krajina], there
is no town and no child listed in Mr. Lukić’s book. What
about all the children who died in other camps, such as
An exhibition about the murdered children created by the
late Mr. Lukić is now in Bari, Italy, as part of the
Serbian-Italian cooperation project, ‘Bridge
Belgrade-Rome.’ In Italy there are still some people who
respect truth and justice and hate fascism and what it
did during WWII. This exhibition, with photographs, was
presented at Dom Armije [the Army Club in Belgrade] for
the first time a few years ago. Again the exhibition
includes only some nineteen thousand names that Mr.
Lukić's helpers were able to collect. The children from
Kozara mountain only.
That has to be said every time one talks about this
exhibit, and people don't always do that. For example,
in a speech given at the Holocaust Remembrance ceremony,
Mr. Mirković from the Museum of Genocide Victims
[founded in Belgrade], speaking in the name of the
Museum, forgot to mention that nineteen thousand
represents only a small portion of the entire number of
children that perished. He also forgot to mention which
areas of Ustasha Croatia this exhibition is about, and
what areas are not covered.
9. On the attempt to minimize the Croatian Holocaust
by claiming that most Croatian death camps were not part
of the Jasenovac system.
Jastrebarsko considered part of the Jasenovac camp
Tišma: No, the
Croats cleverly excluded Jastrebarsko, which is in
Zagreb [capital of Croatia]; by their calculation, the
Jasenovac system would include only adjacent places like
Stara Gradiška. But what about the town of Sisak [about
160 km upriver from Jasenovac – J.S.]? Nowhere is it
mentioned as part of the Jasenovac system. I was in
Sisak with my mother and siblings for a couple of months
and that is where so many were separated from their
parents. Many people were taken from there to Jasenovac.
All those satellite camps were intertwined parts of a
single Jasenovac system.
[Note: It is important whether or not Jastrebarsko and
other Croatian Ustaša death camps are counted as part of
the Jasenovac complex. In 1989, Franjo Tudjman, leader
of the Croatian secessionists, published a book that
became infamous. Its title, Bespuća povijesne
zbiljnosti, is obscure in Serbo-Croatian and worse when
you translate it into English, something like Wastelands
of historical reality/truth. But there is nothing
obscure about the contents. Tudjman claimed that no more
than 900,000 Jews died in the Holocaust and that it was
Jews (not the Ustaše) who murdered Serbs and Roma in
Jasenovac. He also claimed that not 600,000 or more, but
some tens of thousands of people died at Jasenovac.
Tudjman's campaign to revise the number of Ustaša
victims downward by 90 to 95% served the most powerful
forces in the US and Germany, whose attempt to depict
Croatian secessionists as fighting for freedom was
easier if people did not know that the last time Croatia
seceded they wiped out a third of the Serbian
population. One way to limit the perceived number of
Ustaša victims has been to limit the number of camps
counted as part of the Jasenovac system. That is why, in
her response to my question, Smilja Tišma says, with
bitter irony, that the Croats are "clever" not to count
Jastrebarsko as part of Jasenovac. – J.S.]
10. How Smilja Tišma’s family was destroyed by the
tell us more about your family.
Tišma: I am a Serb.
My father, exactly because he was a Serbian patriot, was
seized by the Croatian Ustaše almost immediately after
the collapse of Yugoslavia and the establishment of the
NDH ['Independent State of Croatia,' set up 10 April
1941 under Nazi German sponsorship. - J.S.]
The Ustaše took him away on 17 May 1941 and we never saw
him again. I only learned much later and by accident,
from one of the survivors who participated in the
break-out from Jasenovac and who had been arrested at
the same time as my father and went through the same
experiences, that one morning they found my father, next
to that brick factory oven, dead. How did he die? The
Ustaše were killing those poor inmates wherever they
wanted and in any way they wanted. Quite probably they
killed him there and so he simply remained there. We
children were later picked up by the Ustaše, together
with our mother. Such instances where the Ustaše would
first arrest the father and then come for the rest of
the family happened by the thousands.
My father was from the village of Kistanje, in Krajina,
about 20 km away from the city of Knin, toward the
Adriatic sea. The area is called Dalmatinska Zagora and
was overwhelmingly Serbian-populated. My family came to
this area in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the
Serbian people ran away from Turkish atrocities.
Portions of the family came from Kosovo and also from
parts of Bosnia.
My mother was from Slavonia [part of Serbian Krajina]
and her family came there from then Turkish controlled
I was born in Western Slavonia. Grandpa Andreja, my
father’s father, was a volunteer who joined the Serbian
troops in WWI. He was wounded and as a result of his
severe wounds he died in 1923. My grandmother Marija
then sold what they had in the Knin area and moved to
Slavonia thinking that we would be less hungry there, so
I was born in Slavonia in the house we bought. It was
from Slavonia that the Ustaše picked up my family and
brought us to death camps. The name of our village in
Slavonia, populated by Serbs, was Zrinjska [pronounced
Zree-nyska], in Grubisko Polje [pronounced Groo-beesh-ko
Polye] county. The villages around ours were also
Serbian populated villages.
11. Ms. Tišma returns to her village, which is no
My dear friend, I went to visit my village in October
1990 [half a year before Croatia declared its secession,
but when Serbs in Slavonia were already under violent
attack. – J.S.]. My dear brother who died three years
ago and who had been a partisan fighter (he joined the
partisans at the age of eleven!) told me then, "You must
be crazy to go there, as if to the cave of a she-bear."
But I went there with the intention to list the people
who perished in Jasenovac. I was able to list three
hundred and seventy-two names of victims but you should
know that for many victims there was no one left to tell
me their names. Trees, trees as they existed at the time
when the Serbs first settled in that area, in the 15th
and 16th century, such trees grew where my village had
That is how it looked in 1990. Then there were still a
few old and isolated people scattered here and there.
How it looks now after Croatia’s "Storm" military
assaults during the 1990s, we can only imagine.
End of interview