History logo

Content warning

This story may contain sensitive material or discuss topics that some readers may find distressing. Reader discretion is advised. The views and opinions expressed in this story are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Vocal.

Baba's Breadcrumbs

Preface to 20th Century Crusade: Serbian Genocide of WWII

By MkatPublished 29 days ago Updated 28 days ago 18 min read

A person who shaped me with their love was my grandmother. This is her story and these are the breadcrumbs she left for me. Mila was born in 1938. She grew up in the “old country”—the former (former…former) Yugoslavia or the first iteration of Yugoslavia under a Serbian monarchy. She was one year old when WWII began, three when it began in Yugoslavia, and seven when it ended. She only received a third-grade education. (Had it not been for Tito's mandates, she would not have even been afforded that meager opportunity.) Growing up as a small child, she did not have shoes, running water or electricity. She could not cursive write, so she signed her name with an "X." As the second eldest, she was forced to work on her family's farm from a very early age while her two younger siblings were afforded the opportunity to attend school up to the 8th grade. As I was to find out, her lacking education was the least of her problems. My grandmother was born on the periphery of life, as a poor Serbian girl growing up in a Croatian dominant area--in an area infamous for its seemingly never-ending bloodbaths (genocides and ethnic cleansings.) This short excerpt highlights the very biggest one and strangely the one that never gets discussed.

She arrived in Canada in the winter time at age 18 with nothing but the clothes on her back, five bucks in her pocket and sandals on her feet. At that time, she did not know a word of English. Her family friend who was supposed to pick her up at the airport had forgotten to do so. As such she was left stranded at Toronto Pearson airport yet found a taxi and somehow found her way to Hamilton Ontario where she joined the thriving Serbian community that was there and still is there. She met a fellow Serb from Croatia there, got married and the rest is history.

My grandmother was so much more than what she appeared to lack. She was charming and kind. She loved jokes and laughing. She had a smile that could light up any room. She had enigmatic mannerisms which always conveyed her generous, whimsical and deep nature. As such, even though she was soft-spoken, she was still deeply expressive. We endlessly loved teasing one another. Most of all, I remember my grandmother’s beautiful calmness. I remember her endless talks on the phone, her easy-going nature, beaming smile, and radiant laughter as if nothing bad in the world ever happened.

I remember afternoon čaj (tea) which was always kamilica or camomile with her as well as her homemade chicken noodle soup, and palacinka (Serbian crepes) which were always rolled up and filled with jam. I remember the peach tree in her backyard which she had planted from seed as well as her beautiful vegetable garden with its single bent drooping grapevine. I remember the plastic water bottle full of rocks that my grandfather had attached to the ceiling of the garage with a string. We used to swing the bottle back and forth as kids.

My soft-spoken grandmother had become the matriarch of the family as my grandfather had died many years ago. She was the head of our extended Balkan family who kept everyone together. (Now that she's gone, I realize what an important skill that really is—keeping everyone together!) Growing up, I spent so much time with my grandmother that she was like a second mom to me.

If you knew my grandmother well enough, she would tell you stories about the "old country." These very stories she told me were the breadcrumbs which led to a pandora’s box. I fell down the rabbit hole and I haven’t landed yet. Cornel West said "The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak." I hope that you, the reader, will not only hear but listen to these stories, these fragments of truth and that they may not only be heard but echoed and remembered. Malcolm X stated that “I'm going to tell it like it is. I hope that you can take it like it is.”

My grandmother's personal stories led me back to the "old country." Sometimes the "old country" was Yugoslavia, sometimes it was "Hrvatska" or Croatia, other times it was something else. My grandmother talked of her home district of Kordun and neighbouring one of Lika, both of which have prominent Serbian populations, lovingly and with pride-- always with a radiant smile and a twinkle in her eye-- as if nothing bad ever happened there.

Most of the stories she told me were humorous or interesting ones, like the quarrels which happened between her and her siblings. Like how one time after leaving the house door open for too long, a pig rampaged through the house which my grandmother was blamed for. To her dying day, she insists that she was not the one to leave the door open! As I got older, a few other stories were mixed in, but these were far different. They were not centered on rural life in peacetime but on "the war" (WWII.)

My grandmother casually mentioned how after "the war" there were no longer any Orthodox churches in her district or really anywhere in "Croatia." I found this comment odd because there was a sizable Serbian Orthodox population in Kordun and all throughout Croatia particularly the Krajina--the old Habsburg military frontier which Serbs were enlisted to serve on against the Ottoman Empire.

She told me how her father left to join the Yugoslav Communist Partisans. In 1944, he became injured in Belgrade (was shot in the leg) and was taken as a prisoner of war by German Nazis to Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Her father, my great-grandfather, lived to see liberation and continued on for several more decades.

My grandmother lived her early childhood on the run, hiding in the forest, living on berries and grass, with her mother, siblings and cousins. They were on the run primarily from the fascists, the German Nazis, the fascist Italians and especially the oft ignored fascist Croatian Ustashe (who were more sadistic than the Germans.) My grandmother told me that she and her family hid in the "shuma" or woods of Petrova Gora or Peter's Mountain. I later found out that the Yugoslav Partisan Communist base in Croatia was located there, which made it one of if not the safest places to be in the entire fascist puppet state of Croatia which was ironically named Independent State of Croatia” or Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska. Just by sheer luck, my grandmother and thousands of others who lived near it, in Kordun and Lika, were able to find (relative) sanctuary there. It is because of Petrova Gora and the Yugoslav Partisans, who protected it, that my grandmother was able to survive WWII. I had naively been led to believe that my grandmother’s family experiences were the norm when, in fact, they were one of the lucky ones. Anywhere from 1 in 5 to 1 in 3 Serbs in Greater Croatia or the “Independent State of Croatia” or 500 000 to 750 000 Orthodox Serbs were exterminated in WWII mostly by the Croatian Ustashe. It was a Genocide within a Holocaust within "the war" that receives little to no attention in the west.

Had my grandmother been from another district, like Kozara, in western Bosnia, which was the hardest hit, it would have been a different story as that entire region's inhabitants were brutally murdered. Nazi General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau reported that its 60 000 Serbian Orthodox residents had been “…cleared to the last man, and likewise, the last woman and last child.”

In her soft-spoken voice, in her kitchen, my grandmother had told me a few stories--they were the bread crumbs. My grandmother had told me that in the chaos of war, while hiding in Petrova Gora, the family had forgotten her baby sister, Kata, as oncoming troops approached Petrova Gora. It was too late to rescue her as it would have blown everyone’s cover. Her family watched in horror as the helpless baby lay there in the middle of a forest—right in the path of oncoming soldiers—fascists. They turned out to be Italian. Had they have been Croatian, little Kata would have almost certainly been killed as the Croats were infamous for their mercilessness and sadism. Instead, what happened, according to what was passed onto my grandmother was that one of the soldiers picked her up and consoled her as tears sprang from his eyes. He then gingerly placed her back down where he found her. The family in hiding breathed a heavy sigh of relief and retrieved little Kata once they the troops had left. I had for years naively believed that this experience was the norm during WWII in “Croatia” rather than the exception.

There was another unfathomably dark story my grandmother had also told me about the war. This event was not experienced by anyone in my family but by someone who attended our local church. My grandmother had told me that during "the war," the Serbian Orthodox of a town called Glina were corralled at night into an Orthodox church by the Croatian Ustashe. She then made the stabbing motion over and over again and said in her soft spoken voice-- "they kill them" with a strong emphasis on "kill." She continued to make the stabbing motion--cutting into the air and expressing a maddening determination on her face. I felt it.

All those who refused to convert to Catholicism which was almost everyone were locked into the Orthodox church. No angels were singing that night as Ustashe went "to work." They struck their knife into the victim's throat. Blood gushed out like tears from heaven. This was only the first. All of them would be killed--that is except for one. The woman who attended my local church. Some in such a frenzied state threw themselves down from the choir loft. Babies were sliced in front of tormented mothers. They all chanted "Long live Serbia!" until the very last concious one fell to the floor as an ocean of blood filled that church and a mass of corpses covered the floor. One might almost think that God was dead that night and every night during the Ustashe's beyond frightful five year rule.

The woman has since passed away. Her gravestone in Canada, which I have visited, bares the names of her slain children who were murdered an ocean away and decades ago--in 1942. (Please note that there were several Glina Church massacres before the church was burned down by the Ustashe. Ljuban Jednak is the most famous Glina Church massacre survivor.) This story was another bread crumb. A big one.

Had my grandmother and her family not hid on Petrova Gora, they would have almost certainly been (brutally) killed, as that is exactly what happened to her uncle, who refused to hide (or join the Partisans) and was never seen of again. He was murdered at Jasenovac in 1942—the largest concentration camp (complex) in Balkan history. I found his name at the Jasenovac Memorial Museum. My grandmother spoke fondly of her uncle, although she likely would have been too young to remember him. She told me that he was someone who could "make anything out of wood." He also had a family, including a wife and two children.

The Jasenovac concentration camp complex was the largest concentration camp in the "Independent State of Croatia” or Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska (NDH.) The NDH was a satellite state of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy until the latter’s withdrawal. Although it was technically a puppet state, the Croatian Ustashe still wielded a great amount of agency. Over 80,000 people were killed at Jasenovac—the majority were Serbian Orthodox. Recently, reports are coming out that at least 125,000 were killed there (although this is not yet a consensus.) The Jasenovac camp complex was just one, albeit by far the largest killing site of the genocide. In all, hundreds of thousands of Serbian Orthodox 500 000 to 700 000 (out of 1.8-1.9 million) people were killed.

You see, the Croatian Ustashe did not just mass slaughter. They inflicted the most painful and degrading acts upon hundreds of thousands of people (civilians) including babies and children. Indeed, no group in history surpasses the Ustashe's depravity. The Ustashe did not show an ounce of mercy to anyone. Most if not all of their murders involved indescribable tortures—cutting out eyes, noses, ears, skinning people alive for them to die a slow death, clubbing them over the head, throwing small children into fires, throwing whole families alive into deep karsts of Bosnia, leaving victims to slowly die in a mass graves, raping women and young girls, forcing family members to club each other to death which they viewed as “entertainment.” 75 000 children, mostly Orthodox Serbs, were murdered by the Ustashe. The Serbian children who weren't brutally murdered, "the lucky ones," were subjected to brutal cultural genocide whereby they were forcibly converted to Catholicism, placed in Ustashe uniform and forced to hail the Poglavnik (Ustasha leader--Ante Pavelic.) Many children had their skulls cracked open by depraved butchers dressed in black uniform with a "U" on their cap. The children's emaciated, raped and mutilated bodies piled up, one by one, until it formed a mountain of depravity and misery. It was the saddest of heaps. Local Croatians would profit by disposing of their bodies. They were paid 100 kuna "a piece." Often times though the corpses were disposed of by other prisoners who in many cases had at some disposed of their own children, spouses and other relatives. They would grab the dead mutilated child by its foot as though it were an old decrepit doll and not someone's precious child. They would hurl it onto the wagon. Jewish prisoner Egon Berger, who was a grave digger at Jasenovac, tells that the load became so light while carrying the corpse of his own murdered father. (You can read more about it in his book 44 Months in Jasenovac.)

Often times, the Croatian Ustashe were in fact holy men bringing hell to earth. Catholic (Franciscan) priests like Miroslav Filipovic who co-commanded Jasenovac.

Archbishop of Bosnia and Herzegovina Ivan Saric wholeheartedly endorsed the genocide by denigrating “those who did not have the stomach for total genocide, declaring it ‘stupid and unworthy of Christ’s disciples to think that the struggle against evil could be waged in a noble way and with gloves on.’” Archbishop of Croatia Aloysius Stepinac oversaw the conversion of Orthodox orphans to Catholicism. A Catholic newsletter declared the following in August of 1941: “Until now, God spoke through papal encyclicals. And? They closed their ears ... Now God has decided to use other methods. He will prepare missions. European missions. World missions. They will be upheld, not by priests, but by army commanders. The sermons will be heard, with the help of cannons, machine guns, tanks, and bombers.”

Such horrors are indeed too much for the average person to truly even glimpse at let alone truly comprehend and digest. The Ustashe wanted to destroy the existence of the “schismatic” Orthodox Christian Serb, and heretic (Jew and Roma) out of Greater Croatia. They burned down countless Orthodox churches, some dating from the Middle Ages, Jewish synagogues and Roma settlements. It was an all-out Catholic crusade for “Christendom”--for Catholicism.

Prominent victims include ninety-one of Nikola Tesla’s relatives and renowned painter Sava Sumanovic. The genocide was by many margins the largest genocide one to ever happen in that blood-soaked region—the western Balkans. In addition, over 75% of the Jewish and Roma populations, or around 30 000 and 40 000-80 000 respectively, were exterminated including some of Theodor Herzl’s relatives. Many of the victims’ bodies were burned to hide the evidence, thrown are hidden, long incinerated or decayed underneath quick lime in deep ravines or in mass graves under mounds of earth. Today, they are covered up by present-day denial, whitewashing or distortion (the re-writing of history.) With this book, I hope to introduce to the reader what happened to them—to remember them and their stories. And, let it be a warning for current and future generations.

The murder of my grandmother’s uncle at Jasenovac was just one of hundreds of thousands of people who were murdered in that genocide. I found his name at the Jasenovac Memorial Museum which receives few visitors (likely not even 1% of Auschwitz’s visitors.) His name is just one of tens of thousands of victims names, listed in white on sheets of glass either on the wall or hanging from the ceiling. Those sheets of glass emblazoned with names in white, seem to go on forever and ever… It is easy to become lost in it…lost adrift in a sea of sadness…Each name represents a person, a story, an aspiration, a potential…a human being worthy of life. Many of them, at least 20%, were children and babies.

I do not come from a long line of prestigious scholars. In fact, I am the first person in my (immediate) family to graduate from university. Both my maternal grandparents are Serbs from peasant families who hail from the Krajina. My grandmother hails from Kordun and my grandfather from Slavonia. Most, if not all, the Serbian intelligentsia of the “Independent State of Croatia” or Nezavisna Država Hrvatska were murdered from 1941 to 1945. They were sone of the first people to be exterminated. This was done by the Croatian Ustashe in an attempt to prohibit them from remembering their Serbian identity by murdering those most responsible for remembering Serbs' unique stories in the hopes that the remaining ones would adopt a Catholic Croatian identity. My grandmother and many others however always knew they were Serbian.

Serbian Orthodox orphans placed under the “care” of the Croatian Ustashe were not so lucky. Indeed, the Croatian Ustashe have the notorious distinction of being the only people in history to have operated not one but three concentration camps exclusively for children. Those camps are Jastrebarsko, where Gojko was detained, Sisak and Gornja Rijeka.

I met one of those children (who is now over 90 years old.) I interviewed Gojko Mraovic-Roncevic whose family, parents, sister and two brothers, were murdered by the Croatian Ustashe. I also interviewed Smilja Tisma who was a child prisoner at Jasenovac. Her parents were both murdered. Gojko hid with his grandmother until she too was murdered and Gojko was captured and placed in a concentration camp called Jastrebarsko. At these camps, many if not most children died of abuse or neglect while the “lucky” ones, like Gojko, experienced cultural genocide. At Jastrebarsko, Gojko was forcibly converted to Catholicism. They were to be little Pravoslavaks no more. He and other children were forced into little black Ustashe uniforms. They were forced to salute the Ustashe leader, Ante Pavelic and sing Ustasha songs. In the words of another child survivor Novak Dukic they were “brought up to become Ustasa, even better than them.”

I quickly found out that something was rotten in the state of Denmark or, more generally, the Western World, where this genocide is still being covered up, minimized, or denied. I was forced to grapple with the unsettling past and present. Victims are still being forgotten, and survivors are being mocked and even gaslit by Western media. Even in Serbia, there is hardly a culture of remembrance but one of fear and silence. Current Serbian President Alexander Vucic who lost 25 relatives including his grandfather to this genocide was recently, in the summer of 2022, barred by Croatia from visiting the Jasenovac site to pay his respects.

Today, well-known Western media outlets continue to distort and deny this genocide (which will be discussed in this book.) Some general Western academic works, including the Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies (2010) refuse to label the event a genocide and instead call it "massacres," "ethnic cleansing," etc. This is genocide denial. It is tragic that such an important historical world event is being distorted or denied, by current powers that be. With this book, I hope one more gruesome event and hopefully empathy and sympathy may enter western public consciousness and the wider world for the Serbs, Jews and Roma who suffered so terribly in the “Independent State of Croatia” under the hands of the Croatian fascists, the Ustashe, in WWII.

Countless Serbs have lived out their lives in the West, taking on Anglicized names, never mentioning their experiences of this genocide, except behind closed doors in hushed voices. They live in fear that no one will believe them because of racist beliefs more specifically Serbophobia. Some genocide survivors believe that others will not believe them like survivor Milica Sabljic who recounts that she did not tell her story to anyone for many years because “people do not believe it.” More and more Serbs are mustering up the courage to share their tragic stories. It is up to us to listen to them. Rwandan human rights activist and priest André Sibomana comments, "Deaths don't compensate for each other; they don't cancel each other out; they simply add up." With this in mind, by counting the victims of the Serbian Genocide of WWII, we, literally and symbolically, make them count.

American historian Howard Zinn recounts the value in remembering triumphant moments in history. He writes that:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Conversely, we must also acknowledge, discuss, examine, and analyze the bad times or the unsavory and deeply disturbing aspects of history too so that we can see a full (or fuller) picture of humanity and reality. By only focusing on one aspect, the good or the bad, or by only focusing on a few selected events, our understanding of the world remains small and our compassion for one another is limited.

It is only when we acknowledge both the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful that we break down barriers; that we strive toward a more panoptic perspective. As we become more inclusive and whole, we expand our awareness, knowledge, and understanding of the world. We all have a natural aversion to unpleasant aspects let alone unfathomably sadistic ones. Carl Jung points out "People will do no anything to avoid facing their own soul." And yet it is only by going towards the shadow, the dark side of the soul, and exploring it that we can become whole. Carl Jung also stated, “until you make the unconsciousness conscious it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” The dark aspects of ourselves, including genocide, represents unconsciousness to the zenith degree. Continued aversion to unconsciousness, allows it to fester and continue.

We all have a choice in life. Life is a fine balance of knowing when to remember, when to forget, when to hold on and when to let go. We all have the choice in life to decide who we are who we will become. Each day we have the choice to dive into our collective unconsciousness, all of its ugliness, messiness and terror, to become more conscious, aware and compassionate. More and more people are starting to dig deep by striving for a better world. They are the brave ones willing to see what lies behind the “chivalry” of empire and the “barbarism” of colonialism. They dare to ask: “who really is the barbaric one?” And “does another framework or world exist?”

I realize truth-tellers do not fare well in this world hence the saying, "Don't shoot the messenger!" Once again, many, if not most, choose the path of convenience. The truth is seemingly always inconvenient. One only needs to look at Galileo, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Iris Chang, Milan Levar, and likely Fikreta Jelic-Butic and her husband as references. The latter two were Croatians killed for exposing Croatian crimes. Persona non-grata, imprisonment, exile, suicide and assassination are common outcomes. All truth-tellers overcome the seemingly impossible, the strongest primordial human impulse, to have security, to be liked and accepted by others, in the hopes of making the world a more honest, fair, just, and kind place.

If seeking the truth is too daunting for you, then perhaps apply the following words of Rumi: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” The same applies to the truth. This book aims to reveal at least some of these barriers. May we strive towards courage, truth, justice, and forgiveness (in that order.) May we re-claim our power and worth. May we develop the strength to understand the horrors of this world, our shadows, in the hopes of creating a better, illuminated, one. May we remember the poor souls who were brought to the quiet, secluded marshes of Jasenovac and throughout the "Independent State of Croatia," which was the site of some of the very worst horrors in all of history.

Baba's breadcrumbs led me on a journey of travelling to Serbia several times to interview the last few remaining survivors of this genocide, getting my Master's degree, starting a non-profit for genocide survivors and writing a 1000 page book which I have segmented into smaller books.

Where will your breadcrumbs lead you? What will you find out?

World History

About the Creator


...on the spiritual path...


Enjoyed the story?
Support the Creator.

Subscribe for free to receive all their stories in your feed. You could also pledge your support or give them a one-off tip, letting them know you appreciate their work.

Subscribe For Free

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights

Comments (1)

  • Sweileh 88829 days ago

    Interesting and delicious content, keep posting more now

MWritten by Mkat

Find us on social media

Miscellaneous links

  • Explore
  • Contact
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
  • Support

© 2024 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.