Milan Bastašić,
April 12, 2011, Belgrade

Milan Bastašić, was born in 1931, in Grubišno Polje, near Bjelovar, Croatia. His father and elder brother were among the first Serbs and Jews taken to Jadovno logor.  They were killed, thrown into deep natural pits in the Velebit Mountains.

Milan was in Jasenovac in October and November 1942, and survived with the help of Jewish inmates, while his mother sought help, which came the Devil's lair itself, Ustasha headquarters in Zagreb. A w
oman who worked there, a Mrs. Zorić, had the boy released, before he contracted typhus, avoiding him the trip to the killing fields at Gradina, a trip taken from Jasenovac by so many other children.

Dr. Bastašić is an epidemiologist, and lives in Belgrade since the time of the secession wars in 1991. His  book Bilogora i Grubišno Polje 1941-1991 narrates the story of his family  and of Serbs, Jews, and Romas in the Bilogora-Bjelovar region of Croatia, combining his own experiences and memories with broad historical researches.

Interviewer: Nada Ljubić | Camera: Dušan Gavrilović, Milan Džekulić | Editing: Dušan Gavrilović | Transcript: Danijela Gvozdić, English: Nada ljubić, Italian: Matteo Bojanovich | Webmastering: Dusan Gavrilović

Voices of Survivors

English rendition of the interview, paraphrased and abridged:


I was born into a middle-class peasant family,  ... My father was a volunteer on the Salonika front [in WWI], so he got the land from [Yugoslav King] Alexander in 1925[1]; then he inherited some land from his father, so we were relatively well-to-d
o. There were three of us: my older brother, our sister, and I.  In 1941, sister went to public school in Grubišno Polje, while my brother had just finished baking trade school in Bečej. I had finished elementary school .[2]

- Where did you live?

 I was born in Grubišno Polje, where I went to elementary school.  Later I went to gymnasium (middle or high school) in Daruvar...

- Would you, please, tell us the names of your family members and explain where the town of Grubišno Polje is located?

Grubišno Polje is... in Western Slavonia... My father’s name was Luka; my mother was Evica, the older brother - Stevan, the sister – Jovanka, and I - Milan.

- Do you remember the beginning of the Second World War?

Yes, I remember it very well; unfortunately, very well ... At that time in the higher part of town there was one radio set, belonging to a tailor called Smole. Every night, no matter what the weather was, and April and March were quite snowy and rainy, we went to listen to the radio there...alwa
ys so many people, mainly Orthodox [Serbs], standing on the porch... The graffiti “ŽAP” appeared on the walls...someone said that it was acronym of  “Živeo Ante Pavelić “- “Long live Ante Pavelić”...when the war began, some  were  trampling the images of King Peter ...  I was bringing some milk to some Czech neighbors, and I heard some former policeman saying: “From now we will not polish the boots with “biks”[4], but with Serbian blood”...

Then I remember that, when the war started, members of Croatian Guard came bearing their tricolors and guns, wearing their hats and one of them says: “Unharness the horses; don’t drive the ammunition to the front...the Germans defeated that cavalry of yours, anyway.” The officers [of Yugoslav Army] did not say a word.

..then we heard that the soldiers from Bosnia and Serbia were fleeing across Bilogora Mountains toward their homes. Orthodox families were baking loafs of bread for them...And then there was a period of brother came home from Bečej...

... the f
irst Croatian armed formation was the Croatian Peasant Guard. These were Maček’s units, and their members used to do exercises in the schoolyard, with some poles [instead of rifles], even at the time of Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Some of them had guns. However, in 1941, they were the first to enter the scene, there were no Ustashas yet,  and these guards were disarming Yugoslav army soldiers at the crossroads as they withdrew from Podravina to the south, toward Daruvar... They even took some soldiers hostage.

- So, that was the armed wing of the Peasant Party?

Yes, of the Croatian Peasant Party, led by Maček.  Later, the leadership first and then everyone else, changed sides… they evolved into Ustashas, they put on Ustasha uniforms, although in Grubišno Polje there also existed an Ustasha core, within the so-called  “Croatian Hero” society, led by local priest Pero Sivljanović.  It was the Ustasha core that later was enlarged with...the Guard members... Their ranks were joined by all those, as they used to say, “failing boys”...

...the Ustashas came for the first time, Ustashas and policemen from Zagreb... that night, between April 26 and 27, 1941,  Suddenly there was noise in the hallway... “Open up, we will shoot!” My father got up...and he managed to open the door before they broke it, and they...maybe five-six of them with fixed bayonets. -“Hands up!” -  And, he raised his hands. “Give us your weapon!” [He] said: “I haven’t any weapons; I was fed up of carrying it for four years of war.[5]” Then they turned the house upside down... And finally, they ordered him to get dressed, and to go out. His suit was wet, as my father and brother had gone for fire wood from the forest and had returned wet to the skin.

... when they left the house, my mother moved the curtain from the window slightly, and she saw a very long column, its end was here in front of our house, and she could not see its beginning by Brzin’s house. Brzin was a neighbor... later we learned that they tied them to each other, when they came into the column, then they all were linked to two others with some sort of chain between them, or a rope. At that moment my poor mother, as she told me later, figured out that all her family from the higher part of town must be there, her brother and his son, and the sons of her sister, and my uncle who was her brother in law... All this was confirmed next day...They had arrested... 504 Serb men...

They were later driven to the school, local school, there they were mistreated, passing between two lines of Ustashas, and they were forced to go to the toilet where they were beaten up, and so on. The next day, they were driven out to the railway station, and then packed into freight cars. It was Sunday, the next day. The townspeople came after the Holy Mass in the Catholic Church, a large number of malicious persons, having great fun of it all. The poor women and mothers were there, crying in front of cars... There also were the local Ustashas this time... mostly in civilian clothes... one was riding on horseback carrying a carbine on the back, and others were applauding him, while he showed off in front of these wagons...

In the evening...this transport left the town... two months later we found out that they are in Koprivnica, you know. The poor women went then there, they brought the laundry to wash it at home... on fa
ther’s pants there was bloody stain... they went not by train from Grubišno Polje, but by foot through the Bilogora Mountains to Špišić Bukovica.  There lived some families that had been our great friends, Croats, who used  to come to Grubišno Polje every 13th September, for the Name of Mary Day, bringing grapes, peaches, honey, and so on [for town fair]. They mainly were hosted in Serbs’ houses and courtyards. When these poor women came to their “friends” asking “Would you testify” [that they are loyal patriotic people] they answered “Oh, this is not allowed, these are the new authorities, every crop has its waste”. And that was it, from our fine friends...

At the beginning of June ‘41, we heard that they were taken somewhere.  They said that they were tak
en to Germany... However, in Gospić town lived a tailor, who was a distant relative of my grandfather.  A long time ago he was a servant in his house, having been orphaned. Then...he was sent to learn a trade.  He worked now as a tailor in the Tailors’ hall of Gospić.  Later he fled from there... he informed us that our people were escorted through the town of Gospić... they recognized in that column some prominent people from our we knew that they had arrived in Gospić...
And nothing more was known. I couldn’t say when the news came that they were driven into some logor called Jadovno [7].  The news spread from one family to another, “Jadovno, Jadovno, Jadovno...” ...on August 4, the expulsion to Serbia of Serbian families began... From the area of Grubišno Polje some 600 families were expelled, numbering over 2,500 family members. That night, the first killings took place... some people came to our neighbors to get shovels and pickax, so my mother found out next morning that Muškinja, and Marko Jović, and Malbaša, and Mitar Domitrović were killed, I don’t know what was the name of the fifth man.  And the transports of families went to Serbia.  After that, some kind of truce began.  But there was constant fear... we heard that someone was killed, someone else they took away and nobody knows where he is now, and so on... there always was fear.

The neighbors turned their backs on us, although we used to attend each other’s patron saints’ holidays, Christmas and Easters... Many Czechs called themselves Germans... they used to go march, singing songs in German... Some of them joined the Ustashas.  In the Serbian houses of  expelled families, there were new settlers, Ustashas from Herzegovina and Zagorje, and from western Dalmatia; and they would say that they had already slaughtered their own Serbs, and that these houses were their  reward for their deeds. Some of them carried rifles and wore Ustasha caps combined with civilian clothes, others wore Ustasha uniforms...

...There was fear... whenever anyone passed under the window, we had already made sidewalks in our town, whenever someone passed, everyone woke up, in fear. You couldn’t ask anyone anything, and so on. The women didn’t dare to go to the corner store to buy anything, but when one of them did it, this detail may be inappropriate for the media, a shop-owner said: “For you, Wlachess,[9] there is no salt, piss and then lick it!”... so we had no salt for bread...

-And you personally, as a child, did you experience something like that?

ll, I was going home from school and I meet Milka Hlavačekova.  Her uncle was a zealous Ustasha and a bloodthirsty one later.  Milka was in sort of leadership of the Ustasha youth local branch, and now she would meet me and say:”Well then? Marširala, marširala?" [10]  I kept quiet, I bent my head down, and went by.  Before the war a religious division had appeared in school.  Returning from school, the Catholic children walked down one side of the street, and the Serbian children down the other side. And we would sing: “Marched on, marched on, the Guard of King Peter” and when it come to the line “the battle we fight”, we would shout, “for the freedom of Serbia!”, but they shouted, “for the freedom of Croatia”.  But we all sang the same Guard of King Peter song, you know, because all children are children.

Then, on that April 26--the day the men were taken away--I was returning from downtown.  I remember the sky, with long white clouds [cyrrus clouds] like a plowed field,  when I meet two of my classmates.  There was that mob celebrating the arrest of our men, and they asked “Is your daddy there, too?” I kept quiet, and passed by.

Then, at school, there was Jovan Đuroković, an Ustasha teacher. I was among the better students; I wouldn’t say I was the best one till Njegovan Kljajić was expelled to Serbia. And he [the teacher] asked some pupil a question and he responded “I don’t know”, then he asked Judžin Kelemen who also didn’t know the answer, and then he said: “Come on, Milan!”. Sometimes there was something that I also didn’t know. “Well, even you don’t know?” So I got punished, but they didn’t.  When I got home, I said: “I won’t go to school any more. I can’t take it; he broke the rod on me.” “Oh, keep quiet...” So I went through my fourth grade... I do not remember the details of when I stopped going to school; I only remember that I finished it, yes. Then the Herzegovinian children arrived, who were telling the details about the slaughtering done down there. -You have to explain it: “Herzegovinian children”?

They were the children of the Ustashas who settled there in the Serbian houses...Zvonko was my classmate. And we played together. We also argued sometimes... We were sitting there between vineyard of my grandfather, which was now given to Zvonko’s family, and ours. He said: “You know what? I can kill you just like that. And he pulled up a blade of grass. He was ... from my class, my classmate. It was ghastly.

... things began to change in early ‘42. The Partisans began to appear, but they called them “Chetniks” or "Serbo-Chetniks”.   They arrested all men they could still find, on the ground that they were Chetniks, even though no one had ever seen Chetniks in the Bilogora region. Our fathers were there from the 16th century, you know. And all those who were expelled were also labeled Chetniks.

...One from the Kulturbund [the German Culture Association] went to the forest to get some fire wood.  The horses came back, they brought him to home and he was dead. The horses knew their way to the house, and they came back and stood in front of it. Now they also could not go into the woods to cut timber, everyone was afraid... we were now afraid that they would take revenge on us.

...Geco Bogdanović, killed someone here, and killed someone there, and they came to arrest him, I do not know how many of them, 16 or 28... When they sent a kid as messenger with a piece of paper saying “Surrender! You are surrounded!” , he asked: “Who is looking for me?” He shot the first one who showed up... Geco saw another one, so he shot him, too. Then this gendarme sergeant threw a grenade inside, but Geco threw it back. After the war Geco was alive, and he was a general...He managed to rescue his girl-friend and her mother throwing them out through the window, and the kid joined them, and they all fled together through a snowstorm, before the Ustashas pulled themselves together, because their three wounded men were screaming,... and so he became a hero.

...There was fear: “They are going to slaughter us, this one was killed, and that one,” and so on... Partisans came... Mother said to me: “Do not say a word about this!”

There was a Croat, Joško, who was married to a Serb woman, he became very important for us, and he was bringing news. However, September 27 of 1942 came. The Partisans attacked Daruvar town. They... did not conquer it, and at dawn they retreated ... A few hours later a group of Ustashas came into the upper part of town, and after while, all of a sudden the firing began, and we were thinking: “The partisans must have w
aited for them up near the wood”. But after a while (as I sat on a fence, we had such a garden with flowers in front of the house) I saw one group coming from upper part of town. It was a group of women, and old man Lazo Bobić at its head.  I recognized some of those people, for example, there was grandmother Grubić, then the Grga girls ...  they turned to one small street there, it was perhaps 300 meters away ... Then the firing began... I run to my sister there, my mom was not at home, I said: “They must have killed the Grga girls, and grandma Grubić, and grandpa Lazo”.”Who?” “Didn’t you hear the shooting?” “Oh, come on, why they would kill them?” she said to me.

[1] King Alexander of Yugoslavia rewarded the Salonika front fighters distributing among them land seized from Muslim and Austro-Hungarian aristocracy.    
[2] Elementary school then lasted four years.
[3] Bajmok is a town in Serbian Province of Voivodina, near the border with Hungary.  It was liberated in October 1944
[4] A well-advertised German brand of shoe polish.
[5] During WWI he fought for Serbia against Austro-Hungary and Germany. The soldiers of the victorious Serbian Army on the Salonika front were called Solunci.   
[7] The name Jadovno means “the place of grief”
[9] It seems that Ante Starčević, the XIX Century writer, scholar, and politician known in Croatia as the Father of the Nation, somehow initiated the custom of trying to insult Serbs by calling them "Vlachs".  An odd insult, since Vlachs are an illustrious nation, in the Balkans before Serbs, Croats, or Romans, descendant of Romanized Thracians, Dacians, or Illyrians.  Starčević also theorized that Jews and Serbs were "cursed breeds". 
[10] Marširala, marširala Kralja Petra garda – was a popular Serbian marching song praising the soldiers of King Peter in WWI.