*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- the Holocaust in Yugoslavia

The Holocaust in Yugoslavia

Holocaust Ygoslavia
Figure 1.--This Yugoslav Jewish boy is unidentified. Almost immediately after the German invasion (April 1941), lawssimilar to the German Nurremnerg Laws were decreed. The actual dates and detils varied slightly from area to area. Only in the Italian occupied areas were stringent measures not taken against Jews. In most cases by the end of April regulations required Jews to wear badges. Relatively quickly the Jews were arrested and confined to male-shift concentration camps. Thus this boy was probably already confined to a camp. The Z is the abreviation of the Serbo-Croation word for Jew--Zidov. He was probably murdered in late-1941 or early 1942. A reader writes, "The boy could be from Zagreb. I have seen a photograph of adults wearing the same Jewish badge and these were from Zagreb." Very few Yugoslav Jews survived once picked up by the Germans or local collaborators.

Yugoslavia was an ehnic killing field during World War II. The first targets were the Jews. The Holocaust proceeded differently in the various NAZI-sattelite states created after the invasion and occupation (April 1941). The result, however, was essentially the same--the murder of the Yugoslav Jews. The Croatians who had been disatisfied with Serb dominance of the Yugoslav Goverment formed the Ushachi and joined the Germans and began killing Serbs and Moslems in Bosnia. Serb guerrillas called Chetnicks began killing Croats in response, as well as Jews and Moslems. In many cases it was not a matter of rounding Jews up and turning them over to the Germans. The Croats and many Serbs (both Chetniks and collaborationists) were willing to kill Jews themselves. Only with Titos partisans could Jews seek refuge, but this was only the able-bodied who succeeded in finding a partisan group. Few Jewish children survived in Yugoslavia.

Yugoslav Jews

Yugoslavia was a country born out of firestorm of World War I. In fact the assasination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo was the spark that ignited the conflagration. Serbia's reward for fighting on the allied side was a nation forv the southern Slavs--Yugoslavia. It cobeled together many natiinal groups uncertain about Serbian domination of the new state. Croatians in particular were wary of Serb control of the state. Other contstiuent parts were Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia. , and other areas with Bulgarian, German, Italian, and Hungarian minorities. Within this complex states there were a small number of Jews. Their history and traditions varied from region to region. As elsewhere in Europe they played a role in the development of trade, commerce, and culture. Their experience was somewhat different than the Jews of Western Europe because of the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans. Both Sphardic and Ashkenazic Jews were present in Yugoslavia. The Jewish history in Yugoslavia was only a fraction of their long history in the Balkans. Tragically the one experience shared by the Yugoslav Jews was the Holocaust. There wre about some 78,000 Jews living in Yugoslavia at the time of World war II. This included about 4,000 foreign Jews who fled to Yugoslavia from the Germany and German occupied countries. The NAZIs invaded Yugoslavia (April 1941) and occupied the country within days. Germany divided the country among its Axis partners. The Jews in each area except the Italian occupation zone were immediateky targeted by the NAZIs and local authorities. Few Yugoslavs Jews survived.

Anschlus (March 13, 1938)

The NAZI Anschlus in Austria brought NAZI Germany to the border ofvYugoslavia (Slovenia). The immediate imposition of NAZI anti-Semitic regulations created a pabic among Austria Jews to escape. We are not sure at this time what policy Yugoslav authorities took concerning requests for entry visas. The Anschlus broght the NAZis to the borders of Yugoslavia.

NAZI Diplomacy (1938-41)

Yugoslav authorities desired to remain out of the Axis orbit, but the German NAZIs and Italian Fascists relentlessly pressed on Yugosalvia. The NAZI Anshluss meant that in the north the Reich bordered on Yugoslavia (Slovenia) (1938). After Hitler launched World War II by invading Poland (1939), Yugoslav authorities hoped to remain neutral. NAZI diplomacy pressured Balkan countries to the west (Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria) to join the Axis as junior partners. These countries (especiallu Hungary and Romania) had strong domestic Fascist movements as well as claims to Yugoslav territory. Fascist Italy to the east coveted Yugoslav Adriaic ports and seized Albania (1939) and invaded Greece (1940). Yugoslavia was being envelped and the continuing Serbian-Croatian rivalry impaired its ability to resist the NAZIs. Finally the NAZIs forced the Royal Government to join the Axis. This was at the time a priority for Hitler as he was anxious to secure his southern flank in preparation for Operation Barbarossa--the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union. Serbs were outraged at their governments joining the Axis and demonstrators seized control of Belgrade and renounced the treaty with the Axis (March 1941). Hitler was furious at this defiance.

Invasion (April 1941)

NAZI Germany assissted with by its allies (Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria) invaded Yugoslavia (April 6, 1941). The NAZIs met with little organized Yugoslav resistance. Hitler to teach the Yugoslavs a lesson for resisting, ordered the terror bombing of Belgrade. The Greeks assisted by the British did resist to the south. Although the Wehrmacht quickly defeated the Greeks, the diversion appears to have delayed the time table for Barbarossa which may have had a critical impact on the campaign.

Terror Bombing of Belgrade (April 1941)

One of the many Luftwaffe terror raids during he War, was the bombing of Belgrade. This one was personally ordered by Hitler--Operation Punishment (April 6-10, 1941). The city was devestated. The Luftwaffe commander designed it to achieve maximum civilian casualties. Bombing was notb the mist efficient way tomkillm people. This had to be carefully planned. After the bombing, the Germans occupied the city. The central part of the city was reduced to rubble. A cebtral part of Goebbels NAZI propaganda messaging was to blame the Jews for the War. This one of the first NAZI actiins against the Jews in Yugoslavia was to round up the men and force them ton clar up the rubble that the NAIsc themselves had created.


Hitler partionioned Yugoslavia up among Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany and Italy. Croatia was the only area of Yugoslavia that was permitted any autonomy. Hitler permitted Croatian fascists headed by Ante Pavelic to establish a puppet state in Croatia. Hitler granted honorary "Aryan" to the Croatians. Pavelic had been patiently waiting for thevNAZIs to act. Mussolini had unsuccesfully invaded Greece, but had not dated to invade Yugoslavia, espite coveting Yugoslav Adriatic territory. Mussolini allowed Pavelic permission to use remote training camps on a Aeolian island as well as the use of Radio Bari for broadcasts to Croatia. [Cornwell]

Religious Leaders

Both Catholic priests and Muslim clerics cooperated with the NAZI occuopation forces in rounding up and killing Yugoslav Jews. They were also implicated un the killing of Orthodox Serbs. The Croatian Ustasha and Muslim fundamentalists played major roles in the killing. Implivated in the killings were the Archbishop of Zagreb Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac (1898-1960), and the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini.

The Resistance

Serb guerrillas called Chetnicks began killing Croats in response, as well as Jews and Moslems. In many cases it was not a matter of rounding Jews up and turning them over to the Germans. The Croats and many Serbs (both Chetniks and collaborationists) were willing to kill Jews themselves. Only with Titos partisans could Jews seek refuge, but this was only the able-bodied who succeeded in finding a partisan group. Few Jewish children survived in Yugoslavia.

Concentration Camps

Concentration camps were established all over Jugoslavia by both the NAZIs and other NAZI- controlled authorities like the Croatian Ustache. These we very deadly camps, some of the most deadly camps in the NAZI system. There was work performed at these camps, but a major purpose was to kill. Jasenovac was the largest death camp in Croatia. It was established in 1941 and operated until early 1945. Much of the Ustasha killing occurred at Jasenovac, one of the most important death camps. About 200,000 people, mostly Orthodox Serbs were killed there, but there were also Jews killed at the camp. Rab was an Italian internment camp on the Yugoslav island of Rab. It was established for opponents of the Italian occupation regime. Sajmiste was established by the NAZIs at a fairground in Zemun on the outskirts of Belgrade, Serbia. It was used primarily as an concentration point for Jews and Gypsies who were killed there by gas vans. Jews were also interned at Banjica in Belgrade. The Italians interned Jews at the Pristna Prison in Kosovo.

NAZI Satellite States and Occupation Zones

Yugoslavia was an ehnic killing field during World War II. The Holocaust in Yugoslavia was much more complicated and utimately deadly than any aother area of Europe. It was not just the Jews and Gypsies that were targetted. The NAZI genocide soon became mixed up in a complicated civil war. Royalists, republicans, Fascists, and Communuists had been vying for power in Yugoslavia. In the midst of the political struggle was a conflict between Sebs and Croats as well as other ethnic groups, further complicated by religious differences. The history of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia is complicated, primarily because four different countries (Bulgaria, Italy, Germany, and Italy) controlled areas of the country and the Croatians had considerable autonomy. The fate of the Jews and Gypseys thus varied accordingly as well as the Orthodox Senb Christians in Croatia and Croatian-controlled Bosnia. The Holocaust proceeded differebntly in each of these different NAZI-sattelite states. The result, however, was essentially the same--the murder of the Yugoslav Jews. About 60,000 Jews were killed and 26,000 Gypseys. (The Holocaust is known as the Porajmos by the Gypseys.) Much larger numbers of Yugoslaves died, an estimated 750,000 people, primarily Orthodox Serbs killed by the Croatian Ustasha.


A small northern area of Yugoslavia (Serbia) known as Backa was annexed by Hungary after the 1941 invasion. As a result, Jews there were subject to Hungarian anti-Semitic laws. Hungarian military and police forces in Novi Sad, the principal city in Backa, following Resistance attacks, launched a campaign to eliminate "unreliable foreign elements," meaning Jews and Serbs. About 1,300 people were killed, 900 Jews and 400 Serbs (January 1942). Then many of the surviving young males were drafted for forced labor on the Eastern Front where the Soviets to the Hitler's surprise were resisting the NAZI Blitzkrieg. After NAZI defeats at Stalingrand and Kursk, the Hiungarians began to reconsider their alliance with the NAZIs. Eventually the NAZIs seized control of Hungary to prevent their defection from the Axis. The Backa Jews suffered the same fate as the Hungarian Jews. Once in control, the NAZIs with the help of Hungarian Fascists began rounding up Hungarian Jews, includung those in Backa. Most were deoported and murdered at Auschwitz. The NAZIs succeeded in killing 14,000 of the 16,000 Backa Jews.


The Italians annexed some areas of traditional Croatia, but the NAZI puppet regime was rewarded by being given large areas of Bosnia. Thus the fate of Jews, Gypseys, and Orthodix Serbs in Bosnia is described in the section on Croatia. The Muslim cleric Hajj Amin al-Husseini was a valued ally to the NAZIs. He assisted in the recruitment of Muslim into the SS units being formed in Croatia. This would not have been possible earlier in the War when the SS was conceived as a racial brotherhood, but reverses on the Eastern Front caused Himmler to rethink recruiting requirements. About 20,000 Muslims from Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia were recruited for the Bosnian 13th Waffen Hanjar/Handschar (Sword) SS Division. The NAZIs deployed the Division primarily to fight Marshall Tito's Partisans. They were also used for police and security operations in neighboring Hungary. A second Muslim division was recruited in Albania, the Skanderbeg 21st Waffen SS division. (Albania had been seized by Mussolini just before the onset of the War. Both of these SS Muslim divisions were involved in massacres of civilians, especially in Bosnia. They were also used to round up Jews in Bosnia and Croatia. Husseini flew from Berlin to Sarajevo to blessing the Muslim divisions.


The Croatians who had been disatisfied with Serb dominance of the Yugoslav Goverment formed the Ushachi and joined the Germans and began killing Serbs and Moslems in Bosnia. Ante Pavelic, installed by the NAZIs in Croatia conducted crimes just as horrific as those conducted by the NAZIs in Poland and Russia as part of the Holocaust. Croatian policy was to "kill a third, deport a third, convert a third" of Yugoslavia's Orthodox Serbs in wartime Bosnia and Croatia. (The NAZIs put Bosnia under the cintrol of the Croatian pupet state. [Dedijer] (It was) an act of 'ethnic cleansing' before that hideous term came into vogue, Pavelic set out in " ... an attempt to create a 'pure' Catholic Croatia by enforced conversions, deportations, and mass exterminations. So dreadful were the acts of torture and murder that even hardened German troops registered their horror. Even by comparison with the recent bloodshed in Yugoslavia at the time of writing, Pavelic's onslaught against the Orthodox Serbs remains one of the most appalling civilian massacres known to history." [Cornwell, p. 249.] Pavelic ordered that all publication (private and public) in the the Cyrillic script cease (April 25, 1941). The next month the first anti-Semitic decrees were issued (May). These regulations were based on the NAZI Nuremberg Laws and defined Jews in racial terms. Jews were prohibited from marrying "Aryans". Next all Serb Orthodox nursery and primary schools were closed (June). Backed by Pavelic, the Croatian Catholic Church began forcing Orthodox Serbs to convert. This did not ensure saftey as even many of those who convered were later killed. [Cromwell] In particulat the Serb intelligentsia and their families were targeted fby the Ushachi. Jews were required to wear the Star of David. Gypseys were essentially "treated as Jews" and had to wear yellow armbands. [Crowe] Serbs had to wear a blue band with the letter "P" (meaning Orthodox) on their sleeve.

Italian zone

The Italians took over part os Slovenia, parts of the Adriatic coast (formerly part of Croatian), and Kosovo (a province of Serbia) bordering Italian-occupied Albania. Italian officials did not have the NAZI commitment to anti-Semitism, although the NAZIs had pressured the Italians to enact anti-Semitic regulations. They refused, however, to deport Jews, either Jews in their arrea of Yugoslavia or from Italy itself. The situation changed, however, when Italy preparing for an Allied invasion defected from the Axis and arrested Mussolini (1943). This placed both Italian Jews and the Yugoslav Jews the Italians had been protecting ing jepoardy. The Germans seized control of the Italian occupied areas and interned Italian soldiers. Jews in the Italian area knew what NAZI control meant. Many in Kosovo found families in Albania to hide them. Courageous Italian officials rounded up the Jews from the Croatian coast and took them to Rab an island that Mussolini had used as a prison camp. Here they succeeded it stalling German demands to hand over the Jews until the Germans were eventually forced to retreat out of the Balkans (October 1944).


The pre-World War II Jewish population of Kosovo is not known with any certainty, but it was very small. Records suggest it may has been as high as 3,000 people. It appears to have declined substantially, although we are not sure why. Yugoslav records suggest a population in Kosvo of about 400-600 Jews. After the Axis invasion (april 1941) and the Italian seizure of Kosovo, the primary target of the Italian ethnic cleaning effort in Kosovo were the ethnic Serbs. Mussolini and the Italian Fascists were not lke the NAZIS virulently anti-Semetic. The NAZIs pushed the Fascists to enact anti-Semetic laws before the War and in Yugoslavia pressured the Italians to round-up Jews in their occupation zones and turn them over. Here the Italians temporized. Some Serbian Jews were able to elude the NAZI round-ups and fled ito Italian-controlled Kosovo. The Italian authorities set up an internment camp using an abandoned school in Priština, the Kosovo city where much of the small Jewish population iived. The Italians held the Jewish refugees there for 10 months. Eventually the Italians moved them to the Pristina prison. Here the Italians permitted the Jews to remain in family groups. They were kept separate from the other prisoners. They were not kept locked in cells all the tome, but allowed out into the courtyard during the day. These Jews complained about the poor conditions in the prison. Germans reportedly retaliated by shooting half of the Jews in the prison. We do not understand this because Pristina was within the Italian zone of control and had been annexed to Albania. Just why the Germans carried out this action we are unsure. The Germans apparently demanded that the other Jews in the Pristina Prison be dealt with. The Italians loaded most of the Jews at the Prison on trucks and tranported them out of Kosovo to Kavaja in Albania proper. The Italians did turn 51 Jews from the Prison over to the NAZIs who eventually killed them. The Italian police arrested more Jews (July 1942). One report indicated five families who were also transported to Kavaja. We are not sure how the Jews in Kavaja were treated. One report indicates that they had to report to the police daily. After the Italian surrender to the Allies (September 1943), the Germans seized control of the Italian occupation zone of Yugoslavia, including Kosovo. The Germans like the Italians sought to exploit Albanian nationalism against the Serbs and Partisans who were organizing an increasingly effective resuistance movement. (Yugoslabia is along with the Soviets the on;y two countries to develop a militarily effective resiantance movement.) The NAZIs organized the 21st Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS “Skanderbeg,” (April 1944). The Division was primarily composed of ethnic Albanians (including Kosovars). The NAZIs ordered Albanian fascists (we are not sure precisly who)to round up the Jews still left in Pristna. Onecreport suggests that they interned 1,500 Jews. Such a number must have included many refugee Serb Jews. Their property was plundered and most of the individuals rounded up were transported to Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka. One report suggests that some survived because a misrouted train was intercepted by advancng Red Army troops.


The story of the Bulgarian Jews is one of the few success stories in efforts to prevent the NAZI genocide. The Jews in Bulgarian occupied Mancedonia were not so fortunate. Macedonia was occupied by Bulgaria after the 1941 invassion. Bulgaria was the NAZI-ally with the weakest Fascist movement and with little tradition of anti-Semitism. Under NAZI pressure, the Bulgarians had introduced anti-Semitic measures. Despite considerable pressure, the Bulgraians refused to turn their Jews over to the NAZIs. Bulgarian authorities rounded up the Jews in Macedonia who they classified as "foreign Jews" (March 1942). They were held in a camp at Skopje. Then they wre transported to the death camp at Treblinka where they were murdered. About 7,000 Macedonian Jews, or 88% of the Jewish population were killed. Accounts of the round up vary. Some sources repoort that they were conducted by Bulgarian military authorities under NAZI pressure without approval of Bulgrarian Government officials. Other sources maintain that Bulgarian officals aggreed to the deportations to put off NAZI demans that Bulgarian own Jews be deported.


Montenegro after the German invasion of Yugoslavia was in the Italian zone of occupation. It was administered as a puppet protectorate of the Fascist Italy. The Italians refused to turn the small Jewish population over to the NAZIs. When the Italians surrendered to the Allies (September 1943), the NAZIs occupied Montenegro. Jews by that time knew what to expect and were able togo into hiding or escape into Albania. We do not et have details on precisely what occurred.


The German military administration in Serbia legally defined precisely what a Jew was (May 30, 1941). Based on the legal defination, the Germans required te Jews to register. They insisted that Jews be removed expelled from the the professions (Law ad medicene) and not allowed to practive. They also required that they be fired from any government positions. Restrictions were placed on their movement and business activities. The Germans required Jews to wear a yellow star with the letter Ž on it, which stood for "Jew" in Serbo-Croatian. Jewish men and teenage boys were conscripted for forced labor. The Germans began registering Jewish property. The Serbian population was prohibited hiding Jews (Beherbergungsverbot). Severe penalites were inhacted for violations. Communists led an uprising, in part protesting the actions being taken against Jews (July 1941). German authorities in response required the Jewish community to deliver 40 hostages weekly. This provided a conventient source of hostages to execulte in retaliation for Resistance attacks. As a result, most were executed before the end of the year. Next Jewish womwn and children and the elderly were rounded up and interned at Sajmiste, a gairground near Belgrade (December). The NAZIs brought poison gas vans and began killing the internees (March 1942). Within a few weeks the 8,000 Jews in the camps had been killed. Serbia was one of the most deadly places in Europe for the Jews. The NAZIs succeeded in killing an estimated 94 percent. Only those who escaped or found someone to hide them survived. The Germans condfiscated about 1 billion dinars in Jewish property. This was to be turned over to the Serb state. The Germans in practice, however, kept control of 60 percent of proceeds which they justified as war damage to the Serbian property of Reich Germans.


Slovenia was partioned between Italy and Germany. Thus the fate of the Jews varied as to whether they wetre in the German or Italian area.


Cornwell, John. Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (Viking, London, UK, 1999).

Crowe, David M. A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia (St. Martin's Griffin: New York, 1994).

Dedijer, Vladimar. The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican (Anriman-Verlag, Freiburg, Germany, 1988).

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Created: February 3, 2004
Last updated: 11:01 PM 2/26/2024