In any Balkan country the names of war criminals are well-known. But the names of people who have moved humanity in a positive direction are often hidden from the public eye.
That is the case with Diana Budisavlejvic, whose heroics in rescuing thousands of lives during World War II-era Croatia went unrecognized for more than half a century.
A few years ago, Croatian film producer Dana Budisavljevic was visiting the former concentration camp at Jasenovac when her last name caught the attention of the memorial center’s director.
“Have you heard of Diana Budisavljevic?”
When Dana said she hadn’t, the director explained that her near-namesake had been directly responsible for saving thousands of children from concentration camps run by the Independent State of Croatia’s fascist Ustase regime after the Nazi puppet state was established in 1941. She also presented Dana with a copy of Diana Budisavljevic’s diary, published in 2003 by her granddaughter, Silvija Szabo.
The encounter piqued Dana’s curiosity, and more discoveries were to follow. It turned out after some digging that her family was related to Diana’s husband, Julije Budisavljevic, a respected surgeon, and that Dana’s own grandmother had known the couple.
The story of Diana Budisavljevic, meanwhile, was as fascinating as it was virtually unknown in Croatia. The Austrian woman married to a Zagreb-based doctor has been credited with organizing the rescue of at least 7,500 mainly Serbian children from various Ustase-run camps, and yet “Diana’s story is not part of our collective memory,” Dana told RFE/RL.
Struck by the story and the injustice, Dana resolved to do everything in her power to set the record straight — which, in her case, meant directing a movie about Diana’s life. The film — whose working title is Operation DB, drawing on Diana Budisavljevic’s initials — is due to start shooting this fall, and Dana is currently scouting locations.
One of her chief inspirations is Diana’s diary — a stenographic journal in German that has survived.
The first entry in the journal reveals that Diana found out from her Jewish seamstress about a camp at Loborgrad, a castle near the Croatian capital Zagreb. When she received confirmation of the camp’s existence and its mainly Serbian and Jewish female inmates, Diana set to work.
Natasa Matusic — a historian who is currently completing a doctoral dissertation on the child-rescue operation — also found out about Diana Budisavljevic only relatively recently, in 2003.
“One of the most powerful passages [in Diana’s journal] describes her visit to the camp at Stara Gradiska. Diana and some nurses from the Red Cross were made to wait all night before being allowed inside the camp by its commander, Maks Luburic,” the historian told RFE/RL.
“He then reproached them for caring about Serbian children, and not Catholic and Muslim kids who were also going hungry. Luburic threatened to have Diana and the nurses interned in the camp, saying that no one would know what had happened to them or their whereabouts. Despite this, the women insisted on entering the children’s hospital — and what they found there was truly heart-rending.”
‘Impossibly Thin Children’
Diana Budisavljevic gives a vivid description of the visit to the Stara Gradiska camp for women and children, a part of the notorious Jasenovac death camp, in her journal:
“Something terrible met us inside. Rooms with no furniture of any kind, only chamber pots, and sitting or lying down on the floor were impossibly thin little children. One could already see death in each one of their eyes…. The doctor said they were beyond help. But the transport leader said we should take every child who could be moved somehow. A choice was made. Those who could still stand on their own feet were taken, while those who were stumbling, who no longer had the strength to stand, were left behind.”
The experience was a shock, and Diana fell ill herself, says Matusic.
“She was a mother of two, and what she saw in the camp affected her health. She even started losing her hair.”
After Zagreb was liberated by the Yugoslav partisans in May 1945, security officers visited the Budisavljevic residence. They took the family car, as well as files with photos and information on thousands of children who had been saved.
While Diana is credited by historians with helping rescue 7,500 children from various camps, she had kept records of about 12,000 kids who had been accommodated in convents or private homes throughout Croatia.
Most of the children were from the region around the Bosnian mountain of Kozara — an area that had been “cleansed” in a joint operation by Nazi German and Ustase forces.
PHOTO GALLERY: Diana Budisavljevic And Croatia’s Death Camps (click on image to open)
The child-rescue operation was not ignored after the war — it was, in fact, hailed as a triumph of the liberating partisan forces. But Diana Budisavljevic, who had risked her life and those of her family members up to that point, was erased from the narrative, as were the names of most of her associates and helpers. She was not arrested or interrogated, but it fell to the victors to write the history of the children’s delivery from captivity.
The Yugoslav communist authorities subsequently managed to locate many of the children’s parents, and those who had been orphaned were left in the care of foster families in Zagreb.
Diana received around 4,000 inquiries from parents looking for their children after the war, but deprived of her archive she was unable to help.
“Nothing was known about Diana’s role in the operation, or that she was its prime mover — that it was she who obtained the crucial permit to remove children from Ustase camps, and from Stara Gradiska, where they were left alone after their mothers had been sent to Germany to perform forced labor,” Matusic told RFE/RL.
In 2003, when the permanent exhibit at the location of the Jasenovac camp was being prepared, Matusic discovered a pile of children’s photographs and some albums in the archive that had not been looked at in years.
“It seemed that everyone before me had been avoiding this harrowing topic. I set to work immediately. There were four albums with children’s photos, all dated. The pictures were haunting — images of children in distress in Zagreb hospitals or in the camp at Sisak,” Matusic says. “At that point one of the members of the team saw the albums I was working on and exclaimed: ?Those could be Diana Budisavljevic’s albums!'” The man knew Diana’s granddaughter Silvija Szabo, and was familiar with Diana’s journals.
“While I was working on the albums I had many sleepless nights and frequent nightmares,” Matusic says. “I can only imagine what it must have been like to see the children in person, as Diana saw them.”
Diana was Austrian. She had met her husband Julije in Innsbruck, where he was studying medicine, and they married in 1917. Later, she used her connections in Zagreb high society to obtain permission for the removal of Serbian children from the Ustase camps. She was left undaunted even by the threats from the camp commander Luburic.
After the war she never spoke in public about the operation — her granddaughter discovered her journal and the photo albums among her things by accident. Diana moved back to Innsbruck with her husband in 1972, where she died six years later.
The director of the forthcoming biopic, Dana Budisavljevic, says that “Operation DB” will be part feature and part documentary. The feature part is based on Diana’s journal, and will star Alma Prica among others, while the documentary portion will include witness testimonies of some of the rescued children, who are now in their 80s. “Together they are meant to bring together on film that which politics and history have separated — Diana and the children she rescued,” Dana explained.
One of the film’s working titles had been Diana’s List, and Dana welcomes comparisons with the Spielberg epic Schindler’s List — which told the story of an ethnic German industrialist, Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving the lives of mostly Polish-Jewish prisoners from the Holocaust — if it means it will draw attention to Diana’s story.
“The only thing that makes me uncomfortable is when people start comparing numbers — Schindler saved 1,500, Irene Sandler (a Polish nurse who smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto) 2,500, and Diana 7,500 — because all three operations were different in nature, as were many others.
“The important thing is for us to remember them all, and that it is possible and indeed imperative to stand up to such horror and destruction. In school we spend too much time learning about liberators, and not enough about those who strove to save lives and preserve peace.”