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The Heirs to Kindness in Croatia

Many Serb children who survived the concentration camps of WWII owe their lives to Croats who risked their own to take them in.

July 24, 2000|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SISAK, Croatia — The scars that track Nena Koncar's long journey run too deep for a stranger to see, except for the one that is right at her fingertips, a thin white line as straight as the ruler that cut it.

Sitting at her dining room table, 53 years after suffering her smallest wound, Koncar's fingers tremble slightly as she holds out an aging hand.

For just a moment, Koncar is a little girl again in the early days after World War II, an Orthodox Serb orphan in a classroom of Roman Catholic Croats, whose ethnic brethren had murdered her mother and father and little sister.

Koncar didn't despise the children sitting all around her, or even fear them. So what if they were Croats? So was her new mother.

Koncar, now 63, last saw her real mother on a train platform as Croatian troops were separating children from their parents. Her father was already dead, gunned down when Nazi troops and their Croatian Ustashe allies massacred villagers in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Kozara mountains in that summer of 1942.

Along with her sister and young aunt, Koncar was loaded into a cattle car and delivered to a concentration camp for children that the Ustashe had created behind high barbed-wire fences next to the Kupa River in Sisak.

Dysentery was a common killer in the filthy camp. Children often went days without food, and the gruel they were then fed was frequently poisoned with caustic soda, according to survivors' testimonies.

As many as 7,000 children were locked up in the Sisak camp during World War II, and an estimated 4,000 of them died, Koncar said. But she and many other children were saved thanks to a clandestine, and extremely dangerous, effort.

Red Cross volunteers, working secretly with Yugoslavia's Communist underground, rescued as many of the Serbian children as they could from concentration camps by finding homes for them with Croats, often as domestic servants or farm workers. The rescue effort relied on people working under code names in secret cells, coordinated from simple farms as well as aristocratic homes.

While the motives of those who protected the Kozara children were not always pure, their legacy is remarkable. Their moral strength and bravery has proved stronger than the Balkans' seemingly endless cycles of violence.

A Child's Memories of a Plump, Red Apple

Koncar had been taken to the Sisak camp in early 1942 with her 3-year-old sister, Dragica, and their aunt Dora, who was 13.

Searching the frozen memories of a 5-year-old, trying to recall the season, Koncar can see the plump apples again. It must have been July.

Koncar was in the camp for 2 1/2 months, which she remembers for the pain of constant hunger--and the apples.

"One day, when we went for a walk . . . there was an apple by the river bank. It was already red and ripe," Koncar said. "I only recall that I ran, picked up an apple and took a bite, and that an Ustashe soldier snatched it away from me and threw it away.

"I started crying so much that he began to beat me, and my leg started bleeding. This is my memory," Koncar added, her voice, little more than a whisper, trailing off to silence.

In time, a man from the village of Moscenica came to the camp to find a servant for his elderly grandmother, and chose Koncar's young aunt. Koncar started to cry, and a Red Cross worker named Stefica Prpic decided to take her with them.

They had come too late for Koncar's little sister, who had died just the day before.

"That is why my aunt would not leave me there, because she knew I would die as well," Koncar said.

Prpic asked her sister and her husband, Barbara and Josip Jandricko, to find a home for Koncar.

The Jandrickos had no children of their own, and they took Koncar to their home, a one-room wooden shack.

When local snoops, such as a neighbor in the Ustashe named Perkovic, started asking questions about the new child, Barbara Jandricko claimed the girl was her niece.

Perkovic insisted that was a lie, and said the Ustashe should round up the girl and the Jandrickos as Communists. The Jandrickos could have been killed for defying official doctrine that declared Serbs the enemy, just as Jews and Gypsies and other Holocaust victims were classified under Croatia's Nazi puppet state. Fortunately, a local notary public intervened and swore his guarantee that the child was a true-blooded Croat.

That was enough to shut up the local fascists, and Barbara Jandricko made the child repeat the names of her phony Croatian mother and father over and over again. To stay alive, she had to deny who she was.

Barbara Jandricko's shack still stands today, beside a larger home where she lives in Moscenica. The farmhouse's brown stucco walls bear their own scars: several bullet holes from a more recent war between Serbs and Croats, after Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

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