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Escape to Freedom

Immediately upon the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia on 10 April 1941 Ustasha authorities initiated a project to build an ethnically, racially and religiously “pure” state. Harsh repression was implemented against all groups declared undesirable, primarily targeting Serbs, Jews, and Roma. This repression included various prohibitions, persecutions, imprisonments, and mass murders. One of the main components of the terror was the establishment of concentration camps which began immediately after the Ustasha takeover. The largest camp was in Jasenovac, founded in the summer of 1941. In its four years of existence over 80 thousand people lost their lives, with more than half being women and children.


It should be noted that throughout the entire existence of the camp various forms of resistance were present primarily thanks to imprisoned communists. Their activities included distributing food among the detainees, boosting morale, establishing contact with partisan units through a radio set assembled by the inmates, and organizing escape from the camp.


Towards the end of the war Ustasha authorities made the decision to abandon the Jasenovac camp. Following the orders of the commander Maks Luburić the camp was to be completely destroyed and the remaining prisoners were to be liquidated. The last mass execution took place on April 21, 1945 when the Ustasha killed around 700 women and dozens of men. The same fate was intended for the remaining thousand inmates the next day. In order to prevent such a scenario, the prisoners, led by the communist Ante Bakotić, decided to stage a breakout. The action began on April 22 at 10 o’clock in the morning. The inmates attacked the guards, broke down the camp’s entrance gates and started running towards the nearby forest. However, the remaining guards began to shoot at them resulting in the deaths of the majority, including the organizer Bakotić, in their attempt to escape. About 600 prisoners attempted the breakout and only around a hundred survived.


In late April 1945 Ustasha units finally abandoned Jasenovac leaving behind ruins in the camp and its surroundings. On May 1, 1945 without resistance, Partisans, now members of the Yugoslav Army, entered the town and the deserted camp complex.


Among the prisoners who attempted to break out was the renowned athlete Boris Hanžeković, a multiple-time Yugoslav sprinting champion, who had been brought to Jasenovac as a supporter of the anti-fascist resistance movement. Unfortunately, his speed did not help him this time. Like the majority of others he was killed while running towards freedom. In honor of this top athlete the “Boris Hanžeković Memorial” athletic meeting has been held in Zagreb every year since 1951 attracting distinguished athletes from around the world.


Hrvoje Klasić

Sources /further readings

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