Adriatic getaway for anticommunists and revisionists

Old Jail, Goli Otok; Zoran Kurelić Rabko / Wikimedia Commons

In the past couple of decades, Goli otok has been frequented by anti-communists and revisionists. History of this island unquestionably represents one of the most prominent blots in Yugoslav socialism, but sensationalism and falsified data do not help in better understanding the matter.

The bone-white rock of Goli otok (eng. Barren Island), has been sticking out from the Adriatic Sea in Croatia’s Kvarner Bay since Pleistocene. However, the period between 1948 and 1956 has made this small, rocky island the Goli otok that we speak of today. A network of prisons and labour camps for political convicts, the so-called ibeovci,1 was built after the Cominform (Communist Information Bureau) conflict: the political breach between the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s president, Josip Broz Tito, and Stalin. Goli otok itself, as the site of the most populated and the most notorious of these camps—has become the symbol of the whole network.2

In September 2011 Dragica Vitolović-Srzentić, a veteran of the Yugoslav People’s Liberation Struggle (NOB), who holds a Partizanska spomenica (The Commemorative Medal of the Partisans) among many other honours, summed up our lengthy interview with the following words: ‘Goli otok is one big mystery.’ Vitolović–Srzentić was also the messenger of Tito’s ‘big NO’ (his response to the Cominform crisis) to Stalin in 1948. That visit to Moscow was one of the many significant events in the life of this revolutionary. It was the final one in the chain of events that led her to serve a four-and-a-half-year sentence in the Goli otok prison camp network. According to Dragica, she was sent there because of her having refused to change opinion on the role of the Red Army during the liberation of Yugoslavia:

 

Look, I worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in 1948 I was assigned to hand Tito’s letter to Stalin. I was a deputy of the Secretary General in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at that time. I left for Moscow, carrying the letter. Of course, I was not aware of a conflict with the Russians. I waited for Stalin’s reply for a week in Moscow and after a week I brought it to Belgrade. In his reply, among other things, Stalin slandered my husband [Vojo Srzentić], for allegedly withholding some information from the Russians… Right, that was the way it was… After that, the media started writing bad things about the Russians, about how Russian soldiers had behaved inappropriately when they had come [to Yugoslavia] to liberate us. I criticised these claims, because—there was this humorist magazine, Ošišani jež (eng. Trimmed hedgehog)—showing a Russian soldier, his forearm stacked with lots of hand watches … How he had supposedly taken lots of valuable watches as his loot, and I said that it was a disgrace. These people had died in our country in order to liberate us. The truth is, if the Russians hadn’t come on the 20th of October 1944, we wouldn’t have liberated Belgrade then.

Many Yugoslav communists who partook in the revolutionary struggle as members of the partisan guerrilla forces in the Second World War, some of whom held the status of the Yugoslav People’s heroes of the NOB, some of whom also fought in the Spanish civil war, became ibeovci for similar reasons to Dragica Vitolović-Srzentić. Those who were considered pro-Soviets were also automatically seen as anti-Yugoslavs after the Cominfrom Resolution in 1948. Moreover, there were many others who were simply unable to adapt their stances to this sudden Yugo–Soviet schism and the abruptly changed [anti-Soviet] narrative in Yugoslavia. Moreover, in the period of the most aggravated conflict between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union (1949–1951), many apolitical citizens were sent to prisons and labour camps in waves of mass arrests, orchestrated by Uprava državne bezbednosti, UDB (eng. State Security Administration, SFR Yugoslav secret police).

Between 16,101 and 16,238 persons were incarcerated in the Goli otok prison and labour camp network according to materials in the Archive of Serbia’s Federal UDB (now The Security Information Agency, BIA). The labour camp on Goli otok proper was founded in the summer of 1949 and was in operation until 1956, before being handed over from Federal jurisdiction to the Republic of Croatia. Here it was used as a regular prison for convicts and finally closed down in 1988. It now stands forsaken and ruined.

About 13,000 ibeovci were imprisoned in Goli otok. The majority of the 400 people who died during their time within the Goli otok prison network lost their lives on Goli otok proper. 56 of these bodies have never been found. Numerous former inmates testified that they buried some of their deceased comrades under the sharp rocks of Goli otok.3

There are also anecdotal claims that some bodies had been thrown into the Adriatic Sea, or burnt during typhus and dysentery epidemics in order to stop these diseases from spreading. There are even claims that the bones of some of the deceased were crushed and mixed into the mortar of the prison complex walls, which the [other] inmates themselves were forced to build from the island’s stone material, as part of the so-called Re-education through Preodgoj društveno-korisnim radom, DKR (eng. Socially Beneficial Labour Programme).

The vast body of literature on Goli otok includes hundreds of published memoirs written by some of the former prisoners. These accounts, repeatedly confirmed by their fellow inmates offer a disturbing panorama of human suffering and injustices, physical molestation, diseases, death, frostbite, sunburn, open fractures, crushed skulls, hunger, thirst, prisoners collapsing under the heavy stone loads they were forced to quarry and carry, constant beatings, threats and humiliations.

However, these first hand testimonies are also accompanied by an additional wave of rumours, some unproven, some unconfirmed, some outright untrue—of cannibalism and inmates’ bodies being burned on bonfires, as well as medical experimentation on inmates. All of these serve the historiographical revisionist tendencies, the sensationalism, and the collecting of cheap political points in the current post-Yugoslav space.

This ‘painful swelling’4 on the Yugoslav past has thus remained to be soothed in the post-Yugoslav discourse. The Goli otok narrative is often retailored at will, regardless of the former prisoners’ testimonies or, for that matter, the historiographical data. Regional media has had an outstanding contribution to this tendency in the past years. There are many examples of it, one of the most recent being the following title in Nedeljnik: ‘The darkest secret of the SFR Yugoslavia: Doctors conducted experiments on prisoners of Goli otok’, with the following subtitle: ‘Exclusively for Nedeljnik—academician Dragoslav Mihailović reveals his discoveries of how doctors and scientists agreed to partake in the torture of prisoners.’ The very content reads quite the opposite: academician (and the former Goli otok ibeovac prisoner) Mihailović reports on acquiring a letter by the son of a wartime Yugoslav psychiatrist. The author of the letter claims that high SFR Yugoslav government officials Aleksandar Ranković and Milovan Đilas sent his father abroad to research on new interrogative methods, potentially more efficient than the physical torture that had thus far been applied on the captured ibeovci. Mihailović further reports that the concerned psychiatrist subsequently refused (not agreed to, as claimed in the article’s title) any further involvement in the said project.

Furthermore, Mihailović never stated that the doctors on Goli otok conducted experiments on humans. Quite to the contrary, on more than one occasion, Mihailović mentions Nikola Nikolić, an inmate-doctor who worked in the Goli otok infirmary, as someone who ‘brought [him] back to life with his “fatherly” care’ once, when he was particularly heavily beaten in the Goli otok camp.5 I therefore wonder whether the editors of Nedeljnik have read what Mihailović had written at all, or if they were just in the business of creating a sensationalist click bait to imply that the former Yugoslavia also has its own doctor Mengele. Whether they did it on purpose or not bears little significance in this context. The immediate effect of their action is nevertheless a misleading and insensitive slander of the Goli otok inmate-medics, including Dr Nikolić, the man who remains remembered with respect and gratitude by many of his fellow former prisoners to this day.

In the name of whom?

Moreover, we have had a number of cases where historians, in Serbia for example, using their positions of academic authority, spread half–truths, intentionally selective interpretations or, in some cases, deliberate misinformation. One of the well–known examples of the sloppy, deliberate misconducts is the exhibition ‘In the Name of People—Repression in Serbia’ (2014) where photographs from the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald were exhibited as if taken on Goli otok.

‘Presenting’ the images of other humans’ suffering, instead of the sources covering the Goli otok prisoners experience in this knowingly false way, is only one of the ways in which their personal stories, as well as the political views held by many of them are selectively and deliberately ignored—a rather bizarre notion, one could think—if we are talking about people who were incarcerated for their political stances. For example, former inmate Boško Vulović spoke of his arrest and his experience of being beaten and molested on Goli otok, and his testimony was featured on social media as part of the promotion of the aforementioned exhibition, many times. However, the fact that Vulović, an apolitical high-school student at the time of the arrest later became an internationalist–communist, which he remained for the rest of his life was never equally promoted (despite the fact that Vulović frequently, eagerly and publicly discusses his political stance, and claims that his experiences on Goli otok and getting to know other ibeovci were key to the development of his views).

Similar insensitivity to who ibeovci were can be seen when the story of Goli otok, like some sort of regional demon, is unleashed for the purpose of ‘facing the totalitarian past.’ One of the prominent examples of how this story is harnessed, is the statement of a Croatian politician Vladimir Šeks from 2015 that he gave during his visit to Goli otok as part of observing the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Totalitarian Regimes (the construct of this anniversary implemented in 2008, as well as its name, is a topic for debate in its own right). Namely, according to Croatian News Agency (HINA), on the 23rd of August 2015 on Goli otok, Šeks claimed that Tito ‘himself’ gave the instructions for the torturing of the prisoners. ‘This remembrance day should be the day we recall all the victims and the painful history of Croatian people… We empathise with all the victims who must never be forgotten’, said Šeks and added: ‘the ideology that lead to such tragedies must be eradicated.’ We also learn from the report that ‘the holy mass was served for all the Goli otok victims.’

It is rather difficult to find ‘empathy’, piety and respect for the victims in such a statement and it is even more difficult to provide it with a relevant justification. Firstly, even though it would be ludicrous to deny that Tito was involved with the crime over the ibeovci, historical research has still not found any material evidence pointing to his giving ‘personal’ orders. Secondly, 66% of prisoners on Goli otok came from Serbia and Montenegro, while Šeks mentioned only the Croatian people (i.e. 15% of prisoners). Thirdly, the holy mass was served for all the victims from Goli otok. If we assume for a moment that all the inmates were religious, up to 66% could have been Orthodox Christian, while some of them were also Muslim or Jewish. But the question why there was no Orthodox priest or an Imam or a Rabbi to serve a sermon for all the victims is beside the point. Namely, all the ibeovci (including those from Croatia) were hardly religious. What they more likely had in common, regardless of their ethnicity, was that they were communists. Hence, Šeks’ call for ‘eradication of [I guess communist] ideology’ is a rather bizarre way to honour them.

Therefore, the former prisoners themselves do not include any clerical activity in their ideas for the memorialisation of their experience on Goli otok. Many of them however see the very stone of Goli otok as a ‘natural’ monument to their experience, since they had to drag and carry it, since it broke their bones, since they buried their comrades underneath it, towards which they developed certain respect over the years, believing that the rocks were ‘unwillingly recruited’ by the officials to partake in their torture. Former prisoner Vladimir Bobinac from Zagreb described his sentiments thus, quoting the verses of a Croatian poet, a partisan and a revolutionary, Jure Kaštelan:

 

I like stone. There is a beautiful poem about the stone, you know. The stone pleas:

You, masters of the world
Set me free, out of the bounds of doorsteps
of cathedrals and of dungeons.

Take me back, stone to stone,
Let the lightning beat me,
Let the stars look at me at night.

You, human, you who hold a chisel,
Do not give me a human’s face.
Do not give me eyes to look at a crime.6

For the stone is string and it is firm, and we break it but it always prevails, and it is always there.

Similarly a former prisoner, Joca Ševaljević from Belgrade, expressed his desire for a stone-boulder from Goli otok to be taken as a monument, with unpublished verses of a poet and a communist, Veles Perić, carved in it:

 

This is a poem by a great poet from Goli otok, Veles Perić, which I have never seen written down. He had been reciting it to me like, ‘soul to soul’ right before we were released from Goli otok. And I had learned it by heart. As I said—I have never seen it on paper because he never published his poems from Goli otok.

Some may have encountered the sky dome
In a nicer and a quieter manner.
I experienced it in a way
I wish no one will ever.
Lulled up to in pain.

These were the blows that surpassed the planet we received
And only ‘cause of a better world we dreamed,
Did we endure.

Soared up as a communist above it all,
I watched Earth like a model so small,
And felt the burning Suns.

A palace of pain rises high up to the sky
The edifice built of my days,
Its windows shining with my tears.

I circled it on the ledge of stars
Tiny like a spark
Over the abyss.

I circled it while singing
I circled it while dreaming
Of palaces of joy,
A hundred times larger
Made for all.

And the song I sang
To the palace of pain on Earth
Was called NO.

The Goli otok machinery, whose tragic complexity cannot be described in so little words, was set in motion and maintained by the CPY leaders for which they never had to answer even though it is unquestionable that these were their great misdeeds. Still, it is impossible to defend the thesis that Goli otok is a crime based on communist ideology. This revisionist discourse used to interpret the matter of Goli otok today is untenable. One has to ask those insisting on this thesis whether Goli otok is not, quite to the contrary, a crime against communists: Dragica Srzentić, Joca Ševaljević, Dida De Majo, Blažo Raičević, Vlada Dapčević, Miljuša Jovanović, Mirko Marković, Brana Marković, and many others.

The left has to provide arguments and defend these people’s experiences from the revisionist exploitation. But (citing Mašina editors): “Goli otok presents either a taboo for many leftist or they do not know enough about it.” This is why a transparent dialog on Goli otok, based on historiographical facts, is necessary and getting to know the whole scope and the consequences of physical and mental violence that was done to the ibeovci in the remand centres and work camps in the Goli otok network are the key steps to providing a well–argued resistance to the dominant narrative.

Translation from Serbian: Ivana Anđelković

This article was originally published in Serbian on August 22, 2017.

  1. “Informbirovac” or “ibeovac” from Informbiro or IB for short—a person supporting Informbiro (translator’s note).
  2. Apart from Goli otok, the most populated work camps were Ramski rit near Golubac, Sveti Grgur (an island next to Goli otok in Kvarner bay), Stolac (in Herzegovina) and Bileća, together with temporary prisons on islands of Rab, Pag and Ugljan, as well as a network of remand centres throughout Yugoslav mainland.
  3. Kosić, Ivan. Goli otok: Najveći Titov Konclogor (Goli otok: The Largest Tito’s Concentration Camp). Zagreb: Mikrorad d.o.o., (2009), p. 205–208.
  4. Goli Otok is an island in the Adriatic Sea and its name means Barren Island. It got the name because of the bare rocks that cover it, with little or no greenery. But the author uses wordplay here—‘otok’ in Croatian means both an island and a swelling, and ‘goli’ also means bare, nude or uncovered. So ‘goli otok’ can also mean—literally translated—a bare swelling or an open wound (translator’s note).
  5. Dragoslav Mihailović, an interview with Fedor Pifat, Goli otok IV. Belgrade: Službeni glasnik (2011).
  6. This are not the exact verses from Kaštelan’s poem Laments of a Stone. Bobinac somewhat altered them. Nevertheless, he captured the meaning and the tone of the poem (translator’s note).
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