The Independent State of Croatia did not spare children in its implementation of racial laws. A great number of children were killed with their parents, or died of hunger and disease.
Jewish women with their children were deported to Auschwitz in Germany. Huge numbers of Serbian and Roma children were brought to the camps in the summer of 1942. Children were accommodated in Stara Gradiška and Jasenovac, Uštica, Mlaka and Jablanac camps. At the end of the summer of 1942, the Commander of The Third Bureau of the Ustasha Surveillance Srevice, Vjekoslav Maks Luburić, noticed that a large number of children were hiding in the workshops and barracks of Camp III (Brickworks), Jasenovac, and ordered that all the children were to be housed in special rooms. He assigned a prisoner, Mitro Trifunović Učo, to educate them. Those children were soon transferred to Donja Gradina and killed, along with their teacher.
After the Kozara offensive, an assembly camp was founded in Sisak in August 1942, for the elderly, women and children, officially named the “Refugee Transit Camp”. It included an orphanage for child refugees, or, in other words, a children’s camp.
In the camp buildings in the Glassworks, Distillery, Reis Salt Works and the convent of the Sisterhood of St. Vinko, children were housed separately from their prisoner mothers, along with children separated from their mothers in Mlaka, Jablanac, Stara Gradiška and Jasenovac.
They were left without food or clothing, exposed to unhygienic conditions and diseases, and died in great numbers.
It is estimated that between five and seven thousand children passed through this camp before it was closed on 8 January 1943. According to the camp mortuary records, 1,152 children died, while another source mentions that 1,631 children died in Sisak camp.
The citizens of Sisak and the surrounding areas tried to help by taking the youngest and sickest children out of the camp.
Jastrebarsko and Gornja Reka camps
The first transports of children from Stara Gradiška Camp arrived in the abandoned barracks of the Italian militia, the former manor house of Count Erdödy, and the Franciscan monastery near Jastrebarsko, in mid-July 1942. Later, children were brought from the camp farms in Jablanac and Mlaka.
About 2,000 children were brought to Reka, about three kilometres from Jastrebarsko. There were about 3,336 children in these two camps.
During the assault on Jastrebarsko in August 1942, the Partisans evacuated several hundred healthy, older children, and the Catholic organisation, Caritas, took care of about 500 of them.
Private citizens in Zagreb, Jastrebarsko and the surrounding villages took in 1,637 boys and girls.
Rescuing the children
Diana Budisavljević began organising the rescue of children from Ustasha camps and providing various forms of assistance for the women and children in Loborgrad and Gornja Reka camps.
With the help of Dr. Kamilo Brössler from the Ministry of Associations of the Independent State of Croatia, members of the Croatian Red Cross, the Committee for People’s Aid, the Zagreb Archidiocesan branch of Caritas and a great number of citizens of Zagreb, Sisak and Jastrebarsko, she organised the reception and accommodation of children from the camps.
The children were accommodated in the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, the Hospital for Infectious Diseases, the Jeronim Hall, in children’s homes in Josipovac, Vrhovac and one at 19, Kukulić Street, and in an illegal children’s home in Perjavica, where all the care they needed was provided.
Despite the care, many children, especially the youngest, died of sickness and exhaustion.
More than half the total number of children rescued were accommodated with families.
Diana Budisavljević creating a filing system, with the help of her associates, which contained information on about 12,000 children, so that she could discover and preserve the identities of the children and if possible, return them to their parents.
The act of rescuing these children, mostly of Serbian nationality, was one of the most complex, most humane actions of its kind during the Second World War, in terms of its scope, the number of associates involved and number of children rescued (about 10,000), not only in the Independent State of Croatia, but in the whole of Europe.