Participate in investigation of former fascist extermination camp in Croatia
Portuguese archaeologists from Lisbon are among a number who have been participating in the first scientific investigation of a former fascist extermination camp on the Croatian island of Pag – where “thousands of Croatian Jews, Serbs and anti-fascists were tortured and murdered.”
During the summer of 1941 the island of Pag ‘hosted’ an extermination camp set up by Croatia’s then Ustaše government, backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
But this grim fact has been all but erased from history. Today, there is almost zero reference to the camp on the island. The site is currently incorporated in a sports trail dubbed ‘Life on Mars’.
Explain archaeologists Sara Simões and Rui Gomes Coelho: “In Croatia they tend to marginalise the information on these kind of situations.”
The pair told Lusa that after the closure of the Slava camp in August 1941, the Italian army documented the site, exhuming and incinerating the remains of some of the victims of Ustaše.
“We intend to make visible the existence of this camp in a pedagogical, educational way, and when I say educational I am talking about political education, because we are in a moment of historical revisionism as we saw in the elections in Italy, like what is happening in Hungary or Poland,” stressed Gomes Coelho.
“There is a far-right movement throughout Europe that largely denies the existence of the Holocaust or plays down the existence of the Holocaust and all the other genocides that took place in Europe during the Second World War” from 1939 to 1945, he explained. “Making a site like this visible is a way of bringing into conversation issues that are very important for our current lives as citizens of Europe.”
In this way, the archaeologists see their research as not only important for the region where the camp was located, but for Europe as a whole – with the investigation also focusing on the elaboration of “management instruments for the life of the historical site that was never given any kind of memorial.”
According to Gomes Coelho, a plaque was installed in the 1980s, indicating the existence of the extermination camp, but it was destroyed, before being reinstated and destroyed again.
“The camp is not remembered officially – only by the Jewish and Serbian minorities,” he said. “The site never appears on tourist itineraries.”
Gomes Coelho also recalls that near the camp, in a village called Metaina, there was in 1941 a house where women were “concentrated” regardless of their ethnic origin.
“In practice it was a kind of rape centre,” he said. “Women were locked in that house, they were raped and then they were killed. The house today, surprisingly, is a primary school without any indication of what happened there.”
The main objective of researchers is to carry out a complete archaeological survey of the camp, because of the fact that it has never been scientifically documented. They have been excavating areas where there used to be tents, sheds and administrative buildings – finding all kinds of objects, including very personal items like buttons, and bullet cartridges.
“Even if there is no name of a person, we know that there is a condensed individual story there, which ends up narrating the tragic experience of an individual,” Gomes Coelho explained. “People were murdered and buried in mass graves or thrown into the sea.”
In parallel, he stressed, that oral memories of the horrific events are being collected.
“There are reports of bodies appearing floating near villages on the coast because the currents carried them away,” he said, noting that the main documents about the complex are in archives in Italy. “This is still talked about today.”
The investigation is very much a pioneering project – introducing archaeology into the investigation of World War II concentration camps. It has been supported by the Serbian National Council, an organisation of the Serbian minority in Croatia.
“The interdisciplinary work of professionals from history, art history, anthropology and archaeology will serve to confront revisionist narratives and inform heritage conservation and management practices,” states the latest online bulletin (No. 68) of Lisbon university’s Centre for Archeology (UNIARQ).