In any Balkan country the names of war criminals
are well-known. But the names of people who have moved humanity in a
positive direction are often hidden from the public eye.
That is the case with Diana Budisavljejvic, whose
heroics in rescuing thousands of lives during World War II-era
Croatia went unrecognized for more than half a century.
A few years ago, Croatian film producer Dana
Budisavljevic was visiting the former concentration camp at
Jasenovac when her last name caught the attention of the memorial
"Have you heard of Diana Budisavljevic?"
When Dana said she hadn't, the director explained
that her near-namesake had been directly responsible for saving
thousands of children from concentration camps run by the
Independent State of Croatia's fascist Ustase regime after the Nazi
puppet state was established in 1941. She also presented Dana with a
copy of Diana Budisavljevic's diary, published in 2003 by her
granddaughter, Silvija Szabo.
The encounter piqued Dana's curiosity, and more
discoveries were to follow. It turned out after some digging that
her family was related to Diana's husband, Julije Budisavljevic, a
respected surgeon, and that Dana's own grandmother had known the
The story of Diana Budisavljevic, meanwhile, was
as fascinating as it was virtually unknown in Croatia. The Austrian
woman married to a Zagreb-based doctor has been credited with
organizing the rescue of at least 7,500 mainly Serbian children from
various Ustase-run camps, and yet "Diana's story is not part of our
collective memory," Dana told RFE/RL.
Struck by the story and the injustice, Dana
resolved to do everything in her power to set the record straight --
which, in her case, meant directing a movie about Diana's life. The
film -- whose working title is Operation DB, drawing on Diana
Budisavljevic's initials -- is due to start shooting this fall, and
Dana is currently scouting locations.
One of her chief inspirations is Diana's diary --
a stenographic journal in German that has survived.
The first entry in the journal reveals that Diana
found out from her Jewish seamstress about a camp at Loborgrad, a
castle near the Croatian capital Zagreb. When she received
confirmation of the camp's existence and its mainly Serbian and
Jewish female inmates, Diana set to work.
Natasa Matausic -- a historian who is currently
completing a doctoral dissertation on the child-rescue operation --
also found out about Diana Budisavljevic only relatively recently,
"One of the most powerful passages [in Diana's
journal] describes her visit to the camp at Stara Gradiska. Diana
and some nurses from the Red Cross were made to wait all night
before being allowed inside the camp by its commander, Maks
Luburic," the historian told RFE/RL.
"He then reproached them for caring about Serbian
children, and not Catholic and Muslim kids who were also going
hungry. Luburic threatened to have Diana and the nurses interned in
the camp, saying that no one would know what had happened to them or
their whereabouts. Despite this, the women insisted on entering the
children's hospital -- and what they found there was truly
'Impossibly Thin Children'
Diana Budisavljevic gives a vivid description of
the visit to the Stara Gradiska camp for women and children, a part
of the notorious Jasenovac death camp, in her journal:
"Something terrible met us inside. Rooms with no
furniture of any kind, only chamber pots, and sitting or lying down
on the floor were impossibly thin little children. One could already
see death in each one of their eyes.... The doctor said they were
beyond help. But the transport leader said we should take every
child who could be moved somehow. A choice was made. Those who could
still stand on their own feet were taken, while those who were
stumbling, who no longer had the strength to stand, were left
The experience was a shock, and Diana fell ill
herself, says Matausic.
"She was a mother of two, and what she saw in the
camp affected her health. She even started losing her hair."
After Zagreb was liberated by the Yugoslav
partisans in May 1945, security officers visited the Budisavljevic
residence. They took the family car, as well as files with photos
and information on thousands of children who had been saved.
While Diana is credited by historians with helping
rescue 7,500 children from various camps, she had kept records of
about 12,000 kids who had been accommodated in convents or private
homes throughout Croatia.
Most of the children were from the region around
the Bosnian mountain of Kozara -- an area that had been "cleansed"
in a joint operation by Nazi German and Ustase forces.
The child-rescue operation was not ignored after
the war -- it was, in fact, hailed as a triumph of the liberating
partisan forces. But Diana Budisavljevic, who had risked her life
and those of her family members up to that point, was erased from
the narrative, as were the names of most of her associates and
helpers. She was not arrested or interrogated, but it fell to the
victors to write the history of the children's delivery from
The Yugoslav communist authorities subsequently
managed to locate many of the children's parents, and those who had
been orphaned were left in the care of foster families in Zagreb.
Diana received around 4,000 inquiries from parents
looking for their children after the war, but deprived of her
archive she was unable to help.
"Nothing was known about Diana's role in the
operation, or that she was its prime mover -- that it was she who
obtained the crucial permit to remove children from Ustase camps,
and from Stara Gradiska, where they were left alone after their
mothers had been sent to Germany to perform forced labor," Matausic
In 2003, when the permanent exhibit at the
location of the Jasenovac camp was being prepared, Matausic
discovered a pile of children's photographs and some albums in the
archive that had not been looked at in years.
"It seemed that everyone before me had been
avoiding this harrowing topic. I set to work immediately. There were
four albums with children's photos, all dated. The pictures were
haunting -- images of children in distress in Zagreb hospitals or in
the camp at Sisak," Matausic says. "At that point one of the members
of the team saw the albums I was working on and exclaimed: ‘Those
could be Diana Budisavljevic's albums!'" The man knew Diana's
granddaughter Silvija Szabo, and was familiar with Diana's journals.
"While I was working on the albums I had many
sleepless nights and frequent nightmares," Matausic says. "I can
only imagine what it must have been like to see the children in
person, as Diana saw them."
Diana was Austrian. She had met her husband Julije
in Innsbruck, where he was studying medicine, and they married in
1917. Later, she used her connections in Zagreb high society to
obtain permission for the removal of Serbian children from the
Ustase camps. She was left undaunted even by the threats from the
camp commander Luburic.
After the war she never spoke in public about the
operation -- her granddaughter discovered her journal and the photo
albums among her things by accident. Diana moved back to Innsbruck
with her husband in 1972, where she died six years later.
The director of the forthcoming biopic, Dana
Budisavljevic, says that Operation DB will be part feature and part
documentary. The feature part is based on Diana's journal and will
star Alma Prica, among others, while the documentary portion will
include witness testimonies of some of the rescued children, who are
now in their 80s. "Together they are meant to bring together on film
that which politics and history have separated -- Diana and the
children she rescued," Dana explained.
One of the film's working titles had been Diana's
List, and Dana welcomes comparisons with the Spielberg epic
Schindler's List -- which told the story of an ethnic German
industrialist, Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving the
lives of mostly Polish-Jewish prisoners from the Holocaust -- if it
means it will draw attention to Diana's story.
"The only thing that makes me uncomfortable is
when people start comparing numbers -- Schindler saved 1,500, Irene
Sandler (a Polish nurse who smuggled Jewish children out of the
Warsaw Ghetto) 2,500, and Diana 7,500 -- because all three
operations were different in nature, as were many others.
"The important thing is for us to remember them
all, and that it is possible and indeed imperative to stand up to
such horror and destruction. In school we spend too much time
learning about liberators, and not enough about those who strove to
save lives and preserve peace."