Jasenovac in Film and TV: Tower of Death (1988)

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By Carl Savich

In 1988, a documentary on the Stara Gradiska sub-camp of the Jasenovac concentration camp system was released in Yugoslavia entitled Kula Smrti or Tower of Death by Croatian director Vladimir Tadej. The film was made by Studio Luna Film, produced by Gordan Vunak, in Zagreb. The documentary short is 20 minutes and 15 seconds in length in color and black and white 16mm film.

The Jasenovac concentration camp complex consisted of five detention facilities established between August, 1941 and the late winter of 1942 by the authorities of the Independent State of Croatia. Stara Gradiska was the fifth sub-camp of Jasenovac.

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At Krapje, 7 miles west of Jasenovac, the camp that was called Jasenovac Camp No.1 was established in August, 1941. A second camp was built after the increase in the number of prisoners called Camp No.2 at Brocica also in August, 1941. Camp No.3 was built near the Ciglara or brick factory, Ozren Bacic & Company, at the mouth of the Lonja and downstream from Jasenovac in November, 1941.

Camp No.4 was built in Jasenovac itself near the former leather factory called Kozara in February, 1942. The camp at the nearby town of Stara Gradiska was referred to as Camp No.5.

Croat authorities had established the Stara Gradiska camp initially as an independent holding center for political prisoners in the summer of 1941 and then converted it into a concentration camp for women in the winter of 1942.

Stara Gradiska is approximately 33 miles or 44 kilometers southeast of Jasenovac, a village and a municipality in Slavonia, in the Brod-Posavina County of Croatia. It is on the left bank of the Sava River, across from Gradiska in northern Bosnia and Hercegovina. There is also a Nova Gradiska or New Gradiska northeast of the town.

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The film opens with a stamped Ustasha U symbol insignia with the checkerboard symbol of Croatia consisting of red and white squares over a still image of the watchtower at the Stara Gradiska camp. The description of the camp appears: “Kula Smrti: Stara Gardiska, logor br. V.” or “Tower of Death: Stara Gradiska, Camp Number 5.” Stara Gradiska was the 5th concentration camp that made up the Jasenovac camp system. The red checkerboard boxes drip into red blood as the title credits end and the film begins.

Color film footage of Stara Gradistska appears taken circa 1988 at the time the film was made with people walking by. The camera zooms out to reveal a gathering of people. A memorial monument is shown: “Zrtvama Fasizma, 1941-19445″or “The Victims of Fascism, 1941-45.” The camera slowly pans down to show flowers left in memory of those killed are shown, red roses above small red, white, and blue banners to honor those murdered in the Ustasha death camps.

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Elderly, white haired men and women are shown. There is a close-up of the chest of one man with medals. There is a close-up of the face of one man with white hair and mustache.

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The color scene then transitions into a black and white film footage of Ustasha troops in World War II. Ustasha troops in military uniforms are shown marching. The camera pans up from their feet, showing their shoes as they march in lock step. They are in four rows, wearing shirts and with a rifle over their shoulder. An officer in boots walks beside them. He has an Ustasha cap on and a jacket with a belt. Tankettes with troops sitting atop of them move down a street in the NDH during World War II, followed by German motorcycles with three on board with a passenger carriage and by a convertible car with the top down revealing German commanders and officers. Then a German transport truck drives past with German infantry troops in the back. They pass two German troops on a motorcycle. Then troops on horseback are shown advancing towards the camera escorted by a soldier who runs alongside them.

In the next scene, Ustasha troops wearing black uniforms and armed with rifles are shown raiding a village. They go into the houses. Ustasha troops stand ready with their rifles as two prisoners in civilian clothing are pulled out of the roof of one of the houses. One prisoner has a large conical black woolen hat that looks like a Chetnik guerrilla hat. They are frisked and taken prisoner. Two Ustasha soldiers wearing Yugoslav issue French Adrian helmets are showing with another person wearing a fez examining the documents of a civilian wearing a hat.

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The next image is from 1942 showing Croatian and Bosnian Muslim military forces carrying the decapitated head of a Serb in northern Bosnia outside the city of Banja Luka during an Ustasha operation in the area. One Ustasha soldier is holding the severed head with a string as he smiles into the camera as he points to the head. This is a war trophy. Then two photos are shown of Ustasha soldiers with captured Serbian civilians whom they pose with brandishing knives, a rifle, and a handgun as if to slaughter them. Two prisoners are held as if to cut their throats while a third has his hair pulled exposing his throat to a long knife while another points a gun at him. A third photo shows Ustasha troops pointing their rifles at the bodies of several civilians who were killed. Their mangled bodies lie contorted on the ground. Finally, photos show the bodies of civilians who were murdered dumped in a ditch or ravine. The camera zooms out to reveal a mass grave.

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Then film footage is shown of Serbian men wearing hats who are forced by German and Ustasha troops to march out of their villages in columns. The men are in civilian clothes, unshaven, and wearing hats. Only men are shown. Then men, women, and children in carts drawn by horses and oxen pass across the screen. Elderly men clutching small infants are shown. The entire villages are being uprooted and depopulated.

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In the next scene they are being shown marched to a railroad station. Here the people are loaded onto trains to go to the Ustasha concentration camps, Jesenovac, Stara Gradiska, and the other NDH camps. Elderly civilians board the trains. Then they are shown moving in the wagon cars across the tracks towards the camps. The train passes a guard tower.

The men are showing being marched off to the camps. Then the film transitions into the film clip of the gate to the Jasenovac camp, No. 3, the Brick Factory or Ciglara, as an Ustasha guard passes in front of the gate with a rifle across his shoulder as the camera pans up to reveal the sign at the entry gate. A woman and a child can be seen in a wagon expelled from their homes. A bird’s nest is revealed on the roof of a house in black and white. Derelict and abandoned houses emerge.

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The roundup of Serbian civilians followed the Kozara operation in 1942, a large-scale resettlement that amounted to genocide and ethnic cleansing which occurred in western Bosnia.

The Kozara offensive was conducted by the battle group “West Bosnia”, Kampfgruppe Westbosnien, under German Wehrmacht Generalmajor Friedrich Stahl, commander of the 714th Infantry Division, who organized his combat elements around three German infantry battalions with artillery support and two Croatian mountain brigades, the 1st and 2nd Croatian Mountain Brigades in June, 1942. The Serbian population of the Potkozarje region outside of Banja Luka in northern Bosnia was annihilated and ethnically cleansed. Generalmajor Stahl described the result of the operation on June 18, 1942:

“Today the undertaking of the battle group ‘West Bosnia’ in the area of Kozara and Prosara was ended. The entire population of the encompassed area was resettled and thus a thorough purge was carried out.”

Approximately 140 Serbian villages were depopulated, razed and ethnically cleansed and the Serbian inhabitants, men, women and children, were taken to assembly and concentration camps at Stara Gradiska, Jasenovac, Cerovljani, Mlaka, Jablana, Novska, Prijedor, and Zemun. Approximately 68,600 Serbian Orthodox civilians, including 23,800 children from the Kozara region were settled in concentration camps. The children were sent to Stara Gradiska, Jasenovac, Jadovno, Loborgrad, Djakovo, Kruscica, Tenje and Sajmiste, where they were murdered, those surviving being dispersed in orphanages. The women that were not murdered were sent for forced labor in Germany.

A prisoner at the women’s camp in Stara Gradiska, Marijana Amulic, had recounted how Serbian children were murdered:

“The children were lying there helpless, even too weak to cry. They were dying slowly and quietly. About 20 female prisoners, themselves as helpless as the children, were taking care of them. Once we were ordered to fetch all the sick children and to house them in the attic rooms of the infamous tower. Then Ante Vrban, the commandant of the camp, had poison gas injected into the rooms. Then there was an eerie silence in the camp, as if life itself had been extinguished.”

gradiska8There is a segue showing color film of birds flying to nests in trees and in branches in color film footage from 1988. First the people are shown. Then there is a long shot of the Stara Gradiska camp as it stood at the time of the film’s production in 1988. Then black and white photos of the camp as it appeared during World War II flash across the screen. Max Luburic, the commander of the Jasenovac camp, is shown in NDH film footage from a 1942 film. Then Father Satan, Miroslav Filipovic, also known as Tomislav Filipovic-Majstorovic, a former Roman Catholic priest and commander of the Jasenovac camp, is shown in a photo. Ustasha camp guards and personnel are observed sitting around a table. Footage is interwoven of the camp made by the NDH in 1942 showing workers making tools and sharpening knives. Then an Ustasha guard is shown. Then a color image of dripping red blood appears. The bodies of victims who were killed are presented. The corpse of a man lies bloodied. The body of a dead girl in a field flashes across the screen. This image is followed by that of an Ustasha guard. Then the bodies of victims appear. One corpse is shown with eyes wide open in a death stare. Then a close-up image of another Ustasha guard wearing the Ustasha cap is interspersed. The barbed wire fences around the camps are highlighted. The bodies of victims can be seen. A corpse thrown into the Sava River is shown in 1945.

Then the scene returns in color to footage of people at the camp at the time of the film’s production in 1988. The kula or tower and the walls of the former camp are shown. Images of children in the camp behind bars are presented. A photo of a Croatian girl wearing the yellow badge with the Star of David and the letter Z for Zidov, the Croatian word for “Jew”.

People walking through a doorway marked “Dokumenti Zlocina 1941-45” or “Documents of Crimes, 1941-1945”, are shown. People appear looking at a derelict camp. Photographic images of shackles worn in the camps are highlighted. They go through the darkened corridors where inmates were tortured. They look at the exhibits. Men, women, and children were murdered here in a genocidal way. Postmen, teachers, and housewives were brought here. There are black and white photographs. One person points at a photo of a mallet that was used to kill inmates. Photos of emaciated children are shown. The backs of naked children appear who have been ravaged by starvation. One exhibit features models of starved inmates in the camp. A hammer used to kill people on arrival is displayed.

In one scene where they are examining the museum exhibits, the photo of German Waffen SS troops beheading a Slovenian guerrilla in 1944 can be seen, used to illustrate Ustasha atrocities. The documentary does not focus on this photo but it is part of the exhibit in the museum.

The documentary uses footage from the 1942 NDH Hrvatski Slikopis documentary film Straza na Drini, Wacht an der Drina, or Watch on the Drina, directed and written by Branko Marjanovic. This compilation of NDH newsreels documented the military and punitive operations of NDH Ustasha forces against Serbian guerrillas and civilians.

People are filmed walking down a street having looked around the camp. An underground cell is examined where prisoners were held. One inmate wrote a message on the wall. Photos are displayed. Ustasha guards are shown executing a prisoner above a pit. Bodies of victims are shown. A corpse is floating in the Sava River. There is a re-enactment of an Ustasha guard shooting in a prison cell. Then there are gun shots in the Sava. Then there is a red screen to signify blood. The final scene is of the Sava River. The film ends here. The credits appear.

The cameraman was Srdan Segaric. The music was by Zivan Cvitkovic. There is a song by Anica Zubovic during the closing credits. The film was financed by Spomen porucja Jasenovac.

Tower of Death or Kula Smrti is a well-researched and meticulously documented film short on the Stara Gradiska concentration camp. This Yugoslav-made documentary is invaluable in presenting the history of a World War II concentration camp that is rarely seen or known.