Yugoslavia’s Alcatraz


Update February 3, 2014 – A list of 16,101 prisoners who were at Goli Otok from 1949-1956 was released on a Croatian website this week. It listed 413 people that died while serving time on the island from 1949 – 1956. 

The death of Momar Ghadafi last week has me thinking of dictators. His 42-year reign did not end well with “rebels” finding him in a storm sewer under a road and beating him and then executing him. This is much different than here in Serbia with the end of their Yugoslavian Dictator, Tito. His 37-year reign ended with a state funeral and honors. Many still regard him as hero, not only for his exploits in World War II, but also for keeping Yugoslavia together and more prosperous than its Warsaw Pact neighbors. Does he qualify as a dictator?

For anyone to keep power that long however you want to look at his time as Prime Minister/President. Tito did have his repressive measures to keep control. During my trip to the Adriatic last week, I read the book, “Goli Otok: Hell in the Adriatic” by Josip Zoretic. Goli Otok is an island off the coast of Croatia that for many years during the Communist period of Yugoslavia was a prison for political dissenters and for ordinary criminals. It is notorious for the harshness of the conditions for prisoners.The book is written by Zoretic, a Croatian born in Slovenija, who served 7 years on the island from 1962-1969. He was sent to “barren island” as it is translated to English for fleeing Yugoslavia. (note- Please help me Serbian readers, I learned that the word for island was “ostrvo”, why “otok?”

Zoretic was captured in Austria and sent back. He writes in the book that he fled the country because he could not find a job. According to him, his father refused to join the Partizan army during the World War II resistance. He also didn’t join the Chetniks, the other resistance group. Zoretic’s father was executed and tossed into an infamous deep cavern called “Jazovka” near the Slovenian and Croatian border. He was one of the lucky ones, because many Croatians taken there by the Partizans were tossed in alive, only to die slowly hundreds of meters below the earth on the remains of the dead. Zoretic didn’t know the full background of the story if his father was a collaborator with the Ustaše or just an ordinary civilian who didn’t want to participate on any side in the conflict. Recall that the Ustase were the Croatian Nazi collaborators in World War II.

Because of his father’s background, Zoretic couldn’t start a career and find jobs or enter training programs in the Partizan-controlled Yugoslavia. Talk about suffering for the sins of your father. He eventually got to leave Yugoslavia after serving out his sentence.  He wrote the book while in exile in Canada and I read where his son is raising money to produce a film based on the book.

The photo above is not the island of Goli Otok, but of Lokrum Island, located just off the coast of Dubrovnik, Croatia. It is a similar island and we visited Dubrovnik last year. It will give the reader a sense of what the place looked like.We didn’t get over to visit the island, which I don’t think is a tourist attraction. It would be good to restore the island. It is not as famous as the American island prison Alcatraz. Unlike Alcatraz, prisoners occasionally escaped but it was dangerous and difficult. I hope they do preserve the island as it has been left to ruin and an important part of history is being forgotten.

The book was an engaging read, as Zoretic described daily life in the prison. I was a bit put off by his “Greater Serbia” conspiracy theory. The Secret Police Chief under Tito at the time was a Serbian named Aleksander Ranković. He was the top Serb in Tito’s regime and was accused by the author of unfairly favoring Serbs when it came to sentencing.The guards were quite sadistic and cruel and I don’t understand how anyone could act that way towards another human being. Zoretic mentioned that some of them after leaving employment on the island were attacked on the mainland because people heard of the conditions on the island.

Goli Otok is a sad chapter in the history of Yugoslavia. It is a reminder to us all that humans can treat each other cruelly and the opression of the Tito-led communist Yugoslavia. I recommend the book anyone interested in learning more about Yugoslavia.

Visit to Air Force One (Well Sort of)

At last weekend’s Serbia Open, we had a pleasant surprise upon arriving. I parked my car on a side street and we went through someone’s yard to get to the stadium. When we emerged through the yard, we came upon two policemen that directed us across some railroad tracks. On the tracks, was the ex-Yugoslavian leader, Tito’s famous blue train. Serbia being a relaxed country, (I think of it as a Slavic Spain or Latin America), they of course let us enter the stadium via this unofficial route and gave us a tour of the train.

Tito and his wifes chair were bigger than the rest of the chairs
Tito and his wife's chair were bigger than the rest of the chairs

Tito didn’t like to fly and so he ordered a train to be constructed. It had bedrooms, bathrooms, dining rooms, meeting rooms, etc. Very presidential like the Air Force One plane for the US President. It was built in the late 40’s early 50’s and he toured around Europe with it quite a bit. Many world leaders were hosted on the train.

After his death, the train stood idle, but about 10 years ago, it was restored. The train is available to rent for groups and it is perfectly restored. My son Owen commented that it looked like the set from an old James Bond film. So right he was as you can see from the photos.

I really felt a sense of history walking through a few of the cars. The train was as the tennis tourney because they hosted journalists and guests for a luncheon and press conference. I wonder what conversations took place in it. I definitely want to rent this train for my farewell to Serbia. So I guess it was in a way, a visit to the Air Force One of its time. Except in this case, instead of the presidential plane, it was a train, and about 50 years ago.

There is much nostalgia for the time of Tito here in Serbia. Yugoslavia was then ahead of its neighbors in Eastern Europe as it was out of the Soviet sphere of influence. The economy and freedom of travel in the 50’s – 70’s was very nice. Tito died over close to 30 years ago and those living memories are being forgotten. It was not a sustainable economy however, and the bottom would have fallen out of it, but nevertheless, during the Cold War, Yugoslavia mattered. It is sad that all of the former republics of Yugoslavia felt so strongly about being independent. I believe the quality of life for all would have been better if they could have kept it together. Brotherhood and Unity!

Titos Bedroom (his wife slept in a separate room)
Tito's Bedroom (his wife slept in a separate room)

Family Holiday Journal December 21, 2008: Visit to the 25th of May Museum

Lil’ angel Oliver sure looks holy in this photo. We stopped at the St. Sava’s Cathedral with his grandfather, Hermes Chavez (affectionately known as “Popa” by the boys) to show him the scaffolding. Hermes owns a scaffolding rental and sales business in his hometown of Santa Cruz. The cathedral is under restoration now that is is finally peaceful in Serbia.

The girls (Alejandra & Nadia) went with Brad & Ocean to the big outdoor market downtown while Hermes and I took the boys the cathedral. We then visited the 25th of May Museum. The museum holds memorabilia and the mausoleum of the former Yugoslav leader, Josip Broz “Tito”. The museum is named after his birthday. The day used to be huge in Yugoslavia. One of the events was the annual running of the baton across the country by socialist youth. The boys were fascinated with the different batons.

They wanted to know which baton was the oldest (1945) and the newest (1985). The first was right after WWII when the Partisans rid the country of the Nazis, and the final one was five years after the death of Tito. There was a wall display of different batons that were gifts to Tito. The boys were picking their favorites. Most had very cool socialist themes. There was the heavy industry factory baton, a red star on top of a standard screwdriver, another with a JNA tank, a rocket missile, etc. Perhaps I’ll have them make their own batons in the Communist Style of the 60’s and 70’s. A big part of the complex is showcasing the gifts Tito received from Heads of State and Yugoslav citizens throughout the years. The current exhibition were a display of all of his hunting rifles and equipment. He was a big-time hunter and there were antler trophies mixed in with the guns, and photos and videos of his hunting trips. Tito started the Non-Aligned Movement and the museum housed many gifts from developing countries including an elephant tusk gong from Burma and a devil carnival mask and costume from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. My only criticism of the museum is I would have liked a bit more information about his career and personality. I envisioned the place like the Carter Center or Clinton Library, that would be a place to for scholars to study the writings, photographs, etc. of Tito. It was more a showcase of his gifts more than anything else. It does hold his remains. Owen asked should we say a prayer when I explained that his remains were probably buried under the big marble tombstone. I replied that he was an atheist and didn’t believe in God so we shouldn’t.The museum is close to our house, located between Haid Park and the Partizan Football Stadium.

For a man that believed in communist ideals, he sure lived a life of luxury.

The boys yearned to be good socialist youth!
The boys yearned to be good socialist youth!

Oliver, Owen, and Sebey loved running around the complex. The grounds were nice although a bit neglected. They were running up and down the hills and stairs and in between the many trees. We then went home and played soccer in the yard with Brad. Nadia is cooking a delicious soup while everyone else is playing Wii.