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by Carl Savich
The town of Jasenovac lies north of the Sava River, near its junction with the Una River in the Srpska Vojna Krajina, or Serbian Military Frontier Province. Before the German invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, Jasenovac was a growing industrial town where the Ciglara brick factory and the Lancara tooling plant were located. The majority of the population of Jasenovac was Serbian Orthodox. The town lies on the train route from Belgrade to Zagreb. The Strug and Lonja tributaries enter the Sava near the town, an area of marshes and swamps subject to periodic flooding, with few roads.
Jasenovac became the largest and most important concentration camp (sabirni logor) and extermination camp complex in the Nezavisna Hrvatska Drzava (NDH), Independent State of Croatia, during World War II. The Jasenovac concentration camp complex would be crucial in the systematic and planned genocide of the Orthodox Serbs of the Srpska Vojna Krajina and of Bosnia-Hercegovina by the Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Other concentration camps were established in Sisak, Stara Gradiska, Djakovo, Lepoglava, Loborgrad. In all, there would be 22 concentration camps in the NDH, almost half of which were commanded by Roman Catholic Croatian priests.
The Croats first rounded up and murdered the Serbian population of Jasenovac and established a garrison in the town. In no part of occupied Europe during World War II were more churches and monasteries destroyed than in the NDH. In the NDH - Croatia, Lika, Kordun, Banija, Bosnia, Srem, Hercegovina - approximately 450 Serbian Orthodox churches and iconostases were destroyed. The St. John the Baptist Serbian Orthodox Church in Jasenovac,built in 1775,was destroyed by Croat troops on August 15, 1941.
The first transports brought Serbs and Jews to the nearby village of Krapje, which was 7 miles west of Jasenovac. At this site, the prisoners were forced to build the camp that was called Jasenovac Camp No. 1. A second camp was built after the increase in the number of prisoners called Camp No.2.
Camp No.3 was built near the Ciglara brick factory, Ozren Bacic & Company, at the mouth of the Lonja and downstream from Jasenovac.
Camp No.4 was built in Jasenovac itself near the former leather factory. The camp at the nearby town of Stara Gradiska is referred to as Camp No.5. The maximum capacity of all the camps was 7,000 prisoners but usually only 4,000 prisoners were there at any one time. Jasenovac was in fact a system or complex of concentration and extermination camps occupying a surface of 130 square miles, set up under decree-law, No. 1528-2101-Z-1941, on September 25,1941, legally authorizing the creation of 'assembly or work camps for undesirable and dangerous persons.' The concentration camps were under the authority of Ustasha Security Service Kommando Eugen Dido Kvaternik.
Jasenovac was established in August, 1941 and was dismantled in April, 1945. The creation and management of the camp complex were given to Department III of the Croatian Security Police (Ustashka Nadzorna Sluzba; UNS) which was headed by Vjekoslav Maks Luburic, who commanded the Jasenovac camp.
The NDH established other concentration camps:
1) Jadovno, in the Velebit mountains, was established in April 1941 and disbanded at the end of the year, where 35,000-80,000 Serbs were murdered when thrown into caves and pits; 2) Danica, near Zagreb, was established in April 1941 and disbanded at the end of the year; 3) Pag, on Pag Island in the Adriatic, was established in June 1941 and dismantled by the end of August of that year, where hundreds of Serbs were brutally murdered; 4) Loborgrad, in northern Croatia, was established in September 1941 and was dismantled in October 1942, was a camp for women and children and was commanded by Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans). In May 1942, the women and children prisoners were deported to Birkenau-Auschwitz; 5) Kruscica in Bosnia, established in August 1941 and disbanded at the end of the following month; 6) Djakovo in southeast Croatia, was established in December, 1941 and disbanded in June 1942; women and children were the chief prisoners. Several hundred prisoners died in a typhus epidemic in the camp. Those who survived were transferred in the summer of 1942 to Jasenovac, where they were killed upon arrival; and, 7) Tenje, near Osijek, was established in March 1942 and disbanded in August 1942, when all the prisoners were transferred to Birkenau-Auschwitz to be gassed.
Like the German Birkenau-Auschwitz (Oswiecim) concentration camp and extermination camp complex in Oswiecim, Poland, Jasenovac became a symbol of genocide and mass extermination, an enduring symbol of man's inhumanity to man.
On April 10, 1941, Slavko Kvaternik proclaimed the Independent State of Croatia which included Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and parts of Serbia. The NDH was a Nazi-fascist puppet state created by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, ruled by the Ustashi, or 'insurgents'. The President or Poglavnik of the NDH was Ante Pavelic, born in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and the Vice-President, from November 1941 to April 1945, was Dzafer Kulenovic, a Bosnian Muslim. The Minister of the Interior was Andrija Artukovic from Ljubuski. The Minister of Justice was Mirko Puk, of the Army was Slavko Kvaternik, of Education and Cults was Mile Budak. Immediately following the creation of the NDH, the Croats and Muslims embarked upon a widescale systematic and planned genocide against the Serbian Orthodox populations and Jews and Gypsies. On April 25,1941, in decree-law, No.XXV-33Z, the Serbian Orthodox Cyrillic alphabet was outlawed and Orthodox Serbs were forced to wear a blue band with the letter 'P' for Pravoslavac, Orthodox. In Belovar, Serbs were forced to wear a red armband with the word 'Serb'. Orthodox Serbs in the NDH were derecognized and were referred to as grkoistocnjaka, Greek Easterners, or Croatian 'dissidents' or bivshi Srbi, 'former or ex-Serbs'. The property and possessions of the Serbian Orthodox Church were confiscated. Hundreds of Serbian Orthodox priests were murdered and hundreds were sent to the concentration camps. Bishop Platon Jovanovic of Banja Luka was arrested on May 5-6, 1941 and then his eyes were gouged out, his nose and ears were cut off and he was then shot in the head and his body dumped in the Vrbanja river. Of 21 bishops, five were killed, 2 imprisoned, two beaten up and deported to Serbia where they soon died from their injuries, only six remaining in their dioceses. Over 240,000 Orthodox Serbs were forcefully converted to Roman Catholicism.Ý Jews were forced to wear a yellow band with the letter 'Z' for Zidov, Jew. In a speech given in Gospic on June 6, 1941, Mile Budak, the Ustasha Minister of Education and Cults, explained the policy of genocide against the Orthodox Serbs as follows:
One-third of the Serbs we shall kill, another we shall deport, and the last we shall force to embrace the Roman Catholic religion and thus melt them into Croats.
The Croatian regime initiated and instituted a systematic and planned policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing (ciscenje) against the over 3 million Orthodox Serbs living in the NDH. The policy of genocide came to be known as ethnic cleansing or cleansing, ciscenje. On June 23, 1941, this policy of ethnic cleansing was officially announced by Victor Gutic, Ustasha Governor of Western Bosnia, which was a majority Serbian region. In a speech at Banja Luka, Gutic announced that Ante Pavelic intended to make Banja Luka the capital of the NDHÝ but before the city had to be 'thoroughly cleansed of Serbian dirt.' He announced that he was going to use an 'iron broom' to sweep until Banja Luka and Bosanska Krajina (Western Bosnia) ãhad been cleansed of the last Serb.'
Ante Pavelic (1889-1959), the President of the NDH, enunciated the policy of ethnic cleansing when he gave a speech on August 14, 1941, in Vukovar in Srem:
This is now the Ustashi and Independent State of Croatia, it must be cleansed of Serbs and Jews. There is no room for any of them here. Not a stone upon a stone will remain ofÝ what once belonged to them.
Pavelic's speech and the law passed in Srem were published in the Ustasha Hrvatski Narod newspaper of August 15 and 16, 1941 Milovan Zanic, President of the Legislative Council, in a speech at Nova Gradiska reprinted in Novi List of June 3,1941, explained the genocide and ethnic cleansing policy of the NDH as follows:
This must be a country of Croats and of no one else, and there is no method that we Ustashe will not use in order to make this country truly Croatian and to cleanse it of Serbs... This is the policy of this state.
The areas cleansed of Serbs were to be settled by Croats from the US:Ý 'They will occupy the home hearth that we will have cleansed.' On June 6,1941, Minister of Justice Mirko Puk stated: ''Either you get out of our land voluntarily or we will force you out.''
In 1941, Pavelic declared:Ý ''The Jews will be liquidated within a very short time.'' Following the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, where the 'Final Solution to the Jewish Problem' was formulated, the Germans proposed through SS Sturmbannfuehrer Hans Helm that the Croats transfer Jewish prisoners to German camps in the east. Eugen Dido Kvaternik, chief of the NDH security services, agreed that the NDH would arrest the Jews, take them to railheads, and pay the Germans 30 reichsmarks per person for the cost of transport to the extermination camps in the east. The Germans agreed that the property of the Jews would go to the Croat government.
SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Franz Abromeit was sent to supervise the deportations to Auschwitz. From August 13-20,1942, 5,500 Jews from the NDH were transpoted to Aushwitz on five trains from the Croat concentration camps at Tenje and Loborgrad and from Zagreb and Sarajevo. Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler was on a state visit to Zagreb in May,1943 when two trains on May 5 and 10 trasported 1,150 Jews to Auschwitz.
On February 26,1942, NDH Minister of the Interior Andrija Artukovic gave the following speech before the Sabor,or Croatian Parliament, announcing the official policy of the Croat government to make the NDH Juden frei (Jew free):
Immediately following the birth of the former Yugoslavia, all the enemies of the Croat people - the Jews, Communists and Freemasons - united to destroy the Croatian people and all their national characteristics... The Jews worked for and prepared the world revolution... The Jews, as one of the most dangerous international organizations, tried to achieve world Jewry... in order that the Jews might gain full mastery over all goods of the world and all the power in the world... The Jews wanted to achieve these aims not only through international Jewry as such, but also through the Communists. Communism is the child of Jewry and one of the principle levers for the world mastery of the Jews... The Judeo-Communists have tried to bring about the disintegration of the Croatian national body... The Croatian people, having re-established their independent state of Croatia, could not do otherwise but to clean off the poisonous damagers and insatiable parasites - Jews, Communists, Freemasons... The independent state of Croatia, as an Ustashi state,... settled the so-called Jewish question with a decisive and healthy grasp.
The Vatican dismissed the Croatian massacres and genocide against Orthodox Serbs and Jews as 'teething troubles of a new regime' in a statement by Monsignor Domenico Tardini of the Vatican state secretariat.
The Catholic Croats established an alliance with Bosnian Muslims in the NDH to ethnically cleanse and to exterminate the Orthodox Serbs. From April to November 1941, the Vice-President of the NDH was Bosnian Muslim Osman Kulenovic from Bihac. From November 1941 to April 1945, the Vice-President of the NDH was his brother Dzafer Kulenovic. Dzafer Kulenovic ordered that the Serbian Orthodox Church at Brcko be destroyed, the cemetery dug up, and the bones of the Orthodox Serbs be dispersed. In the Croat-Muslim NDH, not even the dead were spared.
In 1971 Kurt Waldheim was elected United Nations Secretary-General serving two terms and in 1986 was elected President of Austria.But in l942 oberleutnant Kurt Waldheim was ordnance officer under Generalmajor (Brigadier General) Friedrich Stahl, commander of the 714th Infantry Division of the German Army (Wehrmacht) at the time of the Kozara action, one of the most horrendous acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing during World War II in western Bosnia against the Orthodox Serbian population. In 1947, the Communist dictatorship of Yugoslavia placed Waldheim on the UN war criminals and war crimes list but like Haj Amin el Husseini, he was never tried for war crimes against the Bosnian Serb population.
The Kozara action was conducted by the battle group 'West Bosnia' (Kampf gruppe WestBosnien) under task force commander 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 entire Serbian Orthodox population of the Potkozarje region was annihilated and ethnically cleansed. Generalmajor Stahl commented as follows on June 18, 1942 regarding the operation:
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.
Over 140 Serbian Orthodox villages of the Potkozarje were depopulated, razed and ethnically cleansed and the Serbian inhabitants, men, women and children, were taken to assembly and concentration camps, Jasenovac, Cerovljani, Mlaka, Jablana, Stara Gradiska, Novska, Prijedor, and Zemun. Approximately 68,600 Serbian Orthodox civilians, including 23,800 children from the Kozara region were cleansed and settled in concentration camps. The children were sent to Jasenovac, Jadovno, Loborgrad, Stara Gradiska, 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 Nazi Germany.
A prisoner at the women's camp in Stara Gradiska, Marijana Amulic, offers the following eyewitness testimony of the murder of Serbian children:
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.
Sado Cohen-Davko, a Jewish survivor of the Stara Gradiska concentration camp, explained the goal of the Ustasha genocide:
Their chief aim was the liquidation of the Serbs.
Like the Nazi concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and Birkenau-Auschwitz, Jasenovac was officially a 'labor camp'. But like the Nazi concentration camps, Jasenovac made use of hard labor and slow starvation through withholding of nutrition to slowly kill the inmates. Prisoners were given a watery, salty soup made of patato peels.In the evening, turnip soup was given with 5 or 6 beans. The bread was to be 65 grams per day,while on three or four days, no bread was distributed. Each prisoner received 500 calories per day, the daily caloric intake for a healthy person being 2000 to 2500 per day. This regimen lead to a slow process of starvation. Workers were forced to work on the dam and the tile factory. Many died of heart failure and exhaustion. Typhus and dysentery were rampant in the camp.
The inmates of Jasenovac had to endure both hunger and cold. Egon Berger, a Jewish survivor of Jasenovac, explained how inmates died because the barracks let in rain,snow, and wind:
Every day, ten of us froze to death. We didn't at that time have a place set apart for burial, so the corpses lay around everywhere,sometimes in great heaps.
In January 1942, Ivica Matkovic became commander of the Jasenovac camp and with the engineer Hinko Picili converted the tile oven in the factory into a crematorium where corpses as well as living victims were incinerated until May 1942. A black smoke and stench of burned human flesh permeated the region. Sado Cohen-Davko explained that first the inmates were shut in a building beside the crematorium:
Here the prisoners were ordered to strip, in order to bathe and be disinfected.
The poor women and children had no idea where they were going. At the exit,behind
the door, there stood two executioners with mallets. As each passed through
for 'disinfection',he was hit by one with a mallet and another immediately
threw him half-dead into the oven. This oven swallowed up a good thousand
victims, especially women and children.
There was a so-called 'Black Maria', a closed car that almost every night took away prisoners from the barracks and burned them in the oven like fuel... From the Spring of 1942, they threw the weak and the ill into the brick oven while they were still alive.
Survivor Jakov Kabilj as an eyewitness personally observed:
I myself remained alive, and saw that winter how live people, stiff with cold, were taken under orders and thrown into the brick oven.
The tile oven was divided into several ovens with a common chimney. Each oven could hold 40-50 people. The oven was in a long tunnel and the individual ovens were 3 x 4 x 3 yards. The door was opened from the outside,from the tunnel. In one night, 450 to 600 people were incinerated.
Jasenovac possessed a gas chamber where inmates were poisoned using sulphur dioxide and Zyklon B gas. Jasenovac survivor Misha Danon recounts the gas chamber as follows:
This room was sealed, so that not a breath of air or a beam of light could penetrate into it. It was,in fact, a gas chamber.Here they killed children of three,five and seven years old,the children of Serbs and Jews, orphaned children.
Survivor Jakov Atijas confirms Danon's account:
Many women and children wereÝ poisoned in special cells (closed rooms) with gas. The gravediggers had to carry out the corpses of those poisoned and either bury them in mass graves or throw them into the crematorium.
Near the end of the war, there was the water pit, an underground tunnel surrounded by wire where prisoners were forced to crawl on their hands and knees. Adolf Friedrich described the water pit as follows:
The prisoner had nowhere dry to sit or to stand. He could neither turn round or stand upright. In such a position,a man would, after a few hours, collapse and fall into the water... There were very few who survived these terrible tortures.
Various methods of slaughtering the victims were devised at Jasenovac, most inmates being killed in the most bestial, inhumane, and sadistic manner. Jeruham Gaon described killing by mallet, 'skull crushers', by firearms, by massacres, by beating with a rifle butt and by an iron peg driven into the victimâs mouth. Adolf Friedrich revealed that near the end of the war:
They took prisoners, both newcomers and old hands, about 500-600 of them, bound them with rusty wire and took them off to Gradina, where they murdered them day and night. They killed them with mallets and piled them half-alive on heaps, soaked them in paraffin and burned them with coal in pits several yards deep, pouring in paraffin all the while.
Survivor Egon Berger described how inmates of Jasenovac were thrown half-dead into the Sava River:
The selected victim, bound with wire, had to climb onto the Granik where the Ustashi, with a slash on the belly, threw him alive into the Sava. We were all terrified of that way of dying; it was crueler than the mallet. Death came more quickly under the mallet.
On July 12, 1942, three concentration camps for children were established in the NDH for 'reeducation' in Gornja Rijeka near Krizevci, Jastrebarsko, and in Sisak. In the Gornja Rijeka concentration camp for children over 400 Serbian children were inmates, over half of which died. The Jastrebarsko camp held 3,200 children, over 400 of which died. The largest camp was Sisak, where there were over 6,600 children, of which over 1,600 died. In the Jasenovac camp complex itself, the estimate is that 7,000-10,000 children were murdered. Dragoje Lukic, a survivor of these camps, stated:Ý ''These are, as far as we know, the only concentration camps for children in the whole of Europe, and maybe in the world.''
The commanders and executioners at the Jasenovac camp, Vjekoslav Maks Luburic, Ljubo Milos, Ivica Matkovic, Zvonimir Brekalo, Ivica Brkljacic, Saban Mujica, a Muslim known as 'bloody Mujo', Zvonko Lipovac, were known for their sadistic brutality and inhumane cruelty. The most noted for his cruelty, however, was Frater Miroslav Filipovic-Majstorovic, a former Roman Catholic friar, known as 'Brother Devil' (Fra Sotona), who was a commander at the Jasenovac camp from June to October 1942. Filipovic-Majstorovic was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1939. He was a chaplain in an Ustasha brigade which massacred over 2,200 Serbian civilians in the villages of Drakulic, Motika and Sargovac, near Banja Luka. Accused of inciting this mass murder of Bosnian Serbs, he was court-martialled and brought before a German military court. The papal legate Ramiro Marcone suspended him after the massacres. Through the intervention of Vjekoslav Luburic, he was brought to JasenovacÝ on June l0, 1942 where he was a commander until October 1942. From Jasenovac, he went to the Stara Gradiska camp, where he was a camp commandant until March 20, 1943. During his four-month command at Jasenovac over 30,000 inmates were murdered. Filipovic-Majstorovic, tried as a war criminal after the war, admitted that he oversaw the extermination of at least 30,000 inmates:
During my tenure, 20,000 to 30,000 prisoners were liquidated in the Jasenovac camp according to my figures... mainly Gypsies, Jews, and Serbs from the Kozara mountains... Sometimes I participated in the liquidations... I admit that I personally killed about 100 prisoners in the Jasenovac camp and in Stara Gradiska.
Jasenovac survivor Egon Berger recalled Filipovic-Majstorovic taking the children from three women, who begged for mercy and offered themselves in place of their children. According to Berger:
They threw two children to the ground, and the third into the air like a ball. Fra Majstorovic, holding a spike pointing upwards, pierced it three times, while the fourth time, to the accompaniment of both lamentation and laughter, the child remained impaled on the spike. The mothers were thrown to the ground, tearing their hair, and when they began a terrible screaming, Ustashi of the 14th Osijek Company took them off and liquidated them.
The commandant Ljubo Milos was also known for his sadistic cruelty and bestiality in murdering inmates. Milos, according to survivor Jakov Atijas, ''stabbed a Serb in the chest with his dagger and saying that 'Serbian blood is sweet' drank it from his palm.'' Egon Berger observed how 14 year-old Croat children were brought to the camp ''with the aim of training them to be murderers.'' Berger described the murder of five Serbian Orthodox priests at Jasenovac:
Five Orthodox priests were led out... They were ordered to sing hymns... One of them, a man of over eighty, ... was immediately beaten with rifleÝ butts... One of the Ustashi - a child of twelve years old - bent over the old manÝ and took out his dagger. In a moment, he had cut off both the priestâs ears. He turned grinning to his companions, saying: ''I'll show them at home tomorrow what sort of ears a Vlach priest has!'' The Ustashi seized the other four... Milos set their beards on fire. Then, after such terrible tortures, they killed them.
The Jasenovac concentration camp became so notorious and infamous for the crimes committed there that international delegations requested to inspect the camp. In February 1942 a press delegation inspected the camp, while a Red Cross delegation arrived in June 1944. Knowing of their arrival in advance, the NDH regime ensured that these delegations would not find any incriminating evidence.
In the final days of the war, the Ustasha commanders and guards blew up all the installations and killed most of the internees, so that no trace of the camp would remain. In 1948, the Communist dictatorship under Josip Broz demolished the crematorium and the remaining buildings, leaving virtually nothing of the Jasenovac camp remaining.
How many persons were murdered in Jasenovac and the other concentration camps?
In BespucaÝ povjesne zbiljnosti (The Wasteland of Historical Reality), Franjo Tudjman stated that ''about 60,000 perished in all the camps and prisons.'' According to Tudjman, 30,000 victims died at the Jasenovac camp. In 1952, the Union of Jewish Councils of Yugoslavia, relying on the reports of Jewish survivors, concluded that, in the Jasenovac camp alone, ''500,000-600,000 people were slaughtered, among whom were about 20,000 Jews.'' Menachem Shelah in The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (1990) gives the following figure:Ý ''Some six hundred thousand people were murdered at Jasenovac, mostly Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and opponents of the Ustasha regime. The number of Jewish victims was between twenty thousand and twenty-five thousand.'' The Ustasha commander at Jasenovac, Frater Miroslav Filipovic-Majstorovic, during questioning after the war, stated that ''according to reports of Maks Luburic... about a half million Serbs were killed in the NDH during these four years.'' On October 20, 1994, Brussels Archbishop Cardinal Godfried Danneels in an interview to Vatican Radio, stated that ''even today it is impossible to say how many Serbs were assassinated in Croatian concentration camps in World War II, but for certain the number must have been over half a million persons.''
Franjo Tudjman has also stated that 900,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust, and that the figure of 6 million is inaccurate and exaggerated. He further accuses Israel of perpetrating a genocide against the Palestinians, and calls the Jews of Israel ''Judeo-Nazis.'' Invited to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC in 1993 by the US State Department, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel would neither meet with him nor speak with him: ''I never spoke to Franjo Tudjman. In fact, I refused to meet him.''
When the flood waters of the Sava River receded, the banks revealed a myriad of human bones, the bones of men, the bones of women, the bones of children, the common grave and final resting place of countless victims of genocide and mass murder.
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Fotich, Konstantin. The War We Lost:Ý Yugoslavia's Tragedy and the Failure of theÝWest. New York: Viking Press, 1948.
Gutman, Israel,ed. The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1990.
Markovic, Marko S. Half a Century of the Serbian Calvary (1941-l99l). Birmingham, England: Lazarica Press, 1992.
Paris, Edmond. Genocide in Satellite Croatia, 1941-1945: A Record of Racial and Religious Persecutions and Massacres. Chicago: The American Institute for Balkan Affairs, 1961.
Wiesel, Elie. Letter to the Author, October 31, 1995.