By Vesna Domany-Hardy
I come from a progressive Jewish family who at the time of my birth in 1941 lived in Croatia. My mother and her parents had moved to Zagreb from Sarajevo in 1938. My family had to move due to my mother’s anti-fascist activities which she undertook whilst still being at secondary school. She also had a boyfriend who had volunteered to ﬁght for the Spanish Republic and who had joined the International Brigades.
When his letters to her were intercepted by the authorities, she was accused of anti-state activities. She was sentenced by a court of justice and was banned from continuing her education anywhere in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. After the family moved to Zagreb, she was able to join the Union of Oﬃce and Bank Employees, most members of which were aware of the danger of fascism and active in organizing resistance. Through her union activities my mother met Rudolph, ‘Rudi’ Domany, an economist and activist. His Jewish family Domany/Kohn had moved from Orahovica, in the Eastern part of Croatia, to Zagreb in the early thirties. By the middle of 1940 Rudi Domany and Eva Izrael were married.
The war in Yugoslavia started several months later. In April 1941, the Axis powers attacked Yugoslavia without declaration of war. The country capitulated after 9 days, the King and his government escaped to London while the country was partitioned by the Axis powers. In Croatia, the German and Italian occupiers installed an Ustasha government consisting mostly of terrorists trained by Mussolini in the Aeolian islands. The Ustasha ceded to Mussolini most of coastal Croatia and in return were given Bosnia and Herzegovina. As soon as they came to power the Ustasha installed Nazi-like racist laws. Arrests, evictions, persecution and arbitrary executions became the order of the day. On the list of endangered sections of the population were Jews, Roma and Sinti, Orthodox Serbs, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, Masons, known socialists and communists, and anybody who opposed the regime. My grandfather’s Bosnian Sephardic Jewish family were arrested immediately and sent to terrible concentration camps in Croatia from which no-one returned. This included my grandfather’s mother, his siblings and their families, sixteen of them.
Both before and after my birth in May 1941, my parents were both involved in resistance activities. In their apartment they were busy typing and cyclostyling posters and leaﬂets urging the population to resist.
I was born a month into this state of aﬀairs in Zagreb. At the time of my birth my grandfather Oscar Jeshua Izrael was arrested and all his property conﬁscated. Soon after he was executed together with anti-fascist intellectuals, although he was a businessman. Both before and after my birth in May 1941, my parents were both involved in resistance activities. In their apartment they were busy typing and cyclostyling posters and leaﬂets urging the population to resist. Soon Ustasha agents came to arrest my father. Although he could have escaped, as some resistance units were already forming in the countryside, he decided against it to avoid the apartment being searched which would have exposed my mother and me. Only a few days later he was executed by a ﬁring squad with 90 other innocent hostages at the edge of the forest, on the outskirts of Zagreb.
My mother was only 21 and I was 3 months old. Several months later, my mother with me, my paternal grandparents, my 80 year old great-grandmother and my maternal grandmother were all evicted from their apartments. We were able to move in with a relative whose apartment was the property of the Catholic Church. Even this did not stop the Ustasha, who came for all of us with deportation orders in February 1942. In the ensuing confusion my mother managed to hide me with the concierge in the neighbouring block while she and her mother escaped. All the others were taken and deported, never to come back. Much later we learnt they were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
A few days later, by chance, my mother met a friendly couple from the same trade union who offered to take me and look after me so that she could join the resistance movement. I was ten months old and survived the war as a hidden child.
A few days later, by chance, my mother met a friendly couple from the same trade union who offered to take me and look after me so that she could join the resistance movement. I was ten months old and survived the war as a hidden child. I was well looked after and loved by this family. Even though this family believed the father was safe by being married to a Catholic, he was arrested and executed for being a Jew at the very end of the war. His wife, who had two children of her own, kept looking after me until my mother’s demobilisation from Tito’s Army in the summer of 1945. She had spent the war as a partisan and survived but her mother, my maternal grandmother had not survived the third of the seven German oﬀensives against the Yugoslav resistance.
After leaving the Spanish Civil War and moving to Germany, via the French concentration camps, my uncle Robert with a group of comrades managed to escape to Croatia in the summer of 1941. As an experienced oﬃcer and ﬁghter he was sent to a mountainous region to organize the resistance there. As the commander of the whole district, he enlisted many volunteers into partisan units. However, a price was put on his head by the Italian fascist command in that part of the country and he was betrayed. Along with three comrades he was staying in the house of some people who they believed to be on their side. In fact, they were secretly Serbian nationalists who disarmed the partisans in their sleep and executed them. The local people knew that they were throwing bodies into a nearby limestone cave, one of the deepest in Europe before collecting the Italian reward. It was only in 1966 that a team of speleologists from South Wales descended to the bottom of the 400 metre deep hole and found 4 skeletons.
My mother, with me, and one of her young uncles who returned from a German prisoner-of-war camp, were the only members of our branch of the Izrael and Domany families to survive.