The Heirs to Kindness in Croatia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The scars that track Nena Koncar's long journey run too deep for a stranger to see, except for the one that is right at her fingertips, a thin white line as straight as the ruler that cut it.

Sitting at her dining room table, 53 years after suffering her smallest wound, Koncar's fingers tremble slightly as she holds out an aging hand.

For just a moment, Koncar is a little girl again in the early days after World War II, an Orthodox Serb orphan in a classroom of Roman Catholic Croats, whose ethnic brethren had murdered her mother and father and little sister.

Koncar didn't despise the children sitting all around her, or even fear them. So what if they were Croats? So was her new mother.

Koncar, now 63, last saw her real mother on a train platform as Croatian troops were separating children from their parents. Her father was already dead, gunned down when Nazi troops and their Croatian Ustashe allies massacred villagers in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Kozara mountains in that summer of 1942.

Along with her sister and young aunt, Koncar was loaded into a cattle car and delivered to a concentration camp for children that the Ustashe had created behind high barbed-wire fences next to the Kupa River in Sisak.

Dysentery was a common killer in the filthy camp. Children often went days without food, and the gruel they were then fed was frequently poisoned with caustic soda, according to survivors' testimonies.

As many as 7,000 children were locked up in the Sisak camp during World War II, and an estimated 4,000 of them died, Koncar said. But she and many other children were saved thanks to a clandestine, and extremely dangerous, effort.

Red Cross volunteers, working secretly with Yugoslavia's Communist underground, rescued as many of the Serbian children as they could from concentration camps by finding homes for them with Croats, often as domestic servants or farm workers. The rescue effort relied on people working under code names in secret cells, coordinated from simple farms as well as aristocratic homes.

While the motives of those who protected the Kozara children were not always pure, their legacy is remarkable. Their moral strength and bravery has proved stronger than the Balkans' seemingly endless cycles of violence.

A Child's Memories of a Plump, Red Apple

Koncar had been taken to the Sisak camp in early 1942 with her 3-year-old sister, Dragica, and their aunt Dora, who was 13.

Searching the frozen memories of a 5-year-old, trying to recall the season, Koncar can see the plump apples again. It must have been July.

Koncar was in the camp for 2 1/2 months, which she remembers for the pain of constant hunger--and the apples.

"One day, when we went for a walk . . . there was an apple by the river bank. It was already red and ripe," Koncar said. "I only recall that I ran, picked up an apple and took a bite, and that an Ustashe soldier snatched it away from me and threw it away.

"I started crying so much that he began to beat me, and my leg started bleeding. This is my memory," Koncar added, her voice, little more than a whisper, trailing off to silence.

In time, a man from the village of Moscenica came to the camp to find a servant for his elderly grandmother, and chose Koncar's young aunt. Koncar started to cry, and a Red Cross worker named Stefica Prpic decided to take her with them.

They had come too late for Koncar's little sister, who had died just the day before.

"That is why my aunt would not leave me there, because she knew I would die as well," Koncar said.

Prpic asked her sister and her husband, Barbara and Josip Jandricko, to find a home for Koncar.

The Jandrickos had no children of their own, and they took Koncar to their home, a one-room wooden shack.

When local snoops, such as a neighbor in the Ustashe named Perkovic, started asking questions about the new child, Barbara Jandricko claimed the girl was her niece.

Perkovic insisted that was a lie, and said the Ustashe should round up the girl and the Jandrickos as Communists. The Jandrickos could have been killed for defying official doctrine that declared Serbs the enemy, just as Jews and Gypsies and other Holocaust victims were classified under Croatia's Nazi puppet state. Fortunately, a local notary public intervened and swore his guarantee that the child was a true-blooded Croat.

That was enough to shut up the local fascists, and Barbara Jandricko made the child repeat the names of her phony Croatian mother and father over and over again. To stay alive, she had to deny who she was.

Barbara Jandricko's shack still stands today, beside a larger home where she lives in Moscenica. The farmhouse's brown stucco walls bear their own scars: several bullet holes from a more recent war between Serbs and Croats, after Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

In her 87 years, Jandricko has survived enough ethnic hatred to ruin several lives, yet she never surrendered to it, certainly not on that day when she decided to save a Serbian girl she has called her daughter ever since.

"It always seemed to me the right thing to do, and probably God made it that way," Jandricko said, and a smile spread across her weary face, framed by the halo of a widow's black kerchief, closed tightly under her chin by a safety pin.

Another heroine of the clandestine operation to save the children was Tilla Durieux, a star of silent films and stage. She surreptitiously buried records of the children's identities in wine bottles in her garden, so that one day those who survived could know who they really were.

She worked under the very noses of Nazis who shared the mansion where Durieux took refuge. She spent most of the war in Zagreb, Croatia's capital, after her third husband, Jewish industrialist Ludwig Katzenellenbogen, was arrested and sent to his death in Germany's Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Durieux took shelter with an old friend, a wealthy heiress named Zlata Lubienski, who was also working in the Communist underground. Lubienski took the code name "Red Countess," and Durieux became "Puma," a stealthy mountain lion as black as her own hair.

Their mansion at 27 Jurjevska St., whose walls were decorated with paintings by artists such as Renoir and Chagall, became a favorite social stop for Nazi officers and officials. Some were too star-struck to see what the women were really up to, while others sympathized and looked the other way.

"This was some kind of very nostalgic, perverse--and permanent--cocktail party with German officers," said Nenad Popovic, a Croatian book publisher who founded his small Zagreb firm in Durieux's name in 1991.

"The German officers in her house provided 'the security,' so that our [Croatian] Nazis never made a raid," Popovic said.

In September 1941, Durieux joined the Communist underground and served until May 8, 1945, Yugoslav records show.

It was hard for her to turn against Germany, where masters of the theater such as director Max Reinhardt had helped her become an exalted actress, Durieux wrote in her autobiography. The book, "My First 90 Years," was published in Germany in 1971, the year Durieux died in Berlin.

"On the one hand, I had a lot of love for Germany, where I had spent the biggest and most important part of my life. On the other hand, I hated the Nazis," Durieux wrote. "It was not easy for me to be hostile toward the country for which I had so much to thank. But was that the Germany I loved? Wasn't that a bunch of blind lunatics?"

Lubienski's mansion was also home to Jana Koch, who headed the Junior Red Cross when Durieux arrived. Koch monitored the trains that delivered the Kozara children, sometimes dead, and compiled the secret lists of names, which Durieux then had to hide.

Meat was so hard to buy that Durieux raised rabbits, 70 of them, in the yard, which gave her a good excuse to work in the garden each day, and conceal more lists of children's names and other documents.

"At dawn, I was burying the bottles with a children's shovel and my bare hands," Durieux wrote.

Koch was arrested and jailed in 1944, but the police didn't touch Durieux, perhaps because she had charmed some influential men. One was a cultural official from the German delegation, whom Durieux identified only as "Mr. H.O.," who took two rooms in the mansion. A publisher in his private life, he came to know his hostesses during chats about poetry.

"Although we were doing our best to keep our illegal actions secret, it was unavoidable that a curious observer here and there would notice something," Durieux wrote. "He not only closed his eyes for us, it turned out that his presence was protection for us."

The German official secretly opposed Hitler's regime, and even hid "some dangerous documents under his shirts in his closet for some time," Durieux recalled.

Another German official living in the mansion was far less sympathetic, but much too obsessed with his mission--to set up Zagreb's Hitler Youth and get himself promoted to the SS--to notice what the women of the house were doing, besides tending to his clothes.

"His miserable looks were to be compared with the miserable state of his laundry and socks," Durieux wrote.

German Major Began Scouting the Garden

Toward the end of the war, as partisan guerrillas pressed closer to Zagreb, a German major showed up in the mansion's garden, scouting for the best spots to set up five machine guns.

"To my horror, one of the places he chose was the one where I usually buried the bottles with the fatal content," Durieux wrote. "I was very close to fainting, but came to my senses quickly and smiled at him in a friendly way." She helped the major find a better machine gun position.

Popovic is convinced that Durieux didn't know exactly what she was burying. Members of the underground were told as little as possible, so they would have fewer secrets to give up if they were caught and tortured.

He also thinks Durieux's diary shows that she was Lubienski's lover and was probably driven more by her anti-fascist views--a moral solidarity with peasants and the working class--than she was by any motherly instinct to save Serbian orphans.

At war's end, the Communist partisans' leader, Josip Broz Tito, became Yugoslavia's dictator. Tito, a Croat, tried to exorcise the demons of ethnic hatred with a strict dogma of "brotherhood and unity."

Serbs and Croats were no longer allowed to be enemies, and Koncar didn't need to deny who she was anymore. But the local school still required an Orthodox Serb child to learn the Catholic rites, and it was in a 1947 catechism class, Koncar says, that she realized for the first time "that something was wrong."

After the first two lessons, Koncar didn't get her homework right, and the priest gave the girl a sharp reminder of her place with a slash across two fingers. Then he called her a vlach, a racist slur that cut deeper than the ruler's edge.

"He told me that I am an Orthodox child who had no business being there," she said. "And with that--with this blood--I arrived home."

As Tito's rule grew stronger, so did his efforts to force Yugoslavia's ethnic enemies to live together in peace. If the people of Sisak needed a reminder of the risks of failure, the government erected a plaque on a fountain on the site of the Sisak concentration camp in honor of the children who died there.

The fountain, with seven statues of children playing, has been dry since 1991, and the commemorative plaque was pulled down in the same year, when Croatia was fighting for its survival against Serbian troops.

The former concentration camp's main structure, a four-story building where Koncar once slept on the floor on clumps of straw, is now called the Crystal Block of Happiness, home of the Discoteque Party Club.

Koncar used to go there often to remember the family she has missed for so long. When she visits now, Koncar is moved to anger by a different pain: the thought of how easily the world forgets.

Every Saturday and Sunday, Koncar boards a bus for the journey to Moscenica to see Jandricko, and to get the support of her Croatian brother, Duro, Jandricko's only biological child.

When a visitor sat and joined them recently, Koncar asked Jandricko to recall that day, 58 years ago, when she made the choice to save a Serbian child's life.

"How did I take you?" Jandricko asked. "I grabbed you with both my hands." Turning to the visitor, Jandricko said, with a broad smile, "She's ours."

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