Yugoslav Prisoners of War in Norway

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Photo by Narvikssenteret

In March 1942 the German authorities decided to deport a number of prisoners from Yugoslavia to Norway for forced labour, mainly in a defense and transport project along the Norwegian coast. Altogether 4268 prisoners were deported in 1942-43 from camps in Yugoslavia to more than thirty Norwegian camps, most of which were in northern Norway. This article is written by Rakel Kamsvåg, as an extended essay at Belgrade International School in 2012.

Why were Yugoslavs sent to labor camps in Norway during the Second World War?

Background

On September 1st, 1939, Germany, invaded Poland without any warning. The attack marked the start of the Second World War. The war became the bloodiest and largest w in history, involving most of the world’s nations. After the German invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany. On April 9, 1940, Germany invaded Norway.

In 1941 Hitler attacked Serbia. Serbia refused to surrender. The Serb resistance soon split into two anti-fascist resistance groups, the nationalist and royalist Chetniks and the communist led Partisans. The two groups initially cooperated witch each other, but the relationship gradually deteriorated into full scale conflict.  Nazi Germany quickly managed to occupy Serbia, although the resistance continued and gradually grew.

The German policy of killing captured rebels was not as effective as the Germans seem to have expected. This resulted in the highest representatives of German armed forced in Serbia and the Southeast defined a new policy on captured insurgents in the second half of March 1942. Referring to the order of the Supreme Command of Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), the acting commander of the Wehrmacht in the Southeast, General Walter Kuntze gave an order not to continue the execution of all captured rebels on 18 March, 1942. Instead, they could be used as a labor force in the occupied territories.  At the end of 1941 the need for qualified workers in German war industry was great, and the Germans started forced recruitment of Yugoslavs for work in Germany, and by March 1942, 40.000 had been recruited.  By then the internal situation in Yugoslavia made recruitment more difficult as the Yugoslavs instigated actions against the Germans. However this did not stop the imprisonment of the Yugoslavs.

The Germans used Yugoslavia and Serbia as resource of free slave labor force for the German War industry same as other occupied countries because there was a great lack of domestic workers who were sent to the front as soldiers. They used captured partisans or sympathizers of Yugoslav partisan movement as forced laborers in Norway for construction of roads in the North or other construction works.       

With this new order set in place of March 19, General Kuntze set about and explained the process of dealing with the captured rebels. They were to be sent to the concentration camps such as Šabac, Belgrade-Dedinje, Niš, and later Zemun, where they would be interrogated and further disposed by a representative of the higher leader of SS and Police of General, August Meyszner. Meyszner was given the option to send the captured rebels as forces laborers in German interest areas. The prisoners would be interrogated at those camps by the commissioner of General Meyszer and he would dispose them further, "for example, sending them to German interest areas as forced workers". At the end of the month the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht agreed that "rebels captured in the Serbian territory," if they did not have to be shot for taking part in fights, "should be used at construction sites in northern Scandinavia under the harshest living conditions." The chief of all police services in the occupied Serbia Meyszner and the Reich Commissioner for Norway Josef Terboven agreed to send 4200 prisoners to forced labor to Norway from Serbia. Referring to the agreement with the SS-General Meyszner, on March 21 1942, General Bader informed General Kuntze that he ordered sending the captured rebels to a concentration camp, from where they should be sent to work in Norway; two days later General Kuntze agreed.

Professors Ristović suggests one reason could be that Meyszner, who was the federal minister, had been Head of Police in Trøndelag before he came to Belgrade, and may have known Josef Terboven, who was the Reichskommissar in Norway, from there. August Meyszner, who was in Norway until January 1942, became supreme commander of the SS in Serbia. So Terboven who was supreme commander of the civilian board of Norway also had good contacts to the SS and police. Meyszner who was the head of SS in Belgrade and Terboven had agreed on 12,000 Yugoslav should be sent to Norway as forced laborers. Terboven was a Nazi leader who was the Reichskommissar for Norway at that time.

By the end of 1941 the Germans started forced recruitment of Yugoslavs for work in Germany, and by March 1924, 40.000 Yugoslavs had been recruited. Referring to the agreement with the SS-General Meyszner, on March 21 1942, General Bader informed General Kuntze that he ordered sending the captured rebels to a concentration camp, from where they should be sent to work in Norway; two days later General Kuntze agreed

The conditions for the prisoners of war in Yugoslavia

“The camp at the Belgrade fairgrounds had the capacity to accommodate large numbers of people. It was at a very convenient location, near the main land and water communications and the centre of German military administration in Serbia. In May 1942, under a new name, the Detention camp Zemun (Anhaltelager Semlin) was given a central place in the system of German camps for gathering and deportation of prisoners in Yugoslavia, even those assigned to forced labour in Norway”. They did not get enough prisoners that way, this resulted in them looking at Croatia, governed by the fascist Ustaša-government to get more people.

“As the number of prisoners that were to be sent to concentration camps in Norway was still far from the necessary, the German commanders turned to a much "richer" source, the concentration camps in Croatia. Although German forces from the beginning of 1942 conducted growing military operations against the insurgents at the territory of Croatia, they did not have their own camps until the beginning of 1943, except from the collecting points for prisoners in the zones of military operations”. “In Croatia, the terror unleashed by the Ustaša against the Serbian villages of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina drove Serbs into Chetniks and the Partisans.  These peasants had a choice – to be incinerated or butchered in their homes by the Ustaša, or to fight.”

The collection and concentration camps of the NHD were poorly built, atrociously built run and extremely unhygienic.  Jasenovac was the most notorious camp.  Most of Croatia’s Gypsies perished there as well as a sizeable proportion of the Jewish population, and a large number of Serbs.

According to a report of the Chief of Police Security and Security Services of July 14, 1942, by then, in three groups sent to Norway, there were 2840 Serbian and 1300 "Croatian" (i.e. from the Croatian territory) prisoners. While all the detainees from Serbia were sent to Norway, it was not the case with the detainees from Croatia. From about 2950 prisoners that were brought from the Jasenovac camp, only 1300 (44.1%) were sent to Norway. These figures speak eloquently about the physical condition and work capacity of prisoners brought from the Jasenovac camp. Although the exit from the camp meant salvation from certain death, the arrival at the Belgrade fairgrounds camp or transport to Norway meant the beginning of new large-scale trials.

The envoy of the Third Reich in the ISC Siegfried Kasche advocated the deportation of as many prisoners from the ISC to Norway. Certainly on the basis of his reports, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin had information that about 13,000 partisans from the Croatian area would be sent to forced labor in Norway.

The Croatian government’s payments were not nearly enough to provide even remotely normal feeding for thousands of starving, sick and exhausted prisoners in the camp at the Belgrade fairgrounds. Immediately after the arrival of the first transport of prisoners from Kozara, a typhus quarantine was declared in the camp, which lasted until September 28, 1942 with minor interruptions. Extremely difficult living conditions led to high mortality of prisoners, which reached the scale of mass mortality in August. Based on the records kept at the camp hospital, mortality rates can be tracked, with mostly only numbers of deaths, not the names. While in May there was only one fatality, and eight in June, in July the number rose to 126, or 4 per day. However, in August the death rate rose to 2266 or an average of 76 deaths a day. Only on one day, August 22, 1942, the hospital records recorded 340 deaths. After a peak in August, the death rate began to decrease, but in the next two months it was extremely high, considering that the total number of prisoners decreased. In September there were 1340 deaths (an average of 45 per day), and in October 336 (average 11 per day).

About 3,000 of sick and exhausted prisoners were sent on September 1, 1942 by the "Train of death" to the Jasenovac camp where they were all killed (except for two who fled). A group of 801 prisoners, mostly prisoners from Kozara, was sent to forced labor on the Danube`s Ostrovačka isle on August 25, 1942. In mid-October that year, after the murderous work, only 89 inmates returned from there, and upon the arrival at the camp, they were mostly dead or killed.

Although the diet in the Organization Tot camp was somewhat better, newly arrived prisoners were so exhausted that the mass death continued. The brutal regime of torture contributed to this. The above statistics about dying in the records of the camp hospital refer to deaths in the camp of the Todt Organization. From a total of 2,500 prisoners who were brought to this camp, 1536 (61.44%) lost their lives in it. After a change in the command at the Organization Tot camp, in September 1942, the conditions improved in it which made it possible to restore transfers to Norway. The first transport of 500 prisoners was sent on 19 October, 1942, and the other 380 detainees on January 19, 1943. 

In early April 1943, a group of captured partisans and their supporters from Slavonia, Srem, eastern Bosnia and Croatia itself was sent from the camp of the Todt Organization in Osijek to Norway. It was also the last transport of prisoners from the territory of Yugoslavia which was sent to Norway.

It should be pointed out that most of the prisoners from Serbia, who were interned in the camp at the Belgrade fairgrounds, survived internment and were sent to Norway. Of  these 3537 prisoners 2287 (64.65%) arrived in camps in Norway. The situation quite different was with the detainees brought from the ISC.

Based on the agreement about taking "politically undesirable elements", the agreement between the Head of the German police in Serbia and the chief of police services in the ISC transporting prisoners began from the camp in Jasenovac to the camp at the Belgrade fairgrounds in order to send them to Norway. For the Ustaša camps prisoners it meant salvation from certain death, despite uncertainty about the final destination.

Most of the prisoners brought from the ISC were not sent to Norway. From a total of 13,641 prisoners from the camps in the ISC who were deported to the Belgrade fairgrounds in order to be sent to Norway, 2376 (17.42%%) of them were actually sent there, while only 1981 or 14.52% of them arrived in Norway.

From a total of 4268 prisoners who arrived in Norway, 2287 or 53.58% were from German occupation areas in ​​Serbia and 1981 or 46.41% were from the ISC. Almost all detainees from Serbia were Serbs, and they constituted the majority of prisoners from the ISC. Out of 1981 prisoners from the ISC who arrived in Norway, there were 1620 (81.78%) Serbs, 179 (9.03%) Muslims, 165 (8.32%) Croats, and 17 (0.85%) the others.

Although the deportation of detainees from the camps in Serbia and especially from the ISC camps meant a rescue from death for them, the conditions under which they were interned before deportation to Norway brought death to most of them.

Concentration Camps

Concentration camps were maintained throughout the different territories that Nazi Germany controlled. The purpose and the intention of these camps was to hold political prisoners and opponents of the regime, such as Jews, homosexuals and mentally disabled. The conditions in these camps were extreme where many died for many different reasons such as diseases, starvation, or through deliberate maltreatment, and if one was seen as unfit to work they would be executed. However even though the intention of these camps were to be work camps, in 1942, a network of extermination camps were starting to be built. This meant that people were no longer sent to concentration camps to work, but rather to die.                                                                                                   

In Norway there were 24 main concentration camps. Of these 24 camps thirteen of them were in northern-Norway, nine were in middle-Norway and two were in the south-east of Norway. The majority of the Yugoslav prisoners were Serbian, varying from all ages, down to boys in the age of thirteen to fourteen. Most Serbians who were sent to Norway were political prisoners,  many of them having fought with the Partisans. Radovan Raka Acimovic, a Serbian survivor form Norwegian concentration camps and whom I interviewed, was an active communist. He was arrested at the age of 20.                                                                                                                                              

Professor Nils Christie at the University in Oslo has in his extensive sociological study “Prison guards in concentration camps” states that the Serbian camps in Northern-Norway were on the same level as the worst concentration camps in Germany. The death rate is higher in the Serbian camps there than in the regular German concentration camps.

Yugoslavs sent to Norway

Prisoners would usually be sent to camps that were close to where they were captured. There were many Russians, Polish and German prisoners in Norway, which is understandable given that these countries are close to Norway, and less money would be spent on transporting the prisoners.

In total 4,268 Yugoslavs arrived in Norway at great cost.  Most of them, 90 %, were Serbians, 2230 were from Serbia, 1023 from Croatia and 1015 from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

One can wonder as to what was the reason that some Yugoslav prisoners were sent to Norway, whilst others were not. The deciding factor was the following; Prisoners of war were in the great majority members and sympathizers of partisan resistance movement (National Liberation Army), and mostly communists, while Yugoslav Jews were sent to death camps in Germany. What concerns nationality they were by great majority Serbs from different parts of occupied Serbia, but also Serbs who were first in Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia then sent to Belgrade concentration camp at (Staro) Sajmiste.  Out of the 4,268 prisoners whom had arrived to Norway, 2287(53.5%) were from German occupation areas in Serbia and 1981(46.41%) were from the Croatia.

Most prisoners, such as Radovan Raka Acimovic, were not informed that they were being sent to Norway. Their journey to get to Norway was an indication to the prisoners of how bad it would be. Acimovic was moved to Poland, from Germany, and from Poland he was transported into a cargo ship, in the cargo area without any possibility to go out on the deck. It was not until he arrived in Trondheim, that he knew that he was in Norway. As they were on their journey they could feel that they were going north because it was getting colder which was very hard for them, because they were already very weak and they had already suffered alto from lack of nutrition, and from being tortured a lot. Himself and the other prisoners were immediately moved to a cargo train and were but in the cargo carriage, with little air. After they had been in the train they were loaded on busses, and from the buss to a ferry.  This was their first meeting with a Norwegian concentration camp, which was controlled by SS troops.

Conditions in the camps

The testimonies from Yugoslavs who survived the camps in Norway are full of hardships, degrading and cruel treatment, deaths and a very few rays of sunshine in the form of clandestine help from Norwegians.  The working conditions were horrible, such as the concentration camps anywhere. The prisoners worked without any machinery, which meant they had to resort to hand labor; they were drilling through stones with hand tools. Many had been killed due to their inability to work. The people, who could not even walk from the camp to where they would work, were killed by the guards as soon as they fell. Especially when they were working with the snow people would fall asleep and die from the cold. Since there were no tools that were provided, one could conclude that the Yugoslavs were not sent to work, but to be in quarantine.

On the other side there was still much need for the work power in these concentration camps to build various roads and such.  The descriptions in the testimonies we can read are full of real work tasks: ” ... The road would be 34.5 km and was traced done from Trældal to Lapland up the Swedish side. This task was given to “Einsatz Gruppe Wiking-Einsatz Nord Norwegen”, which had a department in Narvik, and headquartered in Lillehammer. To complete the work was required much labor. Because of the climate one could only expect to work five to six months of the year. The rest of the time it would not be possible because of extreme cold and heavy snow.” The Germans needed strong men who could do the work.   

The conditions inside the concentration camps did not improve from their journey as a Serbian boy, aged nineteen describes his feelings towards the concentration camps Beisfjord; “We were only served enough food so that we would remember where we came from ... It was ordered that we, from morning to our bed time in the evening had to be half naked... We woke up at five in the morning, and were not allowed to go back to our rooms before eight o’clock in the evening. This torture grew more dangerous for each day. Even when the sun did shine, it did not warm our bodies up.” This shows the lack of food and nutrition the prisoners would receive, and also how poor their conditions were. One should also keep in mind the very challenging climate in Northern Norway, where temperatures often could go down to -20⁰, -30⁰  Celsius, and in extreme cases (as in Karasjok, where one of the camps was, - 50⁰).

The concentration camps were ruled by the power of fear, with the prisoners knowing the consequence of not following orders from the first day at the camps. “The commander of the concentration camp was convinced that the fear was the best of all teachers. Already the first day the prisoners were in Karasjok, he picked out five Yugoslavs and killed them in order to emphasize his words, that so it goes with anyone who tries to escape.” Many other torture methods involved the nature, seeing that it was cold in Norway, the guards could use many aspects of the cold weather to their advantage. When it came to hygiene, the SS would insist that this was something they looked upon as very important, and seeing that there were many lakes around many of the concentration camps, the prisoners would be forced to swim there. “Hauptmann and the other Germans chased us at full speed through the woods and up to the lake. This was in the spring, and ice floes lay close. Just the thought of bathing in the icy water made ​​us shiver. Some jumped right into the water, others ran with did not dare continue. The Germans thrashed away at them and forced them into the water.” The SS guards had a way of making most experiences painful for the prisoners, continuing their use of fear. “The bathing Sundays always ended with large and small tragedies. Many were so frozen that they could not get on their clothes, so that other had to clothe them. Often it happened that almost half of the prisoners had to be carried back to camp after bathing”. This shows that in many cases something so simple such as hygiene was a death trap for many of the prisoners who did not have the strength to keep their bodies warm in the cold water.

As previously mentioned the working conditions in the concentration camps were not good. “Despite ‘the modern mechanical equipment’, most of the prisoners were neither able to work more formal better, if they had wanted this. Exhausted as they were, they could barely manage to get to their workplace.”

Beisfjord

The Beisfjord camp is today remembered because it was the worst camp in Norway with a death rate which exceeded Auschwitz, in spite of the fact that the camp was only in existence for Yugoslavs for 4 months. The evening of the 17th of July the date that a massacre started in the labor camp Beisfjord. The sick prisoners were living in separate barracks from the ‘healthy’ prisoners in this camp. A few days before the 17th of July the prisoners were given orders to start digging a ditch, many of the prisoners thought that this was for water pipes, which was rumored to be installed in the camp. However, in reality they were digging their own mass grave. On the eve of the 17th of the July, from the guard tower the camp leader Franz de Martin gave the order that the sick prisoners were to be led out of the barracks. He gave orders accompanied by a torrent. The prisoners walked down toward the ditches, four by four in a row, in groups of twenty. Some were able to walk, some leaning to the other. When the first group had come through the 'corridor', which was a series of barbed wire, and down to the edge of the ditch, they were ordered to stand in a long line along the edge of the ditch. Johan Sundby who was a witness of the massacre from his house which was right by the camp, even though everyone that lived close by the camp had been given strict instructions by the SS to close all their curtains, and not to go outside their house that night. He tells: “When they were lined up, the SS guard pulled back, and the man with the machine gun swept over those who were lined up. When the gun was fired, the other SS guards came forward and threw the shot prisoners into the grave whom had not fallen down into the ditch, both those who had died and those who were not dead.” Many of the sick prisoners were hiding in their barracks, and refused to get out. The German guards then decided to set fire to the barracks, guards standing armed outside of the exits of the barracks, shooting anyone trying to escape.

The camp management at Beisfjord sent on the 6th of August 1942 a report to the SS-management 'North' in Oslo. In this report, there was two misleading information, and both were clearly given on purpose. The first; the headline was that there was a report about prisoners who had died (and not killed). The second was that instead of their names, there was only given their prisoner numbers. In the report there was listed 287 numbers. So many people were murdered this secluded night between the 17th and 18th of July. Another witness, Atle Føre, tells that after that night he had heard that the explanation for the killings was that his doctor, Weideborg, had been in the camp before the 17th of July stating that there was typhoid going around in the sick camps.

Comparison of death rates among different POW-groups

In addition to Yugoslav POWs, there was also about 70-80.000 Russian and Polish POWs in Norway during the Second World War. All in all the death rate among Soviet Prisoners of war in Norway was 10% and among the Polish 0.6%. Throughout the war in Norway, approximately 60% Yugoslav prisoners of war in the concentration camps in Norway died. The main reason for the higher Yugoslav death rate seems to be that it was the SS who were responsible for the Yugoslav prisoners the first 9 months. They were not regarded by Germany as prisoners of war, but as murderers and bandits. The Wehrmacht were responsible for the Soviet and Polish and treated them a little better because they needed labor and the Wehrmacht did not have concentration camps such as the SS. The SS told the prisoners that they came to Norway to die, even though the point was so that they would work. Thus as many as 2,100 died in the nine months from June 1942 to March 1943 when Wehrmacht took over. Wehrmacht took over to decrease the death rate, and "only" 500 prisoners of war died in the next two years in which Wehrmacht had the prisoners.

The death rate of Yugoslav POWs of around 60 % seems to be at about the same level as for Russian POWs in German camps in other countries.

Why were Yugoslavs sent to Norway?

So why were Yugoslavian prisoners sent across Europe just to build roads and railway tracks, when there were other prisoners in the neighboring countries of Norway that would have been capable of doing the job? Professor Ristović believes that the motivation for sending the Yugoslavs to Norway was not mainly economical. He believes that they were sent to Norway to be killed by hard work and cold, and that the German motives were a mixture of ideological and economical. He is suggesting that they were not sent to Norway with the idea that they were to work, but to die.

Radovan Raka Acimovic, agrees with this theory, and believes that they were sent to Norway to die. Norwegian historian Magne Skodvin has written that the Norwegian justice court reaffirmed in 1947 that it had no doubt shat on pure concentration camps, created with the aim of the prisoners were systematic extermination.

Most historians agree that the Serbians and other Yugoslavs who were sent to the concentration camps in Norway, were sent there to die. German occupation authorities in Serbia sent prisoners of war, mostly partisans in Norway, first as slave labor force, secondly with the intention to kill those people with the hard labor some 4.000 km far from their homes.

Bibliography

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