Vjekoslav Zugaj


A Penitentiary for the re-education of priests

The Franciscan monk Josip Visković was imprisoned after the war. He was born in Tučepi near Makarska in 1915. He attended the elementary school in his native village and the Franciscan grammar school and boarding school in Sinj. He studied theology in Makarska and was ordained in 1939. He was arrested on 19 April in the monastery in Zagreb and sentenced to fifteen-years in prison. He served his entire term in Stara Gradiška.(61)

"When the new Yugoslavia was established, the entire populauon of the former Independent State of Croatia had a very hard time. Croatia was part of the unitary Yugoslavia and the situation was complicated by the Communist system that followed the model of Russian Bolshevism. This led to the abolition of private ownership, the introduction of collectivisation, suppression of the independent press and prohibition of all parliamentary parties. The Catholic church in Croatia was subject to extremely severe pressure. It was dispossessed of its property and its religious activities were restricted to services inside the church.

Resistance by the congregation was destroyed by draconian measures by the authorities so that there were no public reaction to apparent breaching of rights. Nevertheless, representatives of the Catholic church did not give up easily, although the new authorities were particularly rigorous when punishing our brothers.

At their conference after the war, the bishops protested sharply against illegitimacy and misuse and published a "Pastoral Letter" which was read in all churches and parishes. In response to this protest, representatives of the Communist party showed their power and strength in society and they even liquidated those who got in their way. Consequently during the period of peace a considerably higher number of priests died than during the war. Churches, monasteries and parishes were liable to taxes so high that priests could not possibly pay them and the tax-collectors rigorously confiscated everything they could and then sold these things to pay the taxes.

The priests were mobilised for reserve or regular military service at the most inconvenient times with the only purpose of preventing them from carrying out their religious services. The Communist authorities found the priests and friars guilty of all kinds of crimes allegedly committed against "the people and the national authorities" and the prison sentences were usually passed on the basis of invented or imputed evidence.

What I am saying only applies to the events in Stara Gradiška. The prisons in Lepoglava, Foča, Zenica and other prisons on the territory of the former state are a story for themselves. The majority of priests from Croatia were in Stara Gradiška. This prison acted in accordance with its name: "Correctional Institution". The prisoners were to be "corrected", and this applied especially to the 250 Catholic priests who served their time there. The slogan of this prison was similar to the one used by Hitler's concentration camps "through work to freedom". Nikola Soldo, in his description of the flood that effected a number of workshops within the prison, confirms the fact that the priests were subject to extremely hard labour. The priests had to pull out heavy machines from mud and water. The worst of all, however, was digging out the corpses of prisoners killed during the war and buried several kilometres away from Stara Gradiška. The corpses were decomposed and the appearance of their faces was particularly awful. We pulled them out from the trenches using shovels and picks and we were not provided with any protective clothing or gloves. Only when we came back to prison did we wash our hands and bodies with cold water. Our whole room stank of corpses. We pulled out approximately 900 corpses. Some of the corpses were recognised by their families and were taken to their graves, some were put back into the trenches and some were buried near the prison.

While carrying out this task, the priests were placed in a little room where they could not breath normally nor rest after their hard labour. We had to lie on the bare floor. Some of the priests had a blanket and others had to lie in just their prison clothe.

The news about such shameful conditions reached the Papal Nuncio and his intervention had some effect since at that time the relationship between the Holy See and Yugoslavia was still not broken. Later we were discharged from thisjob and the food improved as we were given a meal known as "R 1". The reinforced portion was, however, still insufficient and consisted of a little piece of bread divided into four pieces. Each prisoner was given 15 dkg for the whole day. At noon and in the evening we had a hot meal: cattle beet, peas or cabbage. The prisoners were often sick due to rotten food, which was not even adequate for feeding cattle. For breakfast, we had acorn coffee with no sugar which was called "Negro's sweat" by the prisoners.

When work started in the "desert" (the farm outside the prison walls), the priests were taken there by trucks. We grew vegetables and hoed the corn. Before the work started, the guards were distributed around the estate to prevent the prisoners escaping. When the prison brickyard started work, the priests were assigned to preparation activities, transport and baking of bricks. We did well with this job and the work was developing well until an escape occurred that, in my opinion, was set up and carried out in co-operation with the guard. From then on, we were not allowed to leave the walls except when we were assigned tasks such as transporting earth and heatina wood or cutting osiers along with the other prisoners.

Whenever a political event occurred in the world that had anything to do with the activity of Croatian emigrants, the prisoners were gathered by the management of the Correctional Institution and asked to condemn these incidents. When they refused to co-operate at these meetings, they were additionally punished with harder labour, they could not receive letters and packages or they were placed in solitary confinement.

When they wanted to divide the priests they transferred them into the department with criminals and political prisoners but there were also cases of group isolations i.e. complete separation of priests from the other prisoners. When such arrangements were made, the priests had additional problems as they were abused by the criminals who wanted to please the prison management.

Those priests who avoided communication with the guards were under additional pressure and they were reproached for not trying to win any favours for themselves or for not asking for amnesty or sentence reduction. According to the management these priests were "the most obstinate negative elements"; so they tried to use spies to obtain formal justification for additional punishments. Personally, we found it very hard not to be able to perform our religious services since we were deprived of our prayer-books. The management hoped that this was the way to run us spiritually dry.

International commissions, who visited the prisons after the war, never u icd to make contact with the priests. I remember that only the Ministry of the Interior sent their officers to see whether the priests had been "corrected". Although there was no improvement after their visits, we could at least make our complaints to them against the management procedure.

There were several future bishops among us. It is significant that not one active bishop was brought to us. The archbishop, Stepinac, was isolated in Lepoglava and Andro Štambuk, who was later to become the bishop of Hvar, was with us before he was ordained. The time he spent in the refugees camp in El Shatt, Egypt, did him no good. Ćiril Kos, who was later to be the bishop of Djakovo, shared the same fate as Mijo Škvorc, the famous Jesuit preacher whose services were largely attended by Zagreb students and intellectuals. This was probably the reason why the authorities accused Škvorc because in prison he had to work very hard especially in winter, when he worked on cutting and transportation of wood. His suffering in prison accelerated his early death once he had been released.


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