Catholics Slaughtered 700,000 Serbs, Jews and Roma in Croatia in WWII

From the barbarity in Croatia during World War II there is a direct historical link to the atrocities committed in Argentina’s Dirty War, and certainty of the Catholic Church’s collusion. It’s time for Pope Francis to open his secret archives and make amends.

By Betty Clermont | 30 July 2016
Daily Kos

South Gate of Jasenovac III “Brickworks” camp.
South Gate of Jasenovac III “Brickworks” camp. (Credit: Public Domain)

Jasenovac in Croatia was the third largest World War II concentration camp in Europe by number of victims. It was operated by the Catholic and Nazi-allied Ustasha government. Wartime Croatia has been called “one great slaughterhouse.”

The prisoners – mostly Serbs, Jews and Roma

had their throats cut with specially designed knives, or they were killed with axes, mallets and hammers; they were also shot, or they were hung from trees or light poles. Some were burned alive in hot furnaces, boiled in cauldrons, or drowned in the River Sava.

Here the most varied forms of torture were used. Finger and toe nails were pulled out with metal instruments, eyes were dug out with specially constructed hooks, people were blinded by having needles stuck in their eyes, flesh was cut and then salted. People were also flayed, had their noses, ears and tongues cut off with wire cutters, and had awls stuck in their hearts. Daughters were raped in front of their mothers; sons were tortured in front of their fathers.

Said plainly, in the concentration camps at Jasenovac and Stara Gradiska, the Ustasha surpassed all that even the sickest mind could imagine and do in terms of the brutal way people were murdered. …

More than 74,316 children were killed. During the Second World War, the only place where there were special camps for children was Croatia. …

Estimates of the total numbers of men, women and children killed there range from 300,000 to 700,000.

“700,000 in a total population of a few million, proportionally, would be as if one-third of the US population had been exterminated by a Catholic militia.”

For the Ustasha (Ustase, Ustaša), “relations with the Vatican were as important as relations with Germany because Vatican recognition was the key to widespread Croat support.” (Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930–1965 (2000) p. 32)

Ante Pavelic, the “Butcher of the Balkans,” had already been convicted in France for planning the 1934 assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia and French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou when he was received in a private audience by Pope Pius XII in May 1941 shortly after becoming dictator of Croatia. “After receiving the papal blessing, Pavelic and his Ustasha lieutenants unleashed an unspeakable genocide in their new country. But Pius XII refused to cut his ties with Catholic Croatia and in 1943 once again imparted the papal blessing on Pavelic, who by that time was a genocidal killer.” (Phayer, Pius XII, The Holocaust, and the Cold War (2008) p. 219)

“It is well known that many Catholic clerics participated directly or indirectly in the Ustaša campaigns of violence.” (Phayer, 2000, pp. 34-35)

Pope Pius XII could not plead ignorance to these atrocities. “Both the nuncio [Vatican ambassador] and the head of the [Croatian] Church, Bishop Alojzje Stepinac, were in continuous contact with the Holy See while the genocide was being committed.” (Phayer, 2000, p. 30)

Vatican Bank

“Approximately half of what [Vatican agent] Fr. Krunoslav Draganovic took out of Croatia was in the form of gold coins, most of which had been looted from Jewish and Serbian victims of Ustasha terror.” (Phayer, 2008, p. 215) Along with gold taken from the pre-war Yugoslav treasury, the coins were transported by truck through Austria and Italy into Rome.

Based on accounts by Emerson Bigelow, in the U.S. Army reporting to the U.S. Treasury Dept, and U.S. intelligence agents William Gowen and James Angelton, “There is no reason to doubt that the Ustasha gold ended up as a deposit in the Vatican Bank.” (Phayer, 2008, p.217) In addition, Gowen later gave testimony at a U.S. federal court in San Francisco that his investigation in 1947 led him to believe that the Vatican was “implicated at the highest level.

In an April 2014 “Open Letter to Pope Francis,” William Dorich, whose father and 16 other relatives were burned alive by the Ustasha and Catholic priests, he asks the pontiff to open the Vatican archives from World War II and make restitution for the gold and other assets stolen from the Ustasha victims and deposited in the Vatican.

Dorich was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit first filed in 1999 against the Vatican Bank by elderly Ustasha victims and their heirs for compensation. When their claim was rejected by U.S. courts for lack of jurisdiction, their attorney, Dr. Jonathan Levy, began petitioning directly to the Vatican, including a letter to Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis’ prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.

“As the postwar years rolled by, the deposited gold had to be ‘laundered’ or changed into various currencies to finance an evolving sequence of tasks. The immediate need was for upkeep for many dozens of Ustasha exiles. False papers had to be fabricated. Some of the funds had to be used for the paying for passage of war criminals.” (Phayer, 2008, p. 217)


As an Allied victory became more certain, two distinct ratlines developed, both operated by Catholic clerics.

Austrian Bishop Hudal’s ratline began to assist highly-placed German and Austrian war criminals. To escape Germany, the best route lay across the Alps to Italy. The American OSS was able to trace support of Hudal’s operation to the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission of Assistance and expatriated Germans and Austrians in Argentina. That Hudal was a notorious Nazi sympathizer was well known in the Vatican. (Phayer, 2008, pp. 196-199)

Due to a “long-time relationship with Himmler’s SD espionage service,” (Phayer, 2008, p. 206) Hudal was able to assist monsters – just a few named here — to escape to South America: Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, Franz Stangl, Eduard Roschmann, Alois Brunner, Walter Rauff.

Pius XII “made no effort to remove Bishop Hudal from the Austrian refugee program under the Pontifical Commission of Assistance until 1952, at which time all, or almost all, of the perpetrators of World War II atrocities who had not been apprehended had made good their escape.” (Phayer, 2008, p. 200)

Numerically, the largest ratline was operated by Fr. Draganovic, and “reveals the direct involvement of Pius XII himself.” Draganovic had served as an army chaplain with the rank of lieutenant colonel at Jasenovac. After the collapse of the Ustasha regime, Draganovic returned to his base in Rome where he established escape routes for Croatian war criminals. This was accomplished largely through the Croatian seminary, St. Jerome’s, located near the Vatican. (Phayer, 2008, pp. 231-232)

A large number of clerical and lay Ustasha war criminals took cover in St. Jerome. The Vatican wanted Draganovic to take care of the criminals and Draganovic served the Vatican as the front man in this venture. As one U.S. Army intelligence report put it, “in many instances it was hard to distinguish the activity of the Church from the activity of Draganovic.” (Phayer, 2008, p. 233) “All intelligence agents involved in the case, regardless of nationality, believed by 1947 that Ante Pavelic had found refuge in a Vatican property or properties.” (Phayer, 2008, pp. 222-223)

“The Vatican was able to use deposits of stolen Nazi funds to finance these [ratlines].” Also, “It would have been perfectly possible to channel funds to escaped war criminals in South America from Vatican Swiss bank accounts through the branches of Sudameris” a South American bank in which the Vatican was heavily invested and “which in the eyes of the Allies was simply an Axis Bank.” (Pollard, Money and the Rise of the Modern Papacy p. 202)

Both ratlines moved war criminals through the port of Genoa to Barcelona, and from Spain to Argentina. (Phayer, 2008, p. 232) In June 1947, “an American diplomat working in the Buenos Aires embassy wrote to the State Department deploring the fact that ‘the Vatican and Argentina [are conniving] to get guilty people to haven in latter country.’” (Phayer, 2008, p. 194)

Based on previously secret files, “investigators of the central war criminal authority in Germany estimated 9,000 war criminals escaped to South America, including Croatians, Ukrainians, Russians and other western Europeans who aided the Nazi murder machine. Most, perhaps as many as 5,000 went to Argentina.”


The Peron government (1946 to 1955) was “so keen to have the war criminals that it sent recruiting agents to Italy to persuade them to come. Like all the other institutions that helped former SS men such as Eichmann get away, the Peron government was well aware of the crimes they had committed.”

Argentina and the Third Reich were “closely linked.” Peron had a secret postwar organization that provided a safe haven to war criminals, giving them landing permits and visas. Many were even given jobs in Perón’s government.

Pavelić arrived in Buenos Aires on November 6, 1948, on an Italian merchant ship and was employed as a security adviser to Peron. In 1950, Pavelić was given amnesty by Peron when the Yugoslav government asked for him to be extradited as a war criminal. He was allowed to stay in Argentina along with 34,000 other Croats, including former Nazi collaborators.

“Many South American countries postwar were ruled by fascist-style military dictatorships that had welcomed the brutal servants of Nazism with few questions asked.”

“Some Jewish groups in Argentina saw a continued Nazi influence in the armed forces and the police long after the first Peron government. They claimed there was persistent anti-Semitism at an official level, and that neo-Nazi propaganda was rife.”

The Dirty War — a period from 1976 to 1983 — shocked the conscience of the world. In the aftermath of a military coup, the junta and their hired killers “disappeared” an estimated 30,000 suspected of opposing them. There were also “child murders, mass executions and a harrowing array of other daily war crimes.”

“Disappeared” refers to one of the many types of Nazi atrocities copied by Latin American dictators. In 1941, Hitler ordered the Nacht und Nebel Erlass (Night and Fog Decree) designed to make anyone “deemed to be a threat … vanish without a trace into the night and fog” and murdered in secret. A victim who is murdered or executed in public becomes a martyr and public opinion is raised against the perpetrators.

“Uncertainty about the fate of those abducted sowed terror in society,” wrote Juan Méndez of Human Rights Watch. The situation “forced friends and relatives to renounce and ignore old ties, intimidated parents and siblings.”

“The Nazi influence was very much a part of the [Dirty War]. Pictures of Hitler hung in torture chambers and the torturers sometimes played Hitler speeches while torturing. While Argentina had the largest concentration of Jews in Latin America, Argentine society, particularly the Church and the military, were bastions of anti-Semitism.”

Navy School of Mechanics, Buenos Aires

After Jasenovac, Pope Francis’ next stop should be at ESMA — acronym for Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy School of Mechanics) – “ground zero for torture during the Dirty War” and now a memorial.

“ESMA was the largest of nearly 400 detention and torture camps that operated in Argentina, where almost 5,000 people died.” Victims were trade unionists, students, those who helped the poor – anyone thought to be “leftist.”

Of the 30,000 who perished, about 1,900 were Jews — or more than 6 percent of the victims, even though Jews numbered only about 1 percent of the population. Argentina’s approximately 300,000 Jews suffered in greater proportion, because so many were members of that country’s intellectual elite and its left-wing …

“Jews suffered all types of torture,” at ESMA, “but there was one that was especially sadistic and cruel: A tube was inserted into the victim’s anus or in a woman’s vagina and a rat would be let loose inside the tube. The rodent would try to get out and eat the internal organs of the victims.”

Ana Maria Careaga was sixteen at the time of her disappearance. She was recently married and three months pregnant. “As soon as we arrived at the camp, they stripped, and began torturing me. The worst torture was with the electric prod — it went on for many hours, with the prod in my vagina, anus, belly, eyes, nose, ears, all over my body. They also put a plastic bag over my head and wouldn’t take it off until I was suffocating.”

“Our bodies were a source of special fascination,” Astelarra recounted, shuddering at the memory. “They said my swollen nipples ‘invited’ the prod, eased the passage of current.”

It was rare for a pregnant detainee to survive; most were killed soon after giving birth and their babies sold to “proper” couples, usually from the military or police.

Typically, ESMA inmates were “left hooded the whole time.” In addition to being “burned and poked and prodded, they would have had objects painfully inserted into their orifices. As they screamed, they would have heard cries of others being tortured nearby.”

In 1995, former navy Captain Adolfo Scilingo confessed that “between 1,500 and 2,000” ESMA inmates “were disposed of” by putting them on a military plane and then – stripped naked, drugged but alive — dropped from a height of about 13,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean.” Scilingo reported that the Catholic hierarchy “approved [of this] as a Christian form of death.” When Scilingo felt anguished after directing these death flights, he would seek counseling from Catholic chaplains at ESMA.

“In out-of-the-way streets, on isolated highways, along the Atlantic Ocean and Plate River [Rio de la Plata] corpses periodically were discovered by civilians. Riddled with bullets, missing digits and teeth, most of the bodies were too ravaged to be identified.

When the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights visited ESMA in 1979, they found no sign of prisoners. With the aid of the Church, the Army had hidden them in the “Island of Silence,” a vacation retreat that belonged to Cardinal Juan Carlos Aramburu, Archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1975 until 1990.

Church and the Dictatorship

Like the Ustasha and Jasenovac, the junta was supported by the Catholic Church and the torture and deaths at ESMA and other detention centers were known by the Vatican, Argentine hierarchs and Pope Francis, then Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

The military had presented themselves as the defenders of “tradition, family and property … The internal enemy was [declared] more dangerous than enemies from abroad because it threatened the fundamental Western and Christian values of Argentine society.”

“Patriotism came to be associated with Catholicism,” said Kenneth P. Serbin, a history professor at the University of San Diego who has written about the Roman Catholic Church in South America. “So it was almost natural for the Argentine clergy to come to the defense of the authoritarian regime.”

In his book, El Silencio (The Silence), Horatio Verbitsky reports that the Catholic Church actively participated in the dictatorship while having full knowledge of the human rights violations being committed at the time. The secret relations that El Silencio revealed also include the collaboration of the secretary of the military vicariate, Bishop Emilio Graselli, and his program of reeducation of the prisoners of ESMA.

Gen. Jorge Videla’s junta “had a close alliance with the Church where they served as confidants to the military in that period … During his tenure, Videla expanded the Church’s economic benefits” and authorized a generous “retirement package for high-ranking Church officials.”

Archbishop Adolfo Tortolo, vicar of the armed forces, said that “General Videla adheres to the principles and morals of Christian conduct. As a military leader he is first class, as a Catholic he is extraordinarily sincere and loyal to his faith.’ He also said that when confronting subversion, the military should take on ‘hard and violent measures.’”

Cardinal Raul Primatesta made it clear at the start of the dictatorship that “the Church wants to understand, cooperate” with the junta. Primatesta prohibited the lower clergy from speaking out against state violence.

In 1997, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women who protested against the disappearance of their children, petitioned the Italian government to prosecute Cardinal Pio Laghi, Pope Paul VI’s ambassador to Argentina, as an Italian citizen.

“As nuncio from 1974 to 1980, Laghi silenced international protests, falsely stated to relatives that he knew nothing of the fate of victims and expelled from the country priests and religious who protested the ‘disappearances’ and tortures.” Laghi, the Mothers charge, “was seen in the clandestine detention centers. He was consulted as to whether prisoners should be spared or killed, and they asked his advice regarding ‘the Christian and compassionate way to liquidate them.’ … He participated actively with the bloody members of the military junta and he undertook personally a campaign designed to hide the horror, death and destruction. … He was one of those who governed the country from the shadows.” Laghi escaped prosecution on the basis of his diplomatic immunity.

Laghi was particularly close to Admiral Emilio Massera, head of ESMA. “They played tennis together almost every day. Massera was convicted in 1985 of human rights violations and again in 1999 for disappearances. He was also charged with abducting babies of women who went into labor or suffered involuntary caesarian births while in prison.”

“The secret relations that El Silencio revealed also include the [power of] seduction Admiral Emilio Massera exercised over Pope Paul VI.”

Like Pius XII, Paul VI was kept informed by Argentine hierarchs. “On April 10, 1978, prelates of the Argentine Bishops Conference all went to the president’s mansion where they typed a summary of the dialogue held with Videla and sent it to the Vatican.”

Bergoglio and the Dirty War

While Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio (later Pope Francis) was the Jesuit provincial of Argentina, the Jesuit Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires awarded an honorary doctorate to Massera on November 25, 1977. It was “inexcusable” for Bergoglio to honor Massera, head of ESMA where “thousands of young Argentines were tortured and murdered in a reproduction of Auschwitz,” Roberto Pizarro, Dean of the Faculty of Economics of the University of Chile and rector of University Academy of Christian Humanism wrote. For Bergoglio to have “cultivated a relationship” with Massera is a “stain” on his record for which “Argentines, the Jesuits and the two hundred billion Catholic in the world deserve an explanation,” declared Pizarro.

Witness to the Truth: The Complicity of Church and Dictatorship in Argentina (1986) by Emilio F. Mignone “exposes the ‘sinister complicity’ between the Church and the military.” Mignone wrote that before the 1976 coup, Archbishop Adolfo Tortolo worked out a deal with the dictators that bishops would be consulted before a priest was arrested. The army “did the dirty work of cleaning up the inside of the Church,” that is, getting rid of “leftist” clergy, brothers and nuns. Churchmen could give a “green light” for those they wanted abducted while offering their protection to those they wanted spared.

The part Bergoglio played in the abduction and torture of his priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalic, was first published in Mignone’s book. Mignone’s daughter was “disappeared” along with seven other young volunteers by Navy commandos from a Buenos Aires shantytown in May 1976. They had been working alongside the Jesuit priests, Yorio and Jalics, who were taken a week later but were later released after being tortured.

By agreement with the government, priests were “licensed.” “A week before the arrest of the two priests, Archbishop Juan Carlos Aramburu had withdrawn their ministerial licenses without reason or explanation. Because of various expressions heard by Yorio in captivity, it was clear to him that the Navy interpreted Aramburu’s decision and, perhaps, some criticism from his provincial, Jorge Bergoglio, as an authorization to take action against him. Most certainly, the military had warned both Aramburu and Bergoglio of the supposed danger that Yorio posed,” according to Mignone. He thought Bergoglio’s criticism “served as part of the basis for the arrest, imprisonment and torture of the Jesuit priests.”

Mignone died in 1998, Yorio in 2000. Yorio’s siblings, Graciela and Rodolfo, repeated their brother’s accusation that Bergoglio had given a “green light” to their abduction as did Jalics’ siblings. Another Jesuit present at the time, Juan Luis Moyano Walker, confirmed that Bergoglio did not protect his priests working with the poor. Jalics issued a statement that Bergoglio had not turned them over to the military, but he was silent as to whether Bergoglio had facilitated their abduction. The only person actually present at the time who confirmed Bergoglio’s assertion that he tried to help Yorio and Jalics was Alicia Olveira, a personal friend.

In 2005, the military chaplain said that the Minister of Health should be thrown into the sea because of his progressive views on contraception. “It doesn’t take much effort at all to imagine what that must sound like to the ears of an Argentine with any sense of history,” historian Ernesto Semán noted. The government asked for the chaplain’s removal. Cardinal Bergoglio refused.

A series of interviews with Videla from 2010 were published in July 2012. He confirmed that “he kept the country’s Catholic hierarchy informed about his regime’s policy of ‘disappearing’ political opponents, and that Catholic leaders offered advice on how to ‘manage’ the policy.” Videla said that his “relationship with the Catholic Church was excellent, very friendly, honest and open.”

Church leaders had little choice but to respond when Videla’s interviews were made public. As cardinal primate, Bergoglio would have approved such an important declaration. The statement, Los Obispos de la República Argentina, 104º Asamblea Plenaria, 9 de noviembre de 2012, absolved the Church: “We have the word and testimony of our elder brothers, the bishops who preceded us about whom we cannot know how much they personally knew of what was happening. They tried to do everything in their power for the good of all, according to their conscience and considered judgment.” Videla’s statement was “completely divorced from the truth of what the bishops were involved in at that time.” The bishops also equated the “suffering” from “state terrorism” with “the death and devastation caused by guerrilla violence,” referencing the quickly-crushed left-wing opposition. The bishops conclude: “For our part, we have cooperated with the law when we have been asked for information which we have. In addition, we encourage those with information on the whereabouts of stolen children or know clandestine burial sites, to recognize their moral obligation to go to the relevant authorities.”

Four months later, when Pope Francis was elected and the initial reporting about the new pontiff questioned his cooperation with the junta, the Vatican press office issued a statement that the “accusations” came from “left-wing anticlerical elements to attack the Church.”

In 2015, when Chileans protested Pope Francis’ appointment of a bishop due to his covering up dozens of clerical sexual abuse cases, the pope called them “lefties.”

Opening the archives

After taking office, Pres. Nestor Kirchner made it a government priority to pursue justice by holding trials of those accused of human rights abuses committed during the Dirty War

Cardinal Bergoglio was called to testify twice. The first was in November 2010 during a trial for ESMA officials. María Elena Funes — a former detainee at ESMA and a lay volunteer who was kidnapped along with Yorio and Jalics and, like them, later released — had testified that they were abducted in May 1976 after Bergoglio removed their protection. Bergoglio was called as a witness.

The second time was September 2011 during a trial for officials who stole babies. The five-month pregnant Elena de la Cuadra was kidnapped in 1977 and “disappeared” at ESMA. She was killed after giving birth and her baby was given to one of the favored families. Her father had gone to see Bergoglio twice asking for help, but was referred elsewhere.

The Vatican Embassy kept a secret list of thousands of people who “disappeared.” Laghi confirmed in 1995 that he knew of some 6,000 cases. A priest “discovered a second list of 2,100 ‘disappeareds’” kept by Tortolo, vicar of the armed forces.

In both his testimonies, Bergoglio told the court he would make Church records available. But neither Bergoglio nor other prelates provided any of the documents.

As pope, Bergoglio said he would produce the documents promised in his testimony in April 2013April 2015, and March 2016. This last time, Pope Francis’ spokesman said that first the records needed to be studied and agreement reached with the Argentine Bishops Conference. Then they would be released only by “specific legal questions requested by rogatory [a formal request from a court to a foreign court for some type of judicial assistance] or matters of a humanitarian nature.”

In spite of the iron curtain dividing Europe at the time, John Paul II returned to Poland less than eight months after his election. Benedict XVI went to Germany only four months after his election although it was a practically obligatory that he go to the World Youth Day in Cologne. In any case, after a year and a half pope, Benedict made a visit to his birthplace in Bavaria.

On February 18, 2016, a reporter asked: “Holy Father, when are you going to go to Argentina?” Bergoglio responded: “China. (laughs) To go there. I would love that. I would like to say something just about the Mexican people …”

Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America (Clarity Press, 2009).

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  1. Tim O'Neill says:
    July 23, 2019 at 12:32 am
    There is an often repeated but lazy claim that “the Vatican” helped Nazi and other fascist war criminals escape. The fact is that individual clergy – mainly the German Bishop Alois Hudal and Croat priest Krunoslav Draganovic – who had sympathy for their countrymen and thought they were being unfairly punished for being on the losing side in a war. They made use of some of the Catholic aid agencies and Pontifical Commission for Assistance (PCA), which were working to assist the millions of refugees in Europe in the immediate post war years. The claim that this was some “Vatican” operation is fantasy and both Hudal and Draganovic acted on their own initiative and both were not exactly favoured by the Pope anyway. Hudal in particular hated Pius XII and worked to slander him at every opportunity after the War, mainly because his previously high flying Vatican career was ended by Pius precisely because of his sympathy for the Nazis.
    It’s interesting that the actions of clergy to save Jews are dismissed as the “work of individuals”, despite plenty of evidence that this had the encouragement of the Vatican. Whereas the actions of a few like Hudal and Draganovic get portrayed as “a Vatican program” when it is clear that they were acting on their own.…/the-great-myth…
    The Great Myths 7: "Hitler's Pope"? – History for Atheists
    The Great Myths 7: "Hitler's Pope"? – History for Atheists


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