Diana Budisavljević, founder and organiser of the rescue of children from Ustasha camps
After the invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941, the Ustasha movement established the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) whose territory included today’s Croatia, with the help of Hitler and Mussolini. Following ideals of national pureness, Ustasha began immediately a policy of extermination of the Jews and also of the Serbians, whose number in NDH reached almost two million. Massacres, expulsions and conversions from the Orthodox to the Catholic church were the main methods, as well as concentration and extermination
Serbs, including men, women and children, were brutally executed or died of starvation and disease. In this context, Diana Budisavljević, an Austrian married to a Serbian doctor from Zagreb, decided to help Serbian women and children in concentration and extermination camps in October 1941.
It was the beginning of the “Diana Budisavljević Action”, an aid project organised by Diana that continued until the end of the war, giving material support to women and child inmates (principally food and clothes) and saving children from extermination.
It was calculated that the “Diana Budisavljević Action” managed to release almost 12,000 children from the major camps such as Jasenovac and Stara Gradiška.
Operation Diana Budisavljević” started in October 1941 after Diana Budisavljević learned about children held at the camp Lobor-Grad. With help from the Agency of the Jewish religious company, her team sent supplies of food, medicines, clothes and also money, first to Lobor-Grad and later to another camp at Gornja Rijeka, both situated north of Zagreb.
Her team also helped the members of the Croatian Red Cross at the main railway station in Zagreb, providing travel supplies for workers in trains that stopped there on their way to Germany (some of those men, women and children returned back to Zagreb after they were stopped in Maribor and Linz and were not allowed to travel further due to their illness – they were taken care by the Red Cross and the Action). During that work, in March 1942, Diana Budisavljević met the Headnurse Dragica Habazin, who became a close collaborator in the following months and years in helping the inmates from various camps that were relocated to Zagreb and other places.
At the beginning of July 1942, Diana Budisavljević, with the help from the German officer Albert von Kotzian, obtained written permission to take the children from the Stara Gradiška concentration camp.
With the help of the Ministry of Social Affairs, especially prof. Kamilo Bresler, she was able to relocate child inmates from the camp to Zagreb, Jastrebarsko and later also to Sisak.After the rescue efforts in Stara Gradiska, Diana Budisavljevic, wearing a uniform of a Red Cross nurse, also took part in the transport of children from Mlaka, Jablanac and Jasenovac. More than 6.000 children had been moved away from those camps by the “Action” in July and August 1942.
After obtaining permission in August 1942 to move the children from the institutions in Zagreb into the care of families, she worked together with the Zagreb Archdiocese branch of the Caritas and in that way made it possible for several thousands of children to be placed with families in Zagreb and rural communities.
Eleven members of her team were killed during World War 2.
Upon request by the Ministry of Social Politics in May 1945, she handed over the card-files of appr. 12.000 children she managed for 4 years together with Mrs. Ivanka Džakula
Diana Budisavljević was almost forgotten after the War. Generations were grown in former Yugoslavia during decades without any knowledge about her work during the World War 2.
As late as 2012, regarding the Statehood Day of Serbia (February 15), Mrs. Diana Budisavljević was decorated posthumously with the Golden Medal “Miloš Obilić” for expressed courage and deeds of personal heroism