The Flying Brigade: Rescuing Children in the Djakovo Camp, Croatia

One day, we heard a rumor that they want to take out the children […] up to age 12 or 14, to Vinkovci […] and that families had already organized themselves to adopt the children, and then Mother got involved and said that I was born in 1928 and begged them to take me. Of course, our parting was extremely hard, I didn't want [to go] at all."

These were Shulamit-Sarina Munchik née Brodski's recollections regarding her rescue from the Djakovo (Ðakovo) camp. In January 1942, when Shulamit was 16, a group of young men from Osijek known as the "Flying Brigade" (Leteća Ekipa) forged her age and took her out of the camp with dozens of other children.

In April 1941, the Germans and the Italians occupied Yugoslavia. As part of their plan to dismantle Yugoslavia, the Germans established a puppet state, Independent Croatia, under the leadership of Ante Pavelić, the head of the racist Ustasha (Ustaša) movement.  The state included areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.  In the years 1941-45, the Pavelić regime brutally murdered some 30,000 Jews, hundreds of thousands of Serbs and objectors to the regime, and thousands of Roma and Sinti.  Heavy fines were imposed on the Jews, their movements were restricted and they were marked with the Yellow Star.

In late November 1941, the Ustasha security authorities issued an order to the Jewish community of Osijek to find a location to confine some 2000 women and children.  The Osijek Jewish community heard that in the town of Djakovo there was an abandoned flour mill belonging to the church, which could house a large number of people. The church opposed the idea of turning one of its properties into a concentration camp, but despite this opposition, the Ustasha appropriated the flour mill and on 2 December, some 1,200 women and children, mostly from Sarajevo were brought there.  On 20 December another 700 people were added.  The vast majority of the inmates were Jewish, with another approximately 50 Serbian women who were not Jewish.  Initially, the internal running of the camp was handled by the Jews.  Two local Croatian policemen were stationed at the gate.

The Osijek Jewish community established a welfare committee to assist with the camp, which required volunteers.  A group of youngsters, the "Flying Brigade", volunteered to go to Djakovo and to organize the camp.  The members of the group stayed in a hotel next to the town railway station, and went on foot to the site every day in order to make the halls of the flour mill suitable for habitation.  They built bunks for sleeping in, and obtained food and clothing.  The Osijek community funded the construction, and organized food, clothes and medicines for the prisoners.  The Vinkovci Jewish community also collected food and clothes for the camp prisoners.

Due to the efforts of the Osijek Jewish community and the bribes that were paid to the local police, the policemen permitted the removal of children from the camp and their safe passage to Jewish families in Osijek and Vinkovci.  Leo Grunwald and Isidore Ferrera from Vinkovci arrived with a truck to collect the children.  Grunwald recalls:

The removal of 37 children up to age 12 was permitted […] When we arrived at the Djakovo camp, there was a female Jewish doctor from the Osijek community who helped us prepare the children for departure to Vinkovci […] Some families that knew me […] approached me and asked me to take their children so that they would be saved.  The truck was large and covered with tarp, so I took advantage of the opportunity without considering the possible repercussions of my actions.  Using the permit I had for 37 children, I took 57 children, such that only the second digit, the number 7, matched the permit.  The 57th child I took was Sarina Brodski. 

The children were distributed amongst the Jewish families in Vinkovci, and Osijek. Some of them were moved later to Split, which was in the area of Croatia under Italian rule.  Sarina reached Split, and from there, was taken with a group of children to Villa Emma in Nonantola, Italy.  From Villa Emma, the children, including Sarina, were smuggled into Switzerland.

In February 1942, Serbian women in poor physical health and another 1,200 Jews - women and children - arrived in Djakovo, from the Stara Gradiška camp.  They were starving, sick and exhausted, and a typhus epidemic quickly flared up that killed many.  569 women and children who perished in the camp are buried in the cemetery in Djakovo.

In March 1942, the local policemen stationed at the gate were removed, and replaced by Ustasha from the Jasenovac camp.  Members of the Osijek Jewish community were forbidden from entering the camp.  The food that continued to arrive from the community was mostly confiscated by the Ustasha, who treated the prisoners cruelly.  In June 1942, the camp was liquidated, and the approximately 2,400 women and children remaining were deported to Jasenovac and murdered on arrival.  Among the murdered were Sarina's parents, Luna and Leo Brodski, and their daughter Dina.

During the liquidation of the camp, members of the Leteća Ekipa managed to escape through a gap in the wall of a building and fled to Osijek.

In August 1942, the Jewish communities of Vinkovci and Osijek were annihilated.