BLOOD ROADS – Nazi forced labour in northern Norway

Dr Milan Koljanin

Yugoslav prisoners sent to Norway in WW II

The resistance fighters’ defeat in German occupied Serbia in November / December 1941 occurred side by side with changes in the German policy of recruiting forced labour. It was caused by growing need for labourer, which became critical after the failure of the Blitzkrieg on the Eastern front in late 1941 and huge human losses in the war against the Soviet Union. This led to a partial change in repressive measures against the resistance and the population in insurgent areas in Serbia, but also it influenced the situation in the newly created fascist Independent State of Croatia (ISC), i.e. in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Srem region.

          By the end of March 1942, the highest representatives of the German army and the police in Serbia and in the Southeast defined a new policy of recruiting forced labour from the ranks of resistance captured in Serbia and other areas where military operations took place. It was decided that they would be sent to work in Norway to “employment venture Viking” (Arbeitseinsatz Wiking). At the time the division of responsibilities between the military and police forces was also established. The units of the Wehrmacht shot those captured in battles during military operations against resistance fighters. All other insurgents and those suspected of helping them were gathered up and handed over to the police and the concentration camps in Serbia that were run by the Gestapo. Meanwhile, the Higher SS and Police Leader in Serbia, SS-General August Meyszner, and the Reich Commissioner to Norway Joseph Terboven, agreed that 4.200 prisoners would be sent as forced labour to Norway from Serbia.

          The existing German concentration camps in Serbia, in Šabac, Belgrade (Banjica) and Niš, were already full of prisoners from Serbia. But, the largest of them, the Belgrade fairgrounds camp (Sajmište) on the ISC territory of Zemun (Semlin) city, served as a concentration camp for Jews (Judenlager Semlin). By May 10, 1942 all of the Jewish prisoners had been killed in a gas van. From the first days of May 1942 transports of prisoners intended for forced labour in Norway started arriving in the camp. In that way the policy of the recruitment of forced labour, and space requirements for the internment of a large number of new prisoners affected the Holocaust in Serbia. This policy accelerated the killing of all Jewish prisoners from Serbia. In May 1942, under the new name, the Detention Camp Zemun (Anhaltelager Semlin), the Sajmište camp became the central place in the German camp system in Serbia for the gathering and deportation of detainees for forced labour to Norway and to other countries.

          As the number of prisoners from occupied Serbia to be sent to concentration camps in Norway was still far from what was needed, the German commanders turned to a much “richer” forced labour source – concentration camps of the ISC Jasenovac and Stara Gradiška. German representatives in the ISC were well aware of the situation in the Croat camps, but only in the spring of 1942 did they show interest in the prisoners, due to their own needs for labour. In the second half of April 1942, SS-General Meyszner and the leader of all Croat police services Eugen Kvaternik, reached an agreement according to which German occupation authorities for Serbia took over “politically undesirable elements” from the ISC in order to send them to do forced labour in Norway. These prisoners were placed in the Detention Camp Zemun.

         When considering the issue of internment of prisoners in Norway from the ISC, one should take into account the role of Jasenovac camp in the repressive policy of the state. The mechanism of mass death in the camp was so well established that on April 27, 1942 from the Headquarters of the Croatian leader Ante Paveli an order was sent to all police and military commanders which said that “the concentration and working camp at Jasenovac can receive an unlimited number of detainees.” It is therefore ordered that all “communists” caught “during the cleaning of certain areas,” should be sent to Jasenovac camp. Behind the ideological label of “communists” as the enemies in the order of the Croatian leader, there were hidden not only political opponents and captured resistance fighters, i.e. partisans, but mostly the Serb population from the insurgent areas. Military actions against partisan forces, alone or in cooperation with German units, offered the opportunity for the Ustaša’s Croat state to continue performing programs for the extermination of the Serbian people.

         Soon after the arrival of the first transports from the Jasenovac camp to the Detention Camp Zemun, SS-General Meyszner found they were mainly sixteen-year old boys, old and sick men which the Croatian authorities wanted to get rid of. He immediately warned the ISC government that, for that reason further taking of these detainees was not an option. As the type of newcomers from the Jasenovac camp was not changed, at the end of May 1942, Meyszner ordered the termination of the retrieval of the prisoners from the Ustaša’s concentration camp and their transport off to Norway. But Meyszner’s order was changed for a time. New large groups of captured resistance fighters, who were provided for internment in Norway, started to arrive at the Detention Camp Zemun in the second half of July 1942. In western Bosnia, in the region of the Kozara mountain, superior German and Croatian military forces inflicted a heavy defeat to partisan forces. German commanders counted on the prisoners from the military operations to be sent to Norway. In addition to the captured partisans, Serbs, Muslims and Croats, the captives were mostly Serbian men from the areas of ​​military operations whose families were largely sent to the Jasenovac concentration camp and most often were murdered there. By the second half of July and during August 1942 there were approximately 10.000 prisoners concentrated at the Belgrade fairgrounds camp. The biggest problem was feeding the prisoners who were under the responsibility of the Croatian government, but they dragged there feet in fulfilling the task. Late and minimal deliveries were not nearly enough to even remotely feed thousands of starving, sick and exhausted prisoners. This led to high mortality of prisoners, which reached the proportions of a mass plague.

         The German commanders solved the problem of the large number of prisoners in Detention Camp Zemun in three ways. The physically strongest were sent to the newly established neighbouring camp of Organisation Todt (Organisation Todt Sammellager). The group of the oldest and those in worst health was isolated in a special pavilion where they died or were killed. The others unable to work (about 2.900 of them) were sent back to the Jasenovac camp where they were immediately slaughtered. The physically strongest prisoners who were sent to the Organisation Todt camp were intended for sending on to Norway. Despite the slightly better conditions in the camp, the mass deaths of detainees continued. After a change in the command of the camp in late September 1942, circumstances in it improved, which allowed the planned transportation to Norway to be restored. The first transport of 500 prisoners was sent on October 19, 1942, and the second one of 380 on January 19, 1943. In early April of 1943, a group of captured partisans and their supporters from Slavonia, Srem, eastern Bosnia and Croatia itself were sent from the camp of Organisation Todt in Osijek to Norway. It was also the last transport of prisoners sent to Norway from the territory of Yugoslavia.

          The more acute needs of the Third Reich for labour led to the change in attitude towards the captured insurgents, or to modification of the repressive policy in Serbia influenced by economic and strategic reasons. When it comes to the detainees who were sent to Norway from German camps and prisons in Serbia, it should be noted that they were mostly political opponents, captured partisans and their supporters. According to the calculations of Ljubo Mladjenović, the partisans and other members of the National Liberation Movement (NLM), made up 3.280 (92.73 %) of the total number of 3.537 prisoners sent from Serbia to Norway. The rest were criminals (57 or 1.61 %) and others (200 or 5.65 %). Among them there were also four members of the Polish resistance movement. The largest number of prisoners from Serbia survived the internment in the Detention Camp Zemun and was sent to Norway. Of the total number, 2.287 (64.65 %) of 3.537 arrived in camps in Norway, while the others were mostly held because of illness in the camps of the Third Reich on the way. The situation was quite different with the detainees brought from the ISC camp Jasenovac.

          Based on the agreement of leaders of the German police in Serbia and in the ISC, transporting of the prisoners from the Jasenovac concentration camp to the Detention Camp Zemun in order to send them to Norway began during the first days of May 1942. It turned out, however, that the “quality” of the labour received was far from desirable. In a much larger scale this was repeated after the great German-Croatian military operation on Kozara Mountain in July 1942. Although the detainees from the ISC were marked as “politically undesirable”, to a smaller extent these were political opponents, partisans and other members of the National Liberation Movement (NLM). Most of the prisoners deported from the ISC were victims of the policy of extermination of the Serbian population. For the most part they were elderly or boys, as evidenced by the structure of the detainees who were handed over to German authorities. According to the calculations of Ljubo Mladjenović, 893 (37.58 %) out of 2.376 prisoners from the ISC who were sent to Norway were partisans or other members of the NLM, whilst 1.483 (62.41 %) of them were interned for their Serbian nationality. The poor physical condition of prisoners sent from the ISC was further aggravated by extremely difficult conditions in the Detention Camp Zemun and partly in the camp of the Organisation Todt. As a result, most of the prisoners brought from ISC were not sent to Norway, but lost their lives in the camps. From a total of 13.641 prisoners from the ISC camp Jasenovac who were deported to the Detention Camp Zemun in order to be sent to Norway, 2.376 (17.42 %) of them were sent. Only 1.981 prisoners, or 14.52 % of the total number sent from ISC camps, arrived in Norway.

           When considering the question of the territory from which the detainees deported to Norway originated, and their origin, the following should be stated. From a total of 4.268 prisoners who arrived in Norway, 2.287 or 53.58 % of them were from German occupation areas in ​​Serbia, and 1.981, or 46.41 % from ISC. Almost all detainees from Serbia were Serbs, and they were also the majority of prisoners from the ISC. Out of 1.981 prisoners from the ISC who came to Norway, 1.620 (81.78 %) were Serbs, 179 (9.03 %) Muslims, 165 (8.32 %) Croats, and 17 (0.85 %) were the others. From a total of 4.268 who arrived to Norway from Yugoslav territory, 3.841 (90 %) of them were Serbs and 427 (10 %) were others (mostly Muslims and Croats).

          It can be concluded that the German policy of the recruitment of forced labour in Serbia and in the ISC for concentration camps in Norway was brought at the cost of massive loss of prisoners’ lives. This policy aligned with the policy of the ISC to destroy military and political opponents and, above all, to fulfil the program of the destruction of the Serbian people. Although, for the detainees from Serbia, and primarily from the ISC, deportation meant rescue from death, the conditions under which they were interned before deportation to Norway, brought death to most of them. This primarily refers to detainees from the ISC camp Jasenovac. Only one-seventh of those sent from Jasenovac camp to be sent to the camps in Norway reached them. In Norway, some momentous new challenges that had also swept away many lives were waiting for the surviving prisoners.

The first transport of prisoners from Yugoslavia landed in Bergen on June 13, 1942, the second one reached Trondheim harbour on June 21, 1942, and the next transport landed in Narvik harbour the following day. The last transport of prisoners from Yugoslavia arrived in Norway on April 11, 1943. Prisoners from Yugoslavia were interned in 30 camps run by the SS and Organisation Todt from the North to the South of Norway. They worked and lived in extremely heavy conditions particularly in the camps in Northern Norway, which were run by the SS. These camps were Karasjok, Beisfjord, Bjørnfjell (Øvre Jernvann), Botn, Korgen and Osen. Despite Germans’ need for labour, their attitude toward prisoners during the transportation and especially during their imprisonment and hard work in Norway was extremely cruel. When the Wehrmacht took control over the camps in March 1943, prisoners’ living conditions were improved and they became Prisoners of War. Until that time the vast majority of Yugoslav victims lost their life.

From the very beginning of their imprisonment in Norway, Yugoslav prisoners were murdered, almost every day. The largest crime was committed in Beisfjord camp on the 17th and 18th of July 1942 when 287 prisoners suspected to have typhus were murdered. The rest of the prisoners were removed to the provisional camp Øvre Jernvann on the Bjørnfjell. During the next five weeks 242 prisoners died or were killed. Out of 900 prisoners from Beisfjord and Bjørnfell camps, over a four-month period, 748 prisoners were killed or died (83,11 %). Survivors, 152 of them, were transported to the Korgen and Osen camps. Mass executions were committed in the other camps in Northern Norway as well. During two executions in Botn camp in November 1942 and in January 1943, 123 prisoners were murdered. In the Karasjok camp at least 45 prisoners were murdered in November 1942.

The majority of Yugoslav prisoners lost their life in the camps in Northern Norway. In the camps in Northern Norway there were 3.255 Yugoslav prisoners and 2.058 (63,22 %) of them lost their lives. The living conditions in the camps in Central Norway were considerably better than in Northern Norway. Out of 839 prisoners who arrived from Yugoslavia, 281 (33,5 %) of them lost their life. The camps in Southern Norway were only the transit camps for Yugoslav prisoners, but 27 of them were shot in Bergen camp without any reason. Out of a total of 4.238 Yugoslav prisoners who reached Norway, 2.368 (55,48 %) of them lost their life. This rate is quite similar to the death rate in the large German concentration camps like Mauthausen or Dachau.