Diana Budisavljević

Diana Budisavljević Illustration: Ana Salopek / Fierce Women

15 January 1891 – 20 August 1978

It has been the greatest gift of my life – to be able to save people from certain death.

Diana Budisavljević is a Zagreb-born humanitarian who organized one of the most complex rescue operations in occupied Europe during World War II. Her “Action Diana Budisavljević” saved at least 7000 children from fascist concentration camps in the Independent State of Croatia, and offered humanitarian aid to a large number of Orthodox Christians imprisoned at the camps. Budisavljević’s work became a kind of blueprint for all major points of the Convention on the Rights of a Child concerning children welfare during war. It also contributed to the formation of social work as a profession in Croatia.

Diana Obexer was born in Innsbruck into a reputable Austrian Family. Her proclivity for humanitarian work was first noted during the beginning of World War I, when she enrolled in a course for nurses and caretakers because she wanted to help the wounded.  It was at that time that she met her future husband, doctor Julije Budisavljević. In 1919, they both moved to Zagreb and took residence at 13 King Petar Svačić Square.

Prejudice towards people of other religions or nationality was foreign to Diana, but the persecution and discrimination of this particular kind became a cruel reality in 1941, when she was 50 years old. Although she wasn’t affiliated to any antifascist organization, her moral compass prompted her to take a brave and uncompromising stand against the Ustaše. Upon finding that the Jewish community was conducting an organized effort to acquire food, clothes and medicine for the imprisoned Jews and that there was no similar organization helping the Serbs in concentration camps, Budisavljević took action. In October 1941, she and a group of co-workers started “Action Diana Budisavljević”.

In the beginning, the Action was operating illegally by helping those imprisoned at concentration camps Loborgrad and Gornja Rijeka, but it soon grew into a major rescue operation to save Serbian children from concentration camps in Stara Gradiška, Jasenovac, Mlada, Jablanac and Košutarica. Budisavljević herself visited the camps several times, making lists of children and trying to collect as much information as possible in order to make it possible for the children to be reunited with their parents after the war.

In coordination with her co-workers, Budisavljević managed to house children all across Zagreb: at the Institute for Deaf Children (Ilica 83), Home for Mothers and Children on Josipovac (today’s Home for Children, Nazorova street 49), Saint Jerome’s Hall (20 King Tomislav square), but also at numerous family homes. Due to the very large number of children, Budisavljević suggested that the housing of children be done via Zagreb archdiocese’s Caritas. This meant that the children would be taken in by rural households with the help of local priests. This was a successful operation.

She simultaneously worked on creating a record of concentration camp prisoners that was based on transport lists from the camps, but also from other institutions. She made index cards with all known information on a specific child, as well as five albums that contained photographs of the children. She also filed all inquiries about the children that started to come in during 1943. Unfortunately, her plans for the procedure of identifying the children failed when she had to turn in all of her records per Ministry of Social Policy’s request on 28 May 1945.

In spite of the immense importance of her work, Budisavljević was not acknowledged for her efforts by the new socio-political order. She came from a well-off family, but in trying to accomplish her humanitarian mission, she worked with representatives of the church, as well as with the occupiers. Her work might have actually been forgotten if it were not for her posthumously discovered diary that shone a light on Diana Budisavljević as one of World War II’s heroines. It was that diary that served as the template for the acclaimed 2019 docu-fiction film “Diary of Diana Budisavljević” by director Dana Budisavljević.

Jasenovac memorial site, Radić brothers street 147, Jasenovac

Jasenovac memorial site stands near the former concentration camp Jasenovac and it serves as the memorial for World War II victims in Croatia. Mounds and indentations mark the spot of authentic concentration camp buildings and execution fields. The area is dominated by “The Flower”, a memorial made by sculptor Bogdan Bogdanović in memory of the victims. The way to the memorial is paved with tracks symbolizing the preserved part of the railway used for the arrival of the prisoners. Jasenovac memorial site, which includes the Memorial museum and Education centre is operated by the Jasenovac Memorial Area Public Establishment. In Zagreb, at 13 King Petar Svačić square, stands the building that Diana Budisavljević lived in. However, there is no memorial there.  In Sisak, there is a graveyard for the victims of a children’s concentration camp. Since 2017, the location has been known as the Diana Budisavljević Park.