“You can’t blame buildings”: A manor house with a dark past

The castle of the Keglević in Lobor, Croatia (pictured) , is some three hundred years old. It was the manor house of a prominent family, but was abandoned by the early 20th century. The Keglević family – of Croatian Hungarian nobility – had some association with Vienna’s musical culture in the era of Beethoven and Schubert (one family member has a Beethoven sonata dedicated to her, another wrote music published by Diabelli).

According to its website, the castle was used as hospital from 1920 until 1923, being then staffed by Russian doctors, who had been captured at the Eastern front in the First Word War.

Today, with new annexes added, it is a home for mentally ill adults. Successfully repurposed, as one likes to see with older buildings, the website of the home give a brief mention to the history of the castle. In the 1930s, the building was run by a religious charity, and was used as a poorhouse (ubožnicu). During the Second World War, the website tells us, it “continued its function”.

Unfortunately, its function during the Second World War was radically different. The castle was converted into an Ustasa concentration camp, one specifically for Jewish and Serbian women and children.

The camp was run by two Volksdeutsche brothers Karl and Valdemar Heger – apparently watchmakers by profession – and most of the guards were also Volksdeutsche gendarmes. “Sadistic treatment, including rape, was meted out to the women and children.[1] According to the American Holocaust museum;

“Of the approximately 2,000 women and children who were imprisoned at one time in the camp, probably 200 died. Most died from typhoid, and others from illness caused by the depleted food supplies, mistreatment by guards, and the indescribably unhygienic conditions, due principally to the extreme overcrowding in the barracks, which were completely lacking in sanitation facilities.”[2]

The camp and its function was not a secret in its day; on the contrary, the Jewish community of Zagreb sent materials to the prisoners (typically stolen by the guards) and even had a representative visit the premises. The camp operated in 1941 and 1942. An auxiliary camp was built to ease overcrowding. Some of the prisoners were sent on to the notorious Jasenovac complex; other children were transferred to other camps or hospitals, which may have saved their lives. In August 1942, the remaining women and children were given over to Nazi custody, and sent to Auschwitz. None survived.

Should there not be some sign of acknowledgment by the present administrators of the building, which now has a positive, caring function?

A similar issue was raised, in a better know case, by the continued use of the spa hotel Vilina Vlas in Višegrad, Bosnia. The hotel was a site of multiple atrocities – most especially the rape and murder of women – during the war of 1992-95. The hotel still functions as a ‘rehabilition center’ and there is no acknowledgment, by its custodians, of the horrors that took place there.

Bilal Memišević is the only Muslim member of the regional assemble, indeed, one of the few Muslims remaining in Višegrad. In 1991, it was a two/thirds Muslim majority town, but post-Dayton it is located in the Republika Srbska. Both of his parents died in the war. He wishes acknowledgment for the suffering of his family and community, but would not want the Vilian Vlas closed down. He nonetheless considers it “a terrible kind of place”. “Rationally, you can’t blame buildings. It’s the ideology that needs to be changed. If you say we have to destroy the spa, by that logic you have to destroy half of Bosnia.”[3]

True, the town is known to readers all over the world as the site of Ivo Andric’s The Bridge of the Drina, where the history of three centuries happens around the immobile bridge as the river flows like time beneath it.

It is a dilemma. Should a hotel actually broadcast the fact that thirty years ago, it was as place of systematic rape and murder? (“How was your stay Madame? Was your bed comfortable?”)

It is somewhat easier for a psychological hospital to admit that eighty years ago it was a site of crimes against humanity, (although it has not done so). Time is a factor certainly; so many victims and perpetrators of Bosnia’s tragedy are still alive, in trauma or in denial.

Epilogue

Never tried for their crimes, the watchmaking bothers Heger died in 1996 and 2007 respectively, in the sleepy Austrian towns of Mariazell and Tillmitsch.

Brendan Humphreys

[1] Francine Friedman, Bread for Salt, the Jews of Bosnia and Hertzegovina, 467

[2] Lohse, Alexandra, ‘Croatia’ in Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, American Holocaust Museum, Washington

[3] ”Back on the tourist trail: the hotel where women were raped and tortured”, Emma Graham-Harrison, Observer, 28 Jan, 2018

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