By Joan McQueeney Mitric
Spiro Prostran was among the fortunate few.
He survived a notorious POW camp in Nazi-occupied Norway during World War II, and lived to give chilling eye-witness testimony on his return to his native Yugoslavia. Just last summer, Norwegian researchers discovered that story and others in Serbia’s military archives. Of the 4,300 Yugoslavs interned in 25 Nazi camps in Norway, 63 percent died or were executed.
It was the summer of 1942 when Prostran, a 34-year-old civilian clerk, was captured along with 900 Yugoslavs – soldiers and civilian supporters of the Allies. They were shipped to the notorious Beisfjord camp near the city of Narvik. Of 25 Gemanrun labor camps in central and northern Norway, Beisfjord was the most odious.
When the war was over, Prostran told Belgrade prosecutors how he had watched as 286 Yugoslav prisoners were shot down on a single day – July 17, 1942. Their sin? They were weaker and sicker than the rest. Prostran said that in the three weeks before the mass strafing, he saw half-naked POWs forced to lug heavy stones, eat gruel standing in icy mud and catch fish for their German jailers, including SS Commandant Karl Matthaus, called The Snake.
Prostran’s account is one of 80 reports of similarly sadistic and grisly treatment in Norway that returning POWs gave to Yugoslav war crimes prosecutors in 1946 and that Norwegian researchers unearthed last summer among some four million digitized military documents at Serbia’s military archive near Belgrade.
Postran’s testimony is excruciatingly detailed. He recalls Commandant Matthaus yelling at the men “hurry up you Serbian dogs. Norway has plenty of land, and you are going to dig it all,” as he pushed and whipped them on the forced march to Beisfjord from the ship that dropped them on Norway’s shores.
Yugoslav prosecutors used Prostran’s account and that of other survivors to track down and charge 33 war criminals — including Matthaus, who was executed by firing squad, said Michael Stokke, director of the Narvik Peace Museum’s POW History project. The project [www.narviksenteret.no] is gathering as much information as possible about former POWs in Nazi camps in Norway by examining archival records and interviewing survivors to document these horrific events and educate future generations. Stokke is now looking for the youngest Nazi to serve in Norway. Born in 1921, he may still be alive.
Svein Tore Aspelund, who heads the Narvik Museum’s human rights section, said that of 900 POWs who arrived on June 24, 1942, in Beisfjord, 88 were under 18; one was 8 years old and 117 were between 18 and 20. Eighty-three percent of them “were killed, or died of illness or hard work in just four months,” he said.
Aspelund and his Serbian wife, Svetlana Kalacan — along with the Falstad Center, another Norwegian POW research group — continue to collect historical testimonies similar to Prostran’s and to look for any survivors to interview. Last summer, researchers found and spoke with 11 Serbs and a smaller number of Croats, many of whom were located through archival records.
Their testimonies, along with other recently discovered and compiled written and oral POW testimonies, will be unveiled June 22, 2011, when the Narvik Peace Museum hosts an international conference on the history of Yugoslav POWs in Norway. Historians from the Balkans, Germany, Hungary and Scandinavia will talk about their work. POWs will be honored with a commemorative plaque and an educational exhibit.
Since 1949, the Narvik Peace Museum — with its expanding POW History Project — has grown from a simple commemorative plaque honoring Yugoslav POWs to an integrated, multiexhibit complex where world scholars, human rights advocates and descendants of former POWs, or their jailers, all come to study WWII and to make peace with the past.
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