Dinko Sakic, Who Led WWII Death Camp, Dies at 86
July 23, 2008
Dinko Sakic arrived at the concentration camp known as the “Auschwitz of the Balkans” riding a white horse, wearing a tailored black uniform with polished black boots and carrying a whip and a submachine gun, survivors remembered.
His brazenness continued even after Croatia went down to defeat with Nazi Germany, its ally. He fled to Argentina, where he lived for a half century under his real name, making no attempt to hide. In his last decade of freedom, he gave interviews saying he was proud of what he had done and would gladly do it again.
Mr. Sakic, the last living commander of a World War II-era concentration camp, died Sunday at 86 in a hospital in Zagreb, the Croatian news agency Hina reported, citing Croatia’s prison system as its source. Mr. Sakic was serving a 20-year sentence for crimes against humanity.
“He is the most notorious living Nazi war criminal not in custody,” George Spectre, then associate director of the B’nai B’rith center for public policy, said in an interview with The New York Times in April 1998.
A year and a half later, Mr. Sakic was found guilty of killing more than 2,000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies at the camp named Jasenovac. Among other crimes, the verdict said, he ordered executions; did not treat the sick; worked inmates to death; starved and tortured some with a blowtorch; and hanged others, sometimes leaving them dangling for days. He personally shot at least four prisoners dead, two of them for smiling.
In response to the verdict, Mr. Sakic clapped his hands and laughed in derision.
The case had broad implications. After Croatia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, President Franjo Tudjman and his government were taking steps to rehabilitate the pro-Fascist government that presided over Croatia before it was absorbed into Communist Yugoslavia after the war.
Mr. Tudjman wrote a book questioning whether the number of Jews said to have been killed in the Holocaust had been exaggerated. Croatian officials gave veterans of the Fascist government, called the Ustashe, lavish benefits and invited them to military celebrations. The military prowess of the Ustashe forces was glorified.
The Times quoted a survivor as saying that he had recently seen the police giving the Fascist salute. The survivor said that years earlier he had watched Mr. Sakic oversee the execution of several hundred Jewish women and children.
Andrija Hebrang, vice president of the then-governing Croatian Democratic Union, called Mr. Sakic “a victim of historical circumstances” who sought to “create an independent Croatian state with the aid of the Nazis since Communism was not an option.”
But there was no doubt that by the lowest Croatian estimates tens of thousands had died in Croatian camps. Higher estimates put the death toll at hundreds of thousands. Nazi hunters, keenly aware that time was running out, were scrambling to find the last living culprits.
Mr. Sakic did not make the hunt difficult. In 1990, his photograph and an interview were published in a Croatian newspaper, The Feral Tribune: Mr. Sakic castigated the Serbs and praised the Ustashe government.
In 1994, during a state visit to Argentina by President Tudjman, Mr. Sakic spoke to Magazin, a Croatian magazine. “I’d do it all again,” he said, adding that he wished more Serbs had died at Jasenovac. “I sleep like a baby.”
Three years later, a television reporter knocked on Mr. Sakic’s door, and Mr. Sakic gladly consented to an interview. He said the only deaths in the camp had been from natural causes.
Many news reports said Croatia decided to extradite Mr. Sakic only to keep him out of the hands of Serbs in the remnants of Yugoslavia, which was also trying to bring him to trial. Slavenka Drakulic, a Croatian writer, wrote on The Times’s Op-Ed page that this meant that Mr. Tudjman’s government “must now condemn the same Fascist regime that it has tried to rehabilitate.” It ultimately did.
Argentina took the opportunity to step away from its history of harboring former Nazis, including the leader of the Nazis’ Croatian puppet state, Ante Pavelic. Carlos Corach, the Argentine interior minister, expressed “satisfaction” at Mr. Sakic’s arrest and sent him home to stand trial.
Dinko Ljubomir Sakic was born on Sept. 8, 1921, in Studenci, Bosnia-Herzegovina, his indictment said. He graduated from high school. At 21 he arrived at Jasenovac, where he worked his way up to commander, a post he held for seven months in 1944.
He was the protégé of Vjekoslav Luburic, the leader of all Croatian concentration camps, including Jasenovac, a sprawling 150-square-mile conglomeration of several camps. It quickly became known for a brutality that shocked even visiting Nazi officials, one of whom likened it to Dante’s hell. Camp employees devised a knife for the express purpose of slitting throats.
Mr. Sakic married Mr. Luburic’s sister Nada, who started working at Jasenovac at 16. She was also extradited from Argentina to face war crimes charges, but was released for lack of evidence.
Mr. Sakic ran a textile business in Argentina and was vocal in Argentina’s 10,000-member Croatian community, The Washington Post reported in 1998. In the late 1950s, The Post said, he ran a “rest camp” for former Croatian Fascists in Paraguay with his friend the Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner.
Mr. Sakic is survived by his wife, who changed her first name to Esperanza. The 1998 indictment said they had three children.
The family’s neighbors in Argentina said that Mr. Sakic had not been especially talkative, The Post reported. They sometimes noticed him mowing his lawn or hugging his wife goodbye.