Zagreb’s biggest park does not appear to be much visited by the public despite its many striking sculptures, monuments and stray lines of poetry scratched into stone. The forested area contains the Dotršćina Memorial Park, the site where the worst mass war crimes in the modern history of the city of Zagreb were committed. Between 1941 and 1945, 7,000 people — mostly antifascist residents of Zagreb, Serbs, Roma and Jews — were murdered by fascist Ustasha authorities. Monuments to commemorate the massacre were made by four different artists and are spread throughout the park, which was designed by architect Josip Seissel in 1968.
In recent years, the park has started hosting the temporary installations of works by contemporary artists as well as poetry events, something made possible by the impressive Dotršćina Virtual Museum and Documenta – Centre for Dealing with the Past in Zagreb.
The permanent memorial to the massacre is filled with the works of some of the most accomplished sculptors from Croatia. Visitors to Dotršćina Memorial Park are first greeted by an unexpectedly modern and minimalist monument, the work of sculptor Vojin Bakić. It almost appears to have been cut from liquid mercury. There are several of such quicksilver works scattered through the trees, all made from the same material but fashioned into different severe shapes. Iva Dim describes the unsettling effect of Bakić’s individual pieces in the forest context: “The manmade shapes and materials are alienated in this peaceful location. The synthetic monuments bring a sense of discomfort or disturbance in the forest reflecting the nature of the massacre.”
Biographies of the artists and poets who comprise part of the memorial to the Utsasha massacre tell their own stories. Bakić was a Yugoslav sculptor of Serbian descent who worked closely with the Zagreb-based Nove Tendencije movement, the first artists to experiment with the computer as a medium back in 1961.
In 1941, Ustashe rounded up all four of his brothers and took them to the Danica Prison Camp and later to the base of a mountain where all of them were executed. Bakić only managed to escape the same fate because one of the most prominent Croatian sculptors of the time was able to provide papers protecting him. After Operation Storm in 1991, a monument Bakić had dedicated to his four brothers in his hometown of Bjelovar was demolished and torn down.
Nine of Bakić’s WWII monuments and busts were either destroyed or badly damaged during the 1990s. On July 17, 2004, his bust of the celebrated Croatian partisan poet Ivan Goran Kovačić was demolished. But both of their work still graces the Dotršćina Memorial Park.
Kovačić is best known for his poem “The Pit” (1943), a horrifically graphic recounting of Ustasha torture of Serbs. A line from a lesser known poem by Kovacic, “Spring”, inscribes the Liberation Monument (1981) by Croatian sculptor Branko Ruzic at Dotršćina:
“They are no more because they wanted to be”.
Kovačić was killed in 1943 at the age 30 by Serbian Chetniks. In a book by Predrag Matvejević, the poet’s death is recorded as follows: “Like in an ancient tragedy, the one who is most opposed to evil will most cruelly die from evil. The poet who raised his voice against the Ustashan massacre on innocent Serbian people had his throat cut by Chetniks….A few reliable witnesses confirm that Goran survived the hell of the fifth offensive, but when he returned to help his ill, left-behind, friend, Dr. Simo Milošević, the fascists killed both the Croatian poet and the Serbian scholar without distinction. Fascism did not look on poets or scientists anywhere in the world as being of value.”