Heroic struggle and resistance: Anti-fascist spirit in Banat 1941–1945

National liberation struggle, organized resistance and courage: A look at the anti-fascist movement in Banat during the Second World War. An investigation of the geographical, political and social conditions that shaped the struggle against the Nazi occupation, with an emphasis on the role of partisan units, local cooperation and the challenges of the lack of war materials. A depiction of the heroism and sacrifices of young fighters in the fight for freedom and justice.

four partisans from the National Liberation Movement during World War II

The loss of key figures in the National Liberation Movement during the Second World War

In order to avenge the arrested and killed patriots, the activists of the National Liberation Movement began to prepare the liquidations of several prominent figures of the police. However, someone gave the plans to the police, so the plan failed. The discovery of this plan also led to the arrest of one of the most famous organizers of revolutionary activity in Banat - Serva Mihalj. It was written about him that "from being accepted into the party in 1920 until his death at the Banjik shooting range, he was in the front ranks of the working class.

He was a member of the local committee, a member of the Regional and Provincial Committee, and he fell into the hands of the enemy as the secretary of the District Committee and organizer of the uprising." As a prisoner of special importance, he was transferred to Belgrade, to the notorious Banjički camp. He was shot there on September 19, 1941.
During the autumn of 1941 and the cold winter of 1941-1942, the KPJ Central Committee began to change its strategy in accordance with the events on the eastern front. The news coming from the USSR was not good. The Germans advanced at a fast pace until the December battle for Moscow, the Red Army was not able to offer adequate resistance. It was necessary, therefore, to be prepared for a protracted war. Winter was coming, and the partisan detachments could not survive on the territory of the Banat, on the snow-covered fields, exposed to the freezing wind, without food and shelter. It was decided to unite the units into larger units, and then deploy them in parts of the territory where survival was easier, for example, on Fruška Gora. This is how the United Northern Banat partisan detachment was formed. It had one hundred and twenty fighters and was divided into two platoons. At the end of September, this unit carried out several important combat missions; they burned reserves of foodstuffs and raw materials and broke up the occupying patrols.
The attempt to transfer to Srem failed. The movement of such a large military unit was difficult to hide, especially in a situation where the village ataris were getting smaller and smaller. After a series of skirmishes, it was decided to stay in Banat. The large squad was split up again, and the fighters were divided into bases. This decision will prove disastrous for the Banat partisans, because with it, partially disarming and dismembering themselves, they left the field to the agitation and persecution of Juraj Špiler, who found bases and liquidated them one by one, carrying out terrible reprisals against the population of Banat. The winter was long, cold and full of snow. Later, older Banacians recalled and claimed that it was one of the coldest winters in the 20th century. Through trials, torture and constant investigation, Špiler and his police apparatus created an atmosphere of omnipresent fear. During October, former members of partisan detachments and their sympathizers were arrested, and soon after, shot all over the Banat. The beginning of 1942 was also bloody; people were arrested in Mokrin, Kikinda, Petrovgrad, Arandjelov and Dragutinov. A total of 150 people died, and one of the most terrible crimes took place in Novi Milosevo, where people were hanged from wild chestnut trees. Among others, footballers Stanimir Krčedinac (goalkeeper, ŽSK), Velimir Stojin (left wing, RSK Borac), Đura Šerfezi (right back, AK Obilić) and Mita Novakov (center half, Radnički) were shot.

These young men were students of Servo Mihalj and participants in many actions organized by KPJ and SKOJ - a. According to some stories, those trees never bloomed again. The scene in Petrovgrad was also horrifying. The Germans were shooting, Commissar Steiner checked the victims with a gun to make sure they were all dead. Then the bodies were hanged and photographed. The witnesses of this hellish event were members of the Roma community, whose head, Miša Radu, was informed to gather manpower to transport and bury the bodies. Many of the workers never forgot this experience and over the years left many testimonies about the terrifying days around Christmas 1942. A large percentage of the victims of reprisals were young, as the persecution was more severe and terrible.
During the winter, Juraj Špiler traveled on a sleigh from place to place. The bloody blockade of Kuman in February 1942 was remembered. Many partisans were killed then, and several were captured and taken for interrogation. Since several people from Melen were caught in Kuman, Špiler immediately set his sights on Melen. He wished for new information and someone who would betray his war comrades. He intensely tortured Milan Stančić Uča and his brother Sava, but they did not speak. During the spring and summer, the persecutions were extended to the area from Subotica to Deliblatska peščara. On July 14, 1942, Špiler hanged fifty people in Gaj, Samoš and Zagajica, under the suspicion that they were connected to partisan units. During the flight, Bora Mikin, the former commander of the Melenac partisan detachment, also reactivated from the illegality. He reorganized fighters from Karađorđevo, Aleksandrov and other places and carried out several actions. The occupier was actively looking for him, but he managed to avoid capture on several occasions with his mobility and with the help of a network of reliable associates. Betrayal did occur at the end of November 1942, and the occupier prepared an ambush for Bori Mikin. He did not give up without a fight, he resisted and gave his life that November 26 in Aradac.

The greatest loss of the National Liberation Movement was the death of Žarko Zrenjanin, one of the most prominent members of the KPJ in Vojvodina. He maintained contact with the Fruškogorsk partisans through the courier Toša Jovanović, but that contact was lost during the flight, and at one point information spread that the Zrenjanin had died. In September, however, his location was determined, then there was correspondence with the Central Committee and with Josip Broz Tito, whom the native of Zrenjanin informed about the general situation in Banat in a comprehensive report. It was September 24, 1942, and he sent his last letter to Iva Lola Ribar and Blagoj Nešković on October 29. He wrote about the troubles that befell the partisans in the past period, as well as the death of certain fighters who were important to the movement. In addition, he proposed to stay in Banat until the end of 1942, but this was rejected by Belgrade. He prepared for the trip on November 3, 1942, and was supposed to leave from Pavliš, a village not far from Vršac. Špiler's network of informers was then activated once again. Namely, Zrenjanin was in contact with the married couple Roknić from Vršac. They were old communists. After his arrest, Vasa was shot in September 1941, and his wife Zorka was released after his death. She actually redeemed her life by agreeing to cooperate with the police. Žarko just asked Zorka for help in preparing the trip. That's how the Vrsa police found out about his location. A large group of policemen and soldiers, members of the Princ Eugen SS division headed towards Pavliš, led by Špiler and Rajt. Zrenjanin was supposed to leave before morning, but the house he was in was surrounded during the night. Strahinja Stefanović and he decided to try to break through the hoop. They had several bombs, two pistols and a rifle. It is not known exactly what happened at dawn. The police report talks about an armed conflict that lasted until seven in the morning. During the shooting, Zrenjanin tried to break through, and Stefanović covered him with fire. After seeing the death of his comrade, Strahinja took his own life. This is how two fierce fighters, faithful comrades and determined organizers of the partisan struggle in Banat - Žarko Zrenjanin and Strahinja Stefanović - died.
Two more important names that the National Liberation Movement was left without in that period are Svetozar Marković Toza and Žarko Turinski Arsa. Svetozar Marković was a young fighter with an unstoppable spirit, who with his charisma and publishing work encouraged new fighters to join partisan units and raised hope for liberation.
On November 19, 1942, the Hungarian police discovered the base of the Provincial Committee in Novi Sad where Toza and Branko Bajić were located. They did not surrender without a fight. Bajić died on the spot, and Marković was wounded. He was tortured for more than a month, but he did not say a word to the enemy. He was hanged in the notorious barracks in Futoška Street in Novi Sad on February 9, 1943. While Marković was above all a propaganda worker who took care of the morale of fighters and constantly worked on recruiting new members of partisan detachments, Turinski was more present on the field, in battles , at the head of his unit. He was considered one of the most daring partisans of the Banat. Driven by this courage, Žarko decided to stand in the way of the terrible terror in Banat by liquidating Juraj Špiler. The assassination, however, did not succeed, and the traces of such a serious action against the occupier could not be hidden. The Tapavički house where Turinski was hiding was besieged at dawn on January 3, 1943. Žarko Turinski did not give up without a fight, he started shooting, hitting several enemies, including Špiler himself, who was the initial target. He only managed to wound him. Seeing that he would not be able to break through, Žarko Turinski decided not to fall alive into the hands of the enemy and took his own life. Dušan and Gordana Tapavički, in whose house he lived, were immediately shot, and Arsa's wife Biserka was subjected to torture. Thus, the Banat partisans lost one of the most prominent fighters and one of the most important propaganda workers in a short period of time. The occupier, however, failed to stop the spread of their ideas, and Turinski, Marković and other leaders of the National Liberation Movement had already done a huge job in Vojvodina. Hundreds and hundreds of fighters were inducted into partisan units, and thousands and thousands of Banat residents became sympathizers of the movement, supporters, collaborators and, most importantly, convinced believers in victory and liberation - at any cost.

As mentioned earlier, despite the constant losses, the ranks of the Vojvodina partisans were constantly filled. By the end of 1943, the pressure of the occupying authorities became unbearable, but the news about the change in war fortunes in the east could not be stopped. The people were aware that an allied offensive would soon follow, and the National Liberation Movement made the correct assessment this time and made the decision to unite Vojvodina into a single entity at any cost. It was therefore necessary to prepare for the penetration of the Red Army. Fighters from Banat established connections with Srem, from where they were assigned to the Vojvodina brigades, whose combatant composition increased every day.
The channels became more and more safe for the fighters, and by the fall of 1943, they became so stable that real transports were organized, which transferred people to Srem. Between September and December, as many as seven such transports were transferred, each carrying fifty people. Jovan Veselinov wrote about it: "Through the persistent work of the activists of our party organization and the organizations of the National Liberation Movement, they united more and more often. We have overcome the isolation and artificial division of Srem, Bačka and Banat. The people of Banac and the people of Bač came to Srem, and the people of Srem went to their regions. We exchanged our experiences from all sides (...) By connecting all parts of the province and unifying the national liberation and revolutionary forces of Srem, Banat and Bačka, the conditions were created for us to practically constitute an autonomous province by restoring and establishing provincial political and military bodies in the fall of 1943. Vojvodina". Although during 1943 there were no actions like those of 1941. The National Liberation Movement was omnipresent in the people, and the occupier had no peace. Implementing a policy of one hundred for one, the occupier shot a hundred people in Petrovgrad on May 24, and on September 6, as many as 160 individuals were brought before the firing squad accused of helping partisans and cooperating with a communist organization. The Germans and Špiler still failed to accomplish their task in Banat, because the winter of 1943-1944 was greeted by many fighters ready for what was to come, which was the final fight against the enemy and his expulsion, first to the right bank of the Tisza, and then further to the West.
At the beginning of 1944, an intensive investigation was carried out in the villages of Banat, partisans and far more numerous members and supporters of the movement who were constantly building bases and collecting material for the upcoming liberation struggle were searched for. Thus, during March, thirty people from Petrovgrad, Kuman and other places, suspected of being members of the KPJ, were shot. By October, Red Army units had approached the border with Romania, and the Partisans spent the summer opening a new front in the Banat. The leading figures of this last, strongest movement in the struggle for liberation were Nedeljko Barnić Žarki and Obren Janjušević Artem. These young partisans made a name for themselves in the battles during the entire duration of the occupation, they were fearless and ready for anything. Žarki lost his arm while dismantling the mine, but he shortened his leave and returned to sabotage work in record time. Artem was still a young man, and already in 1941 he wanted to be active as a courier, and immediately afterwards as a fighter. They led the attack on the train between Martinice (today Lukićevo) and Orlovat.

On that occasion, the locomotive was disabled, and three wagons were completely destroyed. It can be said that these guys, at the head of rejuvenated partisan columns, were a big problem for the occupier. They were not afraid of death, and in actions they showed indescribable courage. Fighters of the National Liberation Movement attacked the border patrol in Taraš in the night between July 16 and 17, 1944 and killed several soldiers. The attack was led by Žarki, Slobodan Vučetić and Sava Vojnović Zeka. This event caused the blockade of the village and Špiler's personal arrival. A machine gun was placed on the windmill in Taraš and the search of the village began. There is an interesting episode that took place at that time with the village priest, who found himself lined up with some other residents of the village in front of the church in Taraš. Teacher Dejan Bošnjak testifies about this event in the following text "One memory". No one from the village spoke, and luck smiled on the local population, because not one of the 16 bases that existed in Taraš at that time was discovered. So the blockade was lifted, and the next day, July 18, thirty young people from Taraš joined the partisans. This story is short, but very illustrative, it shows the unity of the people and the determination of the people in Banat to overthrow tyranny and liberate their country. Janjušević and Barnić were among the last victims of fascism in Banat. On July 23, 1944, Artem was located in a base not far from Banatski Karađorđevo, he resisted, and when he saw that he could be captured alive, he committed suicide. With his sacrifice, Žarki showed all the brutality and bestiality of the occupying power. This young fighter was buried alive by Špiler's personal order.
It was September 1944: Nedeljko Barnić Žarki was moving around the villages of Banat, and the pursuit of him started from Kumana and moved along the Kumana-Taraš route. On the third of September, he fell into the hands of the enemy, he was brutally tortured, and Dr. Marko Rajić, then a volunteer paramedic, who once met Žarki as a patient in the hospital, left a testimony about this: "With good security, shouting and noise, with a lot of soldiers, Špiler and Vilhelm came and brought a wounded young man. Judging by the entourage, the young man was a significant figure. I assisted with the dressing. Špiler stood in one corner of the room, and Vilhelm in the other. A young man asked me: "Comrade, are you Serbian?" When asked again, I told him that I am Serbian. He was badly beaten, so his eyes were closed, that's why he asked me if Špiler was there. I said: "Yes, Doctor Špiler is here." To that he said: "I'm sorry that I won't be able to see Špiler, to spit in his face!"
After the brutal torture, which no longer had so much to do with suppressing the resistance, because the occupying authorities were aware that they would soon have to leave Banat, but more with personal revenge on the defiant boy, Žarko was beaten, tied hands and feet, and buried alive. The oral testimony says that Špiler decided to do this because the young partisan managed to hit him in the crotch with his last strength and cursed him.

The Red Army entered the territory of the Banat, and the Germans and Hungarians decided to retreat to the next natural border - the Tisza River. Although shells still sometimes fell on the ground of Banat towns along the river, there were no more serious attempts to threaten Banat. Zrenjanin was liberated on October 2, 1944, and the partisans and members of the Russian army were welcomed in a festive atmosphere. As always during the liberation of cities after a long occupation, the population was joyful, but too much blood was spilled to make this joy complete. Banat and the whole of Vojvodina bled like no other region in war-torn Europe.
When it comes to Špiler, justice has been served. He tried to escape to the west, but the Americans extradited him to Yugoslavia. He was hanged as a war criminal in April 1949, like many executioners and enemies of the people. Some, for example, Dr. Janko Sep, never received justice. Sep, a famous SS member, Nazi and executioner died in 2001 at the age of ninety-six in Buenos Aires. However, we have to ask ourselves, does individual justice even make sense in these situations? Can one hanging or a hundred hangings redeem the lives of so many men and women from Banać whose lives were ended or ruined in the period from 1941 to 1944? This is one of the questions to which history and philosophy will never be able to give a precise answer.
What we can do, however, is to look at the anti-fascist struggle today, 75 years after its end, as one of the most important achievements of our region. We hope that this text successfully portrays the fight in the right light. It was a period in many ways similar to the terrible winter of 1941-1942, cold, bloody, full of suffering and seemingly endless. During three and a half years, we only record suffering, arrests, torture, shootings. Young people fell like sheaves in the Banat plain, and the occupier showed no mercy to anyone. What, however, we can establish without any doubt is that the freedom spirit of the Banat fighters was simply too strong. It is not only embodied in the individuals we described earlier, because they are only a small part of what anti-fascism in Banat is.
All those whose names we have not mentioned participated in the fight against the occupiers, all those whose names are and are not found on numerous monuments throughout Vojvodina. Anti-fascism is the people, shepherds, village priests, local doctors and medical workers, fighters in the bases, couriers on the roads, peasants in the fields and fishermen on Begej. We can say that anti-fascism for the inhabitants of Banat was a state of consciousness and as such could not be suppressed. Whenever a prominent communist or participant in the struggle fell, two or three new ones stood in his place. The boys who at the beginning carried provisions and equipment to their older comrades, by the end of the war had become combat veterans covered in wounds. Residents were constantly shot and abused, but the more the occupation boot pressed, the more the people closed their ranks. Thus, Banat endured one of the most terrible periods in its history, it emerged from it with the most terrible scars that a region can get. Although it was left without a significant part of the population, although it was devastated and desolated, thanks to the anti-fascist struggle, Banat emerged from the Second World War bigger and stronger, with a legacy that only a few countries and territories can boast of. That is precisely why the survival of that heritage also means the survival of Banat and Vojvodina as we know them - free, defiant and built on a solid foundation of anti-fascism.

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