Zlarin: A Croatian island of coral and war7 min read
When someone says Croatia, you immediately think of its beautiful beaches, the crystal clear Adriatic Sea and the many islands animated by summer parties and festivals. Thanks to these treasures, the Balkan country has, over the years, become one of the favourite destinations for tourists during the summer. Overall, the Croatian coast is around 5,800 kilometres long, most of which, about 4,000 kilometres, belongs to 600 islands and islets. Among these, only about fifty are inhabited. Some are well known throughout Europe: Pag, Hvar, and Krk are wonderful places where nature and entertainment merge.
What is less known, however, is that during the Second World War, some of these islands hosted prison camps run by the Fascist occupying troops and intended for the Slavic population and Jews.
The camps often had a transit function, a place for the internees to wait to be transferred to Italy. The most significant and well-known case is that of the island of Rab, located between Rijeka and Zara. Opened in 1942, the island’s camp was mainly intended for Slovenian, Croatian, and Jewish civilians, soon becoming the largest and toughest Italian camp in Yugoslavia, with over 21,000 people passing through the camp as early as December 1942. It was liberated by Tito’s communist partisans after the Kingdom of Italy signed an armistice on 8 September 1943. In the same period, a few kilometres further south, another camp was operational: situated on the island of Molat, a total of around 20,000 inmates passed through its gates, of whom over 1,000 died of starvation or were shot.
Not even the smallest island in Croatia, Ošljak, was spared from fascist barbarism. Located right in front of Zara, it is just 0.33 square kilometres large with a population of just 29 inhabitants, as of 2011. During the Italian occupation, it was renamed Scoglio Calogero in honour of a family of Venetian origin. The camp on the island had been one of the first to be opened, in 1941, as a “transit camp” for communist political prisoners or, as reported by official documents, “anti-Italians.” Other camps were opened on the islands of Brač, Hvar, Korčula, Lopud, and Mamula (the latter two both located near the border with Montenegro), mainly intended for Jews.
Zlarin — the golden island
Among the islands that were transformed into places of detention and mass murder was Zlarin, one of the six inhabited islands in the province of Šibenik, which had been under Venetian rule for 385 years (from 1412 to 1797) and under fascist occupation since 1941. The presence of inhabitants on the island, at just eight square kilometres, dates back to prehistoric times. Today, during the non-summer months, it has fewer than 300 inhabitants. The Romans called it Insulae auri, or golden island, due to the red coral that in the following centuries made the fortune of its inhabitants. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, Zlarin was populated by people fleeing the Ottoman advance from the hinterland. Here they found a welcoming environment, suitable for vineyards and olive groves, as well as obviously for fishing, especially sardines, which still today are one of the island’s traditional dishes.
In the early 19th century, the island fell prey to various occupants: with the fall of the Republic of Venice it first came under the control of Austria (1797), then of Napoleonic Italy (1806), before eventually being returned to Austria in 1813. In the second half of the 19th century, the population exceeded 3,000 inhabitants, mainly dedicated to navigation and fishing. During their 1875 trip to Dalmatia, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Sissi also landed in Zlarin to buy its famous red coral. In an 1892 text dedicated to Dalmatia, Giuseppe Modrich describes the “zlarignani” as follows:
They are distinguished by their spirit of enterprise, by firmness of purpose, by industriousness, by energy. They have attracted the commercial monopoly of the entire Šibenik district. Zlarin, the capital of the island, has several companies that enjoy unlimited trust in the best places in Europe.
The Italian occupation
With the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the First World War, Dalmatia found itself at the centre of several competing territorial claims. The Treaty of London, signed in 1915 between Italy and the Triple Entente, but which remained secret until 1917, stipulated that in case of victory, Rome would be entitled to, among other things, part of the Dalmatian region including the cities of Zara, Sebenik, and Knin. At the end of 1918, these areas were militarily occupied by Italy. However, during the Paris peace conference of 1919, the United States and France opposed the provisions of the treaty, arousing the harsh reaction of Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (the Italian delegate to the peace conference), who abandoned the conference. The Italian occupation of Zlarin lasted until June 1921. The Treaty of Rapallo signed in November 1920 provided that Italy was entitled only to the city of Zara, the island of Lagosta, and the archipelago of Pelagosa, while the rest of the region was assigned to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.
The opportunity to reconquer the entire region came during the Second World War with the occupation of Yugoslavia, which was divided between the Italian fascist and Nazi forces. In May 1941, the Governorate of Dalmatia was established under the control of the Kingdom of Italy, which also included Zlarin. Though small, it was seen as militarily strategic and was integrated into the defensive system of Šibenik. However, the fascist occupation was strongly resisted by the inhabitants of the island, so much so that “on 19 January 1942 on the walls of the houses of Zlarin there were writings with anti-Italian slogans and drawings with the hammer and sickle” (Bernard Stulli, Povijest Zlarina, 1980).
On 25 March 1943, two years after the start of the occupation and following the roundup of all men over the age of 15 by the military authorities in Split, a concentration camp was opened on the island. The camp was placed on the rockiest and most arid part of the island and was controlled by 120 soldiers and 20 carabinieri. Already by its second month the camp had hosted over 1,500 people, exceeding 2,000 in the following weeks. Some of them died due to poor hygienic conditions, hunger, and thirst. As reported by a 1976 document,
Almost two thirds of the total number of internees were deported to Italian concentration camps (Renicci in Arezzo, Chiesanuova in Padua, and Visco in Udine), while others – mostly the elderly and sick – were brought back home. Most of the internees were taken to Rijeka on 15 June 1943, the date of the camp’s liquidation.
With the Italian withdrawal, Nazi troops took their place, occupying the island from April 1944 until its complete liberation in November of the same year. Precisely because of the brutality of the fascist occupation, some municipalities in the vicinity of Šibenik were those with the highest number of people who joined the communist partisans led by Josip Broz Tito, including 118 men and women from Zlarin. With the liberation of the country and the end of the Second World War, the island permanently passed to the People’s Republic of Croatia (from 1963, the Socialist Republic of Croatia). Starting from the post-war period, the number of inhabitants began to fall inexorably, just like the island’s economic and military importance.
Today, the island looks like a real paradise. Largely uninhabited, it is occupied only by nature and, in summer, by tourists who hardly stay for more than a day. Since 1986, it has hosted a Yacht Club association and the Croatian Coral Center, a multimedia museum on the history of the island and its most important cultural heritage. The centre was inaugurated on 2 June 2023, the project costing no less than 3 million Euros, and which aims to attract tourists and scholars even during the non-summer months. In 2019, Zlarin was declared the first “plastic free” island in all of Croatia and for some years now, only electric vehicles have been allowed on the island. Only small spomen (celebratory monuments) remain of the concentration camp, abandoned and semi-destroyed.