The primary image of European Jews during World War II is of sickly prisoners stuck in ghettos and concentration camps.
But in Croatia, Jews are remembering a group that turned that stereotype on its head.
Two recent events honored a little-known but heroic World War II story: a Jewish combat battalion made up of inmates of a former Italian-run concentration camp on the Croatian island of Rab.
The Rab Jewish battalion — originally 245 Jews aged 15-30 with little military training, and one medical unit with 35 girls who offered to serve as nurses — was formed in September 1943 after fascist Italy had surrendered.
“This was an act of bravery and of defiance that so far has not been appropriately appreciated,” said Alfred Pal, who coordinated an exhibition of photographs from the Rab concentration camp and the Jewish battalion at a recent meeting of Jews from the former Yugoslavia.
“Everybody speaks only about the resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto, but this was also an act of exceptional bravery which proves that the Jews did not behave as helpless victims,” he said.
The official commemoration was held last month on the site of the former camp.
Earlier this month, about 15 surviving members of the battalion gathered on the Croatian island of Hvar during the annual meeting, known as “Beyachad,” of former Yugoslav Jews. Now in their late 70s and early 80s, the former fighters came from Zagreb, Belgrade, Sarajevo and Israel.
When the camp was liberated in September 1943, the former inmates disarmed the Italian guards and organized military units.
With the help of Croatian partisans, who sent a ship to the island, the Jewish battalion was transferred to the Croatian mainland on Sept. 17, 1943.
After walking north for 16 days over mountains and through forest, the Jewish fighters joined the 7th Partisan Division. Other former inmates of the camp later joined in the fighting as well.
Altogether, there were 691 members of the Jewish battalion. They took part in bruising battles against German and pro-Nazi Croatian forces in the Croatian regions of Banija, Kordun and Lika, and more than 100 were killed by the end of the war in May 1945.
The former battalion members say they survived the concentration camp only because of the leniency of the Italian guards.
The Rab concentration camp was on Croatian territory that had been annexed by the Italian fascists. Established in July 1942, its first inmates were Slovenian partisans.
By the end of May 1943, Jews from the so-called Italian Zone II in Croatia — the territories occupied by Italy, including Dubrovnik, the Dalmatian islands and a former Italian concentration camp in the Northern Adriatic — were transferred to Rab.
There were about 3,500 Jews in the Jewish part of the camp. Some 47 percent were women, and 15 percent were children.
Aleksandar Lebl from Belgrade, a former member of the Rab Jewish battalion, told the survivors meeting in Hvar that Italian military officials disobeyed Mussolini’s order to send all Jews from the Italian-occupied territories to the Nazis.
Mario Roatta, commander of the Italian-occupied territories, and high-ranking Italian Catholics also may have played a role in saving Jews.
In addition to the Jewish fighters, about 3,000 Jews from the Rab camp — almost all of them women, elderly and children — were shipped from the island to the mainland by Croatian partisans. They were evacuated to territories held by the partisans, saving their lives.
That left 204 Jews in the Rab camp, most of them very old or sick. When the Germans came to the island the Jews were transported to Auschwitz, and nobody survived.
Among the children evacuated from the camp was Ruben Kohn from Zagreb, who was 13 in 1943.
From October 1943 until the end of the war, he served as a courier for the Croatian Partisan Headquarters, risking his life to carry messages from one partisan shelter to the other.
Kohn moved to Israel with his family in 1948 and today is a successful travel agent in Nahariya. He organized the travel arrangements to the reunion for a group of former members of the Jewish battalion who now live in Israel.
Even after moving to Israel, Kohn maintained close contact with his partisan friends.
“I am extremely proud to be among those partisans who triumphantly entered Zagreb on May 8, 1945,” when the city was liberated, he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.