NEW YORK — At 93, artist Eva Deutsch Costabel still has one friend from her hometown, Zagreb. The Italian military imprisoned them in the same concentration camp in World War II. They survived, parted ways, and found each other seven years ago in New York City, where they both live today.
Her friend, also named Eva, was 7-years-old when she arrived at the camp, and remembers 17-year-old Costabel being famous among the children confined in the camp on the picturesque island of Rab in the Adriatic Sea. The children would gather to watch Costabel at work, her friend said.
“You couldn’t buy anything, so I became very popular because I designed all the greeting cards for everybody,” Costabel said. “Everybody knew me in the camp, because when they needed a card for the holiday, they came to me.”
“People from the camp, the Jews, they always said ‘I’ll never forget your greeting cards,'” Costabel said.
Today, Costabel’s Manhattan apartment is crammed with colorful abstract paintings, self-portraits depicting her struggle with PTSD, children’s books she wrote and illustrated, and textiles she patterned during her design career in New York.
Her art skills helped her survive in mountain villages controlled by Yugoslav partisans and as a young immigrant alone in the US. She studied in the classical art world of Rome and with abstract expressionists in Manhattan. Today, the nonagenarian still paints and hopes to find a home for her work before she passes on.
Costabel grew up in Zagreb, then part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, now the capital of Croatia. Her father worked in the chemical industry and her mother ran a fashion boutique. Her mother groomed her to design children’s clothes, she said, which is how she began to draw.
The Nazis invaded Yugoslavia and occupied Zagreb in April 1941. Much of the population welcomed the Germans as liberators. The Nazis set up a puppet state, called the Independent State of Croatia, run by the Ustaše, a fascist, racist and violent Croatian nationalist group.
Yugoslavia was ethnically diverse, largely split between the Croatian and Serbian ethnic groups, but also including Albanians, Macedonians, Slovenes, Muslims and Jews. The Serbs and Croatians harbored longstanding animosity towards each other, and when the Croatian Ustaše came to power, they began persecuting Serbs, Jews and Roma, in an attempt to create an ethnically pure Croatian state. The Nazis and their collaborators controlled the region’s roads and urban centers, but resistance groups sprang up in more remote mountain areas.
Saboteurs blew up a Nazi train in Costabel’s area and her father was accused of involvement because of his ties to the chemical industry.
“I never saw him again. I was 16 years old. He was murdered in the Treblinka gas chamber. The Ustaše, they were never punished for it,” Costabel said.
The notoriously violent Ustaše slaughtered Jews, Serbs and other minorities throughout the war.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates the Ustaše killed between 77,000 and 99,000 people, including up to 20,000 Jews, at Jasenovac, a death camp the group ran itself. The camp was brutal even by the standards of the time, with guards killing prisoners by slitting their throats, smashing their skulls with sledgehammers and hanging them from trees, often throwing bodies into a nearby river. Croatian authorities helped ship thousands more Jews to Nazi death camps in eastern Europe.
Yad Vashem estimates that 66,000 Yugoslav Jews died in the war, out of a pre-war population of 80,000.
Ustaše militants forced 16-year-old Costabel, her mother and her sister from their apartment at gunpoint.
Costabel’s parents were born in Vienna, and retained their Austrian citizenship and Germanic last name (she took the name Costabel from her former husband). Their Austrian passports allowed the family to get into territory occupied by the Italian military on the Adriatic Sea. The Italians were Nazi allies, but more lenient towards Jews.
“If you were Jewish, you were dead. It didn’t matter, you were dead. The Croatian Ustaše would have killed us, or the Nazis,” Costabel said. “The only place we could go was to the Yugoslav Adriatic coast because it was occupied by the Italian military during the war. A few of our friends who went there, they said, ‘The Italians don’t kill Jews.’ That’s why I’m alive.”
The Italians did, however, imprison Costabel and her family in a concentration camp on the island of Rab, off the coast of present-day Croatia.
For the rest of the war, Costabel and Yugoslavia’s surviving Jews were caught between the Italians, Nazis, Croatians, partisans and Allies in the power struggle for control of the Balkans.
Italian detainment camps: For repression, or protection?
The Italian military set up camps during the war for both repression, and for protection, according to historian James Walston. The repressive camps were intended to quell partisan resistance to their rule by removing potentially dangerous civilians and their supporters from the population. The inmates could also be used as hostages and executed in retaliation for partisan attacks.
In addition to the repressive camps, the Italians set up “protective” camps for Jews inside Italy and in areas occupied by their military. In Italian-occupied parts of Croatia, the camps included Rab, also known by its Italian name, Arbe, which kept the Jews out of the hands of the Nazis and Croatians. The military knew what was happening to Jews in eastern Europe, and wanted to keep Yugoslav Jews alive for both political and humanitarian reasons, Walston wrote.
Historian Davide Rodogno, author of a book on the Italian occupation of the Mediterranean in the war, told The Times of Israel that the military’s motives were purely political, however. The Italians in Yugoslavia, who were staunch believers in fascist ideology, were struggling for power with their German and Croatian allies in the region.
The Jews were a small, peaceful group, and the Italians did not want to waste resources going after them. The Ustaše, whom the Italians saw as “maniacs and idiots,” Rodogno said, were disrupting law and order in the area by hunting Jews and ignoring legitimate threats, so the Italians wanted to remove them from the Ustaše’s sights.
Keeping the Jews from the Nazis was an act of defiance against the Germans, meant to show they were not a satellite state of the Germans, Rodogno said.
“The military doesn’t operate and set up safe havens. If they decided to have concentration camps, it was to maintain law and order and make sure these people were under their control,” Rodogno said.
The Italians saw the Jews as a commodity that belonged to them, “and nobody, not even the Nazis, had any right to decide what to do with them. That was the point they were trying to make. This has nothing to do with humanity. The unintended consequence was a rescue,” Rodogno said.
Regardless of the Italian military’s motives, Costabel is grateful to her Italian captors to this day.
“Everybody was starving, nobody had anything to eat. We couldn’t get out of course, it was a concentration camp,” Costabel said. “But the Italians gave us our own administration. There were a few Jewish leaders. It made it a livable place. Everybody gave their books, and we had a library. We had very intelligent people in this group, and singers and musicians, and they made it bearable,” she said.
As Allied forces routed the Germans and Italians in north Africa in late 1942, the Italians thought the Jews in Yugoslavia could be used as leverage in a peace agreement, Rodogno said, so they kept them alive and under their control until the end of the war.
Masters of their own fates
Italy capitulated on September 8, 1943.
“It was utter chaos. Everyone was on his own. Italian soldiers wanted to just go back home,” Rodogno said. “They just didn’t care” what happened to the Jews, he said.
Liberation meant danger for the Jews in the Rab camp. When Italy fell, Yugoslavia was divided between the Germans and Croatians, who both wanted to kill the Jews there.
“For the Jewish internees in the Arbe [Rab] camp, the day of liberation was one of great danger. It was, however, the day on which, for the first time since the beginning of the war, they were given an opportunity to cease being powerless and persecuted refugees and to become the masters of their own fate. For the first time, they were free to organize, to make their way to the areas which had already been liberated by the partisans, and to participate in the struggle,” Walston wrote.
When Italy capitulated, of the 2,661 Jews in Rab, 204 decided to remain in the camp, mostly elderly or infirm. They were captured by the Germans and deported to Auschwitz where none survived. Of the “liberated” Jews who joined the partisans, 277 were killed in the war, Walston wrote.
Some of the Jews in Rab had connections to Yugoslavia’s communist party before their confinement, and formed a small cell in the camp, wrote Emil Kerenji, a historian from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They had some contact with communists outside the camp, including in the town of Rab itself.
Prior to Italy’s capitulation, the Jewish communists in the camp had prepared to join the partisans, and smuggled a report to the mainland late in the summer of 1943, Kerenji wrote. When Italy yielded to the Nazis, this cell, along with Slovenian prisoners in the camp, disarmed the Italian guards and took weapons from the camp’s caches.
Partisan representatives arrived from the mainland and invited the Jews to join their ranks. They began organizing their evacuation to remote areas in the forests and mountains of Yugoslavia under Partisan control. The complex rescue operation included ferrying the former inmates to the mainland on boats, sometimes under German aerial bombardment, transporting the sick and elderly in trucks and providing supplies to the hundreds joining their ranks.
Equals among victims
The ideologically-driven Communist partisans, led by Josip Broz Tito, were a multi-ethnic force that included Jews, Serbs and Muslims. Their socialist, inclusive ethos proved to be an advantage in the struggle against the Germans, as they attracted fighters from different segments of the population.
Tito proclaimed the group’s goals as “brotherhood and unity of the peoples in Yugoslavia” in the “struggle for national liberation.” The rescue of the Jews in Rab fit into this framework.
The region was rife with sectarian violence perpetrated against Serbians, Croats and Muslims, and Jews were considered another, equal victim by the Partisans, who provided refuge for the other minority groups as well. Tito himself ordered his fighters to assist Jews escaping from the Germans, according to Yad Vashem. The rescue of the Jews of Rab was therefore motivated by a political vision, not ethical or humanitarian concerns, like most well-known Holocaust rescues in Europe, according to Kerenji.
“Although joining the partisans thus de facto also meant saving one’s life (at least for the time being), the communists preferred to emphasize the formal act of joining the resistance movement and then endow it with ideological meaning: the brotherly peoples of Yugoslavia joining, of their own free will, the struggle for national liberation led by Tito and the partisans,” Kerenji wrote.
The liberation of Rab’s Jews was one of the largest single rescue operations of the Holocaust. For context, Oskar Schindler is credited with saving 1,200 Jews, while the partisans saved over 2,000 from Rab alone.
Most of the Jews who left the camp who could not fight with the partisans found refuge with civilians, including most of the 500 liberated children. Some made their way to internment camps on the Italian mainland. Most of the rest, including Costabel, who had been in the camp for 18 months, joined the partisan ranks.
“We had no place to go so the partisans, the resistance of Yugoslavia, they waited for us. There were soldiers, and they walked hundreds of miles to an area in Croatia which was occupied by the partisans, and I joined the army,” Costabel said.
The partisan propaganda unit
The partisans stationed Costabel in a small mountain village populated by Serbian peasants. She began working as a nurse.
“There were all these peasant houses. We used to sleep 30 people on the floor. They were all very primitive,” Costabel said. “We never took off our clothes, never, because of the Nazis, you had to always run.”
She began sketching the people around her in the village — children orphaned by war and typhoid, her landlord and his wife, a Jewish army officer named Baruch — on whatever pieces of paper she could find using pencils, ink and watercolors.
“It was during the war so I had to draw on the back of some old letters. There was no paper, and I always carried a knapsack, that was my whole possession, but I always had paint and ink or whatever I needed,” she said. “I’m very proud of them because I didn’t study art at all. I couldn’t go to school for years.”
Partisan leaders noticed her skills and assigned her to their propaganda unit.
“They called it the propaganda office. When they saw that I could draw, they put me there. I was doing the lettering and drawing. They had a little press,” she said.
The partisans remained committed to their multi-ethnic ideology throughout the war, and continued to welcome Jewish fighters and protect Jewish civilians in their territory. There were some tensions between the Jews and the local rural population, however. The Jews mostly came from urban areas, and were in better physical shape than the locals, who had suffered during a recent Nazi offensive, leading to some distrust between the groups. There were some incidents of anti-Semitism, or that were perceived as anti-Semitic by the Jews, according to Kerenji.
Costabel noticed this, and resisted formally joining the Communist party, she said.
“I didn’t want to join the Communist party. You’re 19, you’re an idealist, but I said I don’t like what they’re doing. I mean, they’re fighting the Nazis, but otherwise they’re very anti-Semitic, so I didn’t want to join. So my friend said, ‘You better join, they’ll kill you,'” Costabel said.
On the road, again
Costabel fled for the coast. She met a group of Austrian and Hungarian Jews who had made contact with Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph, who was in the Adriatic as part of the British military’s effort to assist the partisans with medical supplies and military equipment. The group appealed to Churchill, as foreign citizens, for his help in fleeing war-torn Yugoslavia.
“We are the reminders of the persecuted foreign Jewish refugees. The other fell in Hands of the enemy and it is sure that they are not more alive,” the group wrote, in broken English, in their appeal to Churchill in a letter dated September 1, 1944. “Therefore we beg to realise our demand as soon as possible and to transfer us to Italy,” the refugees wrote.
Again, Costabel’s Austrian passport allowed her to leave as a foreign citizen. A British warship ferried the refugees across the Adriatic Sea to Bari, in southern Italy, which was controlled by the Allies. Costabel spent the remainder of the war in a refugee camp in Bari.
After the war ended, Costabel moved to Rome with her mother and sister. She wanted to pursue her interest in art, but had lost five years of education due to the war. Rome was a city in disarray, without accurate phone books, so Costabel wandered the streets looking for an art school that would take her. Someone pointed her in the direction of the Academy of Fine Arts, an imposing classical arts school dating back to the 16th century. She explained her situation to an employee dressed in overalls she met outside the school whom she took to be a porter.
“I told him my whole story and it turned out that he wasn’t a porter, he was the director of the school, and he said ‘I’ll get you in this school.’ You needed eight years of high school or two years of college. I had four years of high school. They took me anyway,” Costabel said.
“I didn’t have a cent to my name, nothing, and I went free to this. Everything I know today is from two years of this academy,” she said.
New life in the New World
She received a US visa while at the academy, and moved to New York City in 1949. She did not speak English and had no connections or job training beyond her two years of art education. After a few days in the city, she found a job painting roses on compacts for powdered makeup for one cent apiece, which put her below the poverty line, even then. A chance meeting led to a job in store window displays, which were elaborate advertisements at the time. She painted papier-mâché sculptures for stores in Manhattan, then began designing commercial packaging. Package design would provide her with steady income for most of her career.
Her first job was on 57th street in Manhattan. She struggled to acclimate to the new city, but found refuge in art galleries and museums. At the time, many of New York’s galleries were located in midtown, so Costabel would explore during her lunch breaks.
“I didn’t speak English. I had no friends. I just bought a book and I saw every museum in New York the first year, and I still do that. I love New York,” Costabel said. “I don’t like to be bored, and you cannot be bored in New York.”
It was a hard time for her, though. Most survivors she met preferred spending time with other survivors from their own country, she said, and she did not know many Jews from Yugoslavia. She was also grappling with PTSD from the war, which she eventually recovered from, through art and therapy.
“Every survivor should have gone to a psychiatrist. You cannot live with this. This is something you cannot deal with if you don’t get it out of your system,” she said.
Costabel began studying painting at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn under the renowned abstract expressionist Franz Kline. The post-World War II movement, based in New York and made famous by Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning and Mark Rothko, focused on action, emotion and spontaneous creation. It would help Costabel deal with the turmoil in her life.
“What helps me tremendously is that I’m an artist. People think my paintings are very cheerful, but actually what I did is I put all my emotion, all my frustration in my paintings, so even though they look happy, they came from unhappiness, from pain.”
Outside of her design career, she has taught workshops on abstract art to those suffering from chronic diseases, and wrote and illustrated children’s books on Jewish and American history, including “The Jews of New Amsterdam,” on the first Jews to move to the Dutch colony which would become New York City.
She refuses to return to Croatia, despite invitations. Streets in her hometown are named after war criminals, she said, and the country never truly reckoned with the crimes of the Ustaše and other Nazi collaborators.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said on a visit to the Jasenovac concentration camp and Zagreb this year, “There are some who prefer to repress their past and see it as a ‘black hole’ which requires no study or soul searching… Croatia’s ability to deal with the past and not to ignore it is a moral obligation, which is a fundamental part of any just society.” But this year, Croatia’s World Cup team celebrated its success with a singer notorious for Ustaše sympathies.
Today, Costabel lives alone in midtown Manhattan. Dressed in a wardrobe that matches her bright, bold paintings, she keeps busy with social engagements, doctor visits, and trips to museums. Her marriage was unhappy and she never had children. Now she is trying to find a home for her paintings in New York or Israel, but has so far been unsuccessful.
In her small apartment, her shelves overflow with books on art, Israel and Jewish history and her walls are lined with decades of artwork. A photograph of her father stands on a bookcase next to her bed, and at her window overlooking 8th Avenue are her easel, brushes, and tubes of paint.
“I have a very good life, considering everything. I’m not a greedy person. People make themselves unhappy because they want a car, they want this, they want that, and I’m not that way,” said Costabel. “I’m not greedy, so I’m satisfied with what I have. That’s all.”