The Fierce: David Whitelaw and Andrija Artuković
Guest article by Judy Piercey
My book, The Fierce, tells the untold true story of a teenager who set out to bring the worst war criminal in America to justice. It is a David versus Goliath tale, set in the Cold WarA period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, 'officially' lasting from 1947 to 1991., when fear of communismA theory of system of government and social organisation where property is owned collectively and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs. permeated every facet of American life.
My protagonist is David Whitelaw, the middle son of a Jewish mother who escaped Germany in 1938. Of the relatives she left behind, 76 perished in Hitler’s death camps.
The war criminal was Andrija Artuković, a senior cabinet member of a Nazi puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia, from 1941-45.
Hitler and Mussolini had their own economic and political reasons for supporting Croatian leader Ante Pavelić’s dream of a Croatian homeland. Both Pavelić and Artuković had spent most of their adult lives fighting for that dream, first as university students and later as leaders of their band of terrorists, the Ustasha. As Interior Minister, Artuković oversaw the construction of 26 concentration camps, including the only camps in Europe solely for children. As Justice Minister, he enforced racial laws, boasting that he solved ‘the Jewish problem’ more swiftly than Hitler. As Religion Minister, Artuković led forced conversions of Serbs in a policy expressed succinctly in ‘thirds': kill one-third of Croatia’s Serb population, expel one-third and convert one-third to Roman CatholicismThe faith and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.. He earned the nickname ‘Butcher of the Balkans’ for his role in a reign of terror so bloodthirsty that even the Nazis were horrified. Mere months after the Ustasha gained power, the German military attaché in Zagreb, Edmund Glaise von Horstenau, warned in a telegram to the German High Command that Pavelić had 'gone mad with hatred'. He wrote: ‘according to reliable reports from countless German and civil observers during the last few weeks the Ustasha have gone raging mad.’
Witnesses would later testify that Artuković personally ordered specific murders, one of a political prisoner and another of a barn full of villagers who were incinerated. By the time the genocideThe deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group. ended in 1945, the death toll was in the hundreds of thousands. It is impossible to determine the exact number. But Yugoslavia claimed that the Ustasha had murdered 770,000 people, 700,000 of whom were Serbs and the rest Jews and Roma. At least 60,000 were Jews, in effect wiping out the Jewish population of Croatia.
When the war ended, Artuković and his family escaped along ratlines with the help of the Vatican through the assistance of Krunoslav Stjepan Draganović, a Roman Catholic priest with a successful track record of spiriting Ustasha out of Europe. Draganović took their applications to the Delegate General of the Franciscans of Switzerland, who in turn presented them to the Irish immigration minister. Artuković, at the age of 45, was given a new identity as Alois Anich, passing himself off as a university professor hoping to engage in ‘philological and historical studies’ in Dublin. His 24-year-old wife, Ana, and their two daughters also took the name of Anich, with the children’s names changed from Visnja and Zorica to Katherina and Aurea. The Irish government accepted their applications and on 15 July 1947 the family arrived in Dublin. Their son, Radoslav, was born the following year and the family promptly left for America.
Using their false identities, the family arrived in the United States and were granted six-month tourist visas. They settled in suburban Los Angeles in Surfside, living in a cosy cottage on Seal Beach just yards from the ocean, provided by Artuković’s brother. Six years younger than Andrija, he had anglicised his first name from Ivan to John, as well as the spelling of his last name to Artukovich. He had immigrated to Los Angeles in 1934, became an American citizen in 1940, married an American woman of Croatian heritage and went into the construction business, following a family tradition started by relatives who had arrived early in the twentieth century. Several members of the family had grown wealthy, including John, and they welcomed Andrija and his family into the optimistic and booming world of post-war California. Artuković, a lawyer, devoted his time to working as a bookkeeper at his brother’s construction firm and improving his English, the weakest of the several languages he spoke fluently.
The Artuković family had arrived in California at a pivotal time in US history. Thanks to its contribution to the Allied victory, the US, and President Harry Truman especially, basked in the newly cast role of world leader. Truman introduced the Displaced Persons Act and the Refugee Relief Act, which brought in more than 600,000 immigrants from several European countries from 1948 to 1953.
In the spring of 1949, Andrija Artuković applied to have his family declared Displaced Persons. ‘I am stateless,’ he declared. In his interview with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, he explained he had entered the United States with a false name because he was a political refugee forced to use another name to get out of Europe. Artuković emphasised his strong Catholic faith and his opposition, as a Catholic, to the atheismDisbelief or lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods of communism.
The selective information that Artuković gave about himself became part of a narrativeA story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. which he and his supporters would repeat often in the coming years. The narrative was built on the claim that Artuković would be arrested and physically harmed by the anti-Catholic communistSomeone who believes in the ideals of communism, where property is owned collectively and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs. government of Yugoslavia. As a member of Pavelic’s cabinet, Artuković would be in the crosshairs of President Josip Broz Tito, whose partisans the Ustasha had fought to the end.
The immigration officer quickly realized that Artuković had served a prominent role in ‘one of the AxisThe states allied to Germany, Italy and Japan before and during the Second World War. The term 'Axis' helps differentiate them from the Allied powers (which included Britain and America).-dominated governments set up after the Germans overran the area.’ He rejected his application and turned the file over to the FBI.
In the meantime, Yugoslavia had requested his extradition. But the US seemed in no hurry to take any action. Almost two years passed before Artuković was arrested on 8 May, 1951. But his arrest was far from the end of his story in America. In fact, it was the beginning of a new journey down a legal path with twists and turns for almost four more decades.
Artuković’s lawyers fought Yugoslavia’s extradition request, relying on a legal provision that prevented the US from extraditing a person who could be persecuted for 'political' crimes. In the Cold War era, this proved to be Artuković’s trump card. His portrayal as a fighter against communism played out favourably in the press, with the public, and even with some politicians. His powerful supporters included elected legislators who used their positions to protect him. Over the course of Artuković’s life in California, his Congressmen in both Washington and Sacramento introduced eight private members’ bill to keep him in the country. One such politician was federal Republican Representative James Utt, a virulent anti-communist. He developed a habit of introducing private members’ bills supporting Artuković, usually just before the session ended. As long as the bill was before the House, Artuković was safe to remain in the country.
On January 15, 1959, Artuković won a key legal victory. US Commissioner Theodore Hocke ruled against his extradition, saying there was insufficient evidence of criminality and that the charges against Artuković were ‘of a political nature’. The Yugoslavian government said it would not appeal the decision. ‘I’m very happy at this moment,’ Artuković told reporters. ‘This is not just my case but the case of the Croatian nation and all the Croatian patriots around the world.’
It would take another fifteen years before Artuković would make headlines. And, like the turbulent 1970s themselves, this time change was in the air.
It was in 1973 that David Whitelaw learned of Artuković’s presence just a few miles away from his own home in Los Angeles. Whitelaw, now close to his eighteenth birthday, had grown up hearing his mother’s stories about the 76 relatives murdered in the HolocaustThe mass murder of Jews and other minority groups under the Nazi regime.. Judith Whitelaw had passed her emotional scars down to her middle son. 'The Holocaust was mother’s milk to me', David Whitelaw says. When his mother suggested David join the Jewish Defense League, he eagerly signed up, not knowing that the organization was on the FBI’s radar as domestic terrorists.
Whitelaw seemed an unlikely terrorist. He was such a patriotic American that he’d fashioned his own signature with the looping 'W' of George Washington. Respectful of both the military and the government, he was offended by his peers who protested against the war with Vietnam. He was a high achiever who aspired to become a physician, and a devout Jew who promised at his Bar Mitzvah 'to help build a better world'. He also possessed an exceptionally strong work ethic, earning money to help his divorced mother pay the bills. But yet, his entry into the Jewish Defense League seemed to radicalize him almost overnight. When he learned that Artuković was living freely in the US, he was stunned. Reeling from the notion that his beloved country harboured a war criminal, Whitelaw wrote to the Yugoslav consulate to seek more information. Soon after, he received a package that included the names of victims and the circumstances of their deaths. ‘They poured caustic soda down children’s throats’, he read incredulously, his eyes filling with tears. His whole life had been haunted by images of emaciated Holocaust victims, especially those of children. He was tortured by thoughts of how his 76 relatives suffered, filled with loneliness for the cousins he’d never met. A new sense of purpose overtook him. Artuković’s very presence felt like a personal affront. David Whitelaw decided to wage his own campaign. He vowed to do what his own government was unwilling or unable to do: he would do everything in his power to get 'this monster' back to Yugoslavia.
He embarked on a letter-writing campaign. Every night after school, he sat down at the dining room table, banging out letters on his mother’s typewriter. He wrote to every elected official he could think of, whether local, state, federal or even international. He appealed to rabbis, Jewish organisations and community leaders. His message was always the same: this is a personal appeal from a teenager who never knew his extended family because 76 loved ones were murdered in Hitler’s camps.
His letters elicited little or no response. The few replies he received were bland, or worse, saying it was time to forget. Whitelaw was undeterred. His quest evolved into an obsession, even more so when he heard the leader of the Jewish Defense League warned that because Artuković was in his late 70s, there was a real danger that he could get ‘biological amnestyAn official pardon..’ The phrase gave David pause. He realized that without dramatic action, Artuković would die without ever being brought to justice.
He vowed not to let that happen.
Whitelaw had grown increasingly dissatisfied with his one-man campaign, seemingly fruitless after two years. One day in January 1975, he heard a rumour that Artuković would be visiting his brother at his suburban home in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. It was an opportunity like none other.
In less than 48 hours, Whitelaw had hatched a plot and found an accomplice. The plan was twofold: give the war criminal a good fright and attract the kind of publicity that would lead to public outcry. Whitelaw planned to commit a crime, one that would risk his future and perhaps his life. But if all went well, the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’ would finally be brought to justice.
The plan did not go well. The Los Angeles Police Department had been tipped off and officers were hiding in the bushes when the two young men drove up to John Artukovch’s house. They watched David Whitelaw walk up to a car parked in the driveway, carrying a beer bottle stuffed with a rag, take aim, and throw the Molotov cocktail at the car.
As Whitelaw and his accomplice fled in their borrowed car, police officers began to shoot at them. By the time the boys made it to the bottom of the hill, the car’s windows and tyres were full of holes. They were arrested. Released on bail, his accomplice fled to Israel where he remained. Whitelaw pled guilty and was sentenced to a year in prison.
While Whitelaw was in prison, the tide turned. The US changed the law that had protected war criminals. Artuković was arrested but his lawyers resumed legal manoeuvring for another nine years, maintaining that he was too old and ill to stand trial. The legal battle finally came to an end on 12 February 1986 when the US Supreme Court ordered Artuković’s extradition. He was 86 and in such frail health that a medical team wheeled his stretcher onto the plane and travelled with him to Yugoslavia.
At his trial in Zagreb, Artuković sat in a specially built cubicle behind a bulletproof glass screen as five judges presided. The public gallery included 175 spectators, all carefully screened, consisting of media, survivors of Croatia’s concentration camps and Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945. veterans. Artuković was convicted of ordering four separate massacres and was sentenced to death by firing squad. However, Yugoslav law forbade executing a convict who was ill. He died on 18 January 1988, at the age of 88, after spending 23 months in a hospital prison.
David Whitelaw changed his mind about becoming a doctor. He didn’t like the sight of blood. It was a trait he shared with Andrija Artuković. He, too, quit medical school because he was repulsed by blood. As I researched and wrote this book, I was struck by the uncanny similarities between Artuković and Whitelaw. As children, both stood out for their intelligence and excelled at school. Both became student activists fuelled by an idealism that sprung from their faith. The identities of both David Whitelaw, a Jew, and Andrija Artuković, a Roman Catholic, were rooted in their religion. Both were fervent, even militantFavouring the use of violence and confrontation in the support of a cause., in their religious beliefs. Both committed crimes in the name of God. And once the crimes were over, both went on to live peaceful, law-abiding lives.
David Whitelaw found his calling as a kindergarten teacher, spending 35 years in schools in the most impoverished neighbourhoods of Los Angeles. His mission was to instil in young hearts and minds lessons about tolerance. The lessons to prevent another Holocaust.
Judy Piercey's book, The Fierce, is published by The History Press and available to buy now.
Images © Myth Merchant Films.