Few months ago an American photographer Darmon Richter based in the Balkans visited the Croatian capital of Zagreb, where he joined the locals on another adventure. It was just he early April sun, still both cold and warm, when they decided to climb towards turrets of Medvedgrad. The semi-ruined 13th century fortress perches like a gothic mirage above Zagreb, on the slopes of Medvednica – literally, Bear Mountain.
During their trip towards the fort their local guide suddenly pointed out the road leading to the abandoned mountain retreat of a “former Croatian politician.” Someone in their group wondered “Which politician?”, and the guide replied “just some WWII-era Croatian politician”, they were told. Most Croatians don’t like to speak of Ante Pavelić anymore.
For many in the West, the name means nothing – but if you follow the Bohemian Blog you may be familiar with some of his works. The extermination camp at Jasenovac, for example, dubbed the ‘Auschwitz of the Balkans’ and where some 80-100 thousand victims, largely Serbs, Jews and Roma, were brutally tortured and killed in the 1940s: that was Ante Pavelić.
A great number of the modernist war memorials of socialist Yugoslavia were built to commemorate the victims of Pavelić’s campaigns – but on the mountain north of Zagreb stands a different kind of memento. Unlike those monuments, whose abstract symbolism paints evil in strokes of intangible menace, the broken bricks of Vila Rebar serve as a reminder that some of the foulest deeds of the 20th century were signed into action by angry little bureaucrats in suits.
Over time, Pavelić grew increasingly radical in his efforts – calling for revolution against the crown – and when Yugoslav King Alexander I took a turn for the totalitarian by placing a ban against all political parties in 1929, Pavelić and co. began plotting his demise.
Vila Rebar was built in 1932, designed by architect Ivan Zemljak on the site of a former hunting lodge. Pavelić came to live here during WWII, bringing his family with him, and it was from Vila Rebar that he ruled his Independent State of Croatia. Various changes were made during Pavelić’s time at the villa. The bunkers were installed and manned by armed guards, while – according to the stories – the dictator had a system of escape tunnels hollowed out from the mountain beneath the house.
After the war, Vila Rebar served briefly as a hiking lodge and a mountain resort for school children. Later it would become a hotel and restaurant. But Hotel Risnjak, as it was then called, burned down in 1979; some say the fire was started by a former restaurant employee, though the official record lists the cause as unknown. The fire consumed everything but the foundations. The upper levels, wood-panelled in the style of a mountain lodge, were destroyed leaving only a stunted base of stone arches and brick-lined passageways.