The village of Stara Gradiška, about 30 kilometres downriver from Jasenovac, was founded on the ruins of the nearby late Antique village of Servitium, and therefore has an unbroken historical continuity lasting over a thousand years.
Along with other villages and the port on the Sava, Gradiška was first mentioned in written documents in 1295.
When the Turkish Army invaded the Croatian regions, Gradiška became a fort for several centuries, and from 1799 onwards, when French prisoners-of-war were interned there, Stara Gradiška became a prison, penitentiary and camp, for almost two hundred years of its history.
After the end of the First World War, it was used to house the first political prisoners of the newly-formed Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. There are no reliable statistics on the actual numbers of political prisoners held in Stara Gradiška, but photographs which survive show that after 1920, new buildings were added to the prison.
In the Independent State of Croatia, between 1941 and 1945, the Ustashas turned the prison into a concentration camp.
The first groups of prisoners, influential and rich Serbs and Jews, were brought to Stara Gradiška in May 1941 from Nova Gradiška, Slavonski Brod, Slavonska Požega and Bosanska Gradiška.
In late 1941 and early 1942 prisoners from Zagreb prisons and the camps in Lepoglava, Koprivnica and Jasenovac were brought to Stara Gradiška, turning it into a concentration camp under the Jasenovac Assembly Camps, controlled by the Ustasha Defence Third Bureau.
A decree of 17 February 1942 ordered the transferral of the prisoners to the penitentiary in Sremska Mitrovica, at which point the penitentiary and penal institution in Stara Gradiška was formally abolished and it became an Ustasha concentration camp known as Camp V Stara Gradiška.
According to the List of Individual Names of the Jasenovac Victims, which includes all the research completed up to 31 August 2008, the names and details of 12,790 persons killed in the Ustasha camp in Stara Gradiška have been confirmed.
In May 1945 the Partisan authorities turned Stara Gradiška into a prisoner-of-war camp for Ustashas, Chetniks, Nazis and Fascists. The walls of Stara Gradiška came to represent the last station on so-called “ways of the cross” – forced marches. During this period, according to the testimonies and memories of surviving political prisoners, around 280 Catholic priests were killed or died as a result of torture in Stara Gradiška.
During the time in which the Penitentiary Rehabilitation Centre was in operation (this was the name given to the Stara Gradiška after it ceased to be a camp and was made into a closed prison in 1948), many political prisoners holding various ideologies and personal convictions were held there, alongside those convicted of the most heinous crimes.
After the passing of a resolution by the INFORMBIRO, many Communists were also interned in Stara Gradiška for expressing sympathy for Stalin’s vision for a Communist society.
Following the “Croatian Spring” uprising in 1971, the prison cells were crammed with Croatian intellectuals, students and citizens convicted on the grounds of “Croatian nationalism and counter-revolution”.
The Penitentiary Rehabilitation Centre was disbanded and closed in 1990.
In 1991 Stara Gradiška once again became a prisoner-of-war camp, in the hands of Krajina rebels and with the assistance of the Banja Luka Corps of the then Yugoslav National Army. Many Croats from western Slavonia and the non-Serbian population of northwest Bosnia and Herzegovina were imprisoned and abused there, as were Serbian army deserters.
Graffiti carved into the plaster walls of the buildings which remain in Stara Gradiška are evidence of two centuries of abuse, human suffering and resistance, in the hope of preserving human dignity.
Today, Stara Gradiška and the remaining parts of the fort form one of four cavalier type fortresses in the territory of the Republic of Croatia and are listed as a protected cultural monument. The Tower which forms part of the ramparts is a symbol of the suffering of women and children in the Ustasha camps.
Survivors erected a monument to the victims of the Ustasha camp in the camp cemetery.