Film-maker Dana Budisavljević (Edo Bosnar/VoC) Film-maker Dana Budisavljević (Edo Bosnar/VoC)

Diana Budisavljević was an Austrian woman who lived most of her adult life in Zagreb, moving here just after World War I when she married a very well-respected physician of Serb ethnicity, Julije Budisavljević. She died in the late 1970s, and few at the time or since knew that during World War II, she managed to rescue thousands of mainly ethnic Serb children from the concentration camps in the pro-Axis Independent State of Croatia and place them in foster homes with mainly Croatian families.

About 7 years ago, film-maker Dana Budisavljević learned about this story, and Diana, for the first time and was immediately intrigued. After looking into the story a little more, she decided to make a film about Diana Budisavljević and her campaign. (Incidentally, she found out that her family is distantly related to the family of Diana’s husband, Julije). However, she had her work cut out for her, because there is so little information about Diana Budisavljević. Most of the source material for the upcoming film comes from Diana’s own diary, which can be found at various sites online. Otherwise, just like Diana, all of the people with whom she collaborated during the Second World War have long since died, and even their children and/or grandchildren are either hard to find or know little about these events.

Dana did, however, manage to find the survivors saved by Diana when they were children, and found out – in one of those bitter ironies of history – that they did not even now the name of the person who was responsible for saving their lives. As Dana noted, “I talked to more than 100 kids who are now people in their eighties, and interestingly, no one remembered Diana, because they were so small at the time and so traumatized that her name meant nothing to them. Then I realized that they really need to know about the person who saved their lives.”

Diana Budisavljević managed to rescue anywhere from 7 and a half thousand to 12 thousand children from the concentration camps in the Ustasha state. How? Dana points out that this was not done in the way that, say, Oskar Schindler surreptitiously rescued the Jews employed in his various factories. Diana Budisavljević approached the Nazi German authorities in Croatia, taking advantage of her Austrian ethnicity, and conducted her campaign through entirely legal channels. As Dana pointed out, “She did it in a half-official way, because she couldn’t just smuggle 10 thousand kids.”

Diana also received assistance in her efforts from members of the Catholic clergy, and even from a few officials in the Ustasha state itself who did not agree with the policies of that regime. Another fascinating aspect of the story is that she was able to find families, mainly Croats, in and around Zagreb, who opened their homes to these children and took care of them.

Dana initially thought she would make a documentary, but the lack of information, and the fact Diana herself and everybody involved had died so long ago, while the surviving children have no memory of her, made this an impossibility. She resolved the production challenges by adopting a sort of hybrid approach, which will tell the story of Diana and her efforts using actors and sets, and then feature the surviving children recounting what they remember of that time in a documentary style.

Dana also sees the film as a way to right what she sees as a great historical wrong. Because after the war, Diana was basically banned by the new communist authorities from continuing her humanitarian work: they were leery of her Austrian ethnicity and her “bourgeois” background, so she could not be publicly extolled as a hero. Thus, she never even met the children she had rescued, and, obviously, the children knew nothing about their savior. So, Dana said, she wants this film to, among other things, finally bring them together, at least symbolically.

This also gets to the heart of Dana’s deeper rationale for embarking on this film project. She stated it best herself: “Overall, I think it’s very important to tell the stories about people who have done or are doing good. I think it’s important to highlight the stories of people who are unselfish, who don’t resort to violence to achieve their goals, who really did great things for the world, but the world doesn’t remember them. I think there are a lot of films about wars, destruction and amazing characters who were nonetheless still destructive, and I thought that in today’s world, we should really shine a light not only on people who were destructive but also people who worked to rebuild the world. And at an extreme level, I think humanity owes its life and the continuation of civilization to people like Diana. But somehow we’re always fascinated with evil, and we produce many more books, films and art about evil, so I thought I should try to make a film about goodness, and still make it interesting and inspiring for people.”