Goli otok

Croatian Alcatraz

21 February 2023.

Written by Matija Čaić

Islands were always perfect places for legendary prisons. Alcatraz and Australia are the most famous. Chateau d’If is fortified island on which the count of Monte Christo spent 14 years wrongly imprisoned, and St. Helen is most famous for Napoleon who was exiled there. Goli otok (Naked island) and Sv. Grgur (St. Gregory) are the most infamous examples of these in Croatia. Goli was prison form men and Grgur for women.


The ruling communist party, led by Josip Broz Tito, used russian gulags as example when they started to build this penitentiary because they believed that prisoners shouldn’t only be isolated from society but also reeducated to become once again productive member of the same society.

This only Croatian Gulag is located in the sub-mountainous channel near Senj, about 6 kilometers from the coast and 5 kilometers north of the island of Rab. A powerful and very common wind bora that blows salty mist on this small island of only 4.5 square miles, has made the soil infertile to any plant life, and therefore the island was named Goli. Today, the only inhabitants are sheep that can be found amongst ruinous buildings that still remind people of the famous days of the most notorious prison in the Balkans.


During the First World War, Austro-Hungarians built a camp for Russian prisoners from the eastern battlefield on Goli island. Then it was still an ordinary, boring prison. The soldiers were simply taken there to wait for the end of the war or to be exchanged.

croatia, travel, tourism, goli otok, island, prison, alcatraz, mediterranean, adriatic, communism
Goli otok
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Author: Pokrajac

The full potential of Goli began to show in 1948 when the communist government established a working camp for political prisoners, most often those suspected of collaborating with Russian Informbureau.
In 1956, the camp went to the jurisdiction of the Socialist Republic of Croatia, so its circle of expatriates extended to all criminals and delinquents that the authorities consider should be reeducated.

The camp was finally closed in 1986.

Killing man inside man

On July 9, 1949., the infamous period of Goli island begins. That was the date when the first 1200 prisoners arrived. Since there was no dock, prisoners were simply grabbed by their hands and feet and dumped on the rocks. 14 barracks were waiting for them in the prison and a group of guards.

The guards were just here to prevent escape. From the very beginning, it was ment that prisoners take care of themselves, especially as punishment is concerned. The guards did not particularly interfere with the conflicts between them, nor did they particularly worry about them.
Soon came a second group of 1,000 detainees and then the real face of Goli showed. Prisoners from the first group were ordered to form a row through which the newcomers had to pass, and as they passed, prisoners from the first group beat them as strong and as cruel as they can. Who did not hit hard enough was also sentenced to pass through the row.
There were hidden agents in the second group and the provocateur agents who told the detainees that they would be released if they listened to the orders and testify against the others. Soon their effort had brought fruit and the two groups started fighting. Two people were killed and about thirty were injured.
There was no attempt to destroy the man’s body on Goli island, but to kill man inside man.

Easy coming to the island

Initially, Goli was built for political prisoners, the actual or fictitious enemies of the Communist Party. Sometimes it was enough just to suspect on someone and he would end up in a ship that drove him to the penitentiary. Often without trial.
The prisoners were expected to talk about their neighbors, friends and relatives and point out the enemies of the state. The one who did not cooperate or knew nothing useful to say would be proclaimed as a boycotted prisoner. They would tie the cloth to his the back with a wire meaning that it was allowed, or even desireable, to hit that prisoner. In the evening in front of the barracks a so-called “warm rabbit” waited for him, a row similar to that upon arriving at the island.
The worst thing anyone could say to the investigators was that he is innocent. Who would go to the island was determined by the State Security Administration (UDBA), an infallible protection service of internal affairs. If an innocent person ended up on the Island this would mean that UDBA made a mistake and she did not make a mistake. The one who ended up there certainly must have sinned, or at least thought about doing something bad.
At a building near the dock, there was a great inscription “The Party’s concern for our health is a bright example of humanity”. An inscription that speaks enough about himself.

Peter’s hole

Peter’s hole was a special part of the prison named after Petar Komenenić, the first prisoner who ended there. And that was really a hole, a boxwood pit seven meters and 20 meters wide with a 3-meter-high wall and a guard towers around. High officials were mostly taken to it, and there was room for 130 “particularly dangerous” prisoners.

Work day

When they did not beat other prisoners or were interrogated, the inmates spent their day crushing stones. If this job was too light, they were not allowed to use any tools but would put the stone on one bigger and hit it with another.
They received two decilitres of water a day for refreshment, which, especially in the summer months, was too small so they grew fatigued even faster.
More dependable prisoners who worked better with the guards gained easier and more productive jobs. They worked in sawmills, made pebbles in a stone crusher, repaired smaller ships, produced iron structures and tiles. All this mainly for the Italian market.

Escape and numbers

Escape from the Goli island was very difficult, if not impossible. If someone managed to escape the watchful eye of the guards, there was 6 kilometers of sea to cross over with very strong currents, high waves, and steep shores.

The communist authorities have been very successful in hiding information on fugitives so that no one knows if anyone has succeeded in escaping, though it is speculated that a few are still. Of course, many more were killed in the attempt.
When all is added, it is considered that around 16,500 people went through the penitentiary, out of which 500 remained there.

St. Gregory

St. Gregory was about 3 kilometers northwest of the island of Goli and from 1948 to 1988 it was a female penitentiary of the same type, although not so cruel. Since it was not so in use, little data was preserved on St. Gregory.
Today, however, it is a lot more domesticated than Goli. It is a green island where free fallow deer is present, and there is even a restaurant.

Background picture: www.wn.com

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