The Gornokarlovatsky Diocese of the Church of Serbia is situated on the territory of contemporary Croatia and includes the westernmost areas settled by Orthodox Serbs in the fifteenth century. The growth of the Orthodox population there was accelerated at the beginning of the sixteenth century, when Serbs from neighbouring Dalmatia and Bosnia settled there, fleeing from Turkish oppression. Over time the so-called military region of Kraina was formed, serving as a protective flank for the Austro-Hungarian Empire from Turkish expansion. The Serbs who lived in Kraina served in the Austrian Army and received special privileges from the Emperors and at that time Kraina was one of the largest and most prosperous dioceses of the Church.
However, Roman Catholic proselytism and the spread of Uniatism down the centuries was a constant danger for the Serbs and on more than one occasion they had to stand up for their privileges and the purity of their faith. The twentieth century, during which the Church suffered terrible trials, was no exception to this. During the Second World War the Gornokarlovatsky Diocese found itself on the territory of the puppet Independent Croatian State and suffered in ways that had never been seen before. It seems as if most of the devilish evil of the Croat fascists fell to its lot. Obviously, the tragedy was that the Diocese was located in the very heart of the newly-formed State, very close to the Croat capital of Zagreb. During the genocide which took place between 1941 and 1945, 65 Orthodox priests were murdered by the Ustashi, 116 churches were completely destroyed, 39 others seriously damaged and over 160 parish and monastic libraries were completely or partially destroyed.
The sufferings of the clergy and the people were fully shared in by the Bishop of Gornokarlovatsky, Bishop Sabbas (Trlaich). In 2000 he was glorified by the Council of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church as a hieromartyr. A true son of his people, he showed himself to be a true pastor, laying down his life for his flock, and his ministry was crowned by martyrdom.
Vladyka Sabbas was born on 6 July 1884 in Mol to the family of Stephen and Elizabeth Trlaich and was baptized Svetozar. After studying at grammar school and then seminary in Sremski Karlovtsy, he graduated from the faculty of law at the University of Belgrade. He was ordained deacon and then priest in 1909. From 1909 to 1927 Fr Svetozar served as a parish priest. In early 1927 he was appointed to an administrative post at the Holy Synod and then became its secretary. Widowed, in 1929 he took his monastic vows with the name of Sabbas and became rector and archimandrite of the Monastery of Krushedol. He served there until 1934, when he was appointed Vicar-Bishop of Sremski. He was consecrated bishop in Sremski Karlovtsy on 30 September 1930 by Patriarch Barnabas of Serbia. As Patriarchal Vicar, Vladyka Sabbas chaired the diocesan council of the Archdiocese of Belgrade-Karlovtsy until November 1936 and from then until early 1937 he chaired the ecclesiastical court. Then, on 4 September 1938, he was appointed Bishop of Gornokarlovatsky, with his residence in Plashkom.
The German invasion of Yugoslavia and the ensuing proclamation of an Independent Croatian State saw Plashkom occupied by the Italians, but at the end 1941, it was handed over to the Croat Ustashi. On this, Bishop Sabbas and nine priests were taken hostage. On 23 May 1941 the Ustashi occupied the bishop’s residence and expelled the bishop. On 8 June the notorious executioner Josip Tomlenovich appeared at the residence and ordered any diocesan money and papers of importance to be handed over to the Ustashi. Bishop Sabbas was ordered to leave the town and head for Serbia. However, he refused to do this and stated that he could not abandon his diocese and his people.
On 17 June 1941 Vladyka was arrested together with other well-known Serbs and priests who did not wish to leave the place of their ministry. The Ustashi locked their prisoners into a cowshed and set an armed guard. For one month all those arrested and especially Bishop Sabbas were subjected to humiliation and torture on a daily basis. They were then sent to the notorious concentration camp at Gospich. The prisoners were taken from the railway station at Gospich to the local prison and again subjected to humiliation and torture.
In the first half of August 1941 about 2,000 Serbs were taken from Gospich to Velebita, Bishop Sabbas among them. It is supposed that he was murdered there, at the same time as about 8,000 other Serbs, in August 1941. The Holy Synod of the Serbian Church constantly, but unsuccessfully, called for the forces of occupation to explain what had happened to Bishop Sabbas and other Serbian bishops on the territory of the Independent Croatian State and tried to obtain their release.
Unfortunately, we have no exact information about the circumstances of the martyrdom of Bishop Sabbas. However, the Serbian historian, Velibor Dzhomich in his book, ‘Ustashi crimes against Serbian priests’, quotes a testimony which may throw some light on the question. According to this, a Fr Iovan Silashki wrote the following in an issue of ‘The Banat Herald’ newspaper:
In 1941 the Gornokarlovatsky Diocese was under the control of the dreadful Ustashi regime. The bishop and the priests were told that they were undesirables and that they must abandon their flocks. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Zagreb, Aloysius Stepinac, openly told Vladyka that he must leave ‘Croatian’ Karlovac, otherwise he would be liquidated. Vladyka answered him: ‘Even if it costs me my head, I will not abandon my people!’
Soon it became clear that the Catholic Archbishop was not joking. Vladyka Sabbas was arrested and horribly tortured. During the tortures and beatings in Plashkom, the Ustashi used a gramophone to play the hymn, ‘As many as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ’.
When they took Vladyka to his place of execution, his mother stood in front of the church and waited for him. She wanted to see her son for one last time and make her farewells. However, the executioners did not allow her to do this. Vladyka nevertheless blessed his mother, his legs tied, and went to his death.
A few years after this a stranger walked into the church in Bashaida, where Vladyka had served. He spoke to the postmaster Sabbas Saravolets.
‘Did you know Vladyka Sabbas Trlaich’, asked the stranger’, ‘I heard that he was priest here’.
‘Of course, Vladyka was my teacher. I’m grateful to him for everything I have managed to do in life’. How do you know Vladyka?’
‘I was an eyewitness of his sufferings’, answered the stranger. ‘The Ustashi butchers took Vladyka to a clearing and continued to torture him there. They tore his skin off him and then covered him with salt. Then they buried him alive, with just his head protruding, brought an iron harrow and pulled it across his head until he gave up his soul to God. What happened after that, I don’t know. Maybe the Ustashi threw him into one of the many precipices there, which they used as graves for the Serbs. So even in death he wasn’t separated from his people’.
Unfortunately, this is almost all we know about Bishop Sabbas’ martyr’s death.
Unfortunately, having suffered losses which could never be made up for, after the war the Gornokarlovatsky Diocese could not be restored to its former prosperity. The destruction of its holy places and shrines also continued under the Communist regime, so that churches which had been damaged often fell into total ruin.
Dire tribulations hit the diocese again during the 1991-1995 war. Half a century after the first, a second act of spiritual genocide unfolded for the Serbs. At Orthodox Christmas in 1992 the St Nicholas Cathedral, built in the eighteenth century, was blown up by the new Ustashi. Subjected to an artillery bombardment, the bishops’ residence in Karlovtsy, with its library, records and museum, was looted. The bishops’ residence of the Gornokarlovatsky Diocese was destroyed at Catholic Christmas 1993. After the Croat attack on the Serbian Kraina Republic, during ‘Operation Storm’ in August 1995, Serbian people were expelled from their ancient diocese and many of its holy places were desecrated and destroyed. During the war of 1991-1995, 11 churches were destroyed and 45 damaged. After the expulsion of the Serbs, many churches and other church premises were abandoned and neglected.
Notwithstanding the difficulties, the diocese survived and now the situation is returning to normal. Church life is being reborn, ancient churches are being restored and new ones are being built. In 2005, after a long gap, a new bishop was appointed to the Gornokarlovatsky Diocese. He is Gerasim Popovich, a graduate of the Moscow Theological Academy. The memory of Hieromartyr Sabbas is kept with special care in the diocese and he is often mentioned in the diocesan journal.
The restoration of Church life in the diocese is faced with many problems, above all the lack of a flock. Twice subjected to ethnic cleansing and expulsion in the twentieth century, it is difficult for Serbs to return to where they had lived for centuries. We hope and trust that, despite all the difficulties, through the prayers of Hieromartyr Sabbas, the life of this ancient diocese, which has suffered so much, will grow in strength and never be extinguished until the end of time.
Hierodeacon Ignatius (Shestakov)
Translated Fr Andrew Phillips