The leadership of the small Jewish community in Croatia, along with representatives of the country’s Serb minority, has boycotted the last two government-sponsored Holocaust commemorations in 2016 and 2017. Demonstrating impressive moral courage and integrity, they refuse to condone a historical revisionism with echoes of Holocaust denial that aims to rehabilitate the Ustasha, a Croatian fascist movement led by the nationalist dictator Ante Pavelić that aggressively and ardently murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs and tens of thousands of Jews during World War II.
The present stand-off between the Croatian Jewish community and the Croatian government (celebrating Croatian independence yesterday) over the manner in which the Holocaust is commemorated—or not commemorated—and the effective rehabilitation and glorification of the Ustasha came to a head after a March 2016 Israel-Croatia soccer match, where Croatian spectators shouted the notorious Ustasha slogan “Za dom spremni,” or “Ready for the Homeland,” in the presence of the Croatian prime minister, who apparently sat by without reacting.
Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic subsequently issued a statement in which he said “the Croatian government, and I personally, condemn the crimes of the Ustasha regime.” However, “revitalization of the Ustasha regime is only exceptionally condemned,” Dr. Ognjen Kraus, president of the Coordinating Committee of the Jewish Communities of Croatia, said at that time. “It is an avalanche that reminds us of what was happening in the so-called independent state of Croatia.”
It is true that Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic had similarly condemned the Ustasha’s role during the Holocaust during a 2015 visit to Israel. “I express my deepest regrets to all the victims of the Holocaust in Croatia, killed at the hands of the collaborationist Ustasha regime during World War II,” she said at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. On a subsequent trip to Canada, however, President Grabar-Kitarovic sent a far different message when she posed with a group of Croatian émigrés holding a flag bearing the Ustasha symbol. She also raised eyebrows when she said in a radio interview that “I adore listening to” a popular Croatian singer-songwriter who regularly glorifies the Ustasha.
Even President Grabar-Kitarovic’s reference to the Ustasha as a collaborationist regime falls far short of the mark. The Ustasha initiated the brutality and mass killing of Serbs, Jews and Roma on their own initiative, for their own perverse ideological reasons. As Saul Friedländer wrote in his Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945, The Years of Extermination:
In Croatia, no sooner did Pavelić return from Italian exile and establish his new regime—a mixture of fascism and devout Catholicism—then, as the German envoy to Zagreb, Edmund von Glaise Horstenau, reported “the Ustasha went raging mad.” The poglavnik (“leader,” in Serbo-Croat) launched a genocidal crusade against the 2.2 million Christian Orthodox Serbs (out of a total population of 6.7 million) living on Croatian territory, and against the country’s 45,000 Jews, particularly in ethnically mixed Bosnia. The Catholic Ustasha did not mind the continuous presence of Muslims or Protestants, but Serbs and Jews had to convert, leave or to die. According to historian Jonathan Steinberg, “Serbian and Jewish men, women and children were literally hacked to death. Whole villages were razed to the ground and the people driven to barns, to which the Ustasha set fire. There is in the Italian Foreign Ministry archive a collection of photographs of the butcher knives, hooks, and axes used to chop up Serbian victims. There are photographs of Serb women with breasts hacked off by pocket knives, men with eyes gouged out, emasculated, and mutilated.”
Other factors contributed to the Jewish community’s decision not to participate in the April 2016 commemoration at Jasenovac. Earlier that month, extreme-nationalist Croatian Minister of Culture Zlatko Hasanbegović attended the widely-publicized Croatian premiere of a documentary film titled Jasenovac—The Truth, by the Croatian filmmaker Jakov Sedlar. This film contended that Jasenovac had not been a concentration camp where the Ustasha had committed genocide, but rather a far more benign labor camp and that the number of victims of Jasenovac had been greatly exaggerated. Hasanbegović publicly praised the film, saying, “This is the best way to finally shed light on a number of controversial places in Croatian history.”
In sharp contrast, the Israeli ambassador to Zagreb, Zina Kalay Kleitman, who had also attended the premiere, denounced the film in no uncertain terms. “Since I am Israeli, and a descendant of a family that was hit by Holocaust, I wanted to see and look at the film, which, in my opinion, very selectively shows history, attempts to revise historical facts, and offends the feelings of people who have lost their loved ones in Jasenovac,” she wrote in an open letter, adding that, “I also noticed an attempt to downplay the terrible extent of the crimes committed, or at least an attempt to illustrate them with historical events that led to them.”
In late 2016, far-right political figures and veterans of the 1990-era Croatian Defense Forces put up a plaque in the Croatian municipality of Jasenovac that featured the “Za dom spremni” slogan. The ostensible reason for putting up the plaque was to commemorate 11 fighters of the Croatian military who died during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Croatian journalist Vojislav Macoko placed the controversy squarely in historical and moral perspective. Setting the plaque in the town of Jasenovac was “unacceptable” for a number of reasons, he said. “The first is that it is unacceptable to erect a monument with such a greeting because it’s the Ustasha salute. This is public glorification of domestic Nazism. The other reason is because it is, of course, Jasenovac.”
At the time, the Croatian government’s failure to take any action to remove the plaque, along with its general casting of the Ustasha as no worse (if not better) than the Communist-led anti-fascist partisans of WWII, caused the Jewish community to boycott the official state commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, 2017. “If the red star [the insignia of the Partisans] and the Ustasha’s ‘U’ [insignia] are the same, then there’s nothing more to talk about,” explained Dr. Kraus.
In early September of this year, the Associate Press reported that the plaque had at last been taken down in Jasenovac and that Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic had said that the salute was unacceptable to him because of its association with the WWII Ustasha regime. However, according to a spokesperson of a Croatian veterans group, the plaque was merely being moved to another location. “It will be placed elsewhere as it is,” Ivan Friscic declared. “With all the symbols and signs, and no one must touch it.”
The overall history of the Holocaust in most of Nazi-occupied Europe is well known, thanks to a great extent to the works of historians such as Raul Hilberg, Saul Friedländer, Yehuda Bauer, and David Cesarani, and to major institutions dedicated to Holocaust remembrance and research, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah in Paris. The same, however, cannot be said for the perpetration of the Holocaust in the Balkans.
The Balkan genocide during WWII has been more difficult to chronicle than the methodical annihilation of European Jewry at the hands of Nazi Germany elsewhere. In large part, this is due to the fact that, as David Cesarani noted in his monumental Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949, after Yugoslavia was dismembered in April 1941 following the invasion of that country by Axis forces, “around 40,000 Jews ended up in the German client-state of Croatia; 15,000 in Serbia, which was little more than an autonomous region under direct German rule; about 16,000 in Backa, a block of land annexed to Hungary; 8,000 in western Macedonia, occupied by Bulgaria; and several thousand in the coastal strip of Macedonia under Italian jurisdiction.”
It must be noted that the Independent State of Croatia that was carved out of Yugoslavia in 1941 was geographically different from the present-day Republic of Croatia in that it included Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as parts of Serbia and Slovenia, but not Dalmatia, which had been given to Italy. Only 24,000 Jews lived in what is today the Republic of Croatia.
Any study of the Holocaust in the Balkans requires separate analysis of each of the regions of what had been—and would resume to be after the war—Yugoslavia. In Serbia, for instance, German soldiers massacred 4,000 to 5,000 Jewish men in the autumn of 1941, and thousands more Jewish men, women, and children, as well as Roma, were subsequently murdered at the Nazi concentration camp of Sajmište (Semlin in German). In Macedonia, Jews were in due course handed over by the Bulgarian government to the Germans for deportation, resulting in the near decimation of that community. In Croatia, the gruesome course of events was different yet again.
Also, while the Holocaust in most parts of Nazi-occupied or Nazi-dominated Europe was carried out predominantly by Nazi Germany, albeit with the assistance and often eager participation of nationals of the respective countries in question, Croatia is in a separate category, together with Ion Antonescu’s fascist regime in Romania. The genocide in the Independent State of Croatia, headed by the Ustasha leader and ideologue Ante Pavelić, was carried out not by Germans but by Croatians without direction or even the participation by the SS or other German genocidaires. When it comes to Croatia, incidentally, the plural “genocides”—rather than singular “genocide”—is appropriate because the Ustasha targeted primarily Serbs for annihilation, alongside Jews and Roma. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Croat authorities murdered between 320,000 and 340,000 ethnic Serb residents of Croatia and Bosnia during the period of Ustasha rule; more than 30,000 Croatian Jews were killed either in Croatia or at Auschwitz-Birkenau.”
The Ustasha established a network of home-grown concentration camps infamous for their brutality and comparable to the barbarity of the German death and concentration camps. The most notorious of these was a group of five camps collectively named Jasenovac, near Zagreb, often referred to as the “Auschwitz of the Balkans.” Again according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, somewhere between 77,000 and 99,000 Serbs, Jews and Roma were brutally murdered there. The Jasenovac Memorial Site has identified by name 83,145 Serbs, Jews, Roma, and anti-fascists who perished in these camps.
“The Jasenovac camps were an execution site and grave for more than half the Jewish victims during the existence of the [independent state of Croatia] and for more than one-third of the Zagreb Jews who disappeared in the Holocaust in 1941-1945,” wrote historians Ivo Goldstein and Slavko Goldstein in their The Holocaust in Croatia. Yet for most of the post-WWII era, little public discussion or awareness was devoted to the Holocaust within the former Yugoslavia or elsewhere in the Balkans.
Leaders of the Croatian Jewish community have expressed displeasure at the way the history of Jasenovac is being presented in the permanent exhibition at the site of the camp. “Jasenovac is shown there more as a collection and labor camp,” Judge Sanja Zoričić Tabaković, president of the Executive Board of the Jewish Community of Zagreb and representative of the Jewish National Minority in the City of Zagreb, told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. “According to what [is displayed] and how it’s presented in the exhibition, it doesn’t look like an execution site. In the exhibition, one can’t see photos of killed people, but only of those who saved themselves or were exchanged [in prisoner exchanges] or survived.”
In effect, both the revisionist Sedlar film and the exhibit at Jasenovac affirmatively distorted and denied the fundamental truth that the Ustasha committed atrocities there that today would unquestionably be considered genocide as a matter of international law.
One of the earliest controversies in this regard came after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, and it became known that its first president, the hardline nationalist Franjo Tudjman, had maintained that the generally accepted number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust was greatly exaggerated. Tudjman had also made numerous anti-Semitic slurs, including, notably: “A Jew is still a Jew. Even in the camps, they retained their bad characteristics: selfishness, perfidy, meanness, slyness, and treachery.” Tudjman eventually apologized—at least twice—first in 1992 in a letter to World Jewish Congress President Edgar M. Bronfman, and again the following year to Kent Schiner, the international president of B’nai B’rith.
Tudjman effectively began the process of casting the Ustasha as Croatian patriots rather than criminals, maintaining that fascist and anti-fascist Croatians deserved equal recognition for their service to their country. As The New York Times observed in 1997, “Perhaps no other country has failed as openly as Croatia to come to terms with its fascist legacy. While the French celebrate a resistance movement that was often dwarfed by the widespread collaboration with the Vichy regime, and while the Austrians often act as if the war never happened, the Croats have rehabilitated the Croatian fascist collaborators, known as the Ustasha.”
Despite having himself fought with Tito’s Communist partisans, Tudjman named former Ustasha officials to government positions. He also restored the kuna as the Croatian currency, using the name of the monetary unit that had been the national currency of Pavelić’s Ustasha government. “I, like other Croatian Jews, am personally offended by this decision, as well as by the government’s arguments, which are rubbish,” said Ivo Goldstein, a medieval historian at the University of Zagreb. “This is an insult and an offense to Serbs, to Jews, and to the Croats who fought against the Ustasha regime.”
The Croatian president’s whitewashing of the Ustasha outraged many Croatians who had suffered under the fascist regime. “You cannot reconcile victims and butchers,” declared Ognjen Kraus, head of the Zagreb Jewish community. “No one has the right to carry out a reconciliation in the name of those who vanished.”
The Ustasha made no secret of their desire and intent to kill Jews and Serbs because of their respective ethnic or national identities. British historian Rory Yeomans quotes Ustasha leader Victor Gutić stating at a rally on May 29, 1941, that he had “published drastic laws” for the Serb population’s “complete economic destruction, and new ones will follow for their complete extermination.” Yeomans also quotes Croatian Foreign Minister Mladen Lorković declaring on July 27, 1941, that Ustasha Croatia’s mission was to “cleanse itself of all those elements that are the misfortune of the nation, that drain healthy forces in our nation. These are our Serbs and Jews.” Along the same lines, Professor Aleksandar Seitz, referred to by Yeomans as one of the Ustasha’s “leading social theorists,” said in a June 1941 speech that “the Serbs and the Jews will not exist, and nor will those who served them because our Croatian army and the Croatian Ustashas are guaranteeing it.”
Ivo and Slavko Goldstein have chronicled in detail the subsequent brutal annihilation of Croatian Jews by the Ustasha in numerous concentration and death camps, and especially at Jasenovac, calling their text appropriately the “Apogee of Terror.” The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum describes Jasenovac as follows: “Conditions in the Jasenovac camps were horrendous. Prisoners received minimal food. Shelter and sanitary facilities were totally inadequate. Worse still, the guards cruelly tortured, terrorized, and murdered prisoners at will.”
Historians do not argue about conditions in Jasenovac—or about the purpose of the camp. Raul Hilberg referred to the Jasenovac camps as “death camps,” and Saul Friedländer called Jasenovac an “extermination camp.” Commenting on one of many incidents of Holocaust minimization and outright denial that now appear to be woven together in a comprehensive denial of historical reality, Judge Zoričić Tabaković said that: “I think that this is something so outrageous on an international level. This level of denial of everything that happened in Croatia in WWII is unbelievable.”
A brief detour is necessary here to address the campaign in many formerly communist Eastern and central European countries to place Nazism and Communism on the same moral plane, or even to depict Stalinism and the various post-Stalinist strains of communism as worse—more evil, if you will—than Nazism. Without in any way minimizing the oppression and suffering endured by large parts of the populations under Communist regimes, it is beyond question that no post-WWII Communist regime anywhere in Europe committed or attempted to commit genocide. To be sure, there were large-scale political imprisonments, far-reaching deprivations of civil and human rights, and politically motivated killings. However, as Yehuda Bauer stated eloquently in response to a 2009 resolution of the European Parliament determining Aug. 23, the anniversary of the signing of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact, as a date to commemorate the victims of both regimes, “to compare this with the murder of many millions of Europeans by the Nazi regime, and especially with the state-planned genocide of the Jews (Holocaust) in the context of Nazi crimes generally … is a distortion of history.” The comparison is especially invidious, as Bauer made clear, because “a certain number” of those persecuted by the Communists “had, in fact, been Nazi collaborators.”
This was certainly the case in Croatia, where the post-war Tito regime engaged in large-scale killing of members of the Ustasha, but this was in revenge and retaliation for the crimes—and they were crimes—committed by the Ustasha during their reign. Such politically motivated excesses, however heinous, cannot be compared, let alone equated, with the genocides that the Ustasha had unleashed on Serbs, Jews, and Roma. “One certainly should remember the victims of the Soviet regime,” Bauer concluded, “and there is every justification for designating special memorials and events to do so. But to put the two regimes on the same level and commemorating the different crimes on the same occasion is totally unacceptable.”
Initiatives to glorify Nazi collaborators have been undertaken elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia. In Serbia, proceedings are underway, despite objections by the Serbian Jewish community, to clear the name of Milan Nedic, the Quisling-like prime minister of Nazi-occupied Serbia who actively collaborated in the persecution of Serbian Jews. “Rehabilitation would represent a devaluation of indisputable historical facts, and an insult to all the victims and survivors of the survivors. Serbia would also suffer moral and political damage,” Haris Dojc, a member of the Jewish Community of Belgrade, explained in 2016. “Nedic and his government were directly involved in the seizure of Jewish real estate, as well as in the identification and arrest of Jews in occupied Serbia, which confirmed his role in the implementation of the Holocaust in Serbia.”
In the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, right-wing extremists hold an annual march in honor of an anti-Semitic Bulgarian general who headed the pro-Nazi Union of Bulgarian National Legions. Also in Bulgaria, the ultranationalist anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Roma, and anti-Turkish Ataka party, which derived its name from Joseph Goebbels’ Nazi paper, Der Angriff (the attack), has won seats in every parliamentary election since 2005. Ataka’s leader, Volen Siderov, was described in The New York Times as “a former journalist turned xenophobic nationalist,” and has publicly referred dismissively to “the so-called Holocaust.” In 2011, The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee denounced the republication of Siderov’s “extreme anti-Semitic and inciting books, The Boomerang of Evil and The Rule of Mammon” as “an abomination, which should not be overlooked.”
Yet another example of the glorification of anti-Semitic fascists of the Holocaust era, among others, can be found in Slovakia, where the ultra-nationalist Kotleba—The People’s Party—Our Slovakia (named for its leader, Marian Kotleba, who used to wear Nazi-like uniforms) won 14 out of 150 seats in the 2016 parliamentary elections. British-Canadian journalist Tom Nicholson described Kotleba’s followers to the BBC as “skinheads who sieg heil in public and have rallies in Bratislava—1,500 to 2,000 people—shouting hatred toward refugees and migrants from the Middle East.” Kotleba and other far-right groups in Slovakia have been actively promoting the rehabilitation of Yozef Tiso, the president of the Nazi collaborationist First Slovak Republic who wholeheartedly implemented the deportation of Slovakian Jews to the Nazi death camps, and who was hanged as a war criminal in 1947. In an open letter to the chairman of the Slovak parliament, the People’s Party–Our Slovakia called Tiso “a martyr of Slovakia’s sovereignty and a defender of Christianity against Bolshevism.”
The Baltic states and Ukraine have also been receptive soil for such initiatives to rehabilitate individuals who took part in the deportation and murder of their Jewish neighbors. Such manifestations have included demonstrations glorifying homegrown units of the Waffen-SS, and naming streets for Nazi collaborators.
In Hungary, Budapest’s Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation (a) turns a blind eye to the 1944 deportation and subsequent mass-murder of Hungarian Jews; (b) portrays Hungary as a victim of Nazism rather than, for most of WWII, a willing ally of Nazi Germany; and (c) turns the entire Hungarian nation and people into a victim of a foreign evil, utterly ignoring the fact that it was primarily Hungarian policemen, not Germans, who rounded up Jews for deportation. Elsewhere in the Hungarian capital, a museum called The House of Terror, opened in 2002, effectively places Nazism on the same moral plane and in the same light as the post-WWII Communist regime, in effect equating the latter’s secret police with Nazi Germany’s notorious SS. Equally if not even more troubling, the House of Terror devotes substantially more space to Communist crimes than to the genocide of Hungarian Jewry during the Holocaust. Moreover, it goes out of its way to highlight the Jewish origins of some of those deemed responsible for the communist crimes. Meanwhile, the neo-fascist Jobbik party has become a fixture on the Hungarian political scene, complete with harsh anti-Semitic and anti-Roma rhetoric.
Which is not to say that Hungarian governmental attempts to rewrite history have been without consequences. Various initiatives in recent years by Hungarian officials to rehabilitate Admiral Miklós Horthy, the wartime regent of Hungary and Hitler ally on whose watch around 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz in May-July 1944, have been met with sharp criticism. In June of 2017, after Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban publicly referred to Horthy as an “exceptional statesman,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder declared that “the horrors that Admiral Horthy inflicted on the Jewish community of Hungary by stripping them of their rights and their humanity, and his role in the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews, can never be excused.”
It is in this broader context of a disquieting trend to downplay if not totally ignore crimes against humanity committed by domestic Nazi collaborators, both individuals and movements, during the years of the Holocaust, that the Croatian Jewish community’s confrontation with the Croatian authorities takes on special significance. The recasting of the Ustasha as national heroes and role models has ominous connotations in a country and region where ethnic hatred and strife have had catastrophic consequences, not just during WWII but more recently during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
The publication in 2001 of Ivo and Slavko Goldstein’s meticulously researched The Holocaust in Croatia makes it impossible for the Croatian authorities to claim ignorance of the Ustasha’s direct responsibility for the genocides of Serbs, Jews, and Roma between 1941 and 1945. Indeed, this book, which was published in English in 2016 by University of Pittsburgh Press in association with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, should be required reading in all Croatian schools and at all Croatian universities.
At a time when far-right politicians and ideologues like the above-mentioned former Croatian minister of culture, Zlatko Hasanbegovićare, becoming increasingly brazen, if not overtly shameless, in their attempts to write the crimes against humanity committed by the Ustasha out of their nation’s history, the Croatian Jewish community deserves both respect and international support. Such support should come not just from international Jewish organizations and other Jewish communities, but from institutions and agencies around the world that are dedicated to the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust and other genocides. These small and overdue steps are necessary to prevent the re-creation of the xenophobic, hate-filled environment that allowed the Holocaust and other genocides to occur in the first place.
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Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities and is general counsel emeritus of the World Jewish Congress. He is the author of Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen.