Ognjen Kraus, leader of Croatia's Jewish community, lays a wreath on the monument of Fascist victims, mostly Jews, Serbs and gypsies, during a commemoration held at the site of the former World War Two concentration camp in Jasenovac April 19, 1998.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Croatian Jews said on Monday they would boycott the country’s main Holocaust remembrance event this week, accusing authorities of playing down crimes perpetrated under the Nazi-backed Ustase regime during World War Two.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is held on January 27 each year, the date in 1945 when the biggest Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz in occupied Poland, was liberated by Soviet troops.
On Tuesday, The Simon Wiesenthal Center sent a letter of protest to the Croatian charge d’affaires in Tel Aviv Tina Krce, demanding the immediate dismissal of the director of a high school in Sibenik, who refused to display an exhibition on Anne Frank because it also included panels on crimes by Croatian Ustase against Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-Fascist Croatians.
The exhibition, which was prepared by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and focused on the story of the wellknown diarist, included several panels to explain the context of the Holocaust in Croatia, highlighting the role of the Ustase in the mass murder of local minorities and those opposed to their regime.
Chief Nazi-hunter and director of Eastern European affairs Dr. Efraim Zuroff noted in the letter the danger of entrusting the education of high school students to Ustase sympathizers.
“I assume that you are well aware of the crimes committed by the Ustase and recognize the importance of teaching Croatian children about the dangers of nationalist extremism,” he wrote in the letter.
“We therefore urge you to convey our strongest sense of outrage that Ustase supporters are entrusted with the education of high school students in Sibenik and hope that Mr. Belamaric will be removed from his post as soon as possible,” he wrote. “A failure to do so will indicate that Ustase nostalgia is perfectly legitimate in today’s Croatian school system.”
Three months ago, rightist veterans of Croatia’s 1991 to 1995 independence war raised a commemorative plaque in the town of Jasenovac to comrades killed there at the beginning of the conflict.
Included in the veterans’ plaque are words from a salute used by the Ustase regime that killed tens of thousands of prisoners – including Jews, Serbs, Romani and anti-fascist Croats – in the Jasenovac concentration camp from 1941 through 1945.
That prompted the association representing Croatia’s remnant population of Jews, numbering somewhat over 1,500, to pull out of its primary Holocaust remembrance event, which is normally conducted in the Zagreb Parliament.
“We took the decision on the basis of reactions by the government, parliament and the president.
The problem is not (just) a plaque in Jasenovac including the Ustase salute, but the relativization of everything (to do with the Holocaust),” community leader Ognjen Kraus told the state news agency Hina.
The center-Right government of Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic – who is now on an unrelated visit to Israel – proposed last month forming a commission that would legally regulate reappearances of symbols from any past totalitarian regime.
Kraus dismissed the gesture.
“If swastika or Ustase symbols are equated with the (communist) red star, what are we talking about? Are we going to revise history? Establish a commission to tell us what World War II was about?” he said.
Croatian society has been divided since independence over how to treat both the Nazi collaborationist and communist past of the ex-Yugoslav republic, now a European Union member state.
Some Croats believe authorities have been indifferent to sporadic resurfacing of Ustase extremism, including the chanting of Ustase slogans by ultra-nationalist soccer fans.
Others say post-independence governments, particularly those led by the Left, have failed to appropriately condemn crimes committed during 45 years of post-war communist rule.
In April 2016, members of the Jewish community, the Serb minority and an anti-fascist group boycotted the Holocaust commemoration event at the Jasenovac camp site in protest of what they deemed the authorities’ feeble reaction to incidents “revitalizing” Ustase ideology.
Croatian Jews and Serbs have called for more thorough teaching in schools about the abuses of Ustase rule.