Just over a month from now, on July 1, a historic event will take place in the
heart of Europe, when the EU welcomes Croatia as its 28th member
The move will mark the culmination of a grueling decade long
process, one in which the former Yugoslav republic had to implement widespread
changes in a number of fields – ranging from intellectual property law to the
free movement of capital – to bring itself in line with accepted EU
practice.But however much the Balkan state may have tweaked its legal
system and upgraded its food safety and environmental protection standards,
there is one thing Croatia has demonstrably failed to do: come to terms with its
disgraceful record of mass murder during World War II.
Most of us are
aware of camps such as Birkenau, Dachau, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen, where the
Germans and their henchmen systematically slaughtered millions of
But how many of us have heard of Jasenovac or the horrors that
were perpetrated there by Croatian fascists? Known as “the Auschwitz of the
Balkans,” it was the largest of a network of camps established by the
independent state of Croatia, which the Nazis set up on April 10,
Hitler assigned the task of ruling Croatia to Ante Pavelic, head of
the fascist Ustashe movement, which vowed to rid the country of Serbs, Jews and
Following in the Germans’ footsteps, Pavelic passed
racial laws against the Jews, imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement
and banned them from various professions.
Ultimately, the Ustashe
murdered more than 30,000 Jews, or 75 percent of the country’s prewar Jewish
But it was the two million Serbs then living in Croatia who
were the primary targets of Pavelic and his quislings.
With a bloodlust
rivaled only by that of their Nazi patrons, the Ustashe set about the task of
“cleansing” Croatian soil by torching Serb villages, beheading priests and
herding Serbian worshipers into Orthodox churches before setting them alight.
Over 200,000 Serbs were forcibly converted to Catholicism, with the active help
and encouragement of the Archbishop of Zagreb, Aloysius Stepinac.
was at the Jasenovac camp that the Croats unleashed their most bestial cruelty,
by many accounts killing at least several hundred thousand people in an orgy of
Jasenovac had no gas chambers or murder machines,
so each killing had to be carried out the old-fashioned way: with knives, bars,
axes or even hammers.
If Auschwitz was the epitome of mechanized murder,
Jasenovac was the embodiment of manually orchestrated massacre.
interview that appeared earlier this month in the Serbian newspaper Politika,
Jasa Almuli, a 95-year old author and journalist who previously served as
president of the Belgrade Jewish community, described Jasenovac as “barbaric,”
saying that “the murders were predominantly carried out manually.”
seldom did they use bullets,” he said, “because they believed the victims
‘didn’t merit it.’” Almuli went on to describe some of the Ustashe’s methods,
which included cutting out the eyes of their victims and slitting their throats,
throwing live prisoners into brick furnaces and poisoning children.
Ustashe even employed a special knife they called a “Srbosjek”, or
“Serb-cutter,” to slaughter as many Serbs as possible.
There are numerous
detailed accounts of the malevolence that was perpetrated at the camp. Eduard
Sajer, a Jew from southeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, was imprisoned in
Jasenovac in November 1941. His parents and four of his five siblings were
murdered there, and in an interview for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, he
recounted some of the Ustashe’s chilling practices, which included the use of
blowtorches and welding rods for torturing inmates.
Sajer also described
how his younger brother was bludgeoned to death by Croatian guards with a
sledgehammer before his own eyes, and how he watched in horror as a group of
Jews from Sarajevo were burned alive.
After the war and the establishment
of Communist Yugoslavia, the camp was bulldozed and Yugoslav leader Josip Broz
Tito sought to suppress the story of Jasenovac because he didn’t want it getting
in the way of creating a new Yugoslav identity.
As a result, Croats were
not forced to come to terms with their past or their dark deeds, a reality that
continued even after the demise of Yugoslavia and Croatian
Indeed, even though Croatian leaders have traveled to
Jerusalem to offer words of apology at the Knesset, the legacy of the Ustashe
remains very much alive and even admired among some Croats.
a year and a half ago, in December 2011, large memorial masses were held in two
Catholic churches in the Croatian cities of Zagreb and Split for Ustashe leader
Pavelic, despite the fact that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of
thousands of innocent people.
Can you imagine a similar event taking
place in Rome for Mussolini or in Berlin for Hitler? One of the most popular
musical groups in Croatia, the Thompson rock band, has drawn tens of thousands
to its concerts, where many young people have come proudly dressed in Ustashe
uniforms. The band has also included Ustashe slogans in some of its songs, and
has even sung lyrics calling for the elimination of Serbs.
A key part of
the problem lies in the fact that the memorial museum erected by Croatia at the
Jasenovac site seems to have been deliberately designed to obfuscate the true
nature of what took place there.
According to Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the
Simon Wiesenthal Center, the exhibition at Jasenovac is an “educational
disaster.” He says that it “speaks of the Ustashe without explaining who they
are or even what their ideology was,” and that it does not even contain any
photos of the Ustashe commanders of the camp or those who perpetrated the mass
“If they don’t teach properly about what the Ustashe did at
Jasenovac,” Zuroff told me, “one can only imagine what they are teaching in the
schools in Croatia.”
A few weeks ago, a former board member of the
Jasenovac museum also raised serious concerns about the nature of the
exhibition. In a letter addressed to foreign ambassadors in Zagreb, Julija Kos
said that the museum display presented a false image of what took place, calling
it “blurred” and “systematic in avoiding a clear presentation of the
information.” For over seven years, Kos wrote, she had “persistently pleaded
with high government officials to do something to fix the problem,” but they had
With Croatia marching forward into the arms of Europe, now is
the time to compel Zagreb to confront its sinister past. History and its lessons
cannot and must not be squelched, regardless of whether it is politically
The Croatian authorities need to drastically revise the
memorial at Jasenovac and stop hiding behind blurry language. Bans should be
imposed on holding memorial services for Ustashe officials, and Holocaust
education should be made a priority in Croatia’s schools.
At a time of
rising extremism and anti-Semitism across the continent, it is essential that
Croatia’s hidden Holocaust, as embodied at Jasenovac, not be shunted
Europe is still in a position to make these demands, and it should
not shy away from doing so.
That is the least they can do in memory of
the hundreds of thousands of innocent Jews, Serbs, Gypsies and others who were
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