Today is Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we collectively recall the atrocities and barbarism that were perpetrated against the Jewish people in the heart of Europe barely seven decades ago.
But just how much do we really remember? Sure, most of us are aware of camps such as Sobibor, Dachau, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen, where the Germans and their collaborators methodically murdered millions of innocents.
And we have all heard the names of monsters such as Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Adolph Eichmann and Hermann Goring, fiendish men who committed the gravest genocide in all of human history.
But there are many aspects of the Holocaust that are often overlooked, including the inconceivable horrors that were carried out in various countries on the periphery of the continent. It is time for this to change.
After all, to truly fulfill our duty to remember and honor the victims, we must ensure that the full extent of the Nazi crimes is never minimized, over-simplified or forgotten.
Take, for example, the case of Jasenovac, “the Auschwitz of the Balkans” in Croatia. Inexplicably, Jasenovac and the evils perpetrated there against Jews, Serbs and others by the wartime Croatian fascist regime have been largely ignored outside of the Balkan region. But it is a story that must be told.
Seventy-five years ago last month, after the Germans and the Axis powers invaded what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Hitler established a puppet state in Croatia. Known as the Independent State of Croatia, or by its Croatian acronym NDH, it was headed by the demonic Ante Pavelic, leader of the pro-Nazi Ustashe movement, which vowed to rid the country of Serbs, Jews and other minorities.
Pavelic was a rabid and strident anti-Semitic ideologue. In 1936, he wrote The Croat Question, in which he accused the Jews of controlling the media as well as all of Croatia’s finances and commerce.
Pavelic insisted that they were intentionally wreaking havoc on Croatia, “for in national chaos lies the power of the Jews.”
Once in power, Pavelic moved quickly to mirror his benefactor in Berlin, passing discriminatory racial laws against the Jews, limiting their freedom of movement and banning them from working in various professions.
He established a series of death camps throughout Croatia, the largest of which was Jasenovac, which opened in August 1941.
Conditions at Jasenovac, according to the website of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, “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.”
An estimated 12,000 to 20,000 Jews from Croatia and Bosnia were slaughtered at Jasenovac, which was staffed, guarded and operated entirely by the Croatian Ustashe.
Unlike German extermination camps, however, Jasenovac did not have the infrastructure for mass murder, such as gas chambers. Instead, inmates were stabbed to death with knives, bludgeoned with hammers, cut to pieces with axes or simply shot, making the killings far more personal.
The late Jasa Almuli, who served as president of the Belgrade Jewish community, described Jasenovac as “barbaric,” saying that “the murders were predominantly carried out manually.”
“Very seldom did they use bullets,” he said, “because they believed the victims ‘didn’t merit it.’” Almuli described 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.
The Croats also deported thousands of Jews from Jasenovac to Auschwitz, and were so eager to be rid of them that they agreed to pay Germany 30 marks per Jew to cover the cost of transporting them.
Altogether, more than 30,000 Croatian Jews, over 75 percent of the community, died in the Holocaust.
But Jews were not the only ones to have been butchered at Jasenovac.
In addition to their hatred for Jews, Pavelic and his Ustashe henchmen despised the Serbs, and set about to ethnically cleanse Croatian soil of the two million Serbs who lived there.
The Ustashe murdered well over 300,000 Serbs during their time in power, many of whom were killed at Jasenovac. Hundreds of thousands of others were forcibly converted to Catholicism.
The Ustashe employed a special knife they called a “Srbosjek,” or “Serb-cutter,” to eliminate as many Serbs as possible, and subjected their victims to inhuman treatment. The overwhelming majority of those interned and killed at Jasenovac were in fact Serbs, who died side by side with the Jews.
The Ustashe-run concentration camps were so shocking that they prompted Hitler’s representative in Croatia to describe them as the “epitome of horror.”
After Germany’s defeat and the end of World War II, Jasenovac was bulldozed by Yugoslavia’s new Communist government, and to this day many Croats have not come to terms with their nation’s actions, even after the demise of Yugoslavia and Croatian independence.
While some Croatian leaders have uttered words of apology, they have largely failed to take active steps to quell signs of growing support and admiration for the Ustashe.
Pro-Nazi slogans have become increasingly popular, and were even chanted during a recent soccer game between Israel and Croatia that was attended by the Croatian prime minister.
Indeed, the situation has become so bad that it prompted Jewish and Serbian groups to boycott a memorial ceremony organized by the Croatian government at Jasenovac last month.
And this is precisely why it is so important to keep alive the memory of places such as Jasenovac, lest they slowly drift off into the mists of history, taking the lessons that we and future generations ought to have learned along with them.
It is perhaps only natural that the main killing centers such as Auschwitz garner most of our attention. But that does not absolve us of the responsibility to recall those who were murdered by the Germans and their accomplices elsewhere as well.
The writer is the president of the Israel Serbia Friendship Association.