Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has revealed for the first time to an international news outlet the story of his grandfather’s murder during the Holocaust.
“During the Second World War... Croatians joined the Nazis at the very beginning,” Vucic told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive Zoom interview. “The Nazis bombed Belgrade, but they entered Zagreb and they were greeted by the people and they formed the new state, a new Nazi puppet state, an Independent State of Croatia, which encompassed Bosnia and Herzegovina and big parts of today’s Serbia as well. The main task for them was to exterminate all the Serbs.”
While his family had lived in Bosnia, Vucic explained, “My father was born here in Serbia because the Croats killed his father.”
It is still unknown where his grandfather was killed.
“There are some lists which say that he was killed in the Jasenovac camp [in Croatia], but other [documents] say that he was killed in a different place. Anyway, he was killed by Ustase forces.”
The Ustase was a Croatian fascist organization, formally known as the Croatian Revolutionary Movement. Its members murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews, Serbs and Roma during the Holocaust.
Vucic’s grandmother, and a few others who were arrested in Bosnia, were expelled from their homes and arrived as refugees in Serbia, yet 25 people were killed together with his grandfather.
“She gave birth to my father, three, four months afterward.”
Vucic recalled that his family history was not unlike that of many others. People had “relatives who were killed during the Second World War. But it’s like everybody wants to forget it.”
Vucic claimed that in 1992, Croats “burned all seven Vucic family houses, the local church and everything else,” in the Bosnian area where his family lived.
Vucic said he felt as if this part of history was almost buried and not discussed.
“They [Croats] don’t like me because I’m a witness to something different that they wanted to show to the world. ‘Vucic in aggressive against Croatia and carrying on with that narrative,’” he said, quoting what Croatian officials said of him.
“If you are Vucic, then know that guy’s not a nice guy,” he continued. “But well, still, [the Croats might say] we killed his grandpa, we burnt out his houses or his grandfather’s house, his family’s houses and they didn’t do anything to us.’”
Vucic's visit to Croatia
As published in the Post in July, Vucic asked to visit Croatia privately to pay tribute to his grandfather, whom he believed was murdered at the Jasenovac concentration camp.
Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Grlic-Radman responded, saying, “The president of a country is a protected person and such an arrival requires the involvement of the Croatian authorities,” according to local Croatian media.
“It’s important to let anyone visit [the camp] and it’s especially important that the president of Serbia has the permission to go there as the leader of the Serbian people, as well as the grandson of a victim,”Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem
“It’s important to let anyone visit [the camp] and it’s especially important that the president of Serbia has the permission to go there as the leader of the Serbian people, as well as the grandson of a victim.”
Vucic told the Post, “I asked Croatian authorities three times to allow me a visit at the Jasenovac camp, one of the deadliest camps in Europe.”
Jasenovac was established in the then-Independent State of Croatia in occupied Yugoslavia during World War II. The camp operated as part of the Ustase regime, in the only country that collaborated with the Nazis in operating their own concentration and death camps.
[Serbians] always felt very close to Jews, and we like Jewish people. We don't have any [antisemitic] movements, we don't have any graffitis, nothing. It has never happened [antisemitism].”Vucic
Vucic explained that the number of people killed in Jasenovac is disputed.
“Croatian political leaders, historians and analysts have always estimated tens of thousands killed.” In Serbia, he said, historians estimate “hundreds of thousands of people killed in the Jasenovac camp.”
Distortion of history
It was very clear during the interview that the Serbian president took this “distortion of history,” as he sees it, personally. “Can you imagine someone saying that only tens-of-thousands of people were killed, as if nothing happened?” he stated angrily.
“I just wanted to visit Jasenovac,” he continued. “I asked the [Croatian] prime minister’s office twice before we announced my third visit,” Vucic said. The Croatians responded that “it’s not a proper time [to visit].... What do you mean it’s not a proper time? To lay a wreath? It’s nothing more than that.
“The real issue,” Vucic said, was that “many people and many countries would like to erase everything that’s happened in the Second World War. And you, the Jewish people are a beacon for all the others who suffered during the war. We see how you fought and how you still fight for the truth. We are not able to do it in the same way as you do. But we cannot undermine or underestimate our own victims. It’s about people, it’s about their destinies.
“They [Croatians] started the most terrible campaign: ‘Vucic wanted to provoke us,’” he said. “I just wanted to do something that is very normal, to pay a tribute to the victims.”
Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem, told the Post in July, regarding reports of banning Vucic from the camp, “It’s important to let anyone visit [the camp] and it’s especially important that the president of Serbia has the permission to go there as the leader of the Serbian people, as well as the grandson of a victim.”
During the interview, Vucic said he wanted to thank Zuroff.
“I’m profoundly grateful to Efraim Zuroff, who reacted publicly and openly. The Serbian people will never forget it.”
He added that the Serbian Jewish community also responded harshly to the Croatian ban.
“The Jewish community in Serbia reacted in a very open and transparent way. We are profoundly grateful to them because they know how they felt and what they feel today.
Vucic continued, “Unlike many others in Europe, If you come to Serbia, you will not find more than 0.0000001% of [Serbians] that would dare to say something against Jews. It’s not an existing topic in this country. It has never been. We always felt very close to Jews, and we like Jewish people. We don’t have any [antisemitic] movements, we don’t have any graffiti, nothing. It [antisemitism] has never happened.”
He added that unlike most Western European countries, there are no guards outside Jewish institutions.
“Those people are like us,” he said of the Serbian Jewish community, “We like them. We love each other, we’re like the same people. [We have] the same destiny.”
Vucic acknowledged that Serbians didn’t suffer during the war “to the extent that you suffered,” but “yes, we were on the right side of history, and we suffered a lot.”
He said that the visit to the Holocaust memorial next to Jasenovac was something that he wanted to do “as an ordinary man... and it opened a Pandora’s Box of all the attempts that were made in recent years, to say that it didn’t happen, that we should rewrite historical facts.”
He then told the story of the Staro Sajmiste concentration camp in Serbia.
“There is a place here in the very heart of Belgrade where Jews were killed. It was 90% about Jews. Then, they [Nazis] started bringing in Serbs that were protecting Jews.
“After many years I’m happy that we were able to start the renovation, I wanted to renew it and renovate it [the camp]. I wanted to make it a museum for all people to see and read about. It took about eight years to start but recently we began.”
Nazis and their collaborators murdered approximately 85% of the 35,000 Jews who lived in Serbia before the war. Some 3,000 Jews currently still live in Serbia, according to the World Jewish Restitution Organization.
In 2018, Serbia became the first country since the Terezin Declaration was issued in 2009 to pass a law specifically providing restitution for heirless Jewish Holocaust-era property. The law was instituted by Vucic when he was prime minister.
“I spoke to the Jewish community and they said to me, ‘This is a problem since we don’t know who’s the successor, but as a Jewish community we know that it belongs to Jewish people.’”
Vucic responded, “It’s not about tens of millions, but it’s more important for us that we believe that we didn’t take anything from anyone, that we can do something that is very just, something that is very good, not only for our relationship that is very good but for people that didn’t deserve the tragedy that they were facing.
“It’s not about 60 million. It’s not about 100 million. It’s about people’s faith. And it’s about just solutions. That’s why we did it and we were the first country in Europe that started delivering on that. I’m very proud of the decision.”
Asked if the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has affected Serbia or might affect his country in the near future, Vucic said he refrains from “making big forecasts about the future,” yet “it [the war] affected us hugely. We have the highest electricity prices that we have ever had. We have a good contract with Russians for two billion cubic meters of gas, but we still need 1.2 billion more.
“We buy gas from TTF spot [a virtual trading point for natural gas in the Netherlands], which has a very high price. In concrete terms, we paid a huge price.”
In addition, Vucic said, “We supported the territorial integrity of Ukraine, because of Serbia’s case, Resolution 1244,as well. We couldn’t support that sort of incursion on Ukraine at the end of February this year.”
UN Security Council Resolution 1244 provides a framework for the resolution of the conflict in Kosovo by authorizing the deployment of an international civilian and military presence there. It would provide an international transitional administration to oversee the return of refugees and the withdrawal of military forces from Kosovo. The resolution also states that the international civilian presence will facilitate a political process to determine the future status of Kosovo.
“Just do a Google search, and you'll see that in the last six or seven months, there were thousands of accusations against Serbia because they were saying Serbs will attack some other neighboring countries or territories. But as a matter of fact, as you can see, it did not happen."Vucic
Yet Serbia is one of the very few countries in Europe that hasn’t imposed sanctions against Russia. The reason, according to Vucic, is because “we were under sanctions for decades and only ordinary people suffered a lot [from these sanctions]. We don’t believe in sanctions politics; it’s something similar to your [Israel’s] complex position.”
Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and has since won diplomatic recognition from 97 UN member states.
Vucic revealed that his government was “investing huge efforts in an attempt to reach a sort of compromise solution, which is not easy at all, as you know. And I hope that we’ll be able to do something in years to come, but I’m not always a very optimistic politician.”
He added, “We’ll always be ready to keep the peace, stability and tranquility of the region, which is of utmost importance. We need to see how we can tackle these issues without hurting the people.”
Vucic maintained, nonetheless, that there is an international campaign against him and his country. Reports of a possible Serbian attack on Kosovo were fake.
“Just do a Google search, and you’ll see that in the last six or seven months there were thousands of accusations against Serbia saying Serbs will attack neighboring countries or territories. But as a matter of fact it did not happen,” he said.
“Do you think that anyone said sorry for this fabrication? No. It’s like an endless and continued campaign against this country with the same approach as 10, 20 or 30 years ago.”
Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo erupted recently when Kosovo said it would oblige Serbs living in the North, backed by Serbia, to recognize Kosovo institutions and to start using car license plates issued in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina.
At the end of the interview, Vucic asked to send a message to the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
“I will always consider Jewish people true friends of Serbs, who will always be on the same side of history,” he said.
“And yes, Israel recognized Kosovo’s independence, which hurt us a lot. But we did our best to overcome that situation. And I hope that we’ll be able to start rebuilding our relationship in good faith and that we’ll be able to establish real trust and confidence between our two nations.”