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The Battle Over How To Remember Croatia's Auschwitz

  • Gordana Knezevic

A beautiful monument was erected on the site in 1966, a masterpiece by architect Bogran Bogdanovic, who was himself an antifascist partisan who was wounded in eastern Bosnia in 1945. (He was forced to leave his homeland in the 1990s and died in Austria in 2010.)

A beautiful monument was erected on the site in 1966, a masterpiece by architect Bogran Bogdanovic, who was himself an antifascist partisan who was wounded in eastern Bosnia in 1945. (He was forced to leave his homeland in the 1990s and died in Austria in 2010.)

Jasenovac is known as Croatia's Auschwitz. By best estimates, about 100,000 people perished in the Nazi death camp there during World War II -- mostly Jews, Serbs, Roma, and antifascist Croats.

It is a quiet place now, some 100 kilometers southeast of Zagreb at the confluence of the Sava and Una rivers. A beautiful monument was erected on the site in 1966, a masterpiece by architect Bogran Bogdanovic, who was himself an antifascist partisan who was wounded in eastern Bosnia in 1945. The monument, a flower in the form of a stylized menorah opens up into the sky while its reflection in the river stretches downward. (Bogdanovic, by the way, was forced to leave his homeland in the 1990s and died in Austria in 2010.)

Each year, commemorations are held at Jasenovac to honor the victims and to renounce intolerance and violence. This year, however, there will be at least three separate commemorations -- because of concerns that the current Croatian government has failed to counter growing pro-Nazi nationalism.

The official, government-organized commemoration will take place on April 22. But Croatia's Jews held a separate commemoration on April 15, and the Croatian Union of Antifascist Fighters is organizing its own memorial service on April 24. This year marks the first time in recent history that the official government-organized ceremony will not be attended by representatives of the two major victim groups -- Serbs and Jews.

Both of those groups say that the Croatian government has been silent against a rising tide of pro-Nazi nationalism and nostalgia for the World War II-era Ustasha regime, which ran the Jasenovac camp. And they have a point.

Recently, some documentaries and books have challenged the established history of Jasenovac and questioned the scale of the crimes. And in January, ultranationalists shouted Nazi slogans as thousands of people held a protest in Zagreb. Similar slogans were chanted during a friendly soccer match between Israel and Croatia in March, which was attended by top officials including Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic. Ustasha symbols occasionally appear painted on antifascist monuments and in other places.

Such things, of course, happen all over the world. But the problem in Croatia is the official response -- or lack of it. Occasionally, one hears a vague statement condemning totalitarianism in all its forms in very general terms.

Some have spoken out. Former Croatian President Ivo Josipovic was recently quoted by Belgrade's B92 as saying the government "to a large degree" had fostered the growing tolerance of the Ustasha ideology.

"Croatia is not an Ustasha country," he said. "It has a strong antifascist tradition, but people who think otherwise have now come to certain positions." He confirmed that he would join the boycott of the official commemoration at Jasenovac.

It seems that the boycott is having the desired effect. President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and Prime Minister Oreskovic have both publicly expressed regret over the boycott. And for the first time ever -- during a visit by Nicholas Dean, the U.S. State Department's special envoy for Holocaust issues -- they explicitly condemned the crimes of the Ustasha regime.

Speaking at the Jasenovac memorial in 2015, former Croatian President Stipe Mesic emphasized that his country was still struggling to affirm its values.

"Today we are facing a very serious situation," Mesic said. "It is all about values. We are not talking about the past, but about the future. The question is whether our beautiful country will respect its European tradition of antifascism or whether it will side with forces that we thought were defeated long ago."

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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