Despite condemnation of the country’s Holocaust-era crimes by Croatia’s political leadership, Jewish, Serbian and other groups plan to go ahead with a previously announced boycott of the government’s annual memorial event at the site of the infamous Jasenovac concentration camp. Since the founding of the country following the fall of the Soviet Union, an element in Croatian society embraced the history and imagery of its World War II fascist leadership, the Ustashe, which has increased in recent years. Now, leaders of minority groups are protesting the commemorative service, claiming that the government has tolerated acts that “downplay and revitalize the Ustashe regime.”
“Basically, we are tired of it, governments on both the right and the left have tolerated the situation and let it become what it is today,” Rabbi Kotel Da-Don, leader of the Bet Israel community of Croatia, based in Zagreb, told Hamodia. He added that the condemnations were “too little, too late,” and that under the circumstances, the ceremony would be a “show.”
This past summer, an unknown vandal placed a large image of a swastika on the field during a major sporting event. At both sports matches and concerts by certain ultra-nationalist performers, Nazi-era slogans and imagery have become common. The appointment of Zlatko Hasanbegovic as Croatia’s minister of culture raised particular controversy.
“To appoint someone who wrote articles glorifying Ustashe as the minister in charge of Jasenovac shows what they [the government] are really about,” said Rabbi Da-Don. “If they are really interested in showing their condemnation, he should be removed.”
In a bid to win their support ahead of the commemoration, planned for April 22, President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic met representatives of Jews, Serbs, Gypsies and anti-fascists on Monday, and Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic issued a statement condemning the Ustashe’s crimes.
“The Croatian government and I, personally, condemn the crimes of the Ustashe regime,” he said. “April 22 is a day of remembrance and commemoration to innocent victims of Jasenovac … I’m sorry that this occasion, instead of paying respect to the victims, is used for politicization that opens new divisions in society.”
Jewish and Serbian groups and descendants of anti-fascist fighters each planned to hold separate memorial events on other days.
The Ustashe controlled Croatia for most of World War II as a proxy of Nazi Germany and murdered hundreds of thousands in their campaign to create an “ethnically pure” Croatia. The main targets were ethnic Serbs. An estimated 330,000 of them were killed in Croatian camps. An estimated 32,000 Jews were killed during the Ustashe rule, half in Croatia. The other half was deported to Auschwitz and other German-run concentration camps.
Despite the historic record of genocide, the fascist regime has continued to be a symbol of strength and nationalism to some in the country. This was exacerbated by strong suppression of national identity by a half-century of communist rule.
Croatia is now home to some 3,000 Jews, living mostly in the capital of Zagreb. Rabbi Da-Don said that despite the recent trend, the Jewish community felt unthreatened.
“I can proudly say that we feel much safer than Jews in Paris and Brussels,” he said. “We do not have aggression or physical threats, but the time has come for the Croatian leadership to stop people from glorifying and revitalizing the Ustashe ideology. They must say no, or it will only get worse and worse.”
Rabbi Da-Don added that groups whose ancestors were victimized by the Ustashe regime have long blamed the fascist group’s positive image in many circles on insufficient education and have called for schools to design more robust and accurate curricula on the topic.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of European affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told Hamodia that the attempt of many in Croatia to “whitewash” the Ustashe’s image was part of a broader attempt to promote nationalism and reject the legacy of decades of communist rule.
“This is not unique to Croatia; it is happening throughout Eastern Europe. They are trying to re-write the crimes of the Holocaust,” he said. “It is an attempt to create a false equivalency between the communist and fascist crimes.”
(With reporting by Reuters.)