It would be hard to imagine
a more stark contrast than the scenes I saw last week on the two
banks of the Sava River, both part of the site of the Jasenovac
concentration camp, on the territory of former Yugoslavia.
On the northern bank, which today is part of the Republic of Croatia,
an impressive ceremony was held with the president, prime minister,
speaker of the Parliament and hundreds of guests in attendance
to dedicate a spanking new, modern, state of the art historical
museum and learning center.
On the southern bank, which is currently part of Republika Srpska,
the Serbian political entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina — the
area was divided in the wake of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the
wars of the ’90s — there is only a desolate expanse
full of mass graves with no exhibition of any sort and nary a single
visitor in sight.
On the northern bank, the new museum presents precise statistics
on 69,842 Serbs; Jews; Gypsies, or Roma; and anti-fascist Croatians
murdered at Jasenovac. On the southern bank, an antiquated, minimalist
wooden fence memorial commemorates the unlikely figure of 700,000
victims killed at the most notorious of the concentration camps
created and run by the fascist Croatian Ustasha. That figure, it
should be noted, was given official sanction by the Communist Yugoslav
regime, which like Communist regimes elsewhere was not adverse
to manipulating figures for propaganda reasons. A notorious example
of this was at Auschwitz, where the Communists claimed that 4 million
people had been murdered, a figure that following the transition
to democracy in Poland has since been reduced by historians to
slightly more than 1 million.
The only fact agreed upon on both sides of the river is the national
identity of the main victims in the camp. Everyone accepts that
it was primarily Serbs, Jews and Roma, but the discrepancy in the
estimates is staggering.
It would be easy, based on these images, to reach the mistaken
conclusion that the Republic of Croatia is making serious progress
in its efforts to confront its Holocaust past and learn the lessons
of the complicity of its predecessor, the wartime collaborationist “Independent
State of Croatia,” or NDH, whereas their Serbian counterparts
are not devoting enough attention to these issues. In contemporary
reality, however, nothing could be further from the truth.
Despite the ostensible glitter of the high-power ceremony, and
the modernistic design of the museum replete with the latest audio-visual
gadgets, the new Croatian exhibition borders on total failure from
a historical and an educational point of view. Completely absent,
for example, is the general context. There is nothing on World
War II or the Holocaust and, even worse, there is no explanation
of Ustasha ideology. Thus the museum has no answer for the most
obvious and pressing questions that every thinking visitor will
ask: Why and how did the crimes committed in this terrible place
happen? Without explaining the origins of the Ustasha’s genocidal
policies, none of the artifacts and testimonies make much sense.
Also disturbing is the absence of any identification of the individuals
responsible for the crimes described. Can you imagine a museum
on the site of a camp nicknamed the “Auschwitz of the Balkans” without
a single photograph of any of its commandants or even a list of
major perpetrators? The issue of personal responsibility is ostensibly
covered by repeated references to “the Ustasha,” but
if not a single Ustasha personally connected to the crimes at Jasenovac
is named and not a single photograph of any of the camp commanders
is exhibited, then the image is created as if no individual Croatians
are actually guilty.
In this regard, I was amazed that none of the speakers mentioned
what is undoubtedly democratic Croatia’s greatest achievement
in facing its Ustasha past — the prosecution and conviction
of Jasenovac commander Dinko Šaki, whom it extradited from
Argentina in 1998 and who is still serving his jail sentence in
Lepoglava Prison. Could it be that the punishment of such a criminal
whose fanatic Croatian patriotism led him to the Ustasha and his
responsibility for the murder of several thousand inmates is so
unpopular, even in today’s Croatia, that he was not mentioned
in the politicians’ speeches, nor does he appear anywhere
in the historical exhibition?
Across the river in Republika Srpska, none of these failures is
surprising. The hostility toward the Croatians and the mistrust
of their handling and interpretation of the historical events of
World War II are legendary. They also partially explain the intensity
of the ethnic hostility that fueled the Balkan wars of the ’90s,
which only deepened the scars and traumas of World War II. In that
respect, the murder in Jasenovac of approximately 10,000 Jews,
according to the new Croatian museum, or of 33,000 Jews, according
to the old Serbian memorial, was actually only a sideshow to the
mass murder of Serbs by the Ustasha.
Perhaps there is a measure of historic justice in the fact that
the territory of Jasenovac is currently divided between its major
protagonists. Perhaps under the current circumstances, in which
neither side has internalized its lessons and it continues to be
a source of ongoing tension, hostility and polemic, this territorial
division that reflects the bitter reality is justified. So the
question then becomes whether it can ever be reunited.
Even more important, can it ever become a place that will help
heal the wounds of World War II and make a meaningful contribution
to preventing the repetition of the horrible crimes committed there?
To my mind, the only hope for such a development hinges on a commitment
to historical truth. As long as one side believes that the other
side murdered 10 times or more than the number of victims the other
side is willing to admit, there is no basis for true reconciliation.
Only by honestly verifying the number of the victims of the worst
of the Ustasha concentration camps will a foundation be created
for healing the terrible wounds of the past.
Last week in Croatia, besides the superlatives bestowed on the
new museum by right-wing politicians, there was serious criticism
of the project by various personages, including President Stjepan
Mesic. On the opposite bank of the Sava these doubts offer hope
of a new era, but until the dominant element in this debate will
be a shared determination to fully verify the historical truth
regardless of the consequences, the territorial divide at Jasenovac
will continue to be not only geographic.
(Efraim Zuroff is the director of the Israel office of the Simon
Wiesenthal Center and coordinator of Nazi war crimes research.)