NEW YORK (Nov. 8)
Fearing a resurrection of the country’s fascist past, the Jewish community in Croatia has sent a letter to the country’s president urging him to affirm Croatia’s democratic traditions.
In the two years since Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia and became an independent republic, President Franjo Tudjman has initiated steps designed to bolster his support among the country’s nationalists.
But according to Tudjman’s critics, his attempts to instill patriotic pride within his country have gone too far, resulting in a program that is officially rehabilitating the fascist Ustashe regime that governed the country during World War II.
Ognjen Kraus, the president of the Jewish community in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, sent a letter on behalf of the country’s Jews to Tudjman on Oct. 29, asking him to take steps to reverse what many in the country consider a frightening trend.
The period of Ustashe rule occurred when Yugoslavia was occupied and partitioned by the Axis powers from 1941 to 1945. Croatia at the time was nominally an independent state, but it was actually a Nazi puppet regime.
An estimated 20,000 Jews and 750,000 Serbs were killed in Croatia during the period of Ustashe rule, chiefly at a bestial death camp called Jasenovac.
After the war, Croatia became a republic in the newly formed state of Yugoslavia. It declared its independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991, and fighting subsequently broke out between the country’s Croatians and ethnic Serbians.
Tudjman’s defenders claim that the president is not glorifying the Ustashe period — the word merely means “rebels,” they insist — but is only harking back to the only period of independence in the country’s modern history.
But many, including members of the Croatian Jewish community, fear that the resurgence of a nationalist spirit in the country could also lead to a revival of other aspects of the Nazi era.
Tudjman’s critics point to a decision by the Croatian Parliament to accept a recommendation from Tudjman to introduce a new currency called the kuna — the same name used during the country’s Ustashe era.
TUDJMAN WOULD HONOR KILLERS
The critics were further outraged when Tudjman proposed in October that Croatians who died in the fighting with the Communists after the war and those who died in the recent fighting with Serbs be commemorated at Jasenovac.
Jasenovac was the World War II concentration camp where Croatian fascists killed tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs and Gypsies in the most brutal ways.
Many of these very Croatians whom Tudjman wants to commemorate, the critics point out, were responsible for the deaths of the thousands already buried at the camp.
The Croatian government has also been criticized for taking other controversial steps.
These included the renaming of some streets in Zagreb after figures from the Ustashe period; a decision to incorporate into the country’s flag the checkered coat of arms that appeared on the flag of the Ustashe state; and a directive issued when Tudjman became president in 1990 to rename a square in Zagreb that had been dedicated “to the victims of fascism” with a new name, “The Square of Croatian Geniuses.”
kraus’ letter to Tudjman, released here by the World Jewish Congress, tackled these decisions one by one and appealed to the president to reverse the trend.
“The decision to introduce the kuna as Croatian currency had a negative impact on the sentiments in our community and it has awakened uncomfortable memories,” Kraus wrote.
Regarding the decision to commemorate Croatians at Jasenovac, Kraus wrote, “It offends our most sorrowful memories, which we want to leave to history and to the tranquility that history brings.
“We warn you that there is still a school in the middle of Zagreb bearing the name of the Ustashe leader and war criminal Mile Budak,” the letter continued.
“At the same time, streets bearing the names of Jewish anti-fascist fighters have been renamed, and the monument above the pit in the former concentration camp at Jadovno where more than 1,500 Jews and many others were executed has been demolished.
“By sending this letter on behalf of the Jewish community in Croatia, we want to repeatedly emphasize our solidarity as citizens of the Republic of Croatia with its independent and democratic identity and development,” Kraus wrote.