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Around the Jewish World (part 1): Croatian Government Strives to Revamp Relations with Jews

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On the first night of Chanukah, Ognjen Kraus, the president of Croatia’s 2,000-member Jewish community, took the stage of Zagreb’s modern Lisinski concert hall and lit the candles on a 3-foot-tall menorah.

With television cameras trained on him, Kraus recited the Chanukah blessings in Hebrew before an audience that included President Franjo Tudjman and other dignitaries.

A narrator told the story of Chanukah, and the candles then burned brightly throughout a concert of Prokofiev, Bruch and Mendelssohn.

The high-profile candle-lighting was part of celebrations marking the 190th anniversary of Zagreb’s Jewish community.

The attendance of Tudjman and other senior officials was part of continuing efforts by the Croatian government to demonstrate support for Jewish causes and to cancel the negative image brought by its autocratic, nationalist policies.

“Taking everything into account, it was positive that Tudjman attended,” said one Zagreb Jew. “The concert reminded Zagreb and Croatia of history — what happened in history — and showed that we are still here.

“But on the whole, maybe it was more important for Tudjman to be there, than for us.”

Tudjman’s government has been accused of trying to whitewash Croatia’s fascist past through various initiatives aimed at rehabilitating the homegrown fascist Ustashe regime that ruled Croatia as a Nazi puppet state during World War II.

These moves have drawn sharp protests from Jews as well as former anti-fascist partisans and others inside Croatia.

They have also drawn international criticism and blocked Israel from establishing diplomatic relations.

Tudjman drew particular fire earlier this year by declaring that he wanted to rebury the bones of Croatian fascists at a Yugoslav-built memorial to scores of thousands of Jews and Serbs slaughtered at the Ustashe’s Jasenovac concentration camp. He also wanted to turn the camp into a memorial of reconciliation.

“They don’t want to admit that the [wartime] Independent Croatian State was a racist state,” said Vlasta Kovac, editor of the Zagreb Jewish community’s Bulletin. “They would prefer if this was forgotten.”

This tendency toward revisionism, rather than overt anti-Semitism, raises concern among Croatian Jews.

Some 25,000 Jews lived in Croatia before World War II. About 20,000 were killed by the Nazis or the local Ustashe regime.

Of the 2,000 members of Croatia’s Jewish community today, some 1,400 live in Zagreb, the capital.

“We maintain the position that we stand firm against the rehabilitation of fascism and against some crazy concessions given to ex-fascists who came back to Croatia,” said Zagreb community member Melita Svob.

“But we are loyal citizens of this country, patriotic. We are against any kind of discrimination against anyone.”

Croatian Jews report no threat to their community from overt acts of anti- Semitism, either on the part of the public or the authorities. A well- publicized letter from Croatian Jewish leaders a year ago said, “There is no open anti-Semitism in Croatia, either in everyday life or in any political party program, or in the attitude of government representatives toward Jews.”

The letter expressed the view that “the Republic of Croatia is paying attention to the standpoints of our community and there is a mutual dialogue.”

Jewish leaders meet with Tudjman and other senior officials, and several Jews have prominent government positions.

“The Jewish community is small but functioning,” Slobodan Lang, an adviser to Tudjman, said in an interview. Lang, whose father was Jewish, maintains ties with the community.

“It is taking public positions relative to the government, positive and negative,” he added. “It can be critical of the president but also communicative.”

Lang said the negative aspect of Croatia’s image was distorted. “Humans are humans,” he said. “They are more impressed by the negative than the positive, more by [instances of] anti-Semitism than by a concert attended by the president.”

Besides the attempts at historical revisionism, recent negative trends include the bitter complaints over Croatia’s property restitution policy and Tudjman’s continuing attacks of his critics.

Shortly after the Chanukah concert, he blasted people who complain about human rights and lack of media freedom in Croatia as enemies seeking to subvert the Croatian state.

He named prominent critics — including Slavko Goldstein, a former president of the Jewish community.

More positive trends include the government’s funding of the reconstruction of the Zagreb Jewish community building after it was hit by a terrorist bomb in 1991, its cooperative relationships with aid organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the honors it has paid to Jews and Jewish causes.

On another positive note, Tudjman toned down statements in a book that were viewed as anti-Semitic and apologized for giving offense.

But some Jewish community members and observers voice concern over what they see as an uncomfortable aspect: an official attitude that seems to use its support for Jews as a means of demonstrating human rights principles and counterbalancing the negative image of nationalism and historical revisionism.

“The Jewish community in Croatia and in other former Yugoslav republics is not endangered by anti-Semitism,” Zagreb historian Ivo Goldstein wrote in a report prepared in the spring for the American Jewish Committee.

“Its bigger enemy is low standard of living, insincere philo-Semitism and the constant threat that the local Jewish population can be manipulated and used in propaganda goals.”

Before and during the recent wars in Yugoslavia, officials in both Croatia and Serbia attempted to win Western support by showing favor to Jews and Israel. This attitude is still apparent.

“Every side in the Yugoslav war was trying to use the Jews, to make friends with the Jews,” Goldstein said in an interview.

Said a member of the Zagreb Jewish community: “They think that we are important because we have connections with the Jewish world, with the World Jewish Congress, with Israel. This is what gives us some weight.”

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