A storm of controversy has erupted over the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s decision to invite Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to take part in the museum’s dedication ceremonies Thursday.
Tudjman, who has written a book questioning the extent of the Holocaust and who has publicly made anti-Semitic remarks, was one of more than a dozen heads of state invited to Thursday’s ceremonies by directors of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which built the museum.
Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and founding chairman of the council, expressed disgust at the invitation and said he would “speak out in outrage” against it when he delivered one of the keynote speeches at Thursday’s ceremonies.
“I believe Tudjman’s presence in the midst of survivors is a disgrace,” Wiesel told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Wednesday.
“This is a man who has published statements about the Holocaust that helped those who deny its very existence. His place tomorrow is not among those who grieve and remember.”
Jewish organizational leaders, many of whom took part in a meeting with Tudjman on Tuesday, also expressed deep concern about the Croatian leader’s inclusion in the ceremonies.
But a museum spokeswoman suggested that including Tudjman in the ceremonies might help changes his views about Jews and the Holocaust.
“We are aware of Mr. Tudjman’s writings on the subjects of Jews and the Holocaust,” said Naomi Paiss, director of communications for the museum, “but Mr. Tudjman will be touring the museum Thursday after the ceremony, and we think he might change his mind.”
“We are not opening the museum to preach to the choir,” Paiss said. She added that someone like Tudjman perhaps “needs education” on the subject of the Holocaust more than others and that education is one of the museum’s purposes.
CLAIMS BOOK WAS ‘MISINTERPRETED’
Paiss said that decisions on whom to invite to the dedication ceremony were based in large part on recommendations from the U.S. State Department. She said the department had advised the museum, in the case of the former Yugoslavia, to invite representatives from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia.
Tudjman is author of a book titled “Wastelands — Historical Truth,” in which he said that the figure of “up to 6 million dead is founded too much on both emotional, biased testimonies and on exaggerated data in the postwar reckonings of war crimes.”
He was also once quoted as saying that Jews are “selfish, crafty, unreliable, miserly and underhanded.”
But in a 1992 letter to World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman, Tudjman claimed that his book had been “misinterpreted either as historical revisionism or as anti-Semitism. As a former anti-fascist fighter and a committed democrat, I refute all intentions of the kind.”
In the letter, Tudjman also spoke of the “friendship between the Croatian and Jewish people” and said, “We deeply regret the fact that the Jewish people in Croatia suffered the tragic fate of the Holocaust during World War II.”
In an apparent further effort to clear his name, Tudjman met Tuesday with representatives of a number of Jewish organizations, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith and National Council of Jewish Women.
DID NOT ALLAY LEADERS’ CONCERNS
But the meeting did not seem to alleviate many of the Jewish leaders’ concerns about the Croatian president.
“I can’t say he allayed all our fears directly,” said Phil Baum, associate executive director of AJCongress, who took part in the meeting.
“He certainly went to great lengths to insist that he did not have any hostile views toward Jews,” said Baum. “However, he didn’t directly disavow or explain away those statements that we consider troubling.”
“I left that meeting feeling more uncomfortable than when I arrived,” said George Spectre, associate director for international, governmental and Israel affairs at B’nai Brith. “I don’t think he forthrightly addressed some of the issues we raised.”
A number of other Jewish groups expressed disappointment about the invitation extended to Tudjman.
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said WJC affiliates around the world “have contacted us expressing dismay and surprise that this invitation was extended.”
Ephraim Zuroff, Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the museum’s invitation to Tudjman is “practically the antithesis of what that museum is supposed to stand for. This is a person who has publicly questioned the extent of the killings in the concentration camps.
“I cannot understand why he was invited,” unless he is “coming to repudiate what he has previously written and to express contrition for the statements he has made,” said Zuroff. “But our understanding is that he is a Holocaust revisionist.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.