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 aki, 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.)
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.