Photo: Hina / Wikipedia

MENACHEM Z. Rosensaft is an American lawyer and activist of Jewish origin who was born in 1948 in Bergen-Belsen, Germany. His parents succeeded in surviving Nazi death camps, which significantly determined their later social and political engagement in the United States as well as their son’s engagement.

Rosensaft is a long-time activist about Holocaust memories, was a close associate of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, a longtime member of the US Holocaust Remembrance Council, a participant in the peace process between Israel and Palestine and a law professor at prestigious US universities. 

This distinguished Jewish Jew is also the chief advisor to the World Jewish Congress(WJC), an organization founded in 1936, which today represents Jewish communities and more than a hundred world countries, including Croatia. The WJC mission is, amongst other things, defending the rights and interests of Jewish communities and Jews around the world, helping to ensure their security, advocating their interests to governments and international organizations, promoting inter-religious dialogue, preserving holocaust memories, etc. The WJC President is Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder, and the principal director is Robert Singer who visited Croatia this May.

But the concrete occasion for an interview with Menecham Z. Rosenswood was an article recently published on the influential US-Jewish Tablet, warning that “Croatia is trying to hide its Holocaust crimes”. In an exclusive interview for Index Rosensaft, he announced that the World Jewish Congress is organizing an international campaign to deal with the situation in Croatia and the fascism of the society that some warn, while others are denying.

What triggered your interest in the situation in Croatia when it comes to the revisionism curve you wrote for the Tablet portal?

In fact, long before I focused on the current revisionism about the Holocaust in Croatia, I became sensitive to the most unknown history of persecution and mass murder of Jews, Serbs and Roma in NDH during the Second World War. Many years ago, as I was researching collaborators and participants in the Holocaust who were not Germans, I ran into the notorious Br. Tomislav Filipovic, known as Fr. Satan, the Croatian Franciscan who was one of the greatest sadists in Jasenovac. His aversion and cruelty to me are similar to those of SS’s doctor Josef Mengele in Auschwitz and the commander in Plaszowo Amon Goethe, that is, the clear personalizations of absolute evil. When I ran into Fr. Tomislav Filipovic, I wanted to find out more about the Ustashas.

After that, my wife and I became friends with Tamar Rothmueller Hirschl, a talented painter who was born in Croatia and whose father was murdered in Jasenovac. She as a child survived the Holocaust in Zagreb hiding behind her mother. Tamar described the anti-Semitism of Ustasha as he saw and experienced it during and after the war.

As far as the latest events are concerned, I am deeply impressed by the courage of the Croatian Jewish community who refused to participate in the previous two governmental Holocaust commemorations because of the failure to take a strong stand against historical revisionism and the re-emergence of Ustashas in Croatia.

It is significant that you do not treat Croatia as an exception to the rule, but as part of a wider trend in Eastern Europe. How do you explain the rise of historic revisionism in the new Eastern European Union?

Revisionism around the Holocaust has become a deeply disturbing by-product of the general upsurge of neo-fascist, if not neo-Nazi movements across Europe. The trend started with the Jobbik party in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece, but we see it alike in strong electoral support given by AfD in Germany, the National Front Marine Le Pen in France and the Free Party in Austria.

Most of the time, through the seven decades since the Second World War, the extreme right-wing political movements with their ultranationalist and xenophobic ideologies remained on the political margins of their own countries. Over the years, they have come out of the shadows and want to be accepted as legitimate political forces. Given that mass murderers do not have a good reputation, these movements and parties want to release their historical roles as participants, or in the case of Ustasha, active protagonists in genocide and other atrocities that took place during World War II. To achieve this, they either accept, glorify, and replicate the discriminatory attitude of their ideological predecessors or deny that they are ultranationalists. Or simply distort, diminish or trivialize historical facts.

When it comes to Croatia, it must be emphasized that Ustashas, ​​that their modern observers are not part of the government, and are at present not significant political forces. Today’s Croatian government is far from being described as reactionary or neo-fascist. On the other hand, the key problem is that the Croatian authorities show reluctance to be convincing – the emphasis is on “convincing” – condemning all those who glorify and reincarnate. The unavoidable consequence of approving or disregarding ultranationalist sentiments is often very rough revisionism about the Holocaust, not necessarily because of open anti-Semitism, but as a way of storing the historical image of the Ustasha.

How is Croatia perceived among American Jews? Is there a world about the problem of revisionism in Croatia?

Most Americans, not only American Jews, know relatively little about Croatia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia, and the little they know is largely related to the wars and crimes of the 1990s. It is probably the same thing for most countries outside the Balkans. Most well-educated people do not know about the Nazi ally of the NDH who founded the Fascist Ustasha and headed by Ante Pavelic, in which hundreds of thousands of Serbs, tens of thousands of Jews and Roma were killed. Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and Babi Jar have become the symbols of the Holocaust, but a small number of people know about Jasenovac, as well as being one of the worst centers of killing in the Second World War. Jasenovac deserves the reputation of “Auschwitza Balkana”.

It is critical that the international community understands how the holocaust was conducted throughout Europe under Nazi occupation and in most of the countries that stood side by side of Nazi Germany and that the Germans were not the only perpetrators of genocide in the Second World War. Institutions such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington and Yas Washema in Jerusalem have launched significant educational initiatives in this respect. Personally, I chaired the Holocaust Museum’s presidency committee in the nineties with the success of recommending that Jasenovac be included among the most important death camps in the Second World War in the Museum of Memory Hall.

You have written that the Croatian Jewish Community should receive more international support in this ruling political climate in Croatia. Do you intend to put this topic on the agenda of the World Jewish Congress?

We are already in the process of organizing an international campaign that will draw attention to revisionism about the Holocaust in Croatia and on the attempt to rehabilitate the Ustasha. The purpose of this campaign is not to attack Croatia, but to the contrary – to help Croatians recognize the dark period of their history and adequately recognize and mark the memory of the Jasenovac victims and other Ustasha concentration camps.

Croatian nationalists will undoubtedly accuse you of being “anti-Croatian” and “hating all Croats” because you have written critically about the Ustashas and what is happening in Croatia. How do you answer that?

The only purpose of writing this article was to promote the historical truth. I have nothing against Croatia or Croats. Conversely, Croatia is a beautiful country with a proud history, and we especially appreciate the strong bilateral relations between Croatia and Israel. At the same time, we condemn and reject and call on all authorities and decent people everywhere not only to condemn the distortion and denial of crimes and murders committed during the Holocaust, but also to categorically reject those responsible for those crimes against humanity. There are German Nazis in this category, from Hitler to the SS who have led the concentration camps and death camps. This is also the French police who had fired and deported Jews from France under Nazi occupation to Auschwitz and other killing centers. These are also Nazi collaborators in the Netherlands, Belgium, Ukraine, Hungary, Serbia,

Our goal is to bring together Jews and Croats. However, this can only be achieved if the Croatian authorities as well as the Croatian society as a whole condemn any new phenomenon of hatred filled with extremism from the past and ensure the memory and commemoration of all those killed by the hand of the Ustasha.

If you would be able to advise the Croatian government on these topics, what would you say to them? What can Croatia do better when it comes to the dark sides of its national history?

I would encourage Croatian authorities to form an international commission composed of prominent historians who would, with expert authority, produce a report on events in Croatia during the Holocaust and to reside after these findings, regardless of the potential political consequences. It is critical that such a committee includes representatives of all relevant stakeholders, including the Croatian Jewish community, as well as representatives or descendants of other ethnic groups who were Ustasha victims. I would also advise to launch educational programs at all levels, from high schools through universities to social groups of all faiths and nationalities, concerning the crimes against humanity committed by the Ustasha on behalf of the Croatian people. We urge them not to trivialize and minimize the role of Ustasha in the Second World War,

It is interesting to point out that the campaign against Tito and Partisans is being used to rehabilitate their enemies in World War II. What do you think about the narrative that the Nazi and Ustasha regime is actually the same as the communist regime in Yugoslavia? Advocates of this narrative claim that NDH and Tito of Yugoslavia were “totalitarian regimes” …

We do not defend Tito’s regime nor any communist regime of the accusations that they were, as you say, “totalitarian” and that they violated civil and human rights. But that is far from committing genocide. Ustashas killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Roma. Already this fact places their radicality in the second category. Throughout Eastern and Central Europe there are aspirations to equalize both Nazism and Communism. But the fact is that the charges you can put on the account of communist regimes are not nearly as terrible as the crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany with its participants. Also, we must never forget that the Communists and Partisans who led Tito have saved and protected many Jews and others who should become Nazi and Ustasha victims.

You have a fascinating life story, and your parents have survived the Holocaust. How did this affect your public engagement and topics that became important to you?

My parents were special because they did not allow the Germans to dehumanize them. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, my mother used her medical knowledge to save the Jews from the gas chambers, and in Bergen-Belsen, with a group of other prisoners, she managed to sustain 149 Jewish children during the brutal winter of 1945 and in the midst of a terrible typhus epidemic. After the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, my father became the leader of the survivors and continued to play the role of the next five years during which Bergen-Belsen became the largest refugee center in Germany. My parents met immediately after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, fell in love, married and I was born in May 1948. They were never filled with bitterness, but always looked forward, with much sympathy and empathy. I have learned from them that helping others is a duty and not a burden.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel was an important person in your life. How did he affect your philosophy of holocaust memories? 

Wiesel was my mentor, teacher, and above all, one of my closest friends over fifty years. One of his greatest accomplishments is that the human consciousness has built not only the memory of the Holocaust, but also its human dimension. He has taught me that all victims of genocide and crimes against humanity deserve to remember them not only as abstract figures, but as people who were alive. For him the most important lessons of the Holocaust were the need to fight against all forms of intolerance, xenophobia and hate, and that silence is not an option.

You submit to the law of genocide at Columbia University in New York. What is that? As you know, genocide in the NDH was conducted in accordance with the declared racial laws. How do you explain the need to codify the rules for genocide? 

The law of genocide is a newer legal discipline, as is the development of international laws concerning crimes against humanity. Crimes against humanity became important for the first time in August 1945, in the charter of the International Military Tribunal, which met in Nuremberg in 1945-1946. At that time, US Supreme Court judge Robert H. Jackson, who was chief prosecutor in Nuremberg, clearly expressed the view that mass murders and mass crimes have violated the principles of international law and before the charge of “crimes against humanity” was formulated, the Accused they knew it.

Equally important is the conclusion made in 1946 by Gustav Radbruch, German legal expert and justice minister in the early years of the Weimar Republic. He says the discriminatory laws of the Third Reich were invalid from their conception. According to Radbruch, “the character of the law is missing in all those regulations that human beings treated when they were not human beings and denying their human rights.” Radbruch’s view was that all such regulations – including the racial laws of NDH – were “examples of legitimate injustice” and hence void from the beginning.

In other words, the authors of all racial laws from the 1930s and 1940s in Germany, France, or Croatia knew that these laws violated the basic principles of international law, and all those who implemented these laws knew the same.

Efraim Zuroff is a well-known public in the Jewish community, and he was also quite critical of what is happening in Croatia. But there is one topic around which two of you are strongly disagreeable, and that is Srebrenica. Can you explain what difference is between Zuroff and you? 

I have great respect for Efraim Zuroff and Simon Wiesenthal Center. It is also important to point out that Zuroff does not deny the killing of about eight thousand Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, men and boys aged between 12 and 77, and consider it a terrible crime and a crime against humanity. We do not agree that what happened in Srebrenica was genocide or not. Zuroff thinks he is not, I’m convinced that a genocide happened in Srebrenica.

Genocide is not an abstract and flexible philosophical concept, but rather a fairly narrowly defined legal term that was codified in the 1948 UN Charter on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide as killing members of a group with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, that national, ethnic, racial or religious group when such “. The International Court of Justice in 2007 ruled that “the crimes committed in Srebrenica were committed with the specific intent to destroy a partial group of Muslims in BiH, and as such crimes represented genocide.” There are also various judgments of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia that came to the same conclusion. These court judgments are unquestionable and final.

Above all, I am convinced that we must also take into account the moral dimension. My five year-old brother, my mother’s son, and my grandfathers were killed in genocide that was the Holocaust. The perpetrators of the Srebrenica massacre are no better than the SS’s who are my brothers and grandparents and grandmothers in the gas chambers.

As a lecturer at Columbia and Cornell a few years ago I had a student Adisad Dudić, who spent three years as a child in a Bosnian refugee camp with her mother and sister. In one work for my subject, she described this experience: “My homeland was destroyed, my family members were scattered around the world, thousands of Bosnian women and girls were raped and abused, thousands of Bosnian men and boys were tortured in concubines and buried in mass tombs, many people were killed by the enemies who wanted to reach every person who was identified as a Bosnian Muslim. ”

I am convinced that it is against conscience and unacceptable that someone tells my student Adisad that the horrors committed against Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica were not genocide, as it would be terrible for someone to deny the genocide in which my brother, my grandparents and millions were killed other European Jews were exterminated.