The World Jewish Congress wants to trigger a debate about Holocaust revisionism in Croatia, to encourage acknowledgement of the crimes committed at the WWII Jasenovac concentration camp, activist Menachem Rosensaft told BIRN.

By Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb

Menachem Rosensaft. Photo courtesy of Menachem Rosensaft.

US law professor Menachem Z. Rosensaft told BIRN in an interview that the World Jewish Congress – an international organisation representing Jewish communities – wants to trigger a discussion in Croatia about the crimes that were committed at the Croatian WWII fascist camp at Jasenovac during WWII.

Rosensaft, who recently sparked media interest with an article entitled ‘Croatia Is Brazenly Attempting to Rewrite its Holocaust Crimes out of History’ in the Jewish magazine Tablet, said that the country has to face up to the facts and not revise its past.

He expressed concern that Croatian political leaders could be giving different messages depending on whether they are speaking abroad or at home, to their own people.

“Historical memory, historical accuracy can’t change depending who the audience is,” he said.

“In that aspect, we appreciate how Croatian leaders spoke about Holocaust in Israel, but at the same time, we are concerned that the same words may not always be spoken in Croatia to the Croatian public,” he added.

Rosensaft, who is the general counsel at the World Jewish Congress, is a renowned scholar, lecturing on genocide and war crime trials at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities.

The Congress is currently engaged in an international campaign against Holocaust revisionism and the downplaying of the crimes that were committed, especially at Jasenovac.

Implementing racial laws against Serbs, Jews and Roma, the Croatian WWII fascist Ustasa movement killed over 83,000 people at the Jasenovac camp between 1941 and 1945.

Although he always took an interest in crimes that took place at Jasenovac, Rosensaft said that his attention grew when he saw the Jewish community boycotting the annual official commemorations at camp’s memorial site.

In the last two years, both the Jewish and Serbian communities in Croatia have refused to attend the commemorations in a sign of protest against what they claim is the revival of fascist values in Croatian politics.

Rosensaft said that the Congress campaign “isn’t a campaign against Croatia”, but rather an effort to bring public attention both inside and outside Croatia to the issue of the Holocaust as it was implemented in Croatia.

This debate would potentially lead to events such as conferences or even an international commission for establishing the facts on Jasenovac, he added.

Researchers at the Jasenovac memorial site have succeeded in making a name-by-name list of 83,145 victims of the camp.

But some in Croatia and Serbia have put the figure considerably lower or higher, although most historians concur that the overall death toll is around 100,000.

“The figures of the numbers of victims shouldn’t be a subject of political debate between Croats, Serbs and Jews, but should be established by independent internationally known historians and scholars, whether from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington or from Yad Vashem [Holocaust remembrance centre in Jerusalem], and they must also include Croatian and Serbian historians, representatives of the Croatian Jewish Community, and representatives of the Roma who were also murdered at Jasenovac,” Rosensaft argued.

He said that “none of the genocides and atrocities [against Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists] that took place at Jasenovac should ever be politicised”.

The World Jewish Congress is seeking historical accuracy and the depoliticisation of the Holocaust memory, he added.

“In this aspect, there is really no difference between Jews or Serbs or Roma: they were murdered in the same place, they were murdered by the same perpetrators, and they deserve the dignity of being remembered and commemorated with decency and truth,” he emphasised.

Amid growing good relations with Israel, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem in 2015 and expressed regret for the Jews who died at the hands of the Ustasa.

However Grabar Kitarovic has never attended the official commemorations in Jasenovac, and has only made an unannounced personal visit, which has caused concerns among victims’ associations.

The situation in Croatia with revisionist ideas about the Holocaust is a part of a wider trend in Central and Eastern Europe, Rosensaft said.

People need to be educated about the crimes that were committed and about who was responsible, as was done in post-WWII Germany, he added.

The crimes at Jasenovac were committed by the Ustasa alone, and not directed or enforced by the Germans, he stressed.

“It doesn’t do any service to anyone if it is suggested that the crimes at Jasenovac were perpetrated by some unknown individuals. The murders and tortures at Jasenovac were perpetrated by the Ustasa. We know who they were, we know their names, and we know who the commandants were. We know exactly who was responsible, this is not a mystery,” he said.

Rosensaft also referred to a recent documentary ‘Jasenovac – The Truth’, made by controversial director Jakov Sedlar, which according to many, including the Israeli ambassador to Zagreb, downplayed the crimes committed at Jasenovac.

At the premiere in Zagreb in 2016, Croatia’s culture minister at the time, Zlatko Hasanbegovic, said that the documentary was “the best way to finally shed light on a number of controversial places in Croatian history”.

Rosensaft, unsurprisingly, disagreed: “When a film comes out, with the support of the minister, that downplays the horrors perpetrated at Jasenovac, that doesn’t help,” he said.

But he went on to say that he didn’t want to talk about the award that the city of Zagreb presented to Sedlar in April.

“It’s not our place to comment internal affairs,” he said. “All I can say is that it is not to anyone’s credit to recognise a film or a book that distorts the facts.”