'There can be many politically motivated narratives about the Holocaust, but there is only one universal truth' - World Jewish Congress

'There can be many politically motivated narratives about the Holocaust, but there is only one universal truth'

'There can be many politically motivated narratives about the Holocaust, but there is only one universal truth'

Adolf hitler meets ante pavelic

Below is a full translation of an interview originally published in Croatian in Novosti on 23 May 2020.

The World Jewish Congress Executive Director of Operations Ernest Herzog spoke with the Croatian magazine Novosti this week to relay the WJC’s firm opposition to the Croatian parliament’s sponsorship of a Mass in Bleisburg honoring Ustasha forces. Herzog’s interview criticizing the Mass follows a similar interview by World Jewish Congress Associate Executive Vice President and General Counsel Menachem Rosensaft.
Q: How do you assess the current situation in Europe 75 years after the end of World War II, glorifying the Nazis and their collaborators, denying the crimes they committed?

A: Even though some elements of Holocaust denial and distortion are present in Western Europe, it is not such a big issue there. The glorification of Nazis and their collaborators is much more of a problem of post-Communist countries, where this type of activity gets the support of the authorities and state institutions. It is a phenomenon that spreads from the Baltics to the Balkans, in nearly every country. You could probably not find a better example of this than by looking at what has happened in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the past few days. Literally the whole world urged Croatian authorities to reconsider commemorating and glorifying the defeated Ustasha soldiers and creating martyrs out of them. Apart from the reaction by the World Jewish Congress and our friends from the local community in Bosnia and Herzegovina who are led by Mr. Jakov Finci, numerous other international and local entities reacted against this too: the embassies of Israel and the US, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, the mayor of Sarajevo, the Serbian Orthodox Church, anti-fascist organizations,  and other civil society organizations, as well as a good portion of Croatian society. However, representatives of the Croatian authorities and Croatian Church in both Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina decided to ignore all of this and to stubbornly continue to try and create an island of Croatian history, floating in the sea of world’s history, alone and detached from it. At the same time, they decided to accuse everyone who is trying to oppose the Mass as someone who is anti-Catholic and is trying to take away religious freedom away from the Catholic Church. It is obvious that this has nothing to do with religious freedoms and has everything to do with history obfuscations and glorification of those who committed horrible war crimes. 

It is quite obvious why authorities and institutions in these post-Communist countries are pursuing these twisted narratives. For a large number of Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Croats, and others it was not Hitler who was the biggest enemy of their people in the 20th century (their governments actually allied with the Third Reich) – it was the Communist leaders that came afterward. It is clear – whoever was fighting Stalin and Tito, automatically becomes a hero, even if they were gathering Jews and sending them to the concentration camps during the war at the end of the day; they did not do anything bad to Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Croats, and others (unless they were against the regime). The authorities in these countries will often try to present their people as the victims of “totalitarian regimes,” by mixing and equating or comparing Hitler’s fascism with communism that came afterward. These are blatant attempts by these governments to whitewash history and to present themselves only in a heroic and positive light. The fact that we understand why these countries are doing this, by no means suggests that we should not stand up against it.      

Q: What do you resent about the attitude of Croatian leaders, as well as other authorities in the regions from the period from 1941 to 1945?

A: When it comes to the World War Two period, the main issue that we have in the whole region is the preservation of historical truths. For example, there is a big issue about the events concerning the creation of the Independent State of Croatia. There are attempts on Croatian side to minimize the number of deaths in death camps of Independent State of Croatia, to downplay the role of the Ustasha and portray these camps as labor-camps, or even invent stories about these camps being open after the end of the World War Two, or being run by communists in order to murder Croats. At the same time, we see some attempts on the Serbian side to exaggerate the number of victims – and it is very difficult to understand why. Today there is enough evidence and facts in museums and institutions around the world that can give quite accurate figures regarding the events in NDH. There can be many different politically motivated narratives, but there is only one universal truth. I hope that both sides realize this sooner rather than later. The other big issue in the region is the glorification of Nazi collaborators from this period. I will of course give an extensive example of what is going on in Croatia, but I have to say that the glorification of Nazi collaborators also happens in Serbia, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are street names, school names, and memorial plaques glorifying people that allied with Hitler and assisted him in his murderous campaign. 

Mr. (Croatian Prime Minister Andrej) Plenkovic should know that he cannot sit on both chairs. If the death of Ustasha soldiers and those who supported their suicidal regime is the greatest tragedy in Croatian history – then Croatia effectively lost World War Two, in contradiction to what the Croatian constitution states. I am sure that the prime minister knows this too. Connected to this is also the Croatian Law on National Holidays, Memorial Days, and Non-working Days, which de facto in article 2 makes a direct connection between the defeated Ustasha troops and freedom and independence of modern Croatia. I also believe that the Croatian authorities know what was the attitude of “the father” of the modern Croatian statehood, Dr. Franjo Tudjman, towards Bleiburg repatriations. 

Is the moment when Ante Pavelic came to power and his government passed racial laws and gave a legal pretext to his Ustasha murderers to kill and butcher hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of Croatian people and Croatianhood, no the actually biggest tragedy in the history of Croatian people? Is it not that Pavelic’s coming to power and what followed afterward for the next four years in the Independent State of Croatia thus giving a pretext to what happened during Bleiburg repatriations?       

We should also not forget that Croatia is the only country in Europe that did not celebrate the day of victory against fascism this year, there was also almost nothing about it on the state-run television. As opposed to May 16th when Croatian state television broadcasted live small commemoration ceremonies for Blieburg from Zagreb and the Mass in Sarajevo Cathedral afterward. In addition, the state television also showed two documentaries about Bleiburg repatriations, which are again whitewashing the historical facts.   

Can you imagine German Chancellor Merkel announcing that in May while Europe celebrates the defeat of fascism, Germany remembers all those soldiers and civilians of the Third Reich who lost their lives during that period (and a lot of them did die during that period)? This would be scandalous. It would be also unheard of if she would use that moment to say that, since she is from Eastern Germany, to talk about the Soviet Invasion and what followed afterward. In Croatia, unfortunately, this is normal. Germany, however, understands and knows very well what was the biggest tragedy in the history of the German people – it was not the death of its soldiers and civilians in 1945, but Hitler coming to power in 1933 and everything that was happening in next 12 years. The same should go for Ante Pavelic's rise to power in 1941. However, not many political leaders in Croatia are ready to publicly admit that today. Much clearer and less ambiguous stand on this issue is needed by the Croatian government – for now, we can only hear this from the Croatian President, who took a very firm stand recently in Okucani.

Q: Do the reactions of WJC have any repercussions in the countries of the region, considering that you emphasize that other nations were victims besides Jews? 

A: The primary goal of the World Jewish Congress is to protect the interests of our affiliated Jewish communities worldwide. An integral part of this activity is also our duty to take a stand every time any minority faces prosecution or injustice, and not only the Jewish minority. We are also making sure to do so in respect to whitewashing of history. It is sometimes important to remind governments that a chain breaks always on its weakest link, and a society’s strength and its ultimate capability to progress is measured by the strength of the weakest links of that society and society’s attitude towards the poor, minorities, underprivileged and disabled. It is not measured by its military might, nor its strongest links in the society chain. Ultimately it will depend on the countries in the region, whether our reactions will make an impact and will influence the decisions made on the ground. We are only here to try and help - guided by the principles of tikkun olam (talmudic maxim for“fixing the world”), to assist in making this world a better place for generations to come. In the context of our recent reaction about Bleiburg, we will without any hesitation pursue the historical truth and reject the blatantly false narratives of ultra-nationalists that are created for daily political gains and are also very dangerous in its nature. 
Q: How much antisemitism is there in Europe and what is the situation now compared to ten years ago? 
A: There is bad and good news concerning this issue. The bad news is that Europe is witnessing a high rise of antisemitism in the past 10 years and the vast statistical data that supports this claim is frightening. On a positive note, I have to say that the area of former Yugoslavia has largely been spared of this phenomenon and even though there is some increase of antisemitism in this region, it is luckily not following the trends of steep rise as in some other parts of Europe, where Jews do not feel safe and quite a few of them are considering leaving Europe because of antisemitism. I am glad that I can say that this is not the case with this region, Jews feel generally safe in the area of former Yugoslavia and if they are considering leaving their home countries it is mainly due to economical hardship, and not because of antisemitism. 
Q: How do you comment on the awarding of the Order of the Knight of Ladino to the Bishop of Pakrac-Slavonia, Jovan Ćulibrk, for his contribution to preserving the memory of Jasenovac and preserving Jewish culture? 

A: Bishop Culibrk is doing a lot of good work on preserving the truthful memory of Jasenovac. By doing this he, of course, created many enemies on both Croatian and Serbian sides. Maintaining this stand with his current title should be commended and not taken for granted. I am sure that he already knows that when both Croatian and Serbian ultranationalists, who never agree on anything, are criticizing you at the same time – you are probably doing the right thing. 

I know that Bishop Culibrk also gets harsh critique from more extreme circles within his own Serbian Orthodox Church, which is especially difficult. I can only hope that he will not give in to outside pressure and will continue to pursue the truth of what happened in Jasenovac. 

Q: How do you generally comment on the attitude of Christian churches toward Jews?

A: The World Jewish Congress in general has good relationships and interreligious dialogue with both Catholic and Orthodox churches around the world. From time to time, we do have issues, such as the event in Sarajevo that happened last Saturday. Sometimes there are also priests in Orthodox Churches who are dangerously close to the local ultranationalists, that are at the same time antisemites, but I have to say that these are rare and exceptional cases. Still, we monitor them, as individual priests can often be big centers of influence and their problematic ideas could potentially spread far. The above-mentioned cases are really sporadic, and I have to say that overall relationship with the Orthodox Church is very good.  

There is certainly more room for closer interreligious cooperation, especially in the fight against racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of hatred. Let me repeat the words of World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder who said that no form of hatred is acceptable and that the best way to fight hatred is when Christians lead the fight against antisemitism and Islamophobia, when Muslims stand up for Jews and Christians, and when Jews oppose those who hate Muslims and Christians.