Croatia Battles WWII Ghosts

Associated Press

Sunday, 7 May 1995

JASENOVAC, Croatia (AP) — By the time World War II ended, everybody knew what was happening at the concentration camp next to this sleepy village. Deportation trains lined up at its entrance. The crackle of executioners’ guns echoed for miles. But 50 years after the war, no solemn ceremonies are planned at Jasenovac.

The Holocaust here by Croatian fascists and later killings by their Yugoslav avengers remains an engine of hate and shame, driving war across former Yugoslavia. While Europeans gather to mark the end of the genocidal war, Croatia still grapples with its guilt for atrocities at this sad place — which last week became a front line in Europe’s current war.

Croatian soldiers, wary of mines, step delicately over a grassy field covering the bones of tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Croats, Gypsies and Slovenes slaughtered between 1941 and 1945. Snipers stand watch in a grotesque two-story-tall sculpture of a willowy, six-petaled flower, built by Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito in the 1960s.

“They wanted to put something beautiful in a place of killing,” smirked Nikola Cindric, a military policeman. “Watch for mines when you leave, follow the trail,” he added.

Near the poured-concrete flower, Croat soldiers crouch behind a vandalized freight train that had been used to transport people to their deaths. They watch for Serbian foes just beyond the woods.

Until last week, Serbs held the central Croatian region around Jasenovac. They captured it four years ago when decades of bitterness between Croats and Serbs — suppressed and diluted by Tito — erupted in war as Yugoslavia broke up. That bitterness is a legacy of Jasenovac, about 44 miles southeast of Zagreb.

The camp was a death machine, the bloodiest of about 28 built by Croatia’s pro-Nazi fascist government, which ruled from 1941 to 1945. The fascists — calling themselves “Ustashas” or “liberators” — shared the Nazis’ fear of Jews, Gypsies and Communists, and added their own contempt for Serbs. Independent research by historians of both nationalities suggests that Croat fascists shot, beat or starved to death about 85,000 people at Jasenovac between 1942 and May 1945. About 48,000 were Serbs.

Tito declared the camp’s toll to be 700,000 of the 1.7 million people killed throughout Yugoslavia in World War II. “He said that to get money, he wanted more reparations from Germany,” said Vladimir Zerjavic, the Croatian historian who meticulousy established the lower death toll now accepted by most except the vast majority of Serbs, who insist today that hundreds of thousands of Serbs were slaughtered at Jasenovac.

When the war ended and fascists were evicted, Yugoslavia’s victors exacted their vengeance. They kept Jasenovac open until 1947, killing several thousand fascists, anti-communists and dissidents. Most were Croatian, Slovenian and Serbian.

Forty years later, when Slobodan Milosevic took power in Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, the pain of Jasenovac echoed through his nationalist crusade for a “Greater Serbia.” Serbian media talked repeatedly of “genocide” against Serbs today. Leading Serbian nationalists intoned that the biggest Serbian city is underground at Jasenovac.

Then Croatian President Franjo Tudjman — a former anti-fascist partisan on his own nationalist crusade — countered by belittling the killing of Serbs at Jasenovac.
“We didn’t know clearly what really happened, because the history was done under ideological (communist) conditions, or wasn’t done at all,” said historian Ivo Goldstein, a Croatian Jew who lost eight family members in the Holocaust. “History is being made by the myth-makers.”

Drago Horvat makes his own truth. Now 66, the Croatian baker was 15 when he was arrested in 1944 for trying to clear mines laid by Croatian fascists near his home next to Jasenovac. He was sent to the camp.
“They hanged me by my hands, tied behind my back. Then I knew what real pain was,” he said from his home near the site. “You hang until your head is heavier than your body. When you flip over, the blood rushes to your head and you can’t scream anymore.”

After two months, two sympathetic Croat guards let him and a dozen others escape. Within months the war was over, but Jasenovac was still working. “We knew what was happening. Every once in a while, we heard the machine guns go tat-tat-tat-tat,” Horvat said. “I am a Croat, but God save us from those Croat fascists.”
Now that Croatia is nominally democratic, few believe it will again be dominated by a minority of fascists or communists. But grappling with the legacy of Jasenovac is another question.
“In my opinion,” said the historian Zerjavic, “both sides are guilty. They either should apologize to each other, or not speak about it anymore.”