Ronen Shnidman

To the EU: Stop Rehabilitating World War II Collaborators

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This past Tuesday, the fascist collaborator and former Archbishop of Zagreb Aloysius Stepinac was commemorated in the European Parliament in Brussels as part of a multi-year campaign to revise the history of the Holocaust in Croatia and the former Yugoslavia.

The conference in the EU Parliament, titled “Blessed Alojzije Stepinac – Testimony of Faith, Perseverance and Hope,” was lambasted by Serbian survivors of Croatian-run death camps during World War II, as well as the Serbian government. However, to the best of my knowledge, only one leader of a Jewish organization has sought to raise their voice to protest the event. The director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, Efraim Zuroff, who has made his career chasing Nazi collaborators said in a statement to Serbian press that Stepinac was not worthy of praise.

“Stepinac, who supported the NDH [the fascist Croatian puppet state] and the leader of its mass murderers, Anta Pavelić, who was responsible for initiating three genocides – against Serbs, Jews and Roma, deserves to be talked about badly, not to be praised,” said Zuroff in a written response.

The Holocaust in Yugoslavia

The Holocaust in the former Yugoslavia differs from the mass murder that occurred elsewhere in Eastern Europe inasmuch as while Jews and Roma were targeted for extermination, the largest group of people persecuted were Serbs. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the pre-war Jewish population of Yugoslavia was killed during World War II, primarily in the Ustasha run death camp of Jasenovac and at the death sites run by the Nazis in the region of Belgrade.

The conference at the European Parliament was organized by Zeljana Zovko, a Croatian MEP and vice-president of the center-right European People’s Party. Zovko sought to position Stepinac as a righteous man during the event and his commemoration as part of the culture of remembrance of victims of totalitarian regimes. Stepinac was tried and found guilty of being a collaborator by Yugoslavia’s communist authorities after the war and was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

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Earlier attempts to memorialize Stepinac

I covered an earlier attempt to burnish Stepinac’s legacy in 2019 for the Times of Israel, when a plaque was installed in the Austrian Hospice, the self-proclaimed first guesthouse for Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem, commemorating a 1937 pilgrimage he made to the Holy Land

Before that, in 2016, the Croatian government sponsored an exhibition in the European Parliament titled “Alojzije Stepinac – Pillar of Human Rights.” And the original push came with Stepinac’s beatification by Pope John Paul II in 1998. Beatification is the first step toward becoming a saint of the Catholic Church. Stepinac even has a street named after him in New York City in an area that used to be the heart of the city’s Croatian community.

Like with most historical figures, there are some ambiguities regarding Stepinac’s actions during World War II. For example, he advocated to save the lives of Jews and Serbs who converted to Catholicism or who were from mixed marriages. He also acceded to the request of the chief rabbi of Zagreb to preserve the rabbi’s library and returned it to the Jewish community after the war. However, it is also indisputable that he was a supporter of the fascist Ustasha regime of dictator Ante Pavelic. Stepinac even served as the military vicar of the collaborationist Croatian army throughout the war.

The voice of the victims

The recent efforts to rehabilitate and even celebrate the archbishop have left the few surviving victims of the Ustasha regime still alive distraught. Their message is simple. The world should not forget the barbarity wrought by fascism. I quote a letter of protest shared with me and sent by Gojko Rončević Mraović, a child inmate and survivor of the Jastrebarsko camp.

“You, ladies and gentlemen, parliamentarians, and your generation, have not remembered Nazism, and many of you have not heard of the Croatian Ustasha ideology,” wrote Mraović. “Those who were the sons and daughters of executioners who committed Ustasha crimes, they are not guilty of anything, but they have the responsibility to condemn and reject the Ustasha ideology, which is one of the deadliest of the twentieth century.”

Protecting ‘European values’

The institutions of the European Union were founded in a direct reaction to fascism and the damage it did to the Continent and European civilization. Using these institutions to rehabilitate fascist collaborators is a perversion of their purpose.

There are venues to debate the life and actions of Aloysius Stepinac. However, celebrating him as an unabashed paragon of human rights or an exemplar of faith in the European Parliament is grotesque and an insult to the memory of all who suffered or perished under the regime he supported.

About the Author
Ronen is a freelance journalist as well as an experienced Hebrew-English translator. He has also written for Buzzfeed, Haaretz, JTA, JNS, The Forward and The Jerusalem Post.
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