Branko Miletic

Yad Vashem’s intervention desperately needed in bitter historical row

Creator: © Antonio Bronic / Reuters

The recent barring of Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic from visiting the former Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia – the second such confrontation over the past 12 months – has highlighted a longstanding historical controversy that has devolved into a farce.

While Zagreb accused Belgrade of exploiting the camp for propaganda purposes, this diplomatic spat has added yet another layer to the contentious narrative surrounding Jasenovac, a place that invokes polarising narratives.

Notorious for its brutality during World War II, Jasenovac, has become a focal point of political disputes, manipulations, and controversies across the Balkans. This recent episode is just one in a growing series of incidents that have clouded the historical truth and muddled the memory of the victims.

In August 2021, an op-ed by journalist David Goldman in the Jerusalem Post raised eyebrows when it claimed that no more than 4,500 remains of people that were killed in Jasenovac have ever been found – something ironically confirmed by the article’s detractors.

While the story was later removed from the J-Post website due to pressure from various sources, the incident underscored the complexity and sensitivity surrounding discussions involving Jasenovac, where historical accuracy often collides with competing political agendas.

As a renowned and respected institution dedicated to preserving the truth of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and research centre, has a crucial role to play in untangling this historical mess – and help provide the clarity and dignity that the victims deserve.

By taking control of the narrative surrounding Jasenovac – a camp that communist Yugoslavia in 1979 rebranded – some would say cynically – as the ‘Auschwitz of the Balkans’ – Yad Vashem can ensure that the memory of the victims is honoured with integrity and accuracy – and help prevent the camp from being used as a pawn in political games or propaganda battles.

Jasenovac Victim Numbers: A Long-standing Debate

The heart of the matter lies in what some describe as the “Jasenovac numbers game”, which has gone on for over 40 years now, where because of the lack of forensic evidence to support victim counts, decades of debate and speculation have continued unabated.

Since the end of World War Two, the reported number of victims – 90% of which were non-Jews – has increased almost 80-fold, creating both confusion and derision.

In 1946, Yugoslavia’s initial forensic investigation found fewer than 1,300 bodies, a number that drastically contrasts with subsequent estimates.

During the 1954 trial in absentia of Croatia’s wartime leader Ante Pavelic, 9,984 victims were announced.

Later, just prior to war reparations talks with West Germany, Yugoslavia’s communist regime claimed 59,198 Jasenovac victims – a figure that was ‘official’ for over 30 years.

Subsequent revisions in the 1990s and early 2000s increased the count to 72,000, 77,000, and finally 83,145 by 2011.

If you believe the semi-official Serbian government media, now in 2024, this figure has risen to 700,000.

“The number of deaths in the camp has not been agreed on, with estimates varying from 80,000 to 700,000, as was an official figure in post-war Yugoslavia” it wrote.

N1 online news / Screenshot

Not to be outdone, Bosnian historian Radomir Bulatovic has suggested a death toll of as many as 1.1 million people.

In his Horrors of War: Historical Reality and Philosophy, published in 1989, Croatia’s President Franjo Tudjman, who was also a historian, suggested that it was between 30,000 and 40,000.

In 1992, the newly-independent Croatian government formed a commission to investigate all the crimes committed during WWII and the Yugoslav period.

Its final report in 1999 found a total death toll of 2,238 people for Jasenovac.

These huge discrepancies in victim counts – along with a toll that regularly increases even now in the 21st century – have exacerbated nationalist tensions, further complicating efforts to understand the true extent of the atrocities committed at Jasenovac.

The lack of physical evidence and the manipulation of historical data by a range of players has contributed to the ongoing saga of Jasenovac, leaving its victims’ memory caught in a tangled web of controversy and open to manipulation, underlined in July 2018 when one of the most prominent historians in the Balkans, Dr. Ivo Goldstein was interviewed on Croatia’s popular ‘Sunday at 2’ TV show about the increasingly problematic Jasenovac concentration camp.

When asked on live TV: “Many have commented on the lack of any forensic evidence at Jasenovac? Can you explain why this is the case?”, Goldstein, dropped a bombshell: “…because in April 1945, the Germans flew special ‘bone crushing’ machines to Jasenovac. These machines were used to destroy the bones that were left…” he said.

Dr. Ivo Goldstein was being interviewed for Croatia’s popular ‘Sunday at 2’ TV show. / YouTube

As David Goldman caustically wrote: “When Berlin was being pummelled into dust by Russian artillery, the notion that Nazi Germany found time to fly a hitherto unheard-of machine into some Balkan boondoggle in order to ‘dissolve’ human bones is…tinfoil hat fantasy…”. 

Debate Continues Over Victim Numbers

Responding to Goldman’s article, the acting director of the Belgrade Museum, Dejan Ristic admitted to only 1,251 actual remains of bodies found at the site, which ironically is one-third less than Goldman himself claimed.

However, as far as Goldman was concerned, he says his story, much like his detractors’ responses only referred to “Yugoslavia’s forensic evidence, and not any extrapolated or enhanced figures”.

As for those higher figures, according to the Belgrade Museum’s director, they were achieved by “supplementing the number of victims based on the revision of the already mentioned census from 1964 which was conducted by the Museum of Genocide Victims.”

Museum of Genocide Victims in Belgrade / WikiData

This admission raises questions about the scientific accuracy of the original victim count along with the veracity of the Museum’s archaeological techniques.

Although Dr Lea David from the University of Haifa and many other historians have publicly highlighted data discrepancies at this former camp, only Yad Vashem has the moral authority and technical expertise to thoroughly investigate and get to the truth.

While Jasenovac has long been a political tool and an excuse for Serb violence against non-Serbs, it’s now patently clear that neither of the main players in the Balkans – namely Serbia or Croatia – can be trusted to adequately manage the ongoing legacy of the site.

This was further reinforced in July 2023, when Croatia banned a survey of the site by a Canadian resources exploration company using LiDAR-carrying drones, despite initially allowing the project to proceed. No explanation was provided for Zagreb’s change of heart.

Only an impartial organization with the moral gravitas of Yad Vashem can put an end to all this politicization and bring justice to the victims while clarifying the past and preventing future violence.

Such a response would go a long way preventing non-Jews from abusing the history of the Holocaust for their own purposes, and further help cement peace in the Balkans.

As Andriana Bencic Kuznar & Vjeran Pavlakovic, writing in Heritage, Memory & Conflict point out, “The misuses of the Jasenovac tragedy, vividly present during socialist Yugoslavia, continue to the present day”. 

The ball is now well and truly in Yad Vashem’s court.

About the Author
Journalist and editor with 25 years experience, including reporting from Bosnia, Japan and all over Australia--- focus includes IT, ethics and geopolitics.
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