Why Croatian Jews Boycotted This Year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day

Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorates the grim history of the millions of people murdered during the systematic genocide that was carried out in Europe between 1939 and 1945. The sober ceremonies are a chance to remember those who died and recommit to resisting such atrocities in the future. But in one country, Jews were not present at the ceremonies in their honor this year. As the Associated Press reports, the Croatian Jewish community boycotted Holocaust Remembrance Day in protest of what members call their government’s failure to fight modern-day Nazism.

It’s the second year the tribute has been boycotted in Croatia. Organizers tell the Associated Press that this year’s boycott was spurred by a memorial plaque in Jasenovac that includes the phrase “For Homeland Ready.” The phrase was used as a rallying cry by the Ustaša, the fascist organization that collaborated with the Nazis and ruled over the Independent State of Croatia, a puppet state established by Nazi German in occupied Yugoslavia in 1941.

For Croatia’s Jews, “For Homeland Ready” is not a collection of three words—it is a hate slogan that is being heard more and more as neofascism spreads in Croatia. And Jasenovac is no ordinary Croatian place—it is the site of a former death camp where up to 99,000 Jews, Serbs, Roma and other non-Catholic minorities were killed by the Ustaša during World War II.

Not only did the phrase make it on to the controversial plaque at Jasenovac, but Croatia’s former president, Stjepan Mesic, was caught on video questioning the death toll at the camp. He has since apologized, but many Croatians refuse to believe that Croatians collaborated with the Nazis and killed thousands of Jews. They insist Communists did so instead.

Croatian leaders have a checkered history of Holocaust denial. Though some previous presidents, including Mesic, have apologized to Jew’s for the country’s role in the Holocaust, others—like Franjo Tuđman, who was the first president of Croatia after it gained independence from Yugoslavia, did anything but. A year before taking office, Tuđman published a book called Bespuća povijesne zbiljnosti (literally translated as Wastelands of Historical Reality), which denied that the Holocaust ever happened. He eventually apologized for the book, but Croatia’s tradition of Holocaust denial continues.

While Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, the country’s fourth president, has issued a statement that declared the Ustaša a criminal regime, she was photographed holding the regime’s flag in November. Others, like judges and school officials, have worked to suppress the history of the Holocaust in Croatia. For the country’s growing right wing, revisionism is a chance to find strong heroes and a triumphant past for a nation that has often been buffeted by war, geopolitics and social upheaval, but it also white washes history.

Nothing can undo what Croatia’s Jews suffered during the Holocaust. More than 30,000 Jews are thought to have been murdered, in addition to "virtually the entire Roma (Gypsy) population of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina," the USHMM writes. Though Nazis killed many, the majority were slaughtered by Croatian collaborators. A mere 5,000 Jews survived World War II, and today an estimated 2,000 remain in Croatia. 

It remains to be seen whether Croatian Jews will boycott next year’s commemorations—or whether the continued rise of the Croatian right wing will make another statement necessary. Either way, Croatian history will remain a battleground for whose whose lives and families were decimated by the Holocaust, and those who find it politically expedient to ignore them.

Tens of thousands of Jews were murdered by Croatian Nazi collaborators at Jasenovac. (Petar Milošević - Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Donald Trump signed a refugee ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day

In commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Trump on Friday issued a statement remembering the victims of the Holocaust and promising to “make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.”

But while the president may claim to remember the victims, the organized American Jewish community believes he has forgotten the lessons of the past.

Earlier this week, leaked drafts of President Trump’s executive orders revealed plans to temporarily ban immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations and suspend all refugee admissions for 120 days. The order, as signed late Friday, also closed the door to Syrian refugees indefinitely, and more than halved the number of refugees the country will take in 2017. Christian and other refugees of minority religions will now be privileged over Muslims coming from Muslim majority nations.

A number of national Jewish groups and prominent individuals have drawn a direct line between the rejection of Jewish refugees during the reign of Nazi terror in Europe and the new refugee restrictions. For the descendants of the survivors and refugees who were given safe haven on American shores, the parallel is stark.

“This one hits Jews in the gut,” says Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T'ruah, a network of Rabbis that champions human rights.

“It is an insult to release this executive order on International Holocaust Remembrance Day when we realize that millions died because they couldn't find refuge in the United States or anywhere else,” Rabbi Jacobs says, “and many of the reasons that were given for why the US couldn't let Jews in are very similar to reasons that are given for blocking refugees, especially Muslim refugees, now.”

Protesters also gathered in multiple cities on Friday afternoon, with a strong showing from Jewish organizations, including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and Bend the Arc in Manhattan. Organizers tweeted under the hashtag #NoBanNoWall. In New York, demonstrators formed a solidarity wall of people around Muslims praying the Friday “jummah” prayer.

David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement that Jews “are all related to those fortunate enough to have been admitted to this country ... and we believe that other deserving individuals merit the same opportunities to be considered for permanent entry.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt issued a statement explicitly underscoring that for Jews, “our history and heritage compel us to take a stand.”

“History will look back on this order as a sad moment in American History — the time when the president turned his back on people fleeing for their lives,” Greenblatt’s statement read. “This will effectively shut America’s doors to the most vulnerable people in the world who seek refuge from unspeakable pain and suffering.”

Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which has supported refugees since the early 20th century, told the Forward, “We find it particularly ironic that he’s chosen the week of Holocaust Remembrance Day to wall out refugees and immigrants and to put a ban on refugees.”

A petition signed by Jews who fled the former Soviet Union circulated this week:

We, the undersigned Soviet Jewish refugees, write to express our support for the United States’ refugee resettlement program and our opposition to President Trump’s draft Executive Orders that would close America’s doors to vulnerable refugees desperately seeking our protection. The United States must not turn our backs on the human beings who are fleeing violence and persecution, just as we and our families did when we left the former Soviet Union, nor abandon our highest national values and the demands of basic decency.
Prominent Jews and intellectuals also issued statements.

In a Facebook post, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the executive order “cruel” and a “departure” from America’s “core values.” She spoke of her own family’s history, and America’s promise to refugees.

“We have a proud tradition of sheltering those fleeing violence and persecution, and have always been the world leader in refugee resettlement,” she wrote. “As a refugee myself who fled the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, I personally benefited from this country’s generosity and its tradition of openness.”

Masha Gessen, a writer and refugee from the former Soviet Union, tweeted, “I came to this country as a refugee,” and tagged several other prominent people who had also come to the US as refugees, including Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, writer Gary Shteyngart, and others.

“Anne Frank didn’t,” Gessen wrote. “Couldn’t get a visa.”

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