Given the general ignorance about the horrors of Jasenovac, I think it would be helpful to very briefly describe one of its commanders, to give insight into the type of people who built and ran it.
Victims of the Nazi-backed Ustasha regime killed at the end of the World War II lay on the ground surrounded by Ustasha soldiers near the Sava River in Croatia in 1945.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
While Holocaust distortion has been rampant in post-Communist Eastern Europe for decades, ever since the transition from communism to democracy, I never imagined that I would encounter it in an Israeli newspaper, let alone in The Jerusalem Post, which to its credit has reported extensively over the years on the problem, and has published dozens of articles of mine and others about the dangers it poses to the future of Holocaust commemoration, research, and education. So imagine my shock when on August 15, I read an op-ed on the front page of the second section, which basically claimed that only several thousand persons had been murdered in the notorious Croatian concentration camp of Jasenovac. I was very well acquainted with the horrors of the camp since I had been very actively involved more than two decades ago, in facilitating the extradition from Argentina and prosecution in Zagreb of Dinko Šakic, one of its commanders. And although the precise number of Serbs, Jews, Roma, and anti-fascist Croatians murdered there has been a subject of heated debate in former Yugoslavia, there is no doubt that at least approximately 100,000 persons were murdered by the Ustasha, the Croatian fascists who built and ran the camp all by themselves, without any assistance from the Nazis.
The author of the article, David Goldman, was identified as “an Australian writer and freelance journalist and director of thegoldmanreport.org, a site dedicated to exposing Nazi collaborators and neo-Nazis living Down Under.” That struck me as highly suspicious, since I had never heard of him despite having been very involved in the efforts to convince the Australian government to pass legislation to enable the prosecution of the Nazis living there, had submitted the names of several hundred suspects who had immigrated to Australia to the authorities and had been in touch with all the key players in that campaign. When I inquired with individuals active in Australian Jewish communal and political life, they too were bewildered as to his identity, but were able to discover that he had concentrated exclusively on exposing Serbian Nazi collaborators in Australia, which would explain his brazen attempt to whitewash the crimes of the Croatians at Jasenovac.
I have no doubt that had anyone submitted an op-ed to the Post which claimed that the number of victims at Auschwitz or any of the other five death camps in Poland was only several thousand, it would have been automatically rejected. The problem in this case was that despite the huge number of victims at Jasenovac, the camp which was nicknamed the “Auschwitz of the Balkans,” is hardly known outside of the region, and there are no trips of Israeli students to the site. To its credit – and thank you to Editor in Chief Yaakov Katz, who immediately realized the seriousness of the mistake of publishing Goldman’s article and had it removed from the website– the Post within a week published detailed and very convincing rebuttals by Dejan Rustic, acting director of the Museum of Genocide Victims in Belgrade, and Prof. Ivo Goldstein, the internationally renowned expert on Jasenovac, whose magnum opus on the camp was published several years ago in Croatian and is slated to be published in the next few months in English, as well as an editorial under the heading “Don’t Hijack the Holocaust.”
Given the general ignorance about the horrors of Jasenovac, I think it would be helpful to very briefly describe one of its commanders, to give insight into the type of people who built and ran the camp, and were responsible for the torture and murder of so many innocent Serbs, Jews, Roma, and anti-fascist Croatians. We were able to track down Dinko Šakic in Santa Teresita, Argentina to which he fled after World War II via the infamous “ratlines,” which were run by Austrian bishop Alois Hudal and his deputy Ustasha priest Krunoslav Draganavic. Sergio Widder, my colleague in Buenos Aires, enlisted the help of local journalist Jorge Camarasa to expose Šakic on national TV. He had the following conversation with the former commandant:
Camarasa (seated in Šakic’s living room): As a person who served as commandant of the Jasenovac concentration camp, how do you explain the terrible things that took place there?
Šakic: Jasenovac was a penal colony and all the people incarcerated there deserved to be there. It was actually a work camp where the Jews managed themselves. We never laid a hand on any of the prisoners in the camp.
Camarasa: But how do you explain the cruel atrocities which took place there, the terror, the executions?
Šakic: The people died a natural death. There was a typhus epidemic, for example, but there were no cremation ovens that killed anybody. I think that you are the one who does not understand. The real problem with Jasenovac was that we were not able to finish the job. I sleep like a baby. If I were offered the same post today, I would accept it [my emphasis-E.Z.].”
On October 4, 1999, Šakic was convicted of responsibility for the murder of at least 2,000 people at the camp during the several months that he was commandant, and was sentenced to the maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. He died in prison before he could complete his sentence, and asked to be buried in his Ustasha uniform. The priest who delivered the eulogy claimed that “although Dinko Šakić did not observe all the ten commandments, he was a model for all Croatians.” Thus, Šakic was buried, but support for the Ustasha remains strong in Croatia to this day, as evidenced by the efforts of Ustasha supporters to deny the crimes committed at Jasenovac and other concentration camps throughout the territory of the Independent State of Croatia, created by Nazi Germany in April 1941. And the only antidote to those lies is to preserve the accurate narrative of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis and their local helpers, and educate as many people as possible about the dangers posed by movements like the Nazis and the Ustasha.
The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. The efforts to bring Dinko Šakic to trial are recounted in his autobiography Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (Palgrave/Macmillan 2009 and 2011).