Unscrambling the History of a Nazi Camp
But Jasenovac has a doubly haunted history. Not only were thousands of people savagely killed here, but for decades their deaths were exploited for political purposes.
In the 61 years since the camp was closed, Communist and nationalist rulers, Serbs and Croats, each pursuing their own ideological goals, have apportioned blame differently and pushed the number of those killed up or down by tens of thousands.
What is indisputable is that from 1941 to 1945, the Nazi puppet rulers in Croatia, most of them ethnic Croats, imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and political opponents here, and that many thousands of the prisoners were killed.
There were no gas chambers, but there was also no shortage of barbarity. Many prisoners had their throats slit or their skulls smashed; others were shot or hanged from the trees that lined the Sava.
Now, historians and researchers are hopeful that the world can finally get closer to the truth of what took place here. At the end of November, Croatia, on whose territory most of camp lies, opened a new museum on the site, a complex of eight camps.
The museum is regarded by many as a test of this young state, which declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, fought the Serbs for that independence for four years, and is now trying to get into the European Union.
Croatia seems ready to accept its past, regarding the Croatian-led Nazi puppet state as the precursor of today’s independent nation. At the museum’s opening on Nov. 27, Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said, “Today’s Croatia does not want to stay silent about the dark pages of its past.”
The distortion appears to have started when Tito ruled Yugoslavia. Historians say he was always searching for ways to illustrate the evils of fascism and Jasenovac made a convenient target. For decades Yugoslav citizens were told that 700,000 people were killed at the camp, a vast majority — some 500,000 — Serbs. Gruesome exhibits at the site, some of which were not from Jasenovac, were set up to lend credence to this version.
In 1991, after Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, Serbian forces seized the site and took away most of its contents.
When Croatian forces reclaimed the area in 1995, the official death toll fell to fewer than 40,000. The president of Croatia at the time, Franjo Tudjman, who had brought a distinct nationalist hue to politics and history, announced a plan to bury at the site the bones of those killed on both sides in World War II.
But Jasenovac survivors and Jewish groups thwarted that idea, which they saw as mixing the remains of victims and perpetrators.
Mr. Tudjman died in 1999. His party, the Croatian Democratic Union, still dominates Croatia but now seeks to jettison its nationalist image. As a result, the new exhibition has been organized in cooperation with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Politicians and curators are aware that their task is to confront ideas propagated by Mr. Tudjman, namely, that the Nazi-backed Ustashe was a benevolent government forced to fight for the interests of Roman Catholic Croats against threats being posed by Communists and Orthodox Christian Serbs.
Croatia’s current president, Stipe Mesic, noted at the opening ceremony the need for continuing vigilance against nationalism.
“Young people are led to sing songs about the butchers of the Ustashe regime, and even the commander of this camp,” Mr. Mesic said, a reference to Thompson, one of Croatia’s most popular rock groups, which sings songs supportive of the former fascist regime and its anti-Serb policy.
The new exhibition is quick to acknowledge the competing views. The wildly varying estimates of those killed were “a result of using Jasenovac for political purposes,” reads a sign near the entrance. Researchers at the museum say they have so far gathered proof that 69,842 people were killed, almost 19,000 of them children.
Many researchers now say the figures put forward by both Serbian nationalists and Communists are not valid. Estimates by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, based on several reviews of the camps’ records, suggest that close to 97,000 people may have died. Researchers at Serbia’s Museum of Genocide in Belgrade, which has access to a Yugoslav survey from 1964, suggest at least 80,000 died, although they say the full count could be several tens of thousands higher, according to the Serbian Orthodox Church committee on Jasenovac.
At the museum, darkened rooms contain video screens that show testimonies of survivors. The names of the dead are listed on ceilings and walls. There is no mention of their nationalities, though the museum acknowledges that most were Serbs.
Efraim Zuroff, Jerusalem director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who attended the opening, worries that there is not enough background information given to remind visitors what fascism and separating people by ethnicities and religions can do: “There is no context,” he said. “A young person walking in there won’t understand how the state came to power and why it targeted those people.”
But the museum’s director said the refusal to lay blame was intended to serve a greater good.
“You have to remember that Jasenovac was used as an excuse by Serbs in their war-crime trials,” said the director, Natasa Jovicic, referring to the violent crimes against Croats in the 1990s. “In other countries, where there have not been wars, it is different, but here we have to be doubly careful. There is nothing here that can be used for political propaganda or hatred.”
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