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, other non-Catholic minorities as well as political and religious dissidents 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.
Editor's note, February 10, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the number of Jews killed at Jasenovac and the groups who were targeted for killing by the Ustaša and to correct the gender of Croatia's president.