Closed down during the Yugoslav conflicts, a memorial centre at the site of the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia reopened in November 2006, with a new educational centre and permanent exhibition. The presence of top Croatian leaders at the opening ceremony sent a strong signal.
By Davor Konjikusic for Southeast European Times – 08/01/07
The Jasenovac war memorial. [Davor Konjikusic]
A new permanent exhibition has been opened at Jasenovac, the site of the largest concentration camp in the Western Balkans during World War II. While many have described the project as an important milestone, it has also engendered criticism and controversy.
The number of victims at Jasenovac has been under dispute for decades. Serbs were the largest group, although Jews, Roma, Muslims were also killed at the camp, as were Croat political prisoners. While some Serbian sources claim as many as 700,000 perished, that figure has been revised downwards. Recent estimates put it in the tens of thousands.
Currently, both Croatian and Serbian historians are seeking to develop a more accurate count. The memorial centre at Jasenovac maintains a list of names of people known to have died there, as well as at a special subcamp for women and children. The 69,842 names on the list include 39,580 Serbs, 14,599 Roma, 10,700 Jews, and 3,462 Croats, along with people of other ethnicities.
The new permanent exhibition was developed in collaboration with, among others, Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. It emphasises the individual experiences of the prisoners at Jasenovac, presenting first-hand testimony and displaying personal effects. At the centre of the exhibition is a list of names of victims, compiled by the Jasenovac Memorial Ground curators. Along with the names, biographical information and data about ethnicity and the manner of death are provided, as well as references to sources where each victim is mentioned by name.
Croatian President Stjepan Mesic (left) lays a wreath in commemoration of the Jasenovac victims. [Getty Images]
The exhibition allows visitors to examine a large number of documents, photographs and information concerning a variety of topics -- including the founding of the wartime Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and its connections to Fascist Italy and the Third Reich. Visitors can learn not only about the Jasenovac camp, but about other WWII-era camps in Croatia.
Survivors of Jasenovac attended the opening of the exhibition. Joining them were top Croatian political figures, including President Stjepan Mesic and Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, who emphasised that the crimes of the Ustashe regime must not be forgotten.
"The new Memorial Museum and the Educational Centre have the purpose of informing the youth about what the Ustashe regime actually was," Mesic said. He added that "the new permanent exhibition should apply one law, and that is the law of truth".
After seeing the exhibition, Mesic said the brutality of killing was perhaps not sufficiently conveyed. However, he praised the fact that the victims were presented as individuals.
(From left) Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, Croatian President Stjepan Mesic and Parliamentary Speaker Vladmir Seks attend the opening of the education centre at Jasenovac on 27 November 2006. [Getty Images]
Sanader, meanwhile, said there is "no excuse for hatred, radicalism and extremism". "Hatred makes us poor," he said. Postwar Croatia is "ready to break out of the circle of imposed intolerance and to turn to a modern European society," the prime minister added.
Somewhat more reserved was the political representative of the Serbian ethnic minority in Croatia, Milorad Pupovac. According to him, the permanent exhibition is only the first step towards what the Memorial Centre should become. "There isn't enough space to show all exhibits, nor does the concept enable showing visitors the particularities of the camp itself. This is a rather good information-documentary centre which should be further developed," he said.
Zorica Stipetis, the president of the Council of the Jasenovac Memorial Ground, acknowledges that further development is needed, but says the exhibition represents a big step nevertheless. It is now clear to all parties involved that the project is not a political issue, but rather an effort to provide a truthful account of what happened at Jasenovac.
The Jewish community in Croatia has praised the exhibition. However, its enthusiasm is not universally shared. Efraim Zurof from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem has voiced disappointment with what he describes as "postmodernist trash".
"The new exhibition shows nothing of the Ustashe ideology of the massacres. Nobody can understand from it anything about the Ustashe ideology, which wanted to turn Croatia into a pure Catholic state without Serbs, Jews and Roma. The new exhibition is an attempt to evade the circumstances that created Jasenovac," he said after visiting the Memorial Centre.
According to Professor Ivo Goldstein, however, the presence of top Croatian officials at the opening ceremony sent a strong signal, demonstrating that the country has repudiated the Ustashe and all that it represented. The speeches given by the leaders were unambiguous in condemning that dark chapter in Croatia's history, Goldstein says.