The Balkan Jewish communities mourn Holocaust Day, but celebrate Netanyahu's aggression on Gaza

"Never Again - Over Again" (Carlos Latuff)

Over the past month, the Jewish communities in the Balkans marked their suffering in the Second World War, by commemorating two important dates. The first one was the annual commemoration of the victims of the camp at Jasenovac, site of an infamous concentration camp run by the wartime Croatian Ustashe regime. The annual commemorations have been organized at the former camp to mark the last attempted breakout by inmates in April 1945, before the Ustashe liquidated the camp and the regime fell, succumbing to the Communist-led Partisan movement led by Josip Broz Tito. A name-by-name list compiled by the Memorial Site said the Ustashe regime killed 83,145 Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists in the camp, between August 1941 and April 1945.

Representatives of Jewish communities, as well as Serb, Roma communities and Croatian anti-fascist groups, gathered first at the Jasenovac Memorial Museum, and then the column passed earthen columns that symbolize the tombs of the dead and the camp buildings. They also delivered speeches in the shadow of the huge monument to the victims of the camp, called the Stone Flower, and after that followed choral singing, a reading testimonies of prisoners and a short commemoration by religious communities. For the fourth year, these representatives held their own gathering on 12 April, boycotting the official commemoration scheduled on 14 April. Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenković had earlier invited them to commemorate the victims together with state officials, but the minority groups refused, arguing that the state has not taken real measures to stop or even diminish revisionist denials of the Holocaust.

The other anniversary marked by the Jewish communities was Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day, on 1 May. While most countries observe the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January, designated by the United Nations, the Balkan Jewish communities also observe this Israel's national memorial day. Not to mention the aforesaid Jasenovac Day, as the third one. The commemoration of Israeli memorial day took place mainly on the internet and social networks, where communities from Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian cities shared posts about "6,000,000 murdered only because they were born Jewish," heartbreaking images of fallen women and children, the slogan "Never Again", and so on. They also called for compulsory lectures on the Holocaust to be held in all high schools, and warned of the frightening trend of rising anti-Semitism and historical revisionism of the Second World War.

When it comes to historical revisionism, the Balkan Jews are referring to the new narratives that emerged during the nationalist revival, beginning in the early 1990s. For example, Croatian nationalists claim that the Jasenovac site was not a death camp, but a labor camp. It also allegedly had a flourishing cultural life, including libraries, theaters, sport venues and brothels, where voluntarily prostitution of Jewish women was widespread. Jokes and idioms about their promiscuity are still popular in Croatia and the Balkans, but highly irksome and frustrating for the local Jews who dismiss it as an anti-Semitic myth. Nevertheless, the case of Žuži Jelinek (1920-2016), a regular columnist to the Croatian women's magazines who publicly lauded her seducing Axis soldiers and multiple marriages motivated solely by profitable self-interest, confirms that the narrative of promiscuity is not completely unfounded.

Croatian nationalists further argue that no one was killed only because of a particular ethnic origin or religion, but rather due to crimes or illegal political activities. They also claim that the number of victims at Jasenovac was only a few thousand, in other words significantly less than the now generally accepted figure of between 80,000 and 100,000 victims, including between 12,000 and 20,000 Jews. During the Yugoslav era, a figure of 700,000 reflected some sort of conventional wisdom, although estimates have gone as high as 1.4 million. Such outdated estimates with no scholarly value are still endorsed by Serbian nationalists who tend to demonize Croats, but also by particular Jewish communities who ironically complained of revisionism. For example, the Jewish community of Banja Luka (Jevrejska opština Banja Luka) has published a poster featuring the bolded mythical number of 700,000 victims. Basically, this implies that historical revisionism is bad only when it doesn't serve the purpose of Jewish victimhood.

One striking phenomenon on the pages of all Balkan Jewish communities is the astonishing amount of promotional material that comes from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, their embassies, and even pressure groups like StandWitUs and the Israel Project. In part, this is not surprising considering that both celebrate the same holidays, cooperate on cultural events, and many even have relatives in Israel. On the other hand, some have gone far beyond the cultural limits. Shortly after the latest escalation of conflict in the Gaza Strip, the Jewish community of Split (Židovska općina Split) has engaged in the most hateful type of Netanyahu's regime propaganda. In one of their posts, there's a twisted reality where a million of Israeli civilians are currently in shelters due to the attacks by "Gaza terrorists." The fact that 2 million Gazan Palestinians are living under an Israeli-imposed blockade that severely limits travel, trade and everyday life, just like their ancestors were living in the 1940s Jewish ghettos, seems to be of no concern to the Split Jewish community. Historical revisionism of anti-Jewish past appears to be more important than their own revisionism of anti-Palestinian present.

Marko Knežević

Marko Knežević is a historian and freelance journalist from Bar, Montenegro. He is a frequent traveller to the Middle East and East Asia.