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In Croatia, another wary struggle with Holocaust

Museum attempts to confront toll of Jasenovac camp

JASENOVAC, Croatia -- As histories of the Holocaust go, that of the concentration camp at Jasenovac probably ranks among the most brutal and certainly the most disputed.

Almost everyone agrees that the Nazi puppet regime that ruled Croatia from 1941 to 1945 imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and opponents here and in dozens of other camps and that many, many prisoners were killed.

But in the 61 years since the camp was closed, successive governments have written and rewritten history. Communist and nationalist rulers, Serbs and Croats, each pursuing their own ideological goals, have apportioned blame differently and alternately exaggerated or downplayed the number of those killed.

On Monday, Croatia opened a new museum in Jasenovac, a memorial regarded by many inside and outside the country as a test of this young state -- which declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, fought the Serbs over that for four years, and is now trying to get into the European Union -- and its ability both to set aside and set straight its 20th-century history.

Prime Minister Ivo Sanader insisted at the ceremonies Monday that "today's Croatia does not want to stay silent about the dark pages of its past."

But, after decades of distortion, writing truth on those pages is hard.

As with most of the former Nazi or Nazi-inspired death camps that dot Central and Eastern Europe, there is little sense today of what occurred here. Green lawns and avenues of trees have grown up where barracks and workshops used to stand; poplars sway gracefully next to the languid River Sava, which skirts the camp.

A large concrete monument in the shape of a flower -- a classic of 1960s communist architecture, built during the rule of Josip Broz Tito -- stands alone in the center of a field. What distinguished the killing at Jasenovac was its randomness, and its ferocity. There were no gas ovens; prisoners died by having their throats slit and their skulls smashed. Others were shot or hanged from telegraph poles and the trees that lined the Sava.

Under the communist Yugoslavia of Tito, official historians put the number of dead at more than 700,000, the vast majority of them Serbs.

Gruesome exhibits -- some of which were not from Jasenovac -- were set up to endorse this version.

Under the Tito regime, which placed the slogan "Brotherhood and Unity" above the bloody rifts of Balkan history, where all overt nationalism was suspect and even singing a nationalist song could result in imprisonment, the exhibits served as a proof for many Serbs of their suffering at the hands of the Croats.

In 1991, after Croatia declared independence from Belgrade, Serbian forces seized the site, damaged the museum, and took away most of its contents.

In 1995, Jasenovac fell back into Croatian hands; simultaneously the official death toll fell to fewer than 40,000. The president of Croatia at the time, Franjo Tudjman, who had spearheaded the drive for independence and 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.

Jasenovac survivors and Jewish groups thwarted this idea to mix, as they saw it, the remains of victims and perpetrators.

Tudjman died in 1999. His party, the Croatian Democratic Union, still dominates Croatia but now seeks to jettison its nationalist image.

And so the new museum and exhibition has been organized in cooperation with the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the one at Yad Vashem, Israel.

Politicians and curators are aware that their task is to confront ideas propagated by Tudjman -- namely that the Nazi-backed Ustasha government of Croatia was a benevolent rather than fascist government, which fought for the interests of Roman Catholic Croats against both communists and nationalist Orthodox Serbs.

Croatia's current president, Stipe Mesic, a Tudjman ally in 1991 who later turned against him, noted at the opening ceremony the need for continuing vigilance against nationalism and historical distortion.

"Young people are led to sing songs about the butchers of the Ustasha regime, and even the commander of this camp" at rock concerts in Croatia, Mesic said. "They have to be saved."

The new exhibition is quick to acknowledge the competing views of different regimes. 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 proof that 69,842 people were killed, almost 19,000 of them children. Nationality and ethnicity are not listed.

A series of darkened rooms reveals video screens with testimonies of survivors. The names of the dead are listed on ceilings and walls.

There is little to recall the cruelty and degradation; the museum focuses on personal stories, not historical background.

The exhibition won praise from members of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, who advised the curators and are also working on an education program about the Holocaust for Croatian schools.

The museum's director said Croatia faced more difficulties than most countries when talking about the Holocaust, because of the more recent 1990s war.

"During communist times, bones were on display here," said Natasa Jovicic, the director, who lost dozens of relatives here. "Films were shown that were so horrific, people were fainting."

"You have to remember that Jasenovac was used as an excuse by Serbs in their war crime trials," she said, referring to Serbs accused of violent crimes against Croats in the 1990s conflict.

"In other countries, where there have not been wars, it is different, but here we have to be doubly careful," she said. "There is nothing here that can be used for political propaganda or hatred."

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