ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatian Jews said on Monday they would boycott the country’s main Holocaust remembrance event this week, accusing the authorities of playing down crimes perpetrated under the Nazi-backed Ustasa regime during World War Two.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is held on Jan. 27 each year, the date in 1945 when the biggest Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz in occupied Poland, was liberated by Soviet troops.
Three months ago, rightist veterans of Croatia’s 1991-95 independence war raised a commemorative plaque in the town of Jasenovac to comrades killed there at the beginning of the conflict Zagreb fought to secede from Serbian-led Yugoslavia.
Included in the veterans’ plaque are words from a salute used by the Ustasha regime that killed tens of thousands of prisoners including Jews, Serbs, Roma gypsies and anti-fascist Croats, in the 1941-1945 Jasenovac concentration camp.
That prompted the association representing Croatia’s remnant population of Jews, numbering somewhat over 1,500, to pull out of its primary Holocaust remembrance event, which is normally conducted in the Zagreb parliament.
“We took the decision on the basis of reactions by the government, parliament and the president. The problem is not (just) a plaque in Jasenovac including the Ustasha salute, but the relativisation of everything (to do with the Holocaust),” community leader Ognjen Kraus told the state news agency Hina.
The center-right government of Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic - now on an unrelated visit to Israel - proposed last month forming a commission that would legally regulate reappearances of symbols from any past totalitarian regime.
Kraus dismissed the gesture. “If swastika or Ustasha symbols are equated with the (communist) red star, what are we talking about? Are we going to revise history? Establish a commission to tell us what World War Two was about?” he said.
Croatian society has been divided since independence over how to treat both the Nazi collaborationist and communist past of the ex-Yugoslav republic, now a European Union member state.
Some Croats believe authorities have been indifferent to sporadic resurfacings of Ustasha extremism, including the chanting of Ustasha slogans by ultra-nationalist soccer fans.
Others say post-independence governments, particularly those led by the left, have failed to appropriately condemn crimes committed during 45 years of post-war communist rule.
In April 2016, members of the Jewish community, the Serb
minority and an anti-fascist group boycotted the Holocaust commemoration event at the Jasenovac camp site in protest
at what they deemed the authorities’ feeble reaction to incidents “revitalizing” Ustasha ideology.
Croatian Jews and Serbs have called for more thorough teaching in schools about the abuses of Ustasha rule.
Reporting by Igor Ilic; editing by Mark Heinrich