The first international conference commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Jadovno concentration camp signals the advent of a new field of research into the history of the Holocaust in Bosnia.
The first international conference commemorating the 70th anniversary of the suffering of Serbs, Jews and Roma in Jadovno concentration camp was held in Bosnia this past June.
The ceremony was attended by Serbian President Boris Tadic and representatives of the Republika Srpska’s and of Croatia, in addition to thousands of descendents and supporters of those exterminated by the Ustashe Nazi collaborators in 1941.
The conference itself, which was held in Srpska’s capital of Banja Luka, delved into the various political, military and strategic factors that facilitated this little known branch of the Nazi extermination machine.
An Israeli representative of the World Maccabi Organization delivered a moving eulogy of the Zagreb Maccabi Club members. Their harrowing story still reverberates around the pastoral environs of Jadovno’s mountain forest. The club members were among the first to be arrested and chained together, and after the first person was knocked unconscious, he pulled all the others chained to him amid cries of horror into a pit that was 54 meters deep.
That camp operated for only a few months, from June until August 1941, and was subsequently replaced by the much larger death camp of Jasenovac on the bank of the Sava River where hundreds of thousands of Serbs and tens of thousands of Jews and Roma were systematically exterminated by Ustashe assassins that were being aided by Bosnian Muslims.
In 1941 Muslim leaders in Bosnia had imposed a ban that sought to prevent Muslims from collaborating with the Ustashe government. But 2 years later, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was flown in from Berlin to Bosnia by his Nazi cohorts in an effort to reverse the ban and recruit Muslims to the Waffen SS 13th division.
My first stop prior to the conference was the Croatian capital of Zagreb, where the intense hatred of the Serbs – equaled by a similar hatred of Serbs to Croats and Muslims – makes one wonder how Marshal Josip Broz Tito managed to keep Yugoslavia together until his death in 1980.
In many respects this deep-seated hatred is reminiscent of the anti-Semitic libels that have poisoned Jewish life over the centuries. Naturally, the comparison prompted me to search for the vestiges of the tiny Jewish community that even today is making desperate attempts to revive what has been irretrievably lost.
My extra-curricular lecture on the current Arab turmoil in the Middle East was attended by a large crowd of surviving local Jews, including some that have some degree of affiliation with Israel. The lecture was preceded by a tour of some of the remaining Jewish sites—mostly in the form of plaques commemorating Jewish synagogues that had been burned down by the Ustashe in 1941. A renowned local Jewish broadcaster attended my lecture and was my source of information on a rift that is present between the two rival Jewish factions in Zagreb. The first group are assimilated and detached from Israel’s concerns while the second group – most of whom were present at my lecture – is committed and sensitive to Israel’s cause and is even headed by an Israeli rabbi.
It seems that in spite of his anti-Semitic background, the former president of Croatia, Fanjo Tudjman, displayed an eagerness to establish ties with Israel in the 1990s. Tudjman was even advised by his political counsel to improve his standing in the eyes of the Israelis by mediating Ron Arad’s safe return.
The idea was to impel the head of the alienated Jewish community – the only organized one at the time of the initiative (1995) – to cooperate with the Zagreb mufti of the local Muslim community and turn jointly to Hizbolla to release Arad on the basis of “Islamic grace.” The president successfully convinced the mufti to persuade the leader of the Jewish community to ally with him in this enterprise. Sadly, however, the latter flatly refused, stating that he “had nothing to do with Israel.”
This incident only reflects the bitter rivalry between the small Jewish community’s disparate groups, matched only by the seemingly incorrigible hatred between Serbians and Croatians. In the past the rift has led to accusation-hurling between the two groups. Unfortunately, many of the claims that were made often had little connection to historical fact. This is one of the reasons that Bosnia’s Jewish history is replete with contradicting narratives.
The conference was therefore a crucial step towards implementing a sustainable and accurate documentation of Bosnia’s Jewish history – some of which I will record in a series of articles.
70 years on, the events of the Holocaust in Bosnia are finally garnering enough attention around the world and becoming a legitimate domain of research.
The writer is a professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern and Chinese history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the steering committee of the Ariel Center for Policy Research.