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Grb Vojske Republike Srpske Krajine



“Far more than shameless...”
A Survivor Talks About Croatia’s
Holocaust-Denying Exhibition

Interview with Smilja Tišma
President, Organization of Survivors

Interviewer: Jovan Skendžić

1. The exhibits at the Jasenovac ‘museum’ are inaccessible and incomprehensible.

Mr. Jovan Skendžić: Would you have some time to tell us your impressions of the opening of the Jasenovac exhibition?

Ms. Smilja Tišma: Of course. I would find time for this even if I did not have it.

They pretend that it is a Museum and a new presentation - but it is not a Museum. You enter into dark corridors, dark rooms with only weak electric bulbs illuminating the so-called exhibits. At the places of presentation there are monitors that show photographs in a loop. For example, one depicts the transport of miserable, poor children. You do not know who these children are, or where they are from, or where they are being taken, or whom they belong to. You do not know what is happening or where.

At other places you will have to squat down almost to the floor, as there is a bulb there, or bend all the way down, if you are able to bend so much and have had the luck to notice the light in the first place. Bending, you will read a label telling you what will be presented. After this you will have to wait what feels like ten minutes until the presentation starts and then you will have to quickly read the text they show on the monitor.

It is inaccessible for an average person and even worse for old, frail individuals who are already under considerable anxiety, as their families perished here.

2. The exhibition falsely cuts the number of people murdered at Jasenovac and trivializes the genocide against the Serbs.

Tišma: At another place, just by chance, I noticed a panel which claims that sixty-nine thousand people perished in the Jasenovac death camp. That’s a fraction of the real number. The Serbs are presented seventh on the list of groups that were killed, after others, such as Slovenes and Slovaks, who in fact comprised a small percentage of the victims and who were killed because of politics, not because of their ethnicity, whereas hundreds of thousands of Serbs were murdered in an attempt to eliminate the Serbian people.

3. The exhibition does not even name any Ustaša (pronounced oo-stash-ah) leaders; it does not display the Ustaše’s horrific murder weapons; it does not display evidence of the key role of the Catholic Church.

Skendžić: Does the exhibition contain Ustaša artifacts such as knives, chains, mallets?

Tišma: The physical tools the Ustaše used to murder people are nowhere to be seen there. I was at the Croatian government’s earlier exhibitions, in 2004 and 2005, and it was the same as at this latest exhibition. They never display the artifacts the Ustaše used to murder people.

Skendžić: Do they present any documentary evidence such as clergymen’s letters, church newspapers or testimony from post-war trials, showing the role of the Catholic clergy in sanctifying the Ustaše and carrying out the actual killings?

Tišma: No. Nothing is mentioned.

Skendžić: Is there at least a map of the Independent State of Croatia or some information about Croatian fuehrer Ante Pavelić? At least a photograph of him on the wall panels?

Tišma: Not even a photograph of Pavelić; all the less of his henchmen.

4. Like the Ustaše before them, the exhibition’s creators falsely portray Jasenovac as a ‘labor camp.’

Skendžić: Does it say in the exhibition that Jasenovac was a death camp?

Tišma: No, they say it was a concentration and work camp.

Skendžić: They actually say it was a labor camp?

Tišma: Yes. They have the same explanation in their brochure and that’s also what they said in their speeches at the opening ceremony.

I’ve written about this. What kind of a ‘work camp’ is it when they take children, some of them just born, some still in their mother’s womb, to be murdered there? In Sisak [a camp 160 km from Jasenovac] where I was first taken, there was a huge room where they separated children from their mothers. Croatian Ustaša families adopted some; others they sent to Jasenovac; thousands, including me and my two sisters and brother, they sent to Jastrebarsko, which they set up exclusively for children. That’s without even mentioning Jasenovac itself, or Stara Gradiška, or Sisak, or all their other camps.

On 27 January 2007, which the United Nations has designated as Holocaust Remembrance Day, the government of Serbia and the Jewish community held a commemoration in Belgrade. Mr. Cadik Danon, a former Jasenovac inmate – he spent 17 months there, escaping in 1943 – gave a speech. Braco – that’s his nickname – said that at the end of the war the Croats managed to wipe out all traces of Jasenovac. Now they have done it again, in a new way: none of the Ustaša murder tools, the heavy mallets, the knives, the brick factory oven that was constructed for baking bricks but was used to burn people, who were thrown in alive and fully conscious or already half dead, none of that is on display or can be read about there.

Skendžić: What about the infamous photographs that the Ustaše took, staging phony scenes presenting Jasenovac as a labor camp in preparation for the [World War II] International Red Cross visit? Are those photographs displayed on panels?

Tišma: There is nothing left of any of the photographs that were displayed before, in the museum that was at Jasenovac before the breakup of Yugoslavia, no photographs of any kind on the panels. Again, you have to stand next to TV monitors and wait until some photographs appear, but these will be presented without explanatory text, so a visitor enters some space and views something and then exits without any notion where they were or what they have seen. It is all really well thought out with a clear intention to camouflage the crimes, the murders, to camouflage who did it and how it was done and why. Braco Danon mentioned in his speech that the Ustaše took pleasure in their craft, mutilating their victims, making them die over periods that easily lasted for hours. The exhibition hides all this. The organizers did their best to present Jasenovac as a labor camp.

5. The Museum committee contacted and made plans with the Organization of Survivors, then snubbed them.

Skendžić: It seems to me quite brave that you dared to go there, to that place of your suffering.

Tišma: They invited us. The museum contacted the Organization of Survivors in Belgrade proposing that we contribute to the exhibition. We agreed that they would film ten or fifteen survivors giving eyewitness accounts about various Ustaša death camps: Jasenovac, Jastrebac, Stara Gradiška, Sisak, Jastrebarsko.

They were to send a cameraman, at their expense, in May of 2006, maybe mid-June at the latest. I found the survivors who were to participate. People started asking when it would happen. I phoned the museum but nobody answered. I wrote to Nataša Jovičić, the exhibition director. Nobody replied.

Despite this, we went to the opening. Three of us represented our Organization of Survivors: me, as President; Mr. Dragoljub Acković, a Roma representative, the child of a survivor; and Ms. Brigita Knežević, who had been ‘arrested’ as a child, not two years old, and brought to the Jastrebarsko camp. She was later adopted; that is why she survived. All told, there were 40 to 50 survivors at the opening.

6. The survivors were ignored and abused at the opening ceremony.

Skendžić: Did they ask you to make a speech?

Tišma: They did not even acknowledge our presence.

Skendžić: Not even to introduce you and say – ‘We have some survivors with us’?

Tišma: Their speakers did not address us or even mention our presence to the public.

We came by invitation. They gave us name tags. We were told that right after speeches by Croatian Prime Minister Sanader and President Mesić, and after the ribbon was cut, then we, the survivors, would enter first. You see, we were supposed to be important, but when the time came to enter, we were pushed around.

The event was on a concrete-paved area in front of the Museum. After the speeches, we were shoved aside by the crowd, pushed off our feet, onto the grass. As there had been some rain for a few days, we got quite muddy. We were among the last to go in.

Entering the exhibition, many could not orient themselves. As I told you, the corridors are barely lit.

7. The exhibition claims to be focused on the victims as individuals, but in fact even their names are unreadable.

Skendžić: In 2004, Dr. Milan Bulajić, founder of the Museum of Victims of Genocide in Belgrade, wrote that Croatian authorities were planning a Jasenovac exhibition that would not include Ustaša murder-tools or photographs of Ustaša crimes and that this suppression of evidence was justified with the absurd argument that, as Jasenovac Memorial director Nataša Jovičić was quoted saying, "‘We are not going to legitimize the killing, but will instead commemorate the victims.’" As if it somehow legitimizes a crime to show who did it, how they did it and why. This goes along with what you reported – that the museum deliberately fails to inform people about the Ustaša crimes, personnel and beliefs, including their fanatical and murder-justifying Catholicism, and falsely portrays Jasenovac as a labor camp.

After the exhibition opened 27 November, Associated Press quoted Nataša Jovičić saying that, regarding the list of sixty-nine thousand names that you mentioned, "The list’s aim was to ‘present victims by showing their individual fates, collective and individual suffering, their plans and hopes that were destroyed when their lives were taken.’" And Associated Press quoted an advisor from the US government’s Holocaust Museum in Washington agreeing with Jovičić, "saying it was ‘important to present the individual victims. It’s about me, about you, about everyone. It’s about human beings.’"

So my question is, are there any displays that "present the individual victims"?

Tišma: I don’t know what they are talking about. The list of 69,000 includes no details about the victims and nothing about how families were destroyed. As for individual names, all you can see, hung up high in the air and fluttering around, are some plastic strips with prisoners’ names, which you can’t easily read, and the areas they came from, Slavonia, Kozara [mountain], Kordun or Lika [in Serbian Krajina – J.S.]. It does not say whether the prisoners were ethnic Serbs, Jews or Roma, or that some few may have been honest Croats. Our estimate is that ethnic Croatians made up 0.3 percent of death camp prisoners - three in one thousand.

Again, these thin strips of plastic are high up, close together, and the air circulating from the windows moves them about making them very hard to read.

Skendžić: So, the whole affair of the opening was shameless?

Tišma: It was far more than shameless. It felt to me as if I had been poisoned; I felt like that for days after the event. As soon as I recovered, I wrote about it, and this was published as a letter from the Organization of Survivors in [the Belgrade paper] Politika. Even though I had to shorten it twice to make it fit, and they published it in abbreviated form, still they gave it a full three columns, which is unprecedented for a letter to the editor at Politika, and it included all the most important issues. People in our organization were satisfied.

Everything is difficult here, very difficult. This government of Serbia is reluctant to do anything. We have no help from them, as if we were foreigners in our own country. There are still around a thousand of us survivors, still alive. Almost all were children at the time of the Ustaša genocide. Mr. Josip Erlih and Mr. Stepanović are the ones among those [a bit older] who broke out of Jasenovac and who are still living. Around five or six of these older Jasenovac survivors are still among us.

8. On the Ustaše’s mass murder of children; the documentary work of Dragoje Lukić is discussed.

Skendžić: I think most people outside Yugoslavia are unaware that the Ustaše incarcerated so many thousands of children.

Tišma: At least fifty-six to sixty thousand were murdered. I assume you heard that Mr. Dragoje Lukić gathered information published in a book documenting the deaths of more than nineteen thousand of these children, all killed just in the one camp in Jasenovac village and in Stara Gradiška.

Mr. Lukić and a group of volunteers worked for a couple of years after World War II in five counties in the Kozara mountain district, talking to families. [Kozara is a Serbian majority area in Bosnia that had a strong partisan resistance. It is the area where the German force in which Kurt Waldheim, who later became UN Secretary General and President of Austria, and who was a Nazi officer in World War II, committed infamous atrocities – J.S.]

They listed only those children about whom they could find all biographical information - the first and last names, date and place of birth, parent’s names - and in this way documented that more than nineteen thousand children from one district were murdered in two camps. But what about children from Banija, Kordun [in the Serbian Krajina]? What about other districts in the Ustaše’s ‘Independent Croatia’? For example, for many counties in my region, Slavonia [also in Krajina], there is no town and no child listed in Mr. Lukić’s book. What about all the children who died in other camps, such as Jastrebarsko?

An exhibition about the murdered children created by the late Mr. Lukić is now in Bari, Italy, as part of the Serbian-Italian cooperation project, ‘Bridge Belgrade-Rome.’ In Italy there are still some people who respect truth and justice and hate fascism and what it did during WWII. This exhibition, with photographs, was presented at Dom Armije [the Army Club in Belgrade] for the first time a few years ago. Again the exhibition includes only some nineteen thousand names that Mr. Lukić's helpers were able to collect. The children from Kozara mountain only.

That has to be said every time one talks about this exhibit, and people don't always do that. For example, in a speech given at the Holocaust Remembrance ceremony, Mr. Mirković from the Museum of Genocide Victims [founded in Belgrade], speaking in the name of the Museum, forgot to mention that nineteen thousand represents only a small portion of the entire number of children that perished. He also forgot to mention which areas of Ustasha Croatia this exhibition is about, and what areas are not covered.

9. On the attempt to minimize the Croatian Holocaust by claiming that most Croatian death camps were not part of the Jasenovac system.

Skendžić: Is Jastrebarsko considered part of the Jasenovac camp complex?

Tišma: No, the Croats cleverly excluded Jastrebarsko, which is in Zagreb [capital of Croatia]; by their calculation, the Jasenovac system would include only adjacent places like Stara Gradiška. But what about the town of Sisak [about 160 km upriver from Jasenovac – J.S.]? Nowhere is it mentioned as part of the Jasenovac system. I was in Sisak with my mother and siblings for a couple of months and that is where so many were separated from their parents. Many people were taken from there to Jasenovac. All those satellite camps were intertwined parts of a single Jasenovac system.

[Note: It is important whether or not Jastrebarsko and other Croatian Ustaša death camps are counted as part of the Jasenovac complex. In 1989, Franjo Tudjman, leader of the Croatian secessionists, published a book that became infamous. Its title, Bespuća povijesne zbiljnosti, is obscure in Serbo-Croatian and worse when you translate it into English, something like Wastelands of historical reality/truth. But there is nothing obscure about the contents. Tudjman claimed that no more than 900,000 Jews died in the Holocaust and that it was Jews (not the Ustaše) who murdered Serbs and Roma in Jasenovac. He also claimed that not 600,000 or more, but some tens of thousands of people died at Jasenovac. Tudjman's campaign to revise the number of Ustaša victims downward by 90 to 95% served the most powerful forces in the US and Germany, whose attempt to depict Croatian secessionists as fighting for freedom was easier if people did not know that the last time Croatia seceded they wiped out a third of the Serbian population. One way to limit the perceived number of Ustaša victims has been to limit the number of camps counted as part of the Jasenovac system. That is why, in her response to my question, Smilja Tišma says, with bitter irony, that the Croats are "clever" not to count Jastrebarsko as part of Jasenovac. – J.S.]

10. How Smilja Tišma’s family was destroyed by the Ustaše.

Skendžić: Please tell us more about your family.

Tišma: I am a Serb. My father, exactly because he was a Serbian patriot, was seized by the Croatian Ustaše almost immediately after the collapse of Yugoslavia and the establishment of the NDH ['Independent State of Croatia,' set up 10 April 1941 under Nazi German sponsorship. - J.S.]

The Ustaše took him away on 17 May 1941 and we never saw him again. I only learned much later and by accident, from one of the survivors who participated in the break-out from Jasenovac and who had been arrested at the same time as my father and went through the same experiences, that one morning they found my father, next to that brick factory oven, dead. How did he die? The Ustaše were killing those poor inmates wherever they wanted and in any way they wanted. Quite probably they killed him there and so he simply remained there. We children were later picked up by the Ustaše, together with our mother. Such instances where the Ustaše would first arrest the father and then come for the rest of the family happened by the thousands.

My father was from the village of Kistanje, in Krajina, about 20 km away from the city of Knin, toward the Adriatic sea. The area is called Dalmatinska Zagora and was overwhelmingly Serbian-populated. My family came to this area in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Serbian people ran away from Turkish atrocities. Portions of the family came from Kosovo and also from parts of Bosnia.

My mother was from Slavonia [part of Serbian Krajina] and her family came there from then Turkish controlled Herzegovina.

I was born in Western Slavonia. Grandpa Andreja, my father’s father, was a volunteer who joined the Serbian troops in WWI. He was wounded and as a result of his severe wounds he died in 1923. My grandmother Marija then sold what they had in the Knin area and moved to Slavonia thinking that we would be less hungry there, so I was born in Slavonia in the house we bought. It was from Slavonia that the Ustaše picked up my family and brought us to death camps. The name of our village in Slavonia, populated by Serbs, was Zrinjska [pronounced Zree-nyska], in Grubisko Polje [pronounced Groo-beesh-ko Polye] county. The villages around ours were also Serbian populated villages.

11. Ms. Tišma returns to her village, which is no more.

My dear friend, I went to visit my village in October 1990 [half a year before Croatia declared its secession, but when Serbs in Slavonia were already under violent attack. – J.S.]. My dear brother who died three years ago and who had been a partisan fighter (he joined the partisans at the age of eleven!) told me then, "You must be crazy to go there, as if to the cave of a she-bear." But I went there with the intention to list the people who perished in Jasenovac. I was able to list three hundred and seventy-two names of victims but you should know that for many victims there was no one left to tell me their names. Trees, trees as they existed at the time when the Serbs first settled in that area, in the 15th and 16th century, such trees grew where my village had been.

That is how it looked in 1990. Then there were still a few old and isolated people scattered here and there. How it looks now after Croatia’s "Storm" military assaults during the 1990s, we can only imagine.

End of interview

Source: Emperor's Clothes






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