During World War II, the Pavelic Regime offered Croatian Jews to convert to Catholicism and ‘contribute’ their personal property in return they would not be deported to a death camp. However, IsraCast has uncovered evidence proving that even these Jews and their families were later executed by Ustasha
Some of the most horrific Holocaust atrocities against Jews were perpetrated by the Pavelic regime in Croatia. The tragic history of the Jewish communities in that country has yet to be told because there are literally no survivors. But part of the documentation still survives. On this Holocaust and Remembrance Day, Avi Yaffe of IsraCast reveals documented evidence of how the Catholic church collaborated in the annihilation of the Jewish communities of Croatia. The town of Vukovar, located on the Croatian border with Serbia, is but one example of what transpired in Croatia, where the Ustasha movement was unleashed, with the support of the Catholic church, to launch a sadistic campaign of murder and torture against Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. The Ustasha barbarity was said to have even shocked their German masters.
After the collapse of Yugoslavia, on April 11, 1941 the Nazis installed a puppet regime in Croatia headed by Ante Pavelic, a terrorist who lead the clero-fascist Ustasha movement. Pavelic and his followers had been in exile in Italy under the protection of Mussolini and were wanted in both France and Yugoslavia for orchestrating the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia and French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou. The regime he established in Croatia was called the NDH (Independent State of Croatia). It was run by the Ustasha party, an organization which combined fascist and Catholic ideologies with the goal of building a Croatia cleansed of its ethnic and religious rivals, the Eastern Orthodox Serbs.
The identity of the state itself was based more on religious affiliation than on ethnicity, with the fanatically Catholic Ustasha determined to solidify their control through a combination of forced religious conversions, expulsion, and outright extermination. In the words of Ustasha Minister of Education and Culture, Mile Budak:
“The basis for the Ustasha movement is religion. For minorities such as the Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies, we have three million bullets. We will kill a part of the Serbs, others we will deport, and the rest we will force to accept the Roman Catholic Religion. Thus, the new Croatia will be rid of all Serbs in its midst in order to be 100% Catholic within 10 years.”
The regime quickly moved to make good on these threats. Ustasha’s primary enemy, the Orthodox Slav minority, was persecuted with a ferocity that at times alarmed even their Nazi patrons, who feared that the grisly brutality of the atrocities committed against such a large minority would drive them into the arms of the Partisans. The Italian fascists who controlled a portion of Croatia during the war were genuinely horrified by the Ustasha and rescued a substantial number of Jews and Orthodox from Ustasha persecution, resisting all attempts to extradite the refugees who fled into their zone of control.
Although the Serbs were the primary target of the Ustasha’s ethnic cleansing campaign, they were not the only target. In line with Hitler’s directives and a substantial amount of indigenous anti-Semitism and racism, the Ustasha also rounded up and exterminated the vast majority of the Jews and Gypsies in the country. On May 25, 1941, in an article in a Catholic Action publication entitled “Why are the Jews Being Persecuted”, Priest Franjo Kralik justifies the persecution on religious grounds:
“The descendants of those who hated Jesus, who condemned him to death, who crucified him and immediately persecuted his pupils, are guilty of greater excesses that those of their forefathers …. Satan helped them invent Socialism and Communism …. The movement for freeing the world from the Jews is a movement for the renaissance of human dignity. The Almighty and All-wise God is behind this movement.”
Whereas part of the horror of the Nazi genocide lay in its dispassionate application of the principles of mass production and efficiency to the business of murder, the Ustasha genocide was far more primitive and personal, characterized by a sadistic personal enjoyment of torture and revenge that hearkened back to the very worst excesses of the Dark Ages.
“Mass executions were common where the victims had their throats slit, were sometimes quartered, and occasionally hung in butcher shops with the sign ‘human flesh’. Cruelties occurred, along side of which the deeds of the German thugs of the KZ paled by comparison. The Ustasha loved games of torture with nightly orgies; they stuck burning nails under fingernails, poured salt into open wounds, cut off all possible body parts and determined by noble competition who was best at cutting throats. They burned churches full of people, impaled children in Vlasenika and Kladany, and preferred to cut off noses and ears and poke out eyes.”
Like the Nazis, the NDH maintained a series of concentration camps, the most notorious of which was Jasenovac, a camp in which tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, perished. The work of the camps was supplemented by innumerable pogroms in the villages and in the countryside.
The primary targets of this liquidation effort were the educated classes, anyone whom the Ustasha believed likely to retain a separate Serbian culture or identity. For the peasantry there was sometimes the mercy of forced re-baptism, which was conducted en masse throughout the countryside. Despite occasional quibbles about the details of the forced conversions, the church in general, both the Croatian clergy and the Vatican, welcomed the conversions as a victory for Catholicism.
The Role of the Clergy in the NDH
Indeed, for the most part, the clergy welcomed the new regime with fanatical enthusiasm. The Catholic Church had long considered Croatia its outer bulwark in the Balkans against the Eastern Orthodox Church, and grated against participation in a Yugoslavia dominated by their confessional opponents. Most also shared, to some degree, the ideological goals of the Ustasha, and welcomed the end of the religious tolerance that had been imposed by Yugoslavia. Many of the lower clergy went well beyond words and participated directly in forcible conversions, torture, and mass murder. Italian historian Carlo Falconi remarks:
“Allowing for exceptions here and there, the phenomenon just described is characteristic of Ustasha massacres (as opposed to exterminations in other countries during the Second World War) in that it is almost impossible to imagine a Ustasha punitive expedition without a priest at its head spurring it on, and usually a Franciscan.”
Although the majority of religious figures personally involved in atrocities committed their crimes in raids on the Bosnian countryside, the largest and most notorious concentration camp in the country, Jasenovac, was for a time run by a former Franciscan friar, Miroslav Filipovic, who not only directed, but actually took part in acts of torture and mass murder. At his trial he confessed to personally supervising the murders of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies. In 1943, Filipovic was replaced as concentration camp commandant by another former priest, Ivica Brkljacic.
Stepinac’s Personal Culpability
As archbishop of Zagreb and military vicar to the armed forces and the Ustasha, Stepinac was the de facto head of the Catholic Church in Croatia during the Second World War. In a regime that counted its Catholicism as the core of its national identity, the Archbishop’s importance and influence in the events that transpired there during and after the war were substantial. Stepinac was convicted by the Yugoslav authorities in 1946 for allegedly collaborating with the Ustasha, and held responsible for his role in the Holocaust of approving forced conversions of Orthodox Serbs. He spent the rest of his life in prison and house arrest. The Catholic Church beatified him in 1998, which was regarded a controversial decision by a part of public opinion (especially in Serbia).
In 1996, Avi Yaffe was a member of an Israeli delegation that visited the town of Vukovar before it was transferred from Serbian to Croatian control in line with a U.N. decision. Yaffe asked if there was a Jewish cemetery in the town, and his Serbian hosts accompanied the delegation to the site. To his surprise he saw mass graves of entire families and heard an astonishing account of what had happened to the Jewish community of Vukovar. The graves were of former Jews who had converted under duress to Catholicism during World War II. The Jewish community of Vukovar was comprised of native-born and German-Jews who had fled from Nazi Germany. Many were doctors and lawyers and considered to be well-to-do. The Pavelic regime started deporting the town’s Jews to Croatian concentration camps.
The Croatians offered the Jewish residents to convert to Catholicism, and in return they would not be sent to the death camps. The procedure was that these Jews would submit a request to the town council to join the Catholic church. If approved, the council would then issue a conversion certificate signed by the town mayor. The Jews who converted to the Catholic church were forced to contribute their private property. (See conversion document #1 of Dr. Daniel Klein, dated 1942).
Independent State of Croatia (NDH)
Ministry of Justice and Religion
Department of Religion
Date: Zagreb, March 20th, 1942
Subject: Dr. Klein Daniel
MUNICIPALITY OF VUKOVAR
Based upon the circular letter of the Croatian Government from July 30th, 1941, No 48468-ex-1941, it is approved that Dr. Daniel Klein, lawyer in Vukovar, together with his wife Lily and niece Elisabeth can convert from Moisianic to Rimo-Catholic faith.
Information about the decision to the party.
The Ustasha kept their promise not to send Klein and the others to concentration camps. Instead they were taken to a nearby forest and executed. (See death document #2 of six Klein family members who all ‘died’ together in 1942.) Three other Klein relatives were apparently murdered the year before.
Yaffe retrieved similar documents of other Vukovar families who suffered the same fate (See Document #3 and #4 of Renka Rosenfeld, who was both converted and murdered in 1942). In Vukovar, Yaffe saw hundreds of similar documents preserved by the Serbs; however, these probably no longer exist under Croatian control.
Municipality of Vukovar
Vukovar, Nov. 27th, 1941
Subject: Renka Rosenfeld from Vukovar
To the City police in Vukovar
The request of Renka Rosenfeld from Vukovar by which she has asked the permission for the conversion from Moisianic into Rimo-Catholic faith, that has been submitted to this Municipality already in July 17th, 1941, with request to inform the authorities about the applicant’s behavior and in accordance with Ustashi authorities to bring out the certificate about the honesty for the named person and to return it together with this document to this Municipality for further proceedings.
Jewish belongings given up and evaluated that were by the order of State Treasury in Zagreb No.T.65 from January 14th,1943, given to Mr. Raguz Ilija, the head emissary of the Head Directory for associations and social care of the Ministry of Interior, respectively authorized in writing to MM Osrecki Albert and Ilija Dabelic from Vukovar, and to Petar Persic as an emissary, that is a Secretary of the Central Board for refugees, as follows:
A beige autumn coat …
The Jewish cemetery was built by the Serbs after World War II. During Yugoslavia’s civil war during the nineties, the Croatians desecrated the cemetery and Jewish museum which contained much of the relevant documentation.
IsraCast has a detailed list of 110 families, Jewish children, women, and men, who were murdered in Vukovar after ‘converting’ to Catholicism. Some of these Jews are buried in the Vukovar cemetery. An unknown number of Jews from Vukovar perished in the Croatian death camp. Part of the information and documents was supplied to Mr. Yaffe by Serbian residents of Vukovar before control of the town was handed over to Croatia in accordance with a U.N. resolution.
Families of Jews who were executed after converting to Catholicism
|Isracast is still compiling a complete list of the names.
The documents were translated by Mr. Ivan Ceresnjes of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem