Today I attended a memorial service at Donja Gradina, a field of mass graves of victims of Jasenovac concentration camp. Jasenovac was operated by the Croatian Ustaša regime during the Second World War and is remembered for its cruelty and brutality. Although precise numbers are difficult to determine, estimates range as high as 700,000 victims, the majority of whom were Serbs, Jews, and Roma as well as anti-fascist Croats.
While the main camp is located in present day Croatia, the fields of Donja Gradina are across the border in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the territory of Republika Srpska. The government of Croatia holds its own ceremony every year on or around April 22, marking the day in 1945 when 600 of the remaining prisoners of the camp attempted to escape; only about 100 survived. The event I attended was hosted by the government of Republika Srpska and is also held annually. That the two governments do not jointly host the event is indicative of the highly politicized atmosphere which still characterizes the relationship between Serbs and Croats in the region.
The participants in this year’s commemoration included a Serbian-Orthodox bishop, a representative of the Roma community, and my host, Rabbi Asiel. The Orthodox portion of the service included a large choir and a number of memorial hymns. R’Asiel sang Kail Male Rachamim, gave a dvar torah, and recited Kaddish. The Roma representative also offered prayers and gave a short speech. Political figures included President and Vice President of the Republic of Srpska, Milorad Dodik and Emil Vlajki, Parliament Speaker of RS Assembly Igor Radojicic and the Serbian Assembly Speaker Slavica Djukic Dejanovic.
Danny Ayalon, the Israeli deputy foreign minister was also in attendance with a delegation. His speech, in Hebrew and later in English with a Serb translator, highlighted the importance of remembering the victims and ensuring that we never allow such a tragedy to occur again. He also spoke of the historical friendly relations that Serbs and Jews enjoyed in the region before the War and how this continues to be a foundation for friendship and cooperation between Republika Srpska and Israel and Serbia and Israel today.
President Dodik was the last to speak, but I have unfortunately been unable to yet find an online English summary or even the original Serbian text. R’Asiel later explained to me that Dodik’s words were quite politically charged. Aside from his words of remembrance, he criticized leaders of the international community for not being in attendance despite the RS extending invitations to EU, UN, and other dignitaries every year. He insisted that if they wanted to “control” this region, they had to visit it to understand its history.
Dodik also spoke about international perception of Serbs today, arguing that the world has largely ignored both their victimhood and their deep roots in Bosnia. When the Bosnian War was raging in the early 1990s, he said it was the global perspective that Serbs were coming “from Serbia” to invade Bosnia rather than understanding that Serbs have always lived here alongside Croats and Muslims. I have not yet seen any news of regional or international reaction to the speech, but it strongly speak to Serb feelings of being unfairly and solely branded criminals and perpetrators in the region.
It also evoked an older frustration of Serbs that their victimhood during the Second World War at the hands of the Nazi allied Croatian regime was never properly recognized or reconciled. Many Serbs believe that Josip Broz Tito, the leader of the Yugoslav Partisans and then of Yugoslavia, sought to make the people forget Ustaše crimes in the name of "brotherhood and unity". That Tito was himself a Croat only heightened this resentment.
Indeed, when Yugoslavia began to split in the early 1990s, demagogues like Slobodan Milosevic found fertile ground in evoking these Serbian historical frustrations and fears that they might again be victims of the Ustaše. The first president of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, only stoked these emotions when he reintroduced the Ustaše era flag. A famous photo shows Tudjman embracing the flag after “victory” in Krajina in which both the self-proclaimed Republic of Serb Krajina was crushed and most of its Serb population expelled or fled.
So too was this commemoration closely linked with current events in Bosnia-Herzegovina. On Friday, the RS assembly announced a referendum on state-level institutions, primarily on the rulings of the UN High Representative imposed by the Bosnia-Herzegovina parliament. Dodik argues that the court has unfairly prosecuted war crimes in the country, focusing on many more Serbs than Croats or Bosnian Muslims and avoiding prosecution of those who committed crimes against Serbs.
Detractors believe that the move would undermine Bosnian state institutions and sovereignty and is a precursor to moves to demand independence for Republika Srpska. The international High Representative has, in turn, threatened to “sack” Dodik, a power reserved by the office under the 1995 Dayton Accord. Serbian President Boris Tadic has also stated that Serbia “would never support a referendum that would lead to the division of Bosnia.”
It is also impossible to consider the case of Bosnia today without considering the place of Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral declaration of independence. While almost every single Serb, politician, journalist, student, or otherwise, I have met maintains that Serbia has no irredentist interest in Republika Srpska, there is a feeling that if Albanians in Kosovo are entitled to their own state as a national minority, than Serbs in Bosnia should be treated no differently. It goes without saying that this story is long and complex and I have not done it justice here. This will, however, be the story to watch in the Balkans over the next few months.
Coming full circle, I must note that the observance today appropriately fell on Yom Hashoah, an Israeli and Jewish day of commemoration for the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust during the Second World War. Whatever the political content of today’s event, I am proud to have stood with three peoples who were victims of this tragic and terrible event in human history to both express our unity and our determination to ensure that history not repeat itself (yet again). That we could make such a stand at the very place where one of the many terrible slaughters occurred gives me some hope that, at least in this small and often troubled corner of the world, that hope can finally be a reality.