HOLOCAUST HISTORY MISAPPROPRIATED – By: Dr. Philip J. Cohen
A Monthly Jewish Review – Mindstream – November 1992. Volume XXXVIII No.8.
In conjunction with the war in former Yugoslavia, Serbia has undertaken a campaign to persuade the Jewish community of Serbian friendship for Jews. This same campaign portrays Croats as a common threat to both Jews and Serbs, in an attempt to gain Jewish sympathy and support at a time when most nations have isolated Serbia as a Balkan pariah.
However, even as Serbia courts Jewish public opinion, their propagandists conceal a history of well-ingrained antisemitism, which continues unabated in 1992.
To make their case, Serbs portray themselves as victims in the Second World War, but conceal the systematic genocide that Serbs had committed against several peoples including the Jews. Thus Serbs have usurped as propaganda the Holocaust that occurred in neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia, but do not give an honest accounting of the Holocaust as it occurred in Serbia.
During four centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans, the Jewish communities of Serbia enjoyed religious tolerance, internal autonomy, and equality before the law, that ended with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the Serbian state. Soon after a Serbian insurrection against Turkish rule in 1804, Jews were expelled from the interior of Serbia and prohibited from residing outside of Belgrade. In 1856 and 1861, Jews were further prohibited from travel for the purpose of trade. In official correspondence from the late 19th century, British diplomats detailed the cruel treatment of the Jews of Serbia, which they attributed to religious fanaticism, commercial rivalries, and the belief that Jews were the secret agents of the Turks. Article 23 of the Serbian constitution granted equality to every citizen but Article 132 forbade Jews the right of domicile. The Treaty of Berlin 1878, which formally established the Serbian state, accorded political and civil equality to the Jews of Serbia, but the Serbian Parliament resisted abolishing restrictive decrees for another 11 years. Although the legal status of the Jewish community subsequently improved, the view of Jews as an alien presence persisted.
Although Serbian historians contend that the persecution of the Jews of Serbia was entirely the responsibility of Germans and began only with the German occupation, this is self- serving fiction. Fully six months before the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia, Serbia had issued legislation restricting Jewish participation in the economy and university enrolment. One year later on 22 October 1941, the rabidly antisemitic “Grand Anti-Masonic Exhibit” opened in occupied Belgrade, funded by the city of Belgrade. The central theme was an alleged Jewish- Communist-Masonic plot for world domination. Newspapers such as Obnova (Renewal) and Nasa Borba (Our Struggle) praised this exhibit, proclaiming that Jews were the ancient enemies of the Serbian people and that Serbs should not wait for the Germans to begin the extermination of the Jews. A few months later, Serbian authorities issued postage stamps commemorating the opening of this popular exhibit. These stamps, which juxtaposed Jewish and Serbian symbols (but did not contain Nazi symbols), portrayed Judaism as the source of world evil and advocated the humiliation and violent subjugation of Jews.
Serbia as well as neighboring Croatia was under Axis occupation during the Second World War. Although the efficient destruction of Serbian Jewry in the first two years of German occupation has been well documented by respected sources, the extent to which Serbia actively collaborated in that destruction has been less recognized. The Serbian government under General Milan Nedic worked closely with local Naziofficials in making Belgrade the first “Judenfrei” city of Europe. As late as 19 September 1943, Nedic made an official visit to Adolf Hitler, Serbs in Berlin advanced the idea that the Serbs were the “Ubermenchen” (master race) of the Slavs.
Although the Serbian version of history portrays wartime Serbia as a helpless, occupied territory, Serbian newspapers of the period offer a portrait of intensive collaboration. In November 1941, Mihajlo Olcan, a minister in Nedic’s government boasted that “Serbia has been allowed what no other occupied country has been allowed and that is to establish law and order with its own armed forces”. Indeed, with Nazi blessings, Nedic established the Serbian State Guard, numbering about 20,000, compared to the 3,400 German police in Serbia. Recruiting advertisements for the Serb police force specified that “applicants must have no Jewish or Gypsy blood”. Nedic’s second in command was Dimitrije Ljotic, founder of the Serbian Fascist Party and the principal Fascist ideologist of Serbia. Ljotic organized the Serbian Volunteers Corps, whose primary function was rounding up Jews, Gypsies, and partisans for execution. Serbian citizens and police received cash bounties for the capture and delivery of Jews.
The Serbian Orthodox Church openly collaborated with the Nazis, and many priests publicly defended the persecution of the Jews. On 13 August 1941, approximately 500 distinguished Serbs signed “An Appeal to the Serbian Nation”, which called for loyalty to the occupying Nazis. The first three signers were bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church. On 30 January 1942, Metropolitan Josif, the acting head of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, officially prohibited conversions of Jews to Serbian Orthodoxy, thereby blocking a means of saving Jewish lives. At a public rally, after the government minister Olcan “thanked God that the enormously powerful fist of Germany had not come down upon the head of the Serbian nation” but instead “upon the heads of the Jews in our midst”, the speaker of these words was then blessed by a high-ranking Serbian Orthodox priest.
A most striking example of Serbian antisemitism combined with historical revisionism is the case of Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic (1880-1956), revered as one of the most influential church leaders and ideologists after Saint Sava, founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. To Serbs, Bishop Velimirovic was a martyr who survived torture in the Dachau prison camp. In truth he was brought to Dachau (as were other prominent European clergy), because the Nazis believed he could be useful for propaganda. There he spent approximately two months as an “Ehrenhaftling” (honour prisoner) in a special section, dining on the same food as the German officers, living in private quarters, and making excursions into town under German escort. From Dachau, this venerated priest endorsed the Holocaust:
“Europe is presently the main battlefield of the Jew and his father, the devil, against the heavenly Father and his only begotten Son… (Jews) first need to become legally equal with Christians in order to repress Christianity next, turn Christians into atheist, and step on their necks. All the modern European slogans have been made up by Jews, the crucifiers of Christ: democracy, strikes, socialism atheism, tolerance of all religions, pacifism, universal revolution, capitalism and communism… All this has been done with the intention to eliminate Christ… You should think about this, my Serbian brethren, and correspondingly correct your thoughts, desires and acts.” (Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic: Addresses to the Serbian People–Through the Prison Window. Himmelsthur, Germany: Serbian Orthodox Eparchy for Western Europe, 1985, pp. 161-162).
Despite Serbian claims to the contrary, Germans were not alone in killing the Jews of Serbia. The long concealed Historical Archives in Belgrade reveal that Banjica, a concentration camp located in Belgrade, was primarily staffed by Serbs. Funding for the conversion of the former barracks of the Serbian 18th infantry division to a concentration, came from the municipal budget of Belgrade. The camp was divided into German and Serbian sections. From Banjica there survive death lists written entirely in Serbian in the Cyrillic alphabet. At least 23,697 victims passed through the Serbian section of this camp. Many were Jews, including at least 798 children, of whom at least 120 were shot by Serbian guards. The use of mobile gassing vans by Nazis in Serbia for the extermination of Jewish women and children has been well documented. It is less appreciated, however, that a Serbian business firm had contracted with the Gestapo to purchase these same victims cloths, which sometimes contained hidden money or jewelry in the linings. In August 1942, following the virtual liquidation of Serbia’s Jews, Nedic’s government attempted to claim all Jewish property for the Serbian state. In the same month, Dr. Harald Turner; the chief of the Nazi civil administration of Serbia, boasted that Serbia was the only country in which the “Jewish question” was solved. Turner himself attributed this “success” to Serbian help. Thus, 94 percent of Serbia’s 16,000 Jews were exterminated, with the considerable cooperation of the Serbian government, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Serbian State Guard, the Serbian police and the Serbian public.
Today, many Serbs proudly cite the Chetniks as a resistance force and even claim that the Chetniks were somehow allied with the United States during the Second World War, but this is simply historical revisionism. According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Chetnik resistance against the Nazis came to a complete stop as early as the end of 1941. Thereafter, the Chetnik resistance actively collaborated with the both Nazis and Fascists, and for this reason Jewish fighters found it necessary to abandon the Chetniks, in favour of Tito’s Partisans. In reality, the Chetniks, dedicated primarily to the restoration of the Serbian throne and territorial expansion of the Serbian state, were the moral counterpart of Croatia’s Ustatsha. Both were quintessentially genocidal; the Chetniks committed systematic genocide against Muslims, who, for nearly all of 500 years had lived peacefully with the Sephardic Jewish community. Under explicit orders from their leader Draza Mihailovic, the Chetniks attempted to depopulate Serbia,
Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia of all non- Serbs and in the process, massacred most of the 86,000 to 103,000 Muslims who perished during the war.
For years, the Serbian dominated Belgrade government has supported and trained PLO terrorists. Immediately after the murder of Leon Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro in 1985, the terrorist mastermind Abu Abbas was welcomed in Belgrade. Since the late 1980’s, Abu-Nidal has maintained a large terrorist infrastructure in Yugoslavia, in coordination with Libyan, Iraqi, and Yugoslav intelligence services. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as Iraqi missiles landed in Israel, Belgrade supported its ally Iraq. Support of anti-Israel terrorism may be a consequence of support for nonaligned Arab states, rather than an expression of anti-Jewish sentiment.
Although the Jewish community of Serbia is not currently experiencing persecution, overt expressions of Serbian antisemitism do surface in such mainstream institutions as the Serbian Orthodox Church and the official news media. The 15 January 1992 issue of the official publication of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Pravoslavlje (Orthodoxy), carried an article entitled, “Jews Crucify Christ Again.” In this polemic, “treacherous” and “surreptitious” Israeli politicians were said to be constrained from expressing their “pathological” hatred of Christians openly because “they know that Christian countries gave them the state.” Allegedly, nuns are so frequently beaten in Israel, that one nun was actually “happy, because they only spit in her face.” Only weeks later, when Russia extended diplomatic recognition to the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Slovenia, the official Yugoslav (Serbian perspective) news agency Tanjug blamed “a Jewish conspiracy” against Serbia, hauntingly reminiscent of the theme of the 1941
The essential strategy of Serbian propaganda is to portray the spiritual kinship between Jews and Serbs as victims of the Holocaust and endangered by Croats. This concept is disseminated through the Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society, founded in Belgrade in 1988 and supported by the Serbian government. In January and February 1992, Dr. Klara Mandic, the secretary-general and principal voice of this organization, syndicated a chilling article in the North American Jewish press. This article alleged that Ankica Konjuh, an elderly Jewish woman, was tortured and murdered by “Croat extremists” in September 1991. However, even as she released this story to the press, Dr. Mandic knew that Ankica Konjuh was neither a Jew nor could have been killed by Croats. Bona-fide witnesses have testified that Ankica Konjuh, a 67 year-old Croat, was one of 240 civilians massacred by Serbian forces after the last Croat defenders were driven from the region. Moreover on 23 December 1991, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia met in Belgrade and demanded in writing that Dr. Mandic cease and desist misrepresenting Ankica Konjuh as the first Jewish victim of the war.
Nevertheless, in late February 1992, when Dr. Mandic lectured at the Hillel House of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., she provided the rabbi with a copy of that misleading article, delivered without further comment. It is noteworthy that this speaking engagement was part of a tour arranged by Wise Communications, a Washington-based public relations firm representing the Serbian oil company Jugopetrol, a thinly veiled proxy for the Communist Belgrade government. Beginning with the proposition that antisemitism has never existed in Serbia, Dr. Mandic portrayed Croatia as preparing to repeat the Holocaust. She claimed to be a “Jewish leader,” although Jews are distinctly absent from her constituency. Less than half a dozen Jews are actual members of her society of several thousand. She introduced herself as an “eyewitness” speaking on behalf of Croatian Jews, although since the war began, she has had no contact with any of the nine Jewish communities of Croatia. When Dr. Mandic was asked to comment on Serbian (Yugoslav Army) shelling of the synagogue of Dubrovnik, the second oldest surviving synagogue in Europe, she denied that the synagogue had ever been damaged at all. Meanwhile, the attack has been well documented by the Jewish community of Dubrovnik and the World Monument Fund.
Jewish sensitivity to the Holocaust is similarly exploited by the Jewish-Serbian Friendship Society of America (Granada Hills, California), an offshoot of Dr. Mandic’s organization. Its newsletter equates the Jewish and Serbian positions during World War II, both as victims of Croats, but fails to mention Serbian complicity in the Holocaust, Serbian collaboration with the Nazis, and Serbian genocide against Croats, Gypsies, and Muslims. It warns of an imminent Holocaust being initiated in Croatia. A contrasting portrayal of Croatia, however, emerges from a spectrum of Croatian Jews, American Jews who have visited Croatia, and international Jewish agencies monitoring events on site. All concur that there is no state-sponsored antisemitism in Croatia; the rights of the Jewish minority are respected; and antisemitic incidents are virtually unknown. Thus, only a few dozen of the 2,000 Jews of Croatia have chosen to emigrate to Israel since the war began.
Serbia of today and Germany in World War II offer striking parallels. In 1991, Vojislav Seselj, a member of the Serbian Parliament and leader of the Serbian irregulars who call themselves Chetniks, declared, “We want no one else on our territory and we will fight for our true borders. The Croats must either move or die.” Croats in Serbian conquered regions are forced to wear red-and-white armbands, analogous to the yellow armbands worn by Jews in Serbia during the Holocaust. The stated purpose of the expulsion of Muslims and Croats from captured regions is “ethnic cleansing.” The indigenous non-Serbian populations of the invaded territories are being driven from their homes, exterminated, or imprisoned in concentration camps, to create regions of Serbian ethnic purity. Jewish community centres, synagogues, and cemeteries have been damaged and destroyed by characteristically indiscriminate Serbian artillery attacks. To all of this, the Jewish-Serbian Friendship Society has remained conspicuously silent.
Belgrade has promoted the myth of Serbian kinship with the Jews as fellow victims of Nazi oppression, while concealing the true extent of Serbian collaboration with the Nazis. It is ironic that Serbia is now seeking Jewish support for a war in which both the idealogy and methodology so tragically echo nazism. The European Community, the Helsinki Commission, the United Nations, and the United States have all condemned Serbia as the aggressor.
Western diplomats have characterized the current Serbian regime as “a lying, terrorist criminal organization.” Serbia, however, claims to be the victim and campaigns for Jewish sympathy and support, exploiting the powerful symbolism of the Holocaust. Serbia’s professed solicitude for the Jewish people must be reexamined.