Posts Tagged ‘ Holocaust ’

The Lost Jewish Community of Bosnia

As I research the history of the Jewish community in Bosnia and Hercegovina for school, I would like to provide more background information for my previous post on Jakob Finci. Jews first emigrated to Bosnia and Hercegovina after they were expelled from Spain as a result of the Inquisition. They arrived in the 16th century, and spoke Ladino, or Judaeo-Spanish as their local language. Their life in BiH was relatively peaceful but they were treated as second-class citizens like other “non-Muslims.” The Jews participated in trade, but they were not allowed to wear “Muslim clothing” or ride horses in town. Also, they were not allowed to carry weapons and they had to pay higher taxes than the rest of the population, which funded the local mosques.

Spanish (Sephardic) Jewish Woman in Bosnia. 1918

As Anti-Semitism became more apparent, the Jewish population relocated to Sarajevo. They received permission from the governor of the city to reside in a small quarter of about 2,000 square meters. Each received a piece of this land and a deed of property ownership. They also received permission (again at the cost of high taxes) to build a cemetery, which was how they began to establish their community. In 1833, the Jewish population was threatened with execution but they escaped this threat by paying off the high officials. In 1839, new civil rights laws were introduced and the conditions for Jews in the country improved. Again, they participated in trade and they were even allowed to run for political office.

When the Austria-Hungarian empire took over Bosnia in 1878, a new Jewish population moved to the country. Previously the Jews in Bosnia were Sephardic, but Ashkenazi Jews came at this time. Sarajevo became an important Jewish center in the region, and remained so until the formation of Yugoslavia in 1918. Most of the Sephardic Jews were involved in craft and trade but the Ashkenazi Jews were mostly involved in professions like medicine, law and teaching. The Ashkenazi Jews influenced many of the Sephardic Jews to pursue higher education. At one point in the 19th century, all the doctors in Sarajevo were reported to be Jewish.

In 1901, in a total population of 1,357,000 in the country, there were approximately 7,500 Jews. By 1941, there were a reported 14,000 Jews in Bosnia. At the end of World War II, there were only 4,000 Bosnian Jews still alive. They were killed by the Ustaše Party, which was the the Croatian nationalist far-right movement that ruled part of Yugoslavia under Nazi protection. Also, Bulgarian Muslims aided in their extermination.

After the Holocaust a united Jewish community was formed in 1945 that included both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The Jewish population was led by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At this time post-WWII, Yugoslavia was a loose federation of six republics- Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, BiH, Macedonia, and Montenegro, ruled by Marshal Josip Broz Tito who died in 1980. During Tito’s era, many Jews in Bosnia joined the Socialist movement. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was based in Belgrade, became a socialist organization that focused on secular causes rather than religious ones. There were about 6,000 legally registered Jewish people in all of Yugoslavia, and the community was recognized as both an ethnic and a religious group. They were not persecuted like in other communist states, but they did however end up assimilating into society and losing touch with religious beliefs. There was only one rabbi in the country at this time.

In the 1980s, there was a growing participation in the various Jewish communities. They erected close to 30 memorials around Yugoslavia to help commemorate Jews that lost their lives during World War II. When war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, the Joint Distribution Committee provided the community with food and supplies, and they helped to airlift over 2,000 Bosnian Jews out of the country. Many went to Israel and remained there after the war. As mentioned in the last post, the Jewish community used their neutral status during the war to organize a great deal of humanitarian relief to the people of Bosnia. The community opened a pharmacy, school, and most importantly, helped 3,000 people of all backgrounds escape the war-torn country.

Because the Jewish community was largely organized at a national level during Yugoslavia, the collapse of the country made the continuation of these organizations difficult, even without the trauma of war and emigration. Gradually the communities recreated themselves after the war. There are only 500 Jewish people left in Bosnia today spread throughout the country, but they add an important dimension to the multiethnic history of the nation.


Arbeit Macht Frei

Who the hell would steal the “Arbeit macht frei” sign from Auschwitz?  Meaning ‘Work sets you free’ and constructed by prisoners from the camp, the entrance sign is symbolic of the Holocaust.  The camp, in which 1-1.5 milion people died,  has been a museum since 1945.  The sign is 5 meters long and weighs 40 kilograms.  I wonder how such a large sign was taken unnoticed, but apparently the one security camera used was blinded by the snow.  Borders were closed in case the sign is on its way out of the country, 50 criminal investigators are patrolling the camp grounds with dogs, and a temporary replica was installed in the sign’s place.

Who would do such a thing?  The museum has 1 million visitors every year, and the memorial stands as an important educational tool.  World leaders are outraged, and I have to agree that this act could only be antisemitic.  Will the sign go up for sale?  Will this symbol of the Holocaust be destroyed in an act of hatred? I have nothing new to say about this hurtful act of vandalism, but I feel truly sick over this piece of news, and I hope the criminals are caught and imprisoned.  This sign is more than just pieces of guilded iron- it is possibly the most recognized symbol of the millions of  people that died in the Holocaust.

Ante Pavelić, Hitler’s Friend in Croatia

Ante Pavelić (1889-1959) governed Croatia under the protection of Germany and Italy from 1941-1945.  He is best known for leading the Ustaša Party in the Independent State of Croatia and using Nazi-like ethnic cleansing tactics to exterminate Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies during World War II.

Born in Bradina (present-day Bosnia) in 1889, Pavelić graduated from Zagreb’s Faculty of Law in 1915 with a doctorate degree. In 1918 after years of foreign domination, the Serbian monarchy formed the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Extreme nationalist groups formed in all of the countries in the region, and Croats quickly became as dissatisfied under Belgrade as they were under their previous Hungarian control.  In 1918, Pavelić began his political involvement with leadership roles in the Croatian Rights Party (HSP), and later represented the HSP in the Zagreb City Council.  Gaining recognition from several articles he published in the weekly Croatian Rights Party newspaper, Hrvatsko Pravo, Pavelić advocated for an independent Croatia.

When King Alexander proclaimed a royal dictatorship of Yugoslavia in 1929 in an attempt to eliminate ethnic differences, Pavelić was forced to emigrate and lived in Vienna, Sofia, and Italy.  He most likely started the Ustaša Croatian Revolutionary Organization (UHRO) at the end of 1930 while living abroad.  Pavelić declared himself leader (poglavnik) of the Ustaša organization in 1933, and published a manifesto of the movement.  Ustaša literally means ‘one who takes part in an uprising’, and Pavelić was greatly influenced by Benito Mussolini and terrorist groups in Macedonia and Albania.  The aim of the party was to overthrow the government of Yugoslavia and with the help of Italy, to create an independent Croatian state.  While abroad, Pavelić organized other Croatian émigrés into army units, training them in military camps in Italy and Hungary. Soon Pavelić helped with the assassination of King Aleksander Karađorđević, the first king of Yugoslavia, in Marseille, France in 1934, and was subsequently arrested and imprisoned in Italy until 1936. Pre-war, Italy and Germany used the Ustaša party to disrupt Yugoslav power, but later found the Ustaša nationalism a burden.  In 1941, Germans needed to withdrawal from Yugoslavia and address the Eastern front, or perhaps they would have crushed the Ustaša power at this time.

The Germans conquered Yugoslavia in only 11 days in the Spring of 1941 and they were enthusiastically welcomed by many Croats.  The Independent State of Croatia was established on 10 April 1941 under leadership of Pavelić and the Ustaša party.  Hitler declared Pavelić poglavnik, and so Pavelić appointed the government and assumed the roles of president until September 1943.  He also took over the duties of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  The new state was enlarged, encompassing regions of Bosnia and Serbia.

Using Nazi-like terror tactics to exercise power, Pavelić led the Ustaša party’s extermination of Serbs, Jews and Roma, and persecuted Croatians harshly if they did not agree with his policies of racial purity and genocide.  Although completely inaccurate, Pavelić claimed Croats were “gothic people” and thus superior.  Pavelić also used religion to distinguish “The Other”, and many Catholic clergymen helped the Ustaša party.  The head of the Catholic Church of Croatia, Archbishop Aloys Stepinac, along with many other aides were acquitted after the war in Yugoslav courts for collaborating with Pavelić’s government.  The Ustaša massacred whole Serbian villages in Croatia and Bosnia in attempts to create a “pure Croatia.”   In 1941 and 1942, around thirty German, Italian, and Ustaša concentration camps were built in the Independent State of Croatia in order to aid in their genocide, the largest of which was the Jasenovac camp.  Due to lack of accurate documentation, the number of victims from the Jasenovac camp greatly varies between 50,000 to 600,000, with Croatia claiming the lesser figure and Serbia the greater.

With the Yugoslav Partisans advancing in 1945, Pavelić fled the country with the help of the Catholic Church in Italy, seeking safety in Argentina using a false identity. He survived an assassination attempt in 1957 and fled to Spain, where he died in 1959 in a German hospital in Madrid due to complications of the bullet in his spine.

Although Pavelić was certainly not the sole source, he became the face of Croatian nationalism during World War II.  He was one of the founders of the Ustaša movement, and the most important leader in the Independent State of Croatia.  Pavelić led a specifically Balkan holocaust against Serbs, one that many people in the West do not realize took place.  For Serbs today, the Croatian flag is a symbol of Fascism and the atrocities committed against their nation during the war.  Later Josip Broz Tito forbade discussion of the Jasenovac exterminations in an attempt to keep peace in a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia.  After the death of Tito and during the wars in the former-Yugoslavia in the 1990s, much of the nationalism from the World War II and Pavelić era resurfaced, causing utter destruction in the region.  Many people hastily attribute the tension among the nations of the former-Yugoslavia as some kind of ancient hatred; rather, the hatred stems from only as far back as World War II.  Supporters of the Ustaša party are still present in Croatia today. Although Ante Pavelić alone cannot be blamed for nationalism and hatred in the former-Yugoslavia, his leadership during World War II created a lasting divide and the region still suffers effects today.

Flags Symbolizing Hatred

Now that I am researching Ante Pavelić for a history class assignment, I finally investigated a question I’ve had for a long time- what does the Croatian flag mean and how is it connected with the country’s fascist government from World War II?  When it comes to history of the former Yugoslavia, it is truly impossible not to let biases affect research.  Until now, I never thought about how much living in Serbia and making friends with Serbs affect my views on certain issues.  I heard a comment from a Serbian friend that the checkerboard pattern on the Croatian flag symbolizes fascism and lazily, I never doubted it.


The current flag of Croatia

It’s not really my goal here to give a history of nationalism in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, or the history of Yugoslavia from 1929 onward, so please excuse me as I leave out plenty of details. Most importantly, I want to stress that during World War II, the Independent State of Croatia was a Nazi puppet state led by Ante Pavelić and his Ustasha regime. Pavelić greatly admired Benito Mussolini, and used ethnic-cleansing tactics like Hitler to eliminate non-Croats.  With 26 concentration camps, the Ustasha party especially targeted Serbs, but also killed Gypsies and Jews.  In Jasenovac (the largest camp) alone, up to 200,000 Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and political prisoners were killed, resulting in a mini holocaust, specifically Balkan, that most people do not even know took place.


The flag of the Independent State of Croatia during 1941-1945, the Ustasa flag.

The checkerboard pattern on the Croatian flag was in fact used during the fascist era, but the shield actually dates back several centuries.  Croats claim the checkerboard shield is one of the oldest symbols in Europe.  Whether or not this is true, it certainly dates back long before Croats were exterminating Serbs in Jasenovac.  However, when Yugoslavia broke apart in the 1990s and nationalism raged from all sides, the Croatian flag was used militantly and conjured up its World War II meaning for Serbs once again.  On the opposite side, as Serbs destroyed villages and raped women in Bosnia and Croatia, they wrote their own historic shield and slogan all over the place- Само слога Србина спасава/Samo sloga Srbina spasava (meaning’Only Unity Saves the Serbs’).  I saw the C C C C slogan written all over the region when I traveled this summer.  This slogan means “Greater Serbia,” Milosevic and utter destruction for Bosnians and Croats.


Flag of Serbia, with the acronym for the slogan in the crest.


Само слога Србина спасава/Samo sloga Srbina spasava (Only Unity Saves the Serbs)

Without attempting any groundbreaking conclusion, I ponder the symbols found today in the former-Yugoslavia, and how they perpetuate memories of a bloody past for all parties involved.  A small part of me respects pride for national history, but mostly I am saddened by the messages the flags imply.  These symbols and flags may mean the beginning of a nation for one country, but for a neighbor- they hurtfully mean genocide and destruction.  Visual symbols make a huge impact on people.  Idealistically, I wish Croatia and Serbia would change their flags for a new era…to find new symbols for a peaceful future. Realistically, I know that the countries of the former Yugoslavia prefer to live in the past.

Look here to see the evolution of Croatia’s flag throughout history.  Notice the use of the checkerboard pattern in 1848-1852, and 1860-1918.

Lego (1996) by artist Zbigniew Libera


Zbigniew Libera, contemporary Polish pop-artist, unapologetically pushes boundaries by depicting subject matter sanctified by modern culture. The issue of how to depict the Holocaust is debated in many art forms, including theatre, writing and the visual arts. Some artists only carefully depict what is already known about the Holocaust, rather than raising new questions and debate surrounding the topic.

Libera, born in 1959 in Poland served time in prison for drawings that the communist regime considered “pornographic”. After the fall of communism, the artist was able to travel extensively and exhibit abroad. Most of his work focuses on commercialization and it’s impact on society, and criticizes the regime in which he grew up. His most provocative and well-known work is entitled Lego (1996) and is a limited edition of three LEGO sets of a concentration camp. The larger boxes of the set show the entire concentration camp with buildings, gallows with one inmate being hanged, inmates behind barbed wire or marching in and out of the camp. Also included is an entry gate similar to the one at Oswiecim, but without the German inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The guards are the same as the policemen in other LEGO sets, and the prisoners are from the medical and hospital sets. Another set shows a crematorium with smoke coming out of the chimneys and a guard wearing a red hat, looking as if he belongs in a Soviet gulag rather than a Nazi extermination camp.

When Libera presented the piece at an international conference in 1997, he was pelted with insults and criticism, despite the fact that the conference was concerned with how to keep the discourse of the Holocaust alive. The artists were unsure whether or not the set was a limited edition (yes) or a mass-produced piece. Although this was not what anyone was expecting, Zbigniew Libera raised many new questions and answers about the Holocaust through his piece.

When searching for the roots of the genocide, it is interesting that Libera’s work is made almost entirely from pre-existing LEGO pieces. When LEGO corporation heard about the artist’s use of their product, they tried to sue him. Also, the box of his piece states that LEGO sponsored the work of Zbigniew Libera, which the company adamantly refutes. However, three sets were already sold and European copyright laws permit the use of corporate logos for artistic purposes, so the lawsuit was quickly dropped. LEGO spends a lot of time and energy explaining to museums and the public that Libera’s piece is not their product. The fact that the set is produced in multiples suggests that history repeats itself. As the artist grew up in Poland, concentration camps were in his immediate surroundings, although there is nothing specifically German about the construction of the work. This fact proposes the idea that these camps could be located in the Gulag or anywhere genocide is taking place. Elements for such a massacre exist in the world and all that is needed is for the right person to “assemble” the pieces correctly. Holocaust survivors were present at the international conference where the artist first presented the piece. When Libera is asked about his respect for the victims he responds “I am from Poland. I have been poisoned.”

In May 1997, Libera was invited to display in the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but asked not to bring Lego. The artist ended up withdrawing from the exhibition. Despite the provocative nature of the work and its easy ability to offend, Lego sparks a new dialogue about the Holocaust. Libera shows us that all of the elements for genocide surround us. Now that we are in the 21st century and a few generations past the Holocaust, there is a certain degree of complacency surrounding the topic. Libera forces his audience not only to look at the past, but also at life today.


  • The artist statement
  • Stephen C. Feinstein

Ordinary Days in Auschwitz

I fear this will not be my only post on Auschwitz.  Living in Krakow for five or six weeks now, I know that I am getting closer to my inevitable visit to the nearby extermination camp.  It is hard to walk through the center of the city without noticing many advertisements for tours of Auschwitz, although I doubt the Poles are particularly happy that so many visitors use the beautiful city of Krakow as a stepping stone to something they didn’t want in the first place.

People are used to hearing stories of heroism and victimization surrounding Auschwitz and the Holocaust.  Everyone knows about Anne Frank- after two years, her hiding spot was discovered and she was sent to Belsen where she died of typhus.  Most people have also seen Schindler’s List, which chronicles the story of Oskar Schindler who rescued around 1,200 jews by employing them in his enamel factory.  In fact, many tourists look for locations from the movie around Kazimierz (former Jewish neighborhood in Krakow pre-WWII) and Krakow.  There was also Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in Auschwitz.  He was canonized as patron saint of “Our Difficult Century” by Pope John Paul II in 1982 for his extraordinary heroic and selfless deed.  Also unique is the story of Witold Pilecki, the only known person to volunteer to go to Auschwitz.  Once a prisoner, he sent invaluable information to the West and organized resistance.auschgate

This list is in no way complete; there are countless heroes of the holocaust and Auschwitz.  In retrospect, people like to hear these stories of extraordinary people doing extraordinary deeds in the midst of the biggest disaster of the twentieth century.  It provides some hope that “good” really does conquer “evil.”   However, as I read the book This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski, I see a completely new perspective.  After publishing in underground circles, Borowski walked into a trap and spent 1943-1945 in Auschwitz until the Red Army’s “liberation.”  His experiences are reflected in this book, which is in first person narrated by a fictional character named Tadek.  Sometimes he has the “privileged” job of helping to unload the new arrivals to the camp from their crowded trains, directing them onto trucks to extermination.  Afterwards, he and the other workers take their food from the abandoned suitcases on the tracks for means of survival.  Tadek also works with groups doing heavy labor around the camps, and discusses the hierarchy of prisoners.  He talks about daily life with an incredible amount of distance.  Every person discussed has the dual role of the executioner and a victim, as they try to make it through the day.  No one is innocent.  And when the work is done for the day, Tadek describes the camp as a “haven of peace.”  People are dying but one has enough food and the ability to work…

Of course, the impact of this book cannot be summed up into a few paragraphs and I digress.  However the stories are unique in many ways.  Often, we hear the Auschwitz perspective of the Jewish people and usually heroic tales of solidarity.  Instead, Borowski unabashedly recounts ordinary days in Auschwitz.  Although a collection of his personal experiences, the perspective of a narrator allows the stories to be those of many, instead of just Borowski’s.  These stories could be those of the ordinary days of many people, and Borowski identifies himself with millions in the writing of this book.

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