During his visit to Israel this week Croatia’s foreign minister Miro Kovac delivered a speech on Monday 30 May 2016 before the Israel Council on Foreign Relations (ICFR) in Jerusalem where he proposed the establishment of a joint Croatian, US, and Israeli foundation that would contain a fund to deal with restitution issues. The Jerusalem-based Israel Council on Foreign Relations is devoted to the study and debate of foreign policy, with special emphasis on Israeli and Jewish concerns. The ICFR functions under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress.
Matters of restitution to victims of the Holocaust in Europe go back many years and beside several matters also deal with the return of Jewish property confiscated by the Nazi or pro-Nazi regimes in Europe or compensating the Jewish community for the losses.
Croatia’s property restitution laws of the early 1990’s, covering property nationalised during the communist era, were amended in July 2002 to allow non-Croatian citizens to file claims in certain cases. Earlier U.S. – Yugoslav agreements compensated claims pertaining to property expropriated between1939-1948. The process ended in the 1960’s.
Given that Yugoslav communists not only did not return to the Jews the property taken during WWII by the Ustashi regime but as they came to power in 1945 they took even more, it is quite unfair and unnerving that the Jewish community still like to mainly refer to the restitution as restitution of property taken during the Holocaust years when if fact the property was taken away all over again by the communists after May 1945 whose head office was in Belgrade, Serbia. Such practices were greedily echoed in other post-WWII European communist countries. Communists, especially high-ranking ones distributed the best and most valuable property to themselves and their families – with eternal right to tenancy for no or for absurdly low rents. Many Serbs were recipients of these properties in Croatia after WWII as they worked for the Party, for the Yugoslav Army everywhere including Croatia and one cannot but wonder whether the persistent blaming of Croatia’s WWII Ustashi regime for for the confiscation of Jewish property has anything to do with continued cover-up of Serbia’s role in the Holocaust that occurred in WWII Serbia.
To demonstrate my point, when it was announced in late 2014 that Croatia will give a government-owned 6-storey downtown Zagreb building and surrounding land as restitution for a building once owned by local Jewish burial society which was expropriated during World War II and nationalised by the Communist government after WWII Daniel Mariaschin from the World Jewish Restitution Organisation (and B’nai B’rith International) stated: “This is a long-awaited, but important first step in addressing the legacy of the Holocaust in Croatia and in ensuring that the Jewish community can continue to revitalise itself in a democratic Croatia.” Actually if Mariaschin were at the time intent on fairness and facts he would also have mentioned the fat that while the communists boasted of freeing Croatia from fascism they did absolutely nothing in freeing the confiscated property for its rightful owners but instead stole it from them, for a second time.
Restitution to all victims is an important matter for humanity and it needs to be kept in check but also it is most important to keep to the historical facts. In the case of former communist countries of Europe where property was confiscated during WWII and then the confiscation adopted by the communist regime post-WWII through nationalisation, the communist regime has an equal, or perhaps greater, responsibility to answer for such wrongs done to the Jewish community or any other community of the time.
And this point is where Minister Kovac shone so well in my eyes – all Croatian presidents (previous and current) who visited Israel did not do much towards justice in this matter as did Kovac. At the Israel Council on Foreign Relations (ICFR), Kovac was asked by the well-known Israeli politician and diplomat, Colette Avital, who chairs the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors, about compensation for private and community property seized from Jews. Kovac said the property had been confiscated first by the Ustashe and then by the Communists and then suggested the creation of a foundation – to be jointly administered by Croatia, the United States and Israel – to work in consultation with Croatia’s Ministry of Public Administration and Ministry of Justice to resolve the issue of property restitution.
When Croatia’s Minister Kovac was asked in Israel about controversial recent statements made by Croatian Culture Minister Zlatko Hasanbegovic regarding his country’s wartime past, Kovac said: “As minister of culture, he has never said anything which is not compatible with the Croatian constitution or European values. I strongly reject the notion that Croatia is a country, which is seeing rising fascism. But we must speak out loudly against any statement of extremism.”
Upon his meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem Croatian Foreign Minister Miro Kovac discussed economic projects, notably in irrigation, and cooperation against cyber terrorism. Minister Kovac said that Croatia has a sensibility for Israel as a country, which had to liberate itself and win its independence and stability and understands Israel’s care for security very well. There is sympathy between the two peoples and “it’s up to us to give this relationship more substance,” Kovac said.
“Croatia is a success story,” Kovac said, giving a brief account of Croatia’s transition from communism to Western democracy, the military aggression on it during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and the country’s accession to the European Union in mid-2013.
“We simply cannot accept the idea in the foreign press of growing extremism in Eastern Europe,” Kovac said, “but we must be cautious and responsible.” He stressed that fascism, Nazism and communism were clearly rejected in the preamble to the Croatian constitution.
Bravo Minister Kovac on several fronts here. The problem is that he might have said this to quite a few purposefully deaf individuals in the audience there in Jerusalem, intent on defending or justifying unspeakable communist crimes no matter what! Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)