Spokes In The Wheel For Truth For Croatian Alojzije Stepinac

Poster for documantary film: Stepinac – Cardinal and his Conscience

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the death of Blessed Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, the Croatian Catholic University and Interfilm held at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb on Saturday, February 8, the premiere of the new documentary film “Stepinac: The Cardinal and His Conscience”, authored by Croatia’s acclaimed writer, journalist, screenplay writer and its director Visnja Staresina.

Reportedly, Staresina has been preparing for the film for ten years. Her aim is said to have been to avoid the way Cardinal Stepinac has so far been portrayed through the Croatian-Serbian disagreements, in which the Serbian propaganda machine had constantly insisted on painting Cardinal Stepinac as a Ustashe collaborator despite the fact that post-2000 historical research, when Yugoslav Archives were open to researchers in Croatia, prove beyond any doubt that Stepinac in fact rescued many persecuted Jews. Of particular note are most thorough historical research findings by USA historian dr. Esther Gitman.

“When I started working on the film, I was surprised at the way in which Alojzije Stepinac was perceived out there. For example, my reference was the American media out there, and I tried to make sure that the participants in the film are the people who are not part of this existing paradigm,” said Staresina last week.

In this new documentary, Stepinac’s involvement in rescuing Jews during WWII is enveloped in the story of Renata, a girl whose entire family disappeared in the Holocaust during WWWII in Croatia. She emigrated to Israel in 1952 and decided to forget everything. The film reconstructs and follows the rescue of Renata Bauer.

In this documentary film “I let him (Stepinac) speak through his sermons, through his letters, through his spiritual testament, where you see him condemning racism since 1937, not 1942 or ’43. New York Times, articles published by the Jewish News Agency in 1943, which mention sermons from the Archbishop of Zagreb. It wasn’t very simple to say these things at the time, and it wasn’t easy to become news in the New York Times,” Staresina comments on her film.

This documentary film has been translated into English so that it can reach more people throughout the world, and the aim of its author is to get as many people as possible to know the truth about Cardinal Stepinac.

Croatian National Theatre Zagreb
Premiere of film “Stepinac – Cardinal and his Conscience”
Photo: Pixsell

Among other things, the film “Stepinac: Cardinal and His Conscience” reveals how Stepinac, as a human being, a man and Archbishop of Zagreb, faced and dealt with the greatest challenges of the 20th century. For Alojzije Stepinac that challenge was, undoubtedly, how to execute good deeds and save as many persecuted people from sure death as possible. This indeed was no easy task in the madness of a vicious war where the fight for independence (of Croatia) and the fight against that independence (to retain Yugoslav federation of states) took the nation into often dark pursuits for victory (as all wars do), regardless of whose that victory may surface as the outcome of the war. The film delves into the challenge of talking about the global and universal significance of Stepinac’s work; it explores the reasons why his character and the works that accompany him are not globally accepted and grounded on the truth to this day.

Apart from emphasising the relevance of Stepinac’s exemplary actions and morality, which contain messages that are applicable universally to this day, this documentary film, filled with Stepinac’s courageous and righteous actions despite fatal adversities, fits so aptly into the story of Croatia within the 20th century Europe.

Stepinac’s personal involvement in organising the rescue of Jews during WWII Croatia is presented in this documentary film through interviews with historians, researchers, as well as through personal testimonies of Holocaust survivors and their descendants; likewise, through testimonies of descendants of families who participated in these WWII rescue operations.

At the film’s premiere, its director and screenwriter Visnja Staresina stated that her guiding idea was to make a film that would show why Stepinac was globally relevant in his time, not just at Croatian local levels. “From the moment he was elected the youngest bishop in the world, through his anti-racist sermons reaching out from conquered Europe, from the Independent State of Croatia to the free world as a rarity, through the trials that made him globally known and the condemnation of the trials that provoked major protests from New York to Chicago and Dublin seeking his release. Finally, at the time of his death, leading commentators wondered what would happen between the Church and the communist regimes now,” said Staresina.

Cardinal Josip Bozanic (C) dr Zeljko Tanjic (R)
Photo: Pixsell

The Catholic University of Croatia in Zagreb joined this documentary film project primarily because Blessed Cardinal Stepinac, in addition to being an important church and historical figure, is also the patron saint of that University. Since its founding in 2006 the University has been involved in various ways with view to making the truth about blessed Stepinac known worldwide. Many public lectures have been given about him, students had opportunities to study the character and work of Blessed Stepinac through elective subjects, and professors participated in various conferences and scientific conferences. The Croatian Catholic University, together with the Archdiocese of Zagreb in 2016, organised a scientific conference attended by historians from Croatia and Serbia, and a large collection of papers on the Blessed Archbishop Stepinac and the Serbs in Croatia in the Context of World War II and Post-War was published. Together with the publishing house Christian Contemporaneity (Kršćanska sadašnjost), the University also published a book by Dr. Esther Gitman, “Alojzije Stepinac – Pillar of human rights” (2019).

“We are convinced that with the image, the word and the new testimonies presented in this film about blessed Alojzije will once again show the greatness of a man who, in the difficult years of Croatian and European history, was faithful to his call, resolutely and courageously, advocating especially for the endangered, led the Zagreb Church. To those who had not met him the film will give the opportunity to do so and encourage them to reflect upon his person. And also, for those who disagree with us the film gives the opportunity to evaluate his work and gives another documented insight into his life and work,” said at the premiere the Croatian Catholic University Rector Dr. Zeljko Tanjic.

Visnja Staresina (C) Esther Gitman (CR)
at the premiere of film: Stepinac – Cardinal and his Conscience
Photo: ika.hkm.hr

The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine. Have you ever heard that quote? It’s actually a paraphrase of an ancient Greek proverb. The Greek biographer Plutarch referred to this proverb in the first century A.D. when he made the following complaint. He said: “Thus, I do not see what use there is in those mills of the gods said to grind so late as to render punishment hard to be recognised, and to make wickedness fearless.”

One of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s translations was a 17th century poem, ‘Retribution,’ by Friedrich Von Logau: “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience he stands waiting, with exactness grinds he all.”

The analogy I venture to bring here is related to the fact that even though ample evidence of Alojzije Stepinac’s good deeds in rescuing Jews and other persecuted people during WWII those to whose advantage it is to continue suppressing this truth and continue promoting the Serb-led (or communist Yugoslavia-led) fabrications about his collaboration with the Nazi’s are not likely to abandon their wicked ways any time soon. Why? Well, to bring out the obvious, it is of political advantage to them to continue walking in dark corridors where truth has no chance of being illuminated. And so, regretfully, instead of turning in the right direction, the wheels of justice for blessed Alojzije Stepinac on the international level have mainly been turning in the other direction, grinding out stones that become even coarser. That has sadly been the power of politics and political interests.

The problem is that political interference which has had a devastating effect on the truth ever since the trumped-up charges against Stepinac by Yugoslavia’s communist regime in 1945 continues in many ways. The communist Yugoslavia totalitarian regime ensured that the willingness and ability to investigate injustice and corruption that would show the communists up as liars and falsifiers of history was suffocated and incapacitated. This went on until 1990’s when Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia and only since then were all researchers able to access the archives and the truth. But even when a significant mass of that truth was found to not resemble the truth communists were peddling for decades, that illuminated real truth continued to be treated with some scepticism and avoidance by even the politicians in power in Croatia, majority of whom belonged to the communist echelons of former Yugoslavia! Such cold and apparently dismissive reception of the truth, which in fact redeems Alojzije Stepinac from all the communist trumped-up charges, from all the false accusations regarding his deeds or “omissions” during WWII, is in fact part and parcel of what still goes on in Croatia: corruption and fraud perpetrated by well-connected politicians and by their allies and like-minded persons in the country and outside it. If it weren’t like that, then even common sense tells us that the Croatian government would have long ago stood behind the clearing of Stepinac’s name through research and presentation of findings and opened up its “wallet” to support such projects. It has not done that and the presentation of truth that is of national importance (because the brush that tarnished Stepinac also tarnished the freedom-loving Croatian people) still remains within the realms of good will of people and institutions willing to back such projects financially.

Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac (inset photo of Zeljko Tanjic)
Photo: Screenshot Croatian TV

This is why this documentary film by Visnja Staresina (2020), why books by Esther Gitman (“When Courage Prevailed The Rescue and Survival of Jews in the Independent State of Croatia 1941-1945”;  “Alojzije Stepinac – Pillar of Human Rights”) and dr. Robin Harris (“Stepinac: His Life and Times”), the documentary film “When Truth Prevails” authored by Jadranka Juresko-Kero (2011) and other many works on this subject are crucial spokes on the wheel of justice and truth not only regarding Alojzije Stepinac but also regarding Croatia during WWII and after. The wheel of justice turns in the right direction by the force of these spokes despite the political sabotage of the truth. Ina Vukic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr Esther Gitman Awarded Honorary Doctorate For Her Research Into The Role Blessed Alojzije Stepinac Had In Rescuing Jews During WWII Croatia

 

Dr Esther Gitman (L) Bishop Vlado Kosic (C) Ina Vukic (R)

On Friday 14 June 2019, and upon written submission, including one by Ina Vukic, Vice-President of the Croatian academy of sciences and arts in diaspora and homeland/HAZUDD, the University of Split, Croatia, has awarded Dr. Esther Gitman an Honorary Doctorate for her long standing research and work into the rescue of Jews and members of other ethnic groups during WWII in Croatia led by Blessed Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, Archbishop of Zagreb during WWII. This, without doubt, brings into focus the exceptional dedication to scientific research into the truth and into the pure good that did prevail, through extraordinary human courage, in historically difficult and challenging times. This Honorary Doctorate bears all the hallmarks of recognising and rewarding scientific research achievements that shine a light upon the very goodness in a soul of a nation, often purposefully obscured by orchestrated falsehoods planted into written history.

Archbishop Marin Barisic (R) Esther Gitman (C) Dragan Ljutic, Rector of University of Split (L)

The field of scientific research of history to which Dr. Esther Gitman has dedicated her professional pursuits was, according to Dr Gitman’s statements, driven by a determination to research the WWII circumstances in which she as a small child was rescued from Nazi occupied Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The research into WWII history she engaged in from 2002, with its results belongs to those rare, exceptional scientific pursuits whose uniqueness and exceptionality influence the world reputation and interests of the entire Croatian people and nation. It rarely happens in the history of scientific research that such research and its findings actually impact upon and break down the negative stereotypical reputation of a nation, such as the one Croatia and her people have suffered after the Second World War due to intentional suppression of historical details of the truth and forgeries of historical facts, such as the ones Yugoslav communists had concocted against Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac. Dr. Esther Gitman, her scientific research and related works regarding the rescue of Jews, Serbs and Roma during WWII Independent State of Croatia/NDH have achieved that rare and uplifting impact.

Dr. Esther Gitman is a USA based world-renowned scientist who has devoted herself to scientific research on the rescue of Jews within the Independent State of Croatia of the Second World War, especially on the role of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac in rescuing Jews, Serbs, Roma and all others whose lives because of their ethnicity were, due to political circumstances, in mortal danger during that time. Given that Holocaust research has evolved around the world after the Second World War as one of the most important areas of research for the past and the future of humanity, Dr. Esther Gitman’s scientific work has been raised to a particularly high level precisely because it was innovative. Innovative because her research explored the rescue of Jews and not their extermination as other Holocaust researchers had been doing. By putting the rescue of Jews, not extermination, Gitman’s central theme, at the same time, delivers much of the good truth about WWII Croatia/NDH and many of her people into the righteous light that they deserve. Namely, the negative stereotype imposed upon NDH and its people by those who have written and often falsified history or underrepresented the truth, by those who had persecuted Alojzije Stepinac and branded him as Nazi collaborator and condemned him (1946) to death by life house-imprisonment on the basis of such repugnant falsehoods – can no longer stand! The results of Gitman’s scientific work confirm that during the Second World War within the NDH and Bosnia and Herzegovina thousands of Jews and members of other ethnic groups were saved from the death and suffering by Alojzije Stepinac and many like him.

Dr Esther Gitman
Delivering speech at the Honorary Doctorate award
ceremony held in Croatian National Opera Hall/HNK
in Split Croatia, 14 June 2019

Blessed Alojzije Stepinac was indeed and as Esther Gitman’s newest book on her research finding says: A Pillar of Human Rights (Title of Gitman’s new book).

Her research on archival material in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina is very significant, and she has studied over 10,000 archive documents. Her research also includes verbal witness testimonies by several Holocaust survivors from the former Yugoslavia, who at the time of verbal accounts’ recordings lived in various countries, eg Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Israel, Canada and the United States America.

The contribution of Dr. Esther Gitman’s scientific research papers is enormous and remarkable, both for the Croatian society and for the whole world. It reaches the depths of truth and human rights struggles in almost impossible but definitely terrible circumstances. The results and illustrations as well as interpretation of her scientific papers do not remain just a letter on paper, they have taken on the effectiveness of shaping true and factual history and the testimony of humanity that characterises a nation.

By historical science’s criteria, Dr. Esther Gitman’s research and related works are of a very high standard and reach to all layers of both Croatian and world society. Through her scientific research Dr. Esther Gitman demonstrates a perfect ability to convey a multitude of individual historical facts revealed in archival material and oral testimonies into a homogeneous whole of human courage in times of violent violations of human rights. And this human courage as laced through Dr Gitman’s work focuses and shines a light on a Croatian man – Blessed Alojzije Stepinac.

Dr. Esther Gitman undertook her scientific work at the time of NDH history’s socially entrenched moral edges and which edges did not have room for any positive moral values that could be attributed to NDH/WWII Independent State Of Croatia anywhere in the world. For example, when Dr Gitman approached the Fulbright Fellowship Foundation for support with her research plan to delve into the rescue of Jews in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, their reaction was initially one of shock and amazement, and the person interviewing her for the Fulbright Fellowship (which she was subsequently successful in receiving) told her, “Why would you, for goodness sake, want to explore such a topic when the whole world knows what the Ustasha Croats did to Jews and others?”

Dr Esther Gitman
at Blessed Alojzije Stepinac tomb
in the Cathedral at Zagreb, June 2019

Dr. Gitman replied: “Yes, many Jews were killed in Ustasha concentration camps, but my mother and I have survived and so did all the other Jews I knew in my childhood, our survival should be attributed to the help we received from Croatian friends, neighbours, clergy and various humanitarian organisations.”

The reaction to that response from Dr. Gitman was as follows: “An incredible story, I’ve never heard of such a story! Please write a strong submission, ask your professors to review it, then give it to me for a final evaluation.”

On this edge of the overriding general morality attributed to Croats at the time, in early 2000’s, Dr Esther Gitman embarked on her scientific research of factual history.

Looking at the frameworks of the written history of the Second World War and the impact on the prejudices that have evolved over the past decades, Dr. Esther Gitman’s scientific work is remarkable, significant and invaluable for the whole world and for the Croatian society. Ina Vukic

Unnerving Unprecedented Path to Canonisation Of Croatia’s Alojzije Stepinac

Blessed Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac

The fact that in the drawn-out process to the canonisation of Croatia’s Blessed Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac (Archbishop of Zagreb during WWII, beatified by the Catholic Church in 1998) Pope Francis is seeking the opinion of Patriarch Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church regarding WWII truth about Stepinac’s deeds during the war is a matter that evokes a great deal of distress worldwide, let alone in Croatia. This makes the process of Stepinac’s canonisation charged with politics that have nothing to do with the factual truth the Church seeks. First of all, Patriarch Irinej cannot possibly be an authority on the truth simply because the truth regarding Stepinac has been consistently misrepresented and falsified by the Serbian Orthodox Church since WWII, as well as by the communist regime. The truth can only be found in researched facts and archives of these had indeed been out of reach up until relatively recently and some, those kept in Serbia, still remain closed, I believe. Patriarch Irinej made no moves ever to encourage research into WWII facts to do with Stepinac; to my knowledge, his stance has always followed the tides of Serbian anti-Croatian politics and propaganda, of Greater Serbia politics and bloody deeds that went with it.

The researched WWII facts presented by, for example, Dr Esther Gitman (both document and verbal testimonies of Holocaust survivors in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) show clearly that Stepinac rescued Jews, Serbs, Roma and others during WWII when such heroic deeds were pursued under the threat of own life. Her published books, “When Courage Prevailed: The Rescue and Survival of Jews in Independent State of Croatia 1941-1945” and “Pillar of Human Rights” are among the sources for truth, which Pope Francis should consult if he has so far failed to do so.

Throughout the long history of the Catholic Church (and other Churches), many saints were made saints because of their extraordinary courage, even when faced with the most dangerous tasks. These holy men and women showed courage through their vocations and duties from God. Saints Joan of Arc, Edmund Campion, and Isaac Jogues all lived their faith by showing courage in the face of danger or death.

Alojzije Stepinac was not different to these saints in human history.

In June 2011 Pope Benedict XVI praised Cardinal Stepinac as a courageous defender of those oppressed by the Ustashe, including Serbs, Jews and gypsies.

He said the cardinal stood against “the dictatorship of communism, where he again fought for the faith, for the presence of God in the world, the true humanity that is dependent on the presence of God.”

Pope Francis
Photo: AFP

Pope Francis, who this week visited Bulgaria and North Macedonia, gave a statement regarding the stage that the canonisation of Stepinac is at. Pope Francis said that the canonisation depends on the report of a mixed commission set up together with the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC).

“Stepinac was a soulful man, that is why the (Catholic) Church beatified him. But at a certain moment in the process of his canonisation, there were some unclear points, historical points,” the Pope said, and added:

“I prayed, I considered, I sought advice and I saw that I need to seek help from (Serbian Patriarch) Irinej. He is a great patriarch. Irinej helped, we created a joint historic commission, and we cooperated.”

“The truth is both mine and Irinej’s only interest. And not to make a mistake. What purpose would declaring (Stepinac) a saint serve, if the truth was not clear? That would serve no one,” Pope Francis concluded.

The grave problem arises here! How can Irinej’s view of the truth help when that “truth” has more likely than not been shaped by untruths and innuendoes than by factual truth! The Serbian propaganda against Stepinac has been relentless since WWII and Patriarch Irinej never stepped aside nor insisted on factual representation of the truth!

Blessed Stepinac, who is hailed as a hero in Croatia, has been a target of decades-long communist smears and disinformation. Despite this, Pope St. John Paul II beatified him as a martyr in October 1998. The Serbian Orthodox community continuously peddle scepticism about Stepinac’s wartime record.

But researchers, including Gitman, particularly in the past three decades have shown that the facts about Stepinac counter false claims about his record.

“What you have is a false narrative created by Soviet agents,” Prof. Ronald J. Rychlak of the University of Mississippi told CNA/EWTN News in 2016.

In 1946, Stepinac was put on trial by Yugoslav communists (Belgrade, Serbia, headquartered) for allegedly collaborating with the Ustashe’s crimes. The trial drew critical coverage from Western media like Time and Newsweek and protests from those who saw it as a show trial. Archbishop Stepinac was denied effective representation and only met with his attorney for an hour before the trial.

The government’s witnesses were told what to say, and the archbishop was not allowed to cross-examine them. In 1953, Pope Pius XII made him a cardinal, although he was never allowed travel to the Holy See to be officially elevated. He died in 1960 of an alleged blood disorder, which was said to have been caused by the conditions he endured in jail. Relatively recent tests of his remains by Vatican investigators show evidence he was also poisoned.

It was in late 2015 Patriarch Irinej wrote to Pope Francis asking the Pope to “remove the question of the canonisation of Cardinal Stepinac from the agenda, and to leave it to the infallible judgment of God.” Irinej knows only too well that God does not canonise! Of course, Irinej in his letter falsely accused Stepinac of collaboration with pro-Nazi movements and regimes just as communists did seventy years before! Irinej went even further and threatened of consequences of Stepinac’s canonisation:

“His canonisation, to our great regret, would return the relations between Serbs and Croats, as well as between Catholics and Orthodox faithful, back to their tragic history.”

Archbishop Zelimir Puljic

It has become blatantly clear that by establishing the Commission with Serbian Orthodox Church on Stepinac’s canonisation Pope Francis’ main concern may indeed be that of avoiding the understanding of canonisation of Stepinac as an act against the Serbian people or causing divisions between Catholic and Orthodox faithful. But I would like to know when did the Orthodox faithful ask the Catholic faithful about canonisation of any of their saints? I am struggling to find such a case.

While Pope Francis’ steps taken with the Serbian Orthodox Church during this canonisation phase of the Stepinac Sainthood path may be seen as a good gesture this does not take away the fact that such acts are disturbing and distressing to Catholic faithfuls who have the ultimate right to their own saints. Certainly, the beatification of Stepinac sealed his worthiness of sainthood in proof required by the Catholic Church and in the eyes of multitudes across the world. One cannot, though, shake off the unpalatable sense that political agenda has crept, with nasty intentions, into the path of Stepinac’s canonisation just as it did in 1946, when he was false accused as collaborator of Nazi regimes. Clear and proven facts speak louder than opinion and when it comes to canonisation that is the only consideration Pope Francis should be keeping close to his chest.

In an interview with the Croatian Catholic Network, on 9 May 2019, Archbishop of Zadar, Zelimir Puljic, called on the faithful to be patient and calm. “The Pope said he cared about the truth and that, together with the Patriarch, he wants to arrive at the truth… However, regarding Stepinac and what the Congregation has already done and concluded, there is nothing contentious that would… bring into question his sainthood and canonisation.”

Archbishop Puljic said the pope’s decision to consult the Serbian Orthodox Church regarding Stepinac was a precedent and that the Serbian Orthodox Church wanted to use this precedent to block the canonisation.

“I would like to say something unusual, which is the interference of the Serbian Orthodox Church, another Church, or Patriarch itself, in the canonisation process of the Catholic Church. That is inappropriate – I have to say. And that’s not commonplace. I dare say, that is politics. So, Stepinac is put in a position he does not belong to. Stepinac was a believer, bishop, cardinal, he was a clerk of the Catholic Church and as such he deserved, first the title of the Blessed One, and is now in the process of being holy,” said Archbishop Puljic.

The Catholic faithfuls have been dealt a cruel blow in all this and Croatian Catholics particularly so! As we wait, laden with distress, for the outcome from this unprecedented path to canonisation in the Catholic Church, we must trust that Croats and their faith will endure. The alternative is unthinkable. The alternative where a deserved sainthood of the Catholic Church becomes the sacrificial lamb of Pope’s ambitions to do with another Church, Serbian Orthodox Church in this instance. There can be no common good when the good is sacrificed. Ina Vukic

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