New Film About Croatia’s Blessed Alojzije Stepinac USA Tour

The Interfilm and Catholic University of Croatia documentary by Croatia’s renowned journalist, book author, publicist and documentary film author and director Visnja Staresina “Stepinac – Cardinal and his conscience” (Stepinac – Kardinal i njegova savjest) was last week making its grand and premiere tour across the United States of America. The tour had a positive thread of Croatia’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs finally making a concerted effort to showcase in the outside world the truth about Cardinal Stepinac that had so violently been suppresed, fabricated and rigged for decades by communist Yugoslavia. This event would be much more positive and effective had the tour not been organised in manner and places that point to the more or less “preaching to the choir” rather than being placed mostly among those who do not know the truth and whose sense of history had been corrupted by the former communist regime. I personally would have loved seeing  more foreigners at these events than Croats, but am pleased at the promise of a better future for truth-promotion this government auspiced tour offers.

With whole-hearted and generous hospitality from members of the Croatian community in New York and a stellar cast from the Croatian diplomatic and government corps last week’s 14 June premiere screening under the organisation the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Republic of Croatia in New York at the Croatian Catholic Parish St Cyril and Methodius and Raphael in New York’s Manhattan met with overwhelming love of truth and loud applause from the Croats and friends who attended the event and came to the big Parish hall despite it being a week night.

Primarily in the Croatian language but with a good balance laden with the English language as well, this documentary Stepinac – Cardinal and His Conscience is a story about the life of Alojzije Stepinac, about how as a man and the Archbishop of Zagreb coped with the greatest challenges of the 20th century, the global and universal significance of his work, the root of controversy that undeservedly follows him to this day, about the relevance of his example and the universality of his messages today. It is also a story about Croatian and European history of the 20th century, as an indispensable context of action. 

Hence, this film largely focuses on Cardinal Stepinac’s attitude towards Ante Pavelic, Head of World War Two Independent State of Croatia, Head of communist Yugoslavia Josip Broz Tito, Tito’s right hand man and Deputy Prime Minister of communist Yugoslavia Edvard Kardelj and Stepinac’s rescue of Jews in the Independent State of Croatia and his faith in God for whom he died honorably.

As a reminder, Tito as Head of totalitarian communist Yugoslavia, after Stepinac refused to separate the Croatian Catholic Church from the Vatican, mounted trumped-up charges against Stepinac in 1946 falsely alleging collaboration with the Ustashi regime that was allied then with Nazi Germany even though the latter was the military occupier etc., put him through a show trial without being permitted a defence, convicted him for treason, sentenced him to 16 years prison of which he served 5 at the notorious communist prison Lepoglava and then was moved to house imprisonment in Krasic, Croatia, where he died in 1960. 

Among most honoured attendees and guests in New York last week were HE Pjer Simunovic, Ambassador of the Republic of Croatia to the USA, dr Esther Gitman, acclaimed historian and author of big body of historical and scientific research and of books about Alojzije Stepinac’s significant role during World War II in rescuing Jews and other ethnic groups caught in the winds of the Holocaust across Europe. The Ambassador of the Republic of Croatia to the UN, Mr. Ivan Simunovic, the Consul General of the Republic of Croatia in NY Nikica Kopacevic,  the staff of the Embassy and the Consulate General and, of course, the Minister of Tourism and Sports of the Republic of Croatia, Nikolina Brnjac, Ane Strazicic Rodriguez (Ane Mljecka) on behalf of the American-Croatian Congress along with the film’s author Visnja Staresina herself were also at the premiere screening as special and honored guests among other attendees.

On behalf of the Croatian Catholic Parish Fr. Nikola Pasalic greeted the parishioners and guests present, thanked them for this praiseworthy event which is very important for the Parish particularly because, he said, the Croatian School and the folklore group that are part of the Parish both carry the name of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac.      

The Ambassador of the Republic of Croatia to the USA, Pjer Simunovic, praised Visnja Staresina for her enormous efforts and commitment to discovering the real truth about Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, about Croatia and the creation of Croatian independent state in general. He especially thanked Dr. Esther Gitman, who has been fighting much of her life to prove through thorough historical research the truth and innocence of Cardinal Stepinac of all the misdeeds that the former regime had falsely charged him and persecuted him with.

I contacted Dr Esther Gitman after this event in New York and she said: “Visnja’s film is a serious work covering the work of Blessed Stepinac in various periods presented by serious and credible historians like Ivo Banac, Robin Harris, Jure Kristo and Michal Naida Brandel. 

Then there are testimonies of Holocaust survivors like myself and a few others. I regret that the promotion of the film tour was particularly poor and, hence, the attendance was just mediocre when it should have deservedly been much higher. I was truly sad to see in NY that not many people were informed anout the screenings afterwards l called Ella Miche, (I probably misspelled this) and she and her mother would’ve come if they knew about the event! I also heard that in Cleveland there were many people playing games in the venue but they didn’t come to view the film being screened  at same premises.

I really shouldn’t be involved with this side of the tour and yet knowing the continued and universal message of Stepinac I was saddened that the publicity and the advertising was poor and attendance minimal! Promoting the truth anout Blessed Cardinal Stepinac must be an all-encompassing effort by all of us, especially those whose life has been so profoundly affected by his deeds. I am most grateful though that this tour provided yet anther opportunity for truth to shine.”

I also caught up with the film’s author and director Visnja Staresina as she waited to board her plane back to Croatia in New York who said that “the American tour of Stepinac: The Cardinal and His Conscience was held in several cities: from LA, through Washington, Chicago and Pittsburgh to New York. I see this as a first step, not only in presenting the film, but also in recalling the universal relevance of Stepinac’s legacy, which in his day was better known and recognised than it is today. It seems very important to me that the tour was held as part of cultural activities funded by the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, and organised by the Croatian Embassy in Washington and Croatian consular offices in the United States.

It also seems important to me that the film, for example in Washington, was seen by some people who are not from Croatia, and they are very important for Croatian international relations. It is important that they understand the so-called Stepinac case …

Particularly touching was the reaction of the renowned Chicago artist and gallerist John David Mooney, the last student of Ivan Mestrovic, who as a student at a Catholic High School in the United States, along with his classmates, once prayed for the release of Archbishop Stepinac even though they did not know about the whole Stepinac case. He, deeply moved, literally shed tears and weeped at the screening.

Several of our emigrants, who work with young people and not only with Croats, have expressed a desire to show them the film.”

It saddens me personally to have noticed, for instance in the case of New York screening, that among all those Croatian diplomatic dignitaries and even a government Minister not one of them it seems brought along a foreign colleague, a foreign diplomat or envoy and show off the beautiful Croatian truth in the good deeds of Alojzije Stepinac. This would have added another needed notch in the path to Stepinac’s canonisation that is stumbling upon many hurdles fabricated by former communists, Serbian Orthodox Church and their friends. How wonderful it would have been to see many more foreign and American people at this film’s screenings and some solid international mingling with the truth of Alojzije Stepinac and his remarkable human, benevolent and courageous conscience in times of peril and World War Two battlegrounds. 

When it comes to fighting for the truth in Alojzije Stepinac case, in taking strong, courageous and decisive steps then Dr Esther Gitman fortunately beats all while the Croatian government is still making baby steps. Film author and director Visnja Staresina deserves our gratitude and her great work for Croatian truth is noticed far and wide. Well done! Ina Vukic

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