Stumbling Stones In Croatia Should Symbolise Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust and Communist Crimes – A Historical Reality to Pursue?

On the chilly autumn morning of 25 October 2023 in the capital of Croatia, Zagreb, several residents, or rather leftist or pro-communist Yugoslavia political activists some of whose immediate family members were brutal aggressors and ethnic cleansers against Croats during 1990’s war of aggression, former President Ivo Josipovic and a handful of politicians of Serbian extraction, viz Milorad Pupovac and Boris Milosevic of the SDSS/ Independent Democratic Serb Party, as well as handful individuals evidently aligned with the communist past, huddled together on the pavement just outside the Hotel Dubrovnik that is situated on corner of the Ban Jelacic Square and Gajeva Street, to commemorate Svetozar Milinov and his family with the installation of a remembrance stumbling stone (or block). A Croatian Serb Svetozar Milinov was the original owner of Hotel Dubrovnik and he and his family were reportedly among the first Serbs killed in Croatia (1941) by the Ustashi regime and their deaths are considered by some political servants to be a part of the Holocaust. Indeed, it can safely be assumed that those present at this commemorative installation of a stumbling stone and those behind it are among those.

Natasa Popovic, director of the Croatian Centre for the Promotion of Tolerance and Preservation of the Memory of the Holocaust, said that “the stumbling stones dedicated to individual victims of the National Socialist and Ustasha regime indicate the moral duty to remember and take responsibility for what happened.”

Naturally I agree. However, there is a duty to remember and take responsibility for everything that happened, including the communist crimes’ purges of patriotic Croats. Popovic was not about to mention that! And that is so symptomatic of the pro-communist mindset still holding heavily onto the power reins in Croatia.

Known as “Stolpersteine”, or “stumbling stones”, the stone is a ten-centimetre concrete cube bearing a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution the installation of which started in Berlin in 1996. The stones were invented with the aim to commemorate individuals at exactly the last place of residency or work – which was freely chosen by the person before they fell victim to Nazi terror, forced euthanasia, eugenics, deportation to a concentration or extermination camp, or escaped persecution by emigration or suicide. There’s probably over 100,000 such stones installed on pavements across Europe. The stones represent a new vision of urban remembrance and unlike large monuments focus on individual tragedies.

It is my firm belief that everything possible needs to be done in order to make sure that remembrance preserves the dignity of the victims and, in this case in Zagreb, not much victim dignity appears to have been preserved. First of all, the stone in installed and commemorated by Serbs and former communists of former Yugoslavia! It is a historical fact that while those Serbs deny the fact that World War Two Serbia was among the first in Europe to declare itself “Judenfrei”/Jew Free, they keep pursuing the laying of guilt for WWII exterminations against Croatia.

The Jew Free status of Serbia was achieved by the killing of 94% of Jews in Serbia as early as May 1942 as its Milan Nedic government joined freely, and enthusiastically, forces in this extermination business with the occupying Nazi forces. Croatia was Nazi occupied also, but it never pursued a Jew Free status. If you depend on history as reported by Serbs or their allies you will never come across this absolute fact, which of course does not in any way excuse the terrible killings that did occur under racial laws. That is a historical fact. Hence, how can any dignity of victim Milanov be preserved when his stumbling stone of remembrance is installed by the descendants and political subscribers to the murderous communist Yugoslavia that murdered so many more!? It cannot – in the eyes of dignity and truth.

For me, stumbling over a piece of metal or concrete in the ground is anything but dignified. But at least it is a daily reminder of the past that was cruel to multitudes. In that light, were stumbling stones to be installed for the hundreds of thousands of victims of communist crimes as well as multitudes driven to emigration due to intolerable communist oppression and purges then, together with the stumbling stones dedicated to the victims of the Ustasha regime, Croatia would have stumbling stones installed at every step of pavements in cities, towns, and villages. Every victim of whichever brutal regime needs to be treated equally, with same piety and respect but not in former communist countries such as Croatia! Anything less does not preserve the dignity of victims because remembrance becomes a political spin seeking power, justifying one crime by condemning another. That is Croatia today. Communist crimes as opposed to those likened to the Holocaust are consistently ignored and even justified! Justified! For political reasons and no other!  

In a controversial move, Stolpersteine or Stumbling Stones were banned by Munich city council in 2004. The decision was upheld in 2015, despite more than 100,000 people signing a petition in favour of them. In the summer of 2018, Munich introduced an alternative remembrance project, also placed before a victim’s last home, but presenting biographic plaques and photographs on stainless steel columns.

Every time I come across the installation of stumbling stones in Croatia I think of my late friend Helena S., a Croatian Jew who fled Zagreb with her family in 1939 and the family’s sizable property in elite and expensive parts of Zagreb, such as Pantovcak, confiscated by the Ustashe regime in 1941. The family settled in Australia and once communist Yugoslavia took the reins in May 1945, the family tried and hoped to have their properties returned. Decades of futile attempts for justice bore no positive fruit. The communists of Yugoslavia did not return the confiscated properties but gave them to communist party officials and operatives. Then the family embarked on attempts to have the properties returned from 1994, i.e., soon after Croatia seceded from communist Yugoslavia. To this day – no return; former communist operatives still live in those elite properties and have usurped as their own many of them! How can such people or their descendants be taken seriously when they go about installing stumbling stones to victims whose families suffered under their reins also!?

German leftist (or pro-communist) artist’s, Gunter Demnig’s stumbling stones project in essence asks people to take an active role in the reconstruction of the Nazi past of their own cities and localities. Demnig set stumbling stones in the pavement only on the invitation of local organisations or groups of citizens who have developed an interest in his project and who have researched the histories of the victims who are to be remembered with these stones. Placing these stumbling stones has sometimes provoked controversy. Some homeowners argue that a stone in front of their property may lower its value, a few city governments have refused to give the necessary permission, and some Jews have questioned whether stepping on the names of the victims is an appropriate way to remember them. Yet, Demnig’s project is constantly expanding. It seems that the “stumbling stones” has become a European project; examples of this “decentralised monument” can now be found not only in Germany, but also in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Ukraine, Croatia, and other countries.

Hence, Croatia has not been exempt from this trend of remembrance, so a couple of years ago several such stumbling stones have also been set up in Zagreb. One of them, placed in Zagreb at the address Boskoviceva 28 mentions Miroslav Juhn, born in 1897, who was reportedly deported to Jadovno in 1941 and killed in August 1941. On the contrary, the online Jasenovac Memorial Site census states that Miroslav Juhn was born in 1897 in Podgorac and killed in 1941 in Jasenovac. So, already on the basis of the above mentioned example (and there are quite a few others), it can be clearly said that the stumbling stones project joined numerous other sources that denounce the online list of Jasenovac Memorial Site as a problematic source containing a number of false victims.

It is more than saddening that a similar project to stumbling stones has not been pursued for victims of communist crimes who were, in fact, more numerous than victims of the Holocaust. Europe had both murderous regimes in its twentieth century: the Nazi and the Communist and it had acknowledged this by officially condemning them in its parliament but chooses to stay silent at the relative lack of respect, justice, and human dignity for victims of communist crimes. Some would argue that by respecting both victims equally, diminishes the significance of the Holocaust and would fall under the politically invented term “Holocaust denial”. Well, to my vision, a human being never utilises politics or discrimination when it comes to victimhood because the very term “victim” is defined by an innocent human being falling as a target of brutal political regimes or criminals.  There is no denying the crimes of totalitarian Communist governments, in Croatia under communist Yugoslavia in particular — mock trials and mass executions, forced labour camps, grinding oppression and several hundreds of thousands of patriotic Croats who rejected communism dead in over a thousand mass graves and pits as well as more than a million escapees fleeing to the West post World War Two. The purpose of memorials serves to remember and humanise the victims but should also stand as a reminder of the human capacity for evil from whichever corner of political pursuits, whether racial laws or political disagreements it comes from.

Both Communism and Nazism were genocidal regimes. No doubt about that! Analytical distinctions between them, that we come across rather too frequently, with the aim to make one look better than the other, devaluing the victims of one or the other, may be seen as important by some, but the commonality in terms of complete contempt for the bourgeois state of law, human rights, and the universality of humankind regardless of spurious race and class distinction is beyond doubt. Communism and Nazism contained all the political and ideological ingredients of the totalitarian order – party monopoly on power, ideological uniformity and regimentation, censorship, demonisation of the “people’s enemy,” besieged fortress mentality, secret police terror, concentration camps and/or hard labour camps, and, no less important, the obsession with the shaping of some “New Man.”

Renowned historian and political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, had drawn a moral equation between communism and Nazism, writing in her  1951 “The Origins of Totalitarianism” that both represented “absolute evil,” just two sides of the same totalitarian coin. Considering that and in light of my own moral persuasion no communist or Nazi sympathisers should be installing stumbling stones or other memorial symbols to any victims of any totalitarian regime because the lack of that non-discriminatory, filled with conflicts of interests, act takes the human dignity of the victims away. To boot, published in the late 1990’s the absolute international best seller, the Black Book of Communism, which documents communist atrocities, was very well received and opened millions of shut eyes. What The Black Book of Communism succeeds in demonstrating is that communism in its essence was from the outset inimical to the values of individual rights and human freedom. Despite communism’s overblown rhetoric on emancipation from oppression, the leap into freedom turned out to be an experiment in social engineering for the success of which murder and extermination of political opponents was compulsory. Paranoia regarding infiltration, subversion, and treason were enduring features of all communist political cultures, from Russia and China, to Romania and Yugoslavia (Croatia).

How long will it take for the world to repay the debt of civilisation to all victims, be they victims of Nazism or victims of Communism!? Ina Vukic

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