Holocaust historian Prof. Gideon Greif is pleading with Pope Francis, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among others, to remove a plaque in Jerusalem’s Old City dedicated to the Croatian Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac.
The cardinal is a controversial figure in Balkan history because of his support for the World War II-era fascist Croatian Ustasha regime in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which perpetrated a genocide against Jews, Serbs and Roma in its territory during the war.
The plaque for Stepinac is located in the Austrian Hospice, the self-proclaimed first guesthouse for Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem, which opened its doors in the Old City in 1863.
The church property was established with the help of Catholic authorities across the then-Austrian Empire, which included Austria, Hungary, and today’s Croatia, among other territories. The Catholic authorities involved in the founding of the hospice maintained ties with it by sending curators, priests, and pilgrims to the guesthouse in Jerusalem even after the collapse of the Empire and Hapsburg rule in 1918, according to church rector Markus Bugnyar.
A delegation of Croatian pilgrims approached the leadership of the hospice last year with the idea of having a commemorative plaque for the Croatian cardinal, says Bugnyar.
The plaque, written in Latin, sits next to the entrance of the chapel in the corridor outside, but within the overall building. Placed by a group called the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, the plaque commemorates the pilgrimage of Stepinac to the Holy Land in 1937, before WWII. The pilgrim Stepinac, along with other Croatian pilgrims, stayed at the hospice, making him and his trip a part of the house’s history.
“This plaque is provocative. It wants to say that we want him to be considered a noble person, knowing that he wasn’t,” says Prof. Gideon Greif, whose research on the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz formed the basis of the Oscar-winning movie “Son of Saul.” “I think it is an aggressive step to force us to think of a villain as a good-hearted person.”
Greif is also known for his work researching the Croatian death camp Jasenovac for his 2018 book, “Jasenovac: Auschwitz of the Balkans.” The book examines killing apparatus set up by the NDH at the Jasenovac death camp, which possessed in total 57 different extermination mechanisms.
Jasenovac opened in August 1941 and only closed in May 1945 with a mass escape of 1,000 prisoners, of whom only 100 survived.
While the exact numbers remain controversial, Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum, estimates that 600,000 Serbs were killed at Jasenovac. WWII-era Nazi sources placed the total deaths of Serbs, Jews, Roma and others at Jasenovac at between 600,000 and 800,000 people.
At the Jasenovac memorial center in Croatia itself, the number of those killed at the camp is pegged at 83,000. Across the Sava River from Jasenovac, at the Donja Gradina Memorial Center in the Republika Srpska portion of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the tally of victims from the Jasenovac and its sub-camps is 700,000 individuals.
The Stepinac plaque, much like everything else that has to do with the Holocaust in the Balkans, is the subject of discomfort and an urge to move on from the past.
For this report, the Israeli foreign ministry declined to comment on whether it was appropriate to install the Stepinac plaque on private church property in the nation’s capital. It is unclear if anyone in the Israeli government was consulted before this decision was implemented. The Croatian and Serbian embassies in Israel also did not provide official responses to the plaque issue. A request for comment to the papal nuncio for the Holy Land was directed to church rector Bugnyar at the hospice.
Stepinac’s controversial legacy
Stepinac’s wartime legacy is not cut and dry: He made efforts to save specific groups of Jews and Serbs from state-sponsored murder during the war.
“Throughout the war years Stepinac gave cover to groups and individuals [to save them from persecution],” says Esther Gitman, a historian and author of the book “Alojzije Stepinac — Pillar of Human Rights.”
Unlike Ustasha leader Ante Pavelić, Stepinac did not view the Holocaust through the lens of maintaining racial purity. Because the church’s position was that marriage and baptism were holy sacraments, the Catholic Church in principle held that they must shield baptized Jews and Serbs, as well as those involved in church-sanctified mixed marriages with Catholics. To save these people, the Cardinal advocated taking a lenient approach to judging their sincerity of conversion and knowledge of their newfound faith.
Gitman in her book quotes a characteristic letter that Stepinac wrote on March 7, 1942, to NDH interior minister Andrija Artuković.
“I do not think that it can bring us any glory if it is said of us that we have solved the Jewish problem in the most radical way, that is to say, the cruelest. The solution of this question must provide only for the punishment of those who have committed crimes, not for persecution of innocent people,” wrote Stepinac.
Similarly, the future cardinal and then archbishop was willing to act to save people on an individual level. Ahead of the planned deportation of the Jews of Zagreb, Stepinac even offered refuge to the city’s chief rabbi, Miroslav Freiberger. The latter declined, preferring to remain with his congregation. He perished in Auschwitz.
In lieu of Stepinac’s offer of shelter, Freiberger asked the archbishop to take care of his library. This library was returned intact to the reopened Jewish community after the war.
Yad Vashem declined to recognize Stepinac as a Righteous Among the Nations when petitioned in 1970, and again in 1994, because he did not risk his life to save Jews.
Closeness with regime
Muddying the waters further, while Stepinac sometimes came out against the Ustasha government’s method of implementing racial purity, he did at times support the regime.
In 1942, Stepinac showed this support by becoming a member of Croatia’s parliament. Ustasha leader Pavelić even gave Stepinac the Order of the Star in 1944 in recognition of the cardinal’s service to the Independent State of Croatia (NDH). Stepinac’s closeness to the regime gave a green light to Croatian Catholic priests to assist in the genocide, and some Franciscan Friars were reported to be directly involved in the massacre of innocents at Jasenovac, the only non-Nazi-run death camp in WWII.
“This is the tragedy of the Croats nowadays,” says Greif. “They persuade themselves that the regime was okay… and that the criminals behaved correctly. Otherwise, their whole worldview as they see it would collapse.”
The Austrian Hospice is not attempting to whitewash the past of its illustrious guest. The first floor of the hospice contains a permanent exhibit on past guests of note. Here, the dispute between Croatian and Serbian perspectives on Cardinal Stepinac is mentioned.
“I am aware of the disputed role of Cardinal Stepinac during WWII and his activities during the Ustasha regime,” says church rector Bugnyar. “Since Cardinal Stepinac had been elevated among the Blessed of the Catholic Church [as part of the canonization process] I can rightly assume that the ecclesiastical authorities did of course look in this matter too.”
The Austrian Hospice sits on some prime Jerusalem real estate in terms of symbolism for Christians, situated on the Via Dolorosa, the path of suffering that Jesus Christ took on the way to his crucifixion. This leads to the question of whether the Latin plaque is an attempt to push Stepinac’s candidacy for sainthood.
Stepinac began the canonization process with his beatification in 1998 by Pope John Paul II. It was helped by the priest’s portrayal as a victim of the postwar communist regime, which tried him and put him in prison before confining him to his parish. Since then, the canonization process has been bogged down over the cardinal’s wartime record.
A 2017 joint commission of Croatian and Serbian Orthodox clerics and laymen failed to reach a consensus on the cardinal. As of May 2019, Pope Francis has called for additional study on the issue of Stepinac before deciding his sainthood. The planned opening in 2020 of the secret archives of Pope Pius XII is expected to reveal much more detail regarding Stepinac’s wartime activities.
“You have to look at the whole picture when you judge anything,” says Greif. “You must compare the majority [of the picture] with the minority or what is more and less significant.”
“Even if Stepinac saved a certain number of Jews, that doesn’t make him a good person or a person who stood against the cruelty of the Ustasha regime,” Greif says.
“If new facts are discovered, every decent person has to reevaluate — but if this doesn’t exist, why should we reevaluate his evil activities?” asks Greif.