No one likes to admit they have been duped, so it is no surprise that we have not seen headlines declaring that the history of Eastern Europe as we know it is largely based on Communist propaganda. What is disquieting, however, is that there hasn't been a rush by historians to delve into the hitherto closed archives and set the record straight. Indeed, one of the areas that has remained largely unexamined, despite the popularity of Holocaust literature, is the rescue and survival of Jews during World War II. Bucking this trend is Esther Gitman, whose book When Courage Prevailed details the extraordinary efforts of non-Jews to save Jews, often at great risk to their own lives, under the puppet regime of the Independent State of Croatia (which territorially also included Bosnia and Hercegovina)
We should perhaps begin by noting that Dr Gitman is no apologist for Croatian fascism or Catholicism. She is a Jew who would not have survived the Nazi liquidation of Sarajevo in 1941 had it not been for the assistance of 'righteous gentiles'. Since then, she has earnt a Bachelor's degree in History and Sociology, a Masters degree in Criminal Justice, and a PhD in Jewish History. As a Rosenberg Fellow for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, she expanded her doctoral research to produce this groundbreaking work, When Courage Prevailed.
Gitman argues that "we cannot really comprehend the Holocaust without considering the fact that some Jews did escape the Final Solution" and that despite the existence of "considerable documentation" scholars of the region have largely ignored the subject, assumed that the Croats were "universally murderous", and been hampered by the fact that until the mid-1990s "only selected historians who followed the Titoist line enjoyed access" to the archives of the former Yugoslavia. It is not a promising starting point for anyone committed to discerning the complicated truth. However, Gitman perseveres and take us on an enlightening and at times poignant journey through the war. She uses extensive primary source material, some of which is detailed in the five appendices, and takes care to give plenty of context for those who may not be familiar with the history and culture of the region.
The first hint of the gravity of our deception comes in the introduction. I believe I am one of a majority of Australians who, if they were taught anything at all about Croatia, were told that the Yugoslav mixed economy compared favourably to our own and that the Catholic Croats during World War II were enthusiastic supporters of Nazism and its puppet regime under the Ustaša leader Ante PaveliÄ‡. It is therefore somewhat disturbing to have a Jewish historian point out from the very beginning that it is "essential to clarify that the Croatian people neither elected nor selected PaveliÄ‡ and his Ustaše; this regime was chosen and imposed on them by the Axis powers". This is simply not the way we have been taught to think about Croatian collaborators. Gitman then adds that "a large number of Croats were not blinded by the Ustaše's authority. They despised foreign occupation, as well as the Nazis' racial ideology…" and some, no less than one hundred and fifty thousand, even took up arms against the occupying forces.
Upon this newly wiped clean slate, Gitman paints a picture of a highly unique response to Nazi occupation and the collaborating Ustaša regime. She documents how ordinary Croats wrote letters of petition to the authorities requesting that their Jewish friends, neighbours, and work colleagues be released from concentration camps. They read like character references, and cite the Jews' honesty, decency, and good conduct. However naïve this may seem to us in hindsight, some of them actually succeeded, and (as Gitman has pointed out elsewhere) she has found over four hundred such letters, each signed by up to one hundred and eighty-seven people, and to the best of her knowledge no letters of this kind have been found in any other country under Nazi occupation.
These petitions were not isolated incidents either. Before the citizens of the Independent State of Croatia experienced the full force of the regime's cruelty, many openly protested against the puppet government, and the general feeling was one of "distrust" according to an Italian diplomat's 1942 dispatch. Nazi propaganda "struggled to gain traction", and the Croatian people were "reacting very negatively to the anti-Jewish measures". There were also efforts to secure exit visas for Jews, and the creation of various 'exemptions' by the Ustaša regime itself, including the designation of five hundred Jews as 'Honorary Aryans'. More than a thousand more were exempted because they were married to non-Jews, including the wives of the Ustaša leader PaveliÄ‡ and the head of the armed forces. Several thousand more Jews and their families were accorded Aryan rights (but not status) and protected, at least temporarily, due to the essential nature of their work. The reluctance of Croatians "to assist the occupiers and the Ustaše, and their willingness and courage to disobey, helped some Jews to hold on until they could be rescued".
Against this complex backdrop, Gitman details many concrete examples of how Croats, often with the knowledge and cooperation of the regime's officials, subverted the government's compliance with Nazi policies, but perhaps the most intriguing is how Jewish physicians were sent to Bosnia on a bizarre mission to eradicate syphilis amongst the Muslim population. This ingenious scheme, which was backed by the Minister of Health and supported by three out of seven other ministers and the Ustaša leader Ante PaveliÄ‡, enabled Jewish physicians to be employed and therefore protected by the government. It was essentially a deception, for the "primary rationale" was to "save as many Jewish physicians as possible", but it was a deception that Croatian officials largely countenanced. The immediate families of the physicians were also given immunity from deportation, and later on (as the situation deteriorated) some took the opportunity afforded by their protected status to either defect to the Partisans or escape the country altogether.
The most eye-opening chapter of When Courage Prevailed is perhaps the one about the Catholic Church and the Zagreb Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac who was subsequently convicted by the Communists for assisting the Ustaše in a highly political trial. Gitman analyses diplomatic correspondence, Stepinac's letters and "inspirational" sermons, and his interaction with both the Ustaša government and the Jewish community to argue compellingly that Stepinac "found himself between a rock and a hard place" but despite this was "outspoken" against the Ustaše and Nazis. He also personally intervened to secure the survival of many Jews, some of whom he even gave sanctuary on church property. Interestingly, the Chief Rabbi of Zagreb declined Stepinac's offer of sanctuary so that he could remain with his people, but he did entrust his entire library to the Archbishop's safekeeping and it was duly returned to the Jewish community in its entirety after the war.
Esther Gitman portrays Stepinac as a courageous prelate who never forgot "his belief in moral law as a guiding principle". She reminds us that he believed there was only one race, the human race, and that he was the sort of man who requested that the eight Jewish priests and nuns in his diocese continue to wear the yellow Star of David despite an exemption as a sign of their "belonging to the people from which Our Saviour was born". She explains that he allowed false conversions "in order to save human lives" with the explicit intent that they could "return to their church" when "this time of madness and savagery passes". And she repeatedly explodes the myth that Stepinac or his Church in any way supported the Ustaše, noting that he appealed to PaveliÄ‡ to "cease the persecution of Orthodox Serbs", declaring that the Catholic Church feared no earthly power "when it is a question of defending the most basic rights of men". As early as 1941, the Germans were complaining to the SS in Berlin about the "troublesome archbishop": "We were informed all along about the political meddling of the cleric [Stepinac]… most churches in Croatia have contacts with London and the government-in-exile…. Our objective is to eliminate [his] influence."
When Courage Prevailed also examines the role of Italians (who occupied the Dalmatian coastal region of Croatia) in rescuing Jews and how the Italian-controlled areas were important for the transit of Jews escaping the Ustaše and in their own right as havens. We learn of the Italian Army's pretence of incompetence to cover their pro-Jewish activities, the long-term hiding of Jews by Catholic clergy, and how Jewish children from Sarajevo who were initially rescued by the Croatian Jews of Osijek were then transferred to Italy where they once again had to be rescued due to the capitulation of Italy. If there is one criticism I have of this book, it is that Gitman tantalises us with so much heart-wrenching firsthand testimony but neglects to tell the story of even one survivor in its entirety.
Ultimately, When Courage Prevailed demonstrates that the rescue of Jews in the Independent State of Croatia was a joint effort that required the cooperation of "individuals, armies, and humanitarian and religious institutions from several countries". It points to a form of resistance that was valiant, uninterrupted by the threat of Nazi and Ustaša reprisals, and remarkably widespread – resistance that should not be swept under the carpet on account of the depressingly large proportion of Jews who did not survive. As Esther Gitman concludes, this "collective effort" by "government officials, Catholic prelates, and ordinary citizens of all faiths who put their own lives and those of their families in harm's way" – that saved nine thousand five hundred Jews – "confirms that dictators like Hitler, Mussolini, and PaveliÄ‡ can be defeated when countries unite and challenge the misguided ideologies that intend to divide the world into races, ethnicity, and religion".
Mishka Gora is a Tasmanian writer specialising in war, conscience, international justice, and the former Yugoslavia. She is author of Fragments of War, an autobiographical novel about the 1990s conflict in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina.