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Croatian WWII Concentration Camp records made available for first time by United States Holocaust

WASHINGTON, DC — For the past year, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has saved from deterioration, organized and conserved thousands of artifacts, tens of thousands of documents, thousands of photographs, and hours of film footage from one of World War II’s most notorious concentration camp systems, Jasenovac. Located in Croatia and operated by the fascist Ustaša regime, the Jasenovac camp system’s history remained largely hidden from Western historians until recently, although its brutal history continues to stir deep passions in those nations which comprised the former Yugoslavia. The Museum received only a portion of a larger collection, as many of the materials’ whereabouts are unknown.

Museum officials are discussing today the historical importance of the collection and the camp, as well as displaying some of the collection’s key artifacts. The Museum believes this press conference marks the first time any of these objects have been displayed in the United States, and probably outside the former Yugoslavia.

“The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was entrusted to preserve these precious materials so they are not lost to future generations,” says Rabbi Irving Greenberg, Chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. “These records are not relegated to a distant past. The events at Jasenovac continue to reverberate throughout the region, and by making this documentation available to researchers, historians and the public, we are ensuring that this history is accurately preserved and those murdered at Jasenovac are remembered.”

“The Museum is committed to broadening our knowledge of the Holocaust,” says Museum Director, Sara J. Bloomfield. “Scholarly research carried out at the Museum illuminates the lesser known aspects of this history. Each new discovery adds a small degree of focus to a complex picture and increases our understanding of these horrific events. We are morally and intellectually bound to continue bringing new aspects of this history to light.”

The collection consists of tens of thousands of paper documents, 8 reels of 35 mm and 16 mm film, almost two thousand photos, approximately 70 audio oral histories from camp survivors, and thousands of historical artifacts. The collection will shed new light on the camp’s administration and conditions, and provide details on victims’ identities and why they were imprisoned.

In the early 1990s, during the Yugoslav civil war, the former deputy director of the Jasenovac Memorial Area tried to protect the collection from fighting near Jasenovac by transporting it from a museum on the Jasenovac site to the Banja Luka archive in Republic Srpska, a portion of Bosnia and Herzegovina populated primarily by ethnic Serbs. It remained there throughout the 1990s, stored in conditions that contributed to the collection’s rapid deterioration.

In the summer of 2000, the United States Embassies in Zagreb and Sarajevo alerted the Museum to the collection’s presence in Banja Luka. A Museum researcher confirmed the report at the end of August, and negotiations began for the Museum to assume temporary custody of the collection to organize and preserve it. In October 2000, three Museum specialists were granted access to the archive to assess its contents and condition. They determined that work needed to begin immediately if the collection was to be saved.

The Museum reached agreements with the governments of Republika Srpska and Croatia, and was charged with organizing, re-housing and conserving the collection. With aid from the Department of State, the Museum arranged to receive the collection on October 27, 2000, via diplomatic pouch. Under the signed agreements, the Museum will return the Jasenovac collection by November 26, 2001, to the Croatian government, who will transfer it to the Jasenovac Memorial Area. The Museum will work with the Jasenovac Memorial Area and the Jasenovac Council to maintain the accurate history of the collection. In addition, the Museum is fostering a formal relationship between the International Task Force on Holocaust Remembrance, Education and Research and the government of Croatia.

The Museum has also established a Web site on the Jasenovac camp at www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/jasenovac/. The site will be available beginning November 13 and contains a camp history, photographs and films from the camp, oral histories of camp survivors, images and descriptions of items from the collection, and more. The Museum is also making copies of the collection for archives in Banja Luka, the government of Yugoslavia, Yad Vashem in Israel, and others. The Museum has invested more than $150,000 in employee time, travel expenses, reproduction costs, and materials conserving this collection.

Many of the documents in the collection are reproductions, and the originals’ whereabouts are unknown. After Museum specialists reviewed the master inventory provided by the Jasenovac Memorial Area, they determined a significant part of the collection, including approximately 2,500 rare books, 450 documents and 1,000 photographs, was missing when the Museum assumed custody of it.

Camp History

The Jasenovac camp complex is located in Croatia, approximately 62 miles south of Zagreb, and operated between August 1941 and April 1945. A series of five camps along the Sava River, Jasenovac was one of World War II’s most brutal concentration camps. The Ustaša regime murdered tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Roma for racial, religious and ethnic reasons at Jasenovac. Muslims and political opponents of the regime were also murdered there. Women were separated and imprisoned in the Stara Gradiška sub-camp. The men were divided into the other four camps depending upon their backgrounds and skills.

The security police of Croatia’s fascist Ustaša regime administered Jasenovac. Croat authorities deployed units of the paramilitary Ustaša militia as guards. Most prisoners were murdered upon arrival at killing sites near the camp. Those kept alive were skilled professionals, such as doctors, electricians, tradespersons, and others whose talents the regime could exploit.

Unfortunately, information about the camp is incomplete.

Historians have encountered a number of roadblocks in trying to chronicle Jasenovac’s history, among them a tendency to politicize that history. The unavailability of documents during Yugoslavia’s communist era, language barriers (most of the records are in Serbian or Croatian), and incomplete census data before World War II have all hindered research. Competing views and lack of documentation have resulted in large discrepancies in fatality figures. The best estimates are:

Serbs: Serbs were the Ustaša regime’s primary victims, and quantifying the number of Serbian victims is extremely difficult. Estimates vary tremendously, from 25,000 to more than one million. The most reliable figures place the number between 330,000 and 390,000, with 45,000 to 52,000 Serbs murdered in Jasenovac.

Jews: The best estimates indicate that of the approximately 32,000 Croatian and Bosnian Jews murdered during the Holocaust, between 8,000 and 20,000 perished in Jasenovac. These figures do not include the approximately 7,000 Jews turned over by the Ustaša to the Germans for deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Nazi-occupied Poland and other camps.

Roma/Sinti (Gypsies): Only loose estimates exist for the number of Roma and Sinti living in prewar Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The best estimates calculate the number of Roma and Sinti victims at approximately 26,000, of whom between 8,000 and 15,000 were murdered in Jasenovac.

Croats: Croat religious and political opponents of the Ustaša regime were also persecuted. Between 5,000 and 12,000 Croats are believed to have been killed in Jasenovac.

Muslims: There are no reliable statistics on Muslim victims. They were persecuted for religious and political rather than racial reasons. Some were ethnic Croats.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is America’s national institution for the documentation, study and interpretation of Holocaust history, and serves as this country’s memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust. Since opening in April 1993, the Museum has welcomed more than 17 million visitors. The Museum’s primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.

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