By the initiative of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia, the exhibition under the title IF I FORGET YOU... – The Holocaust in Croatia 1941-1945 / Final Destination Auschwitz has been organized Croatian History Museum.
The exhibition focuses on the sufferings of Jews from Croatia during World War II, with a special emphasis on the fates of Jews deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
For the first time in the 30 years history of the Republic of Croatia, the bleakest period of Croatian history has been openly presented and documented: the criminal Ustasha regime ruling the Independent State of Croatia between 1941 and 1945. The exhibition has been set up at the French Pavilion, a site where the Jews from Zagreb and other places in Croatia, were originally gathered and form which they were transported in railway wagons to the concentration camps.
The opening of the exhibition was attended by the highest representatives of the Croatian Government, a number of ambassadors and representatives of Jewish, Muslim and Serbian communities in Croatia. The sponsor of the exhibition was the Government of the Republic of Croatia, and accordingly, it was opened by Mr. Plenković, the Prime Minister of Croatia. The following quotations have been selected from his inspiring speech:
The exhibition entitled "If I forget you... ", prepared by the Croatian History Museum, conveys a message whose content was recognized by the Government of Croatia and therefore accepted patronage. The message is that one must not allow such crimes to sink into oblivion because forgetting the crimes is denying a human being and denying his humanity.
"If I forget you... " I stop being human.
"If I forget you... " we stop being human.
The act of forgetting happens every time when we as individuals or a community fail to stand up against any form of discrimination and speak up loud and clear to protect human dignity, equality and dialogue. We forget every time when we fail to clearly speak about the Holocaust, notably about the consequences of the undemocratic, totalitarian and racist Ustasha regime in Croatia from 1941 to 1945.
The value of the exhibition is that it clearly reveals the system of terror established in the territory of the Independent State of Croatia against the Jewish, Roma and Serb people as well as against Croat anti-fascists and democrats who stood up against that regime.
The exhibition is in line with the government's endeavors, policy, and attitude that all socio-political, professional, scientific and especially educational mechanisms must find their role in nurturing a culture of memory. They must find their place in engaging in the search for truth, overcoming divisions and building a future in which tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect will become the foundation and lasting pledge of peace.
Further, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said: “I believe that the exhibition will contribute to understanding the full scale of the criminal ideologies of racism and anti-Semitism, from which the darkest period of European and world history has sprung, but it will also inspire us to reflect on all forms of totalitarianism. I believe and hope that the experience of preparing this exhibition will help us in carrying out the project of a new national exhibition of the Republic of Croatia at the Auschwitz-Birkenau National Museum in Poland.”
The exhibition venue, destinies of the killed, testimonies of the survivors, and the few preserved original objects from the camp, photographs, and documents from various Croatian and international museums and archives, as well as those borrowed from the families of the victims and the Righteous among the Nations, have been divided into four thematic units:
The first unit positions the theme in place and time. It provides the visitors with an insight into the broader context of historical events and informs them about the regime of terror established in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) against the Jewish, Serbian, and Roma populations, Communists and anti-Fascists, and in particular its attitude towards the Jewish population, now subjected to the racial laws and deprived of all their rights.
The second unit describes the camp system in NDH, as well as in other areas of present-day Croatia that were under Italian (Istria and the Croatian Littoral) or Hungarian (Međimurje) annexation and/or occupation. A particular emphasis has been placed on the Jasenovac camp, which has become a symbol of Ustasha terror and the suffering of Jews, Serbs, Roma, and anti-Fascists. Namely, even before the mass deportations of Jews to the Auschwitz camp in August 1942 and May 1943, most Croatian and Bosnian-Herzegovinian Jews were killed in the camps located in the territory of NDH. (In Croatia, the number of Jews at the end of WWII was less than ten percent of the number of Jews before 1941)
The third section specifically focuses on the camp where a large part of the Jewish population from the NDH territory, but also from Istria, the Croatian Littoral, and Međimurje, were killed in the period from 1942 to 1944. Other camps have been included as well, such as Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen, or Buchenwald, as they were also death camps for the Jewish and other populations.
The last section, called “A Sparkle in the Darkness,” is dedicated to those Jews who participated in the anti-Fascist resistance and to the Croatian Righteous Among the Nations, individuals who were involved in saving Jews even though it meant a great risk for their lives.
Within these thematic units the individual fates of the victims, specifically Jews, are presented. The organizers and perpetrators of crimes have been introduced within individual thematic units with regard to the context and their role in the given time and space. The exhibition also includes a selection of photographs of the victims, Jews from various Croatian cities and towns, who were killed in Ustasha camps and in Auschwitz.
Video clips with the testimonies of surviving Auschwitz inmates – Branko Lustig, Tonka Petričević, Oleg Mandić, and Oto Konstein – are shown at the exhibition. In addition, Mr. Mandić delivered a speech at the exhibition that will be difficult to forget.
There is multilayer importance of this exhibition. Maybe the key characteristic of it is that it is based upon scholarly work and research in this field, and the responsibility of the profession to explore and present this extremely turbulent, tragic, and brief period of Croatian history (1941-1945) based on methodically established historical facts and the contemporary methods of museological practice. This should protect us from earlier often popular auction-like bidding about the number of victims. (From 30 000 up to 700 000 killed in Jasenovac, depending whose political interest the numbers should support or disqualify.) Further, the exhibition delivers and documents everything required to finally qualify Jasenovac as an extermination camp and Jadovno as an execution site. Hopefully, the permanent display of the Jasenovac museum will adjust to this fact.
Further, extermination camp Jasenovac and the Ustasha atrocities were often the subjects of commemorative speeches of political leaders at commemorations when this subject could not be avoided. Those of the attendees who were sincerely and justifiably interested in the subject could clearly identify the gap between the political realities in Croatia and what the speeches - mostly by the politicians of the governing party and Mrs. President of the Republic – tried to deliver. Consequently, the always same question was asked: when will deeds finally replace words? When will the political reality in Croatia mirror the words spoken in those commemorative speeches? We think that this exhibition represents the first recognizable step in that direction. We believe that the inspired speech of Prime Minister Mr. Plenković will additionally stimulate this process. And therefore it is to expect that the exhibition will become mandatory for school children to attend. Especially considering what the official history books teach students today about this period of Croatian history and what is below any professional standard.
The exhibition will be open in Zagreb for two months. After that, it will be visiting numerous cities in the country.