Friday, September 30, 2016

Jovan Culibrk "Historiography of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia"

Last night I was honoured to launch "Historiography of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia" by my colleague and friend, Bishop Jovan Culibrk of Slavonia.  I met Jovan in 2009 when I participated in a Yad Vashem sponsored seminar on Pope Pius XII.  Fr Jovan, as he was then, was a wonderfully hospitable host while I was in Jerusalem and I have valued his friendship.  Now as a bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church he is in a position to be a voice of historical scholarship for the preservation and memorialisation of those who died in Yugoslavia during the war especially the Jews and Serbs who perished at the hands of the Ustase and their collaborators.  Jovan is a man of towering intellect who knows Balkan history intimately, who knows the history of the Shoah and who likewise has a sound grasp on Catholic-Orthodox relations.  

There was a near-full house at the Sydney Jewish Museum including several Holocaust survivors who were born in Bosnia and Serbia.  They were enthusiastic in the welcome of the bishop.  Also present were many Serbian Orthodox Christians, including clergy and a considerable number of young people.  The Serbian Consul General also attended.

Jovan's reputation as a scholar of the Holocaust and modern Yugoslav / Balkan history places him in a unique position.  As part of his determination to ensure due honour and respect is given to those who died he invited the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, to visit Slavonia, and come to the site of the Jasenovac concentration camp in September this year.  Bartholomew came.

He was recently appointed a member of the Vatican-Serbian-Croatian Commission to study the life of the controversial Archbishop of Zagreb, Aloysius Stepanic (1898-1960).  I will post an entry on Stepanic after this one.

This the transcript of what I said last night.

Jovan Culibrk (2014) Historiography of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia, Belgrade

I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation as the first peoples of this land upon which we gather, and I pay my respects to Elders past and present and to any Aboriginal people present this evening.

I also wish Shanah Tova to everyone here tonight, may you be sealed in the Book of Life and may it go well over the fast.

29 September – feast of the Archangels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel – Latin Rite
21 November – Serbian Orthodox; patron of the Cathedral in Belgrade

In 1991 a student at my school who was not in my class asked to sit in one of my classes.  I was teaching the Arab-Israeli conflict at the time.  I asked why he wanted to "sit in"?  He said he wanted to listen and learn.  However, very early into the first lesson he began asking questions about the truthfulness of the historical record – questions about the veracity of Zionism and its claims for a Jewish homeland; the integrity of Theodore Herzl; the current situation in Israel and Occupied Territories; and finally, questions about the historical reliability of the received histories of the Holocaust, Antisemitism and Judeophobia.

There comes a time when one realizes that the child’s questions are coming from someone else.  I asked him why he was so interested in these questions.  I knew his background was Croatian – but not much more.  These were my pre-Yad Vashem days and my knowledge of the Shoah was only beginning to deepen.  My young man’s grandfather had been an Ustase officer during the war years.  I knew enough to be concerned.  It transpired that my student had been discussing my history classes with his grandfather who, it appears, was keen to give his grandson the “truth”.  It was a potent example of the hates of the Old World emigrating to Australia.  This boy was Australian, of Australian-born parents of Croatian descent.  His grandfather had brought the family to Australia after the war.  His pride in his grandfather’s membership in the Ustase was obvious – he had been richly fed on a diet of selective memory and history.  In his adolescent mind “he knew the truth” – and it was not the “truth” I was teaching.  I had to ask him not to attend any more classes.  This was my serious introduction to the complex, murky, oft-misunderstood, neglected and ignored world of Balkan history.

“The study of history itself is more important than the study of the writing about the history …  Nevertheless … this book has a certain duality, which is evident from its title: it primarily studies the scholarship about the destruction of the European Jews that took place in the region of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, but … also deals with the way in which historians in Yugoslavia regarded and studied the Holocaust.” (Culibrk 7)

Bishop Jovan chronicles with detail and academic rigour the course of Yugoslavia’s relationship with its Jewish subjects and citizens throughout the inter-war and war years.  It is not easy reading and is a reminder yet again, that while I am familiar with the history of the Shoah across Europe, there remain large gaps. One of those gaps bears the name “Yugoslavia”.

If I have read Bishop Jovan’s book correctly and done it justice, I believe the significance of his contribution to our understanding of the events of 1941-45 is great, but perhaps it is his meticulous study of how the history was created, rather than recorded.

The remains of the Jewish communities in Yugoslavia are scarce.  The ferocity of the German invasion in April 1941 was such that there was no time to save community records, create texts such Oneg Shabbat or even compile lists of names that would be remembered.  Literally, within months, most Jews in Yugoslavia were gone; and very few ever returned and fewer still recorded their experiences. 

It is not that we do not know what happened – there are the accounts created by the perpetrators and parallels with other experiences in other countries – but it is the intersection of the Jewish experience with the other genocidal action perpetrated by Ante Pavelic’s fascist Croatia against the Serbs that is more often remembered because of the horrific, horrifying, brutality and savagery employed by the Ustase and its collaborators.  Ustase sadism was so revolting that even the SS found it hard to stomach. The victims rapidly assumed a certain ”sameness”.  I think it fair to say that the two genocides merged into one.

The maxim – the victor writes the history – is appropriate in our understanding of the post-war years.  Bosnian Serb scholar, Vaso Cubrilovic, interestingly the last surviving member of the Black Hand group that assassinated Franz Ferdinand in 1914, wrote in 1958: “… our contemporary history could be divided into two epochs: the history of the old Yugoslavia (1918-1941) and the history of the new Yugoslavia, better said – the history of her People’s Revolution, from 1941 until today”. (39)

As I understand the development of Yugoslav historiography from 1945 until the collapse of the federation in 1992 was made to fit a Marxist ideological world view where the efforts of the Communists and Communism created the new Yugoslavia that rose from the destruction of the war.

1. Yugoslavia collapsed in 1941 for two reasons – firstly the Axis led onslaught overwhelmed the country, and secondly, the state itself was a “rotten bourgeois” creation of the Versailles Peace Conference.

2. Under the guidance of Marshal Josip Tito and the Communist partisan movement Yugoslavia was liberated.  A Yugoslavia built on brotherhood and unity effected a necessary class-revolution and a new age began.

3. Central to the founding mythology of Tito’s Yugoslavia was the role of the anti-fascists and partisans.  Nothing that would tarnish the image of the heroic partisan, including examples of antisemitism, was permitted.

4. Jewish suffering was a part of the suffering of all anti-fascists, not ignored, but not differentiated.  (Histories of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia were mostly written by Yugoslav survivors in Israel. (75))

5. Gathering of archival material was essential to not only secure the founding myths of the new Yugoslavia but for the recording and prosecuting war criminals, collaborators and others.

Interwoven in the historiographical narrative are other concerns such as the role of the Christian Churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church and its relationship with the Ustase and complicity in its crimes.  The trial of Aloysius Stepinac, Catholic Archbishop of Zagreb was, I believe, more about the new Communist-controlled government exerting total control over Yugoslavia, than solely about Stepinac’s action or lack thereof when confronted with the enormity of Ustase crimes.  In any case, Stepinac’s case is difficult even from 2016 – and needs more research, if only to prevent the Archbishop becoming a lightning rod for revisionists who would attempt to convince us that he was indeed a saint and possibly a martyr saint.  The same level of difficulty confronts the historian over the role of Pope Pius XII and the relationship, however tortured, between Pavelic’s Croatia and the Holy See. (Culibrk 65)

Upon the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Balkans war that followed, the historiography of the war years underwent another change fuelled in no small part by the resurgence of ethnic rivalries and ancient hatreds.  At the same time more and more investigation into the roles played by different groups across the former Yugoslavia led to a rise in the number of serious histories written in the 1990s, even as the war raged.  These included new studies of Croatia, the role of Bosnian Muslims and the Holocaust and fresh studies into the murder of the Yugoslav Jews including serious studies of individual camps and killing centres. (Culibrk 79-95)

By the 1990s historians were publishing an increasing number of monographs and studies on the Holocaust in Yugoslavia.  These writers were influenced by the growing study of the Shoah as an integral part of German government policy that relied on all agencies of the state, including the Wehrmacht, allied governments and their military and police forces. This process also applied to a growing number of historians in the former Yugoslavia.

Another element in the study of Yugoslav Holocaust historiography has been the appropriation of the words “Holocaust” and “genocide” along with an equal appropriation of the Holocaust to suit the political agendas of both Croatia and Serbia.  During the 1992-95 war international media and foreign governments used the language of the Holocaust to describe the Bosnian catastrophe.

What did I learn?

1. Historiography is an essential component for the study of history.  I am reminded of standard history teaching practice in my classroom – the “what, where, who, why and how” when examining sources.  Awareness of bias, subjectivity, objectivity, audience, reliability, usefulness, perspective, and above all, context/s.

2. There is no such thing as “simple” history.  All history is a vast and intricate tapestry of waft and weave that affords many different avenues and lines of enquiry.

3. History demands respect; Holocaust history demands greater respect – we are studying human beings, not abstract concepts.  Their stories matter.  The stories of victims, perpetrators, bystanders, beneficiaries and legatees are important. 

4. Yugoslavia’s history and its study are demanding.  For an Australian who lives in a country that has never known civil war or strife on the scale that the nation states of the Balkans have lived with, it is hard to “get into the zone” in order to begin appreciate the realities that confront historians; but it is necessary.

5. Bishop Jovan’s academic rigour is unrelenting and so it should be.  History is a discipline that requires serious effort and often arduous and time-consuming old fashioned hard work to find patterns, put pieces of the puzzle together, to connect previously unconnected ideas, chronologies, people and places, to uncover, recover and discover the past as truthfully as possible.

6. Finally, Bishop Jovan’s work is a testimony to the man’s integrity and honesty to being faithful to the past, honouring those who died and ensuring their memories are not forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. First of all, thank you so much for having this blog and posting this particular essay. I wonder if you might be able to point me in the right direction? I've been trying to find Bishop Jovans book (in English ☺️) and haven't been able to find a copy anywhere I've looked online... do you know of anywhere?
    Thank you so very much! Wishing you the best!
    Pia Crook at me dot com (piacrook)


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