The Nazi-allied Independent State of Croatia (NDH), established by the fascist Ustasha movement on April 10, 1941, annexed all of Bosnia and Herzegovina and had an estimated Jewish population of 39,000. The NDH moved quickly to persecute Jews, Serbs, and Roma, all considered racial enemies. By the end of April 1941, it established its first concentration camp, adopted racial laws that stripped Jews and Roma of all legal protection, and began systematically seizing private and communal Jewish property. In June 1941, with Nazi Germany’s agreement, the NDH embarked upon an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Serbs, destroying Serb villages, slaughtering their inhabitants, and deporting tens of thousands to Serbia. Pursuant to NDH leader Ante Pavelic’s order of June 26, 1941, the mass arrest and incarceration of Jewish men, women, and children began in July 1941.
The NDH operated a series of concentration and extermination camps within Croatia, the most significant being the Jasenovac camp system. While the total number of Jasenovac victims cannot be determined, the Jasenovac Memorial Site has so far identified 83,145 victims by name, including 47,627 Serbs, 16,173 Roma, and 13,116 Jews. In all, approximately 30,000 Jews (between 75-80 percent of the Jews within the NDH) died during the Holocaust, the majority at the hands of the Ustasha, although the NDH also transferred some 7,000 Jews to the Nazis to be deported to Auschwitz. Approximately 20,000 of the Jewish victims resided in current Croatian territory. The NDH also killed an estimated 25,000 or more Roma men, women, and children, the vast majority of the Roma population under its control. The total number of ethnic Serbs the Ustasha killed throughout the territory of the NDH remains unknown, but estimates suggest that it was between 320,000 and 340,000 between 1941 and 1942.
The World Jewish Congress estimates the current Jewish population of Croatia at approximately 1,700. There are 10 separate Jewish communities around the country, nine of which are members of the Coordinating Committee of the Jewish Communities in Croatia. A separate Jewish community, Bet Israel, was established in 2007.
The post-war transition of Croatia from fascist state to part of Yugoslavia, with its policy of minimizing ethnic differences and historical wrongdoings, delayed Croatia’s reckoning with its wartime history. Since Croatia became independent in 1991, successive governments have failed to address this legacy adequately, and some have tried to minimize it. Ethnic minority groups in Croatia that were wartime victims of the NDH, including the Jewish community, have expressed frustration with the government’s lack of progress in dealing with issues such as private property restitution, as well as what they perceive to be a rise in historical revisionism.
Croatia does not have adequate legal mechanisms to address Holocaust-era property restitution, and the government generally has not demonstrated the political will to return property taken from Jews during the Holocaust and after WWII. The U.S. government has long advocated with the Croatian government for restitution of Jewish individual and communal property, and for Croatia to develop a mechanism to address issues related to Jewish property rendered heirless as a result of the Holocaust. The Croatian government has expressed concern about the potential cost of full restitution, as well as the precedent that resolving Jewish property claims could set for other victimized groups to claim compensation.
In a 2019 report submitted to the European Parliament, the Jewish Community of Zagreb estimated that Croatia had returned no more than 2 percent of the value of Jewish communal and private property seized during the Holocaust. Croatia has taken some positive steps in provenance research, although not on restitution of looted art. Croatia renounced its share of funding allocated by the Tripartite Commission for Restitution of Monetary Gold, in favor of victims of the Holocaust in November 1997.