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Overview

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.

Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property

The 1996 Croatian “Law on Compensation for the Property Seized during the Yugoslav Communist Regime” (the Restitution Act) does not address all compensation issues, and courts and legal experts have struggled to interpret its vague wording.  For example, despite the practice of specifically excluding from restitution any properties seized between 1941 and 1945 and most foreign claimants, the law references a 1945 law that covers property seized during WWII.

According to the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), a 2002 amendment to the Restitution Act made foreign citizens eligible to file claims from July 2002 until January 2003, provided that a claimant’s country concluded an interstate agreement with Croatia.  In practice, this amendment was not effective to support restitution of claims for foreigners.  The six-month period ended on January 5, 2003, a Sunday, and January 6, 2003, was a public holiday.  Following complaints from applicants about how the government interpreted the deadline, the Croatian Constitutional Court ruled in March 2016 that the claims window officially closed on January 7, 2003.  As a result, any claimant whose claim had been rejected because they filed by January 7, 2003 (but not by January 5), could refile during a new six-month window that closed on September 26, 2016.  WJRO research also showed that, until at least 2010, Croatian courts and administrative bodies held that, in accordance with the 2002 amendment, foreign claimants could not receive restitution, as no country had concluded an applicable interstate agreement with Croatia.

In 2011, the government attempted to amend the Restitution Act to entitle foreign claimants to file claims without the requirement to have a bilateral agreement concluded between Croatia and the claimant’s country of residence.  However, the draft amendment did not reach a full vote in parliament, and the government has not made further efforts to amend the legislation.  When proposing the amendment, the government refused to insert in the title that the law would cover the WWII period, on the grounds that the original law referenced this period.

Croatian government officials assert that foreign claims and claims from 1941 to 1945 have always been eligible, noting that the former Yugoslav state returned property taken during WWII to different groups, including Jewish claimants, and that some of these properties were re-seized by the communists based on other laws and regulations.  Legal experts and judges have noted that the law’s provisions contained obstacles and technical limitations for those pursuing claims for property seized during the Holocaust, resulting in the government rejecting claims or claimants not being able to file.

As of April 2019, the government reported that 70,000 property restitution claims had been filed pursuant to the Restitution Act, of which approximately 64,000 (90 percent) had been adjudicated, but it did not indicate how many claims were from the Holocaust era.  While the government noted its data were not broken down by religion, ethnicity, or nationality, it estimated that at least 244 of the 64,000 resolved claims involved the private property of Jewish claimants, with 101 cases still pending in July 2018.  Of the 244 resolved claims, the government said that 104 resulted in the return of 271 properties valued at $91 million, while 140 claims were resolved by compensation in cash or bonds amounting to $9.1 million.  The government added that since July 2018, it had resolved a further 26 of the remaining 101 pending cases.  Additionally, the government reported it paid out 8.6 million HRK (approximately $1.3 million) in cash and bonds and returned 16 properties valued at $5 million.  Data collection methods make it difficult to determine accurately the number of claims that were resolved in favor of or against Jews whose property was seized during the Holocaust.

The WJRO stated its research showed government figures represented only a very small percentage of properties seized during the Holocaust era; the organization’s research found that there were 2,161 seized private real property units in Zagreb alone.

In April 2019, the government estimated the value of communal and religious property it had returned to be approximately $10 million.  The government reported it had returned a number of properties to the Jewish communities in Zagreb and Osijek, as well as having provided monetary compensation for other seized property.  The Jewish Community of Zagreb reported that in 1999, the government returned a parking lot occupying the site where Zagreb’s main synagogue stood until it was destroyed in 1941.  It wants to construct a Jewish center, including a synagogue, and asked the state and the Zagreb municipal government to provide funding by compensating it for at least a percentage of the value of other as-yet unreturned property.  As of mid-2019, neither the state nor the municipality had provided any funding.  Currently, only a small memorial plaque near the parking lot marks the site of the former synagogue.

In November 2014, the government transferred a downtown Zagreb building to the Jewish Community of Zagreb in lieu of returning the downtown headquarters of Chevra Kadisha, a Jewish burial society.  The Croatian Ministry of State Property (Ministarstvo državne imovine Republike Hrvatske) uses the Dezmanova 6 building in downtown Zagreb, pays rent to Zagreb’s Jewish community, and requires the Jewish community to pay transfer taxes even though the Return Act provided that such restitutions were to be tax free.

The Jewish Community of Zagreb’s 2019 report to the European Parliament noted numerous difficulties with the data on communal property return, such as discrepancies related to data sources, data processing, and statistical methods.  The report estimated that only up to 2 percent of the total value of Jewish private and communal property was returned and expressed the community’s belief that the Government of Croatia does not intend to return the majority of remaining seized Jewish communal properties in Zagreb or elsewhere.

The government allocates funding for the preservation of cultural heritage items, including those of the Jewish community.  For example, the government allocated up to 400,000 kuna ($60,474) in 2018 and up to 209,500 kuna ($31,673) in 2019 for the preservation and protection of Jewish cemeteries.  The Ministry of Culture reported that for Jewish sacral objects, primarily synagogues, no applications for funding were submitted in 2018, while in 2019, two applications for funding were submitted and approved:  185,000 kuna ($27,696) for the conservation and renovation of the Varaždin Synagogue, and 100,000 kuna ($15,118) for conservation and renovation of the Virovitica Synagogue.

Under Croatian law, authorities governing cemeteries in the country can allow graves to be exhumed and the plots sold if a monthly rental fee on each plot has not been paid in the previous 10 years.  Jewish community leaders contend this law disproportionately affects Jews, since many of the family members who would normally pay for burial sites were killed in the Holocaust or fled Croatia, resulting in the exhumation and reburial of hundreds of Jewish bodies in large, unmarked graves.  In an attempt to address this issue, the Ministry of Culture is in the process of completing the mapping of all Jewish cemeteries.  As of late 2019, it reported that 14 individual Jewish cemeteries are registered as cultural sites and therefore the plots are protected from future resale.  In addition, five Jewish cemeteries are registered and protected as part of a cultural-historic urban area.

Many private properties seized in Croatia during the Holocaust era have no heirs, and Croatia has no mechanism to resolve heirless property issues.  In April 2019, the U.S. government and WJRO proposed that Croatia establish a foundation to support Holocaust survivors, funded by a fraction of the proceeds from sales of these heirless properties.  However, as of October 2019, Croatia had not formally responded to this proposal.

Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art, Judaica, and Jewish Cultural Property

The issue of Nazi-confiscated or looted art in Croatian museums and private collections has not been researched fully.  There have been some positive developments in provenance research, if not yet in restitution, partly as a result of Croatia’s participation in the EU-sponsored project “TransCultAA-Transfer of Cultural Objects in the Alpe Adria Region in the 20th Century.”

According to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) and local sources, a significant amount of art held in state‑owned museums – and an indeterminate amount in private holdings – is of unknown origin, and Ustasha or Nazis may have confiscated it from Jews during WWII.  The NDH looted art directly from Jewish families in Croatia, and Nazis reportedly also brought large quantities of art to Croatia from elsewhere in Europe to hide it from Allied forces.  Some looted art may have been brought back to Croatia decades after the Ustasha smuggled it to South America, according to the Claims Conference.

Leaders of the Jewish community reported that they were not aware of any claims for restitution of such items.  The Jewish Community of Zagreb’s 2019 report to the EU Parliament stated that Croatian institutions display artworks that “undoubtedly” belonged to Jewish communities or Jews killed in the Holocaust, without any attribution or apparent intent of returning them to their owners.

Some state-owned museums hold Judaica and other Jewish cultural property that the Ustasha or Nazis likely confiscated during WWII.  All heritage institutions (museums, libraries, and archives) are legally bound to conduct provenance research for items registered in their inventory and, according to the Ministry of Culture, have the appropriate financial allocations in their budgets to conduct such research.  The Ministry of Culture recently initiated cooperation with the Strossmayer Gallery of Fine Arts, which is part of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, related to the digitization of art records and registries of Judaica, as well as provenance research of items documented in these registries.

Leaders of the Jewish community say they are not aware of any claims in process in the courts for restitution of movable property, and the Ministry of Culture said a clear process for pursuing claims still needs to be developed.

The Ministry of Culture reported that in 2019, it allocated 617,000 kuna ($93,281) for the protection and preservation of Jewish movable and immovable heritage in Croatia, including a planned Holocaust memorial in Zagreb.  In 2018, the figure was 825,500 kuna ($124,803).

Access to Archival Documents

WJRO and the Claims Conference report that Ustasha and Yugoslav archives are generally open to researchers, although they note that the manner in which the archives are organized complicates research efforts.  For example, the Croatian State Archives (HDA) is in Zagreb, with additional archives scattered throughout Croatia and a portion remaining in Belgrade, Serbia.  The HDA signed a 10-year cooperative agreement with the USHMM in 1995, which provided for archival cooperation between researchers and representatives of the Museum and the Archives.  In June 2018, Croatia adopted a law to regulate the management of archival materials, making full digitization of the archives possible, considerably reducing research costs, increasing research efficiency, and liberalizing access to archival materials.  The Ministry confirmed in November 2019 that all archival material had been digitized.  The law also eliminated the rule under which archived documents could not be released publicly until 30 years after their creation.  According to the same 2018 law on archival materials (amended in 2019), all archival and documentary material older than 40 years is open to the public, except in relation to classified or personal data, or unless different laws prohibit specific documentation for public use or research (for example, the General Data Protection Regulation 2018 or the Confidential Data Protection Law of 2007).

Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites

Croatia joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in November 2005.  The government worked with IHRA to translate into Croatian many of the organization’s advisory and education working group documents, and it has published them on the Ministry of Science and Education and Teacher Training Agency web sites.

Holocaust education in Croatia is taught as part of a WWII-related history curriculum in schools.  Since 2005, more than 750 teachers and educators have received training in Holocaust education and the prevention of anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination.  For example, since 2005, 25 Croatian teachers per year have received scholarships to attend training at Yad Vashem, and in 2013, the Ministry of Education and Yad Vashem signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the field of Holocaust education.  The Croatian Education and Teacher Training Agency cooperates with the Memorial de la Shoah in France to hold an annual conference on Holocaust education for 20 Croatian teachers.  Regional seminars for 15 Croatian teachers are held in cooperation with the Education and Teacher Training Agency and Memorial de la Shoah, and in cooperation with the Serbian Ministry of Education and the Holocaust museum in Skopje, Macedonia.  On Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, the Ministry of Education organizes a national in-service training seminar for 50 teachers called “Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust and the Prevention of Crimes against Humanity.”  Public schools in Rijeka (where a pre-war Jewish community existed) are noteworthy in their intensive focus on Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Rijeka’s commemorations ask children to learn about and express their views on the Holocaust through art, media, and public service.

The Ministry of Education reformed the public school curriculum in 2019, notably recommending that student groups visit Jasenovac, although full information on the recommended co-funding of such trips is not yet available.  In contrast, the Ministry of Veterans Affairs fully funds school trips to Vukovar (a city that Serbian forces besieged in 1991).

Despite these efforts, ethnic minority groups, civil society organizations, and NGOs widely report skepticism that public school education provides a balanced and accurate account of Croatia’s role in the Holocaust.  They also express doubt that the curriculum will be enough to counter Holocaust revisionism.  Jewish groups often criticize the manner in which the Holocaust is taught and how it is portrayed in official exhibits and memorials.  They note that the narrative almost exclusively focuses on the Holocaust writ large and the total number of victims throughout Europe, rather than addressing Croatia’s role and the number of victims killed in Croatia.

The Ministry of Culture provides some funding for Holocaust commemoration events.  It supported the “Auschwitz Album” exhibition on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2019.  In addition, all memorial institutions and sites in the country have their own budgets with funds allocated for Holocaust remembrance events.

The official commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day is held on January 27 in the Croatian Parliament.  In 2014, the parliament recognized August 2 as the International Day of Remembrance of the Roma Holocaust Victims.  State officials, including the President and Prime Minister, usually attend such commemorative events.  On January 24, 2019, the Croatian Catholic Church displayed a large banner on Zagreb Cathedral to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Speaking to 200 attendees, including government officials and religious leaders, Cardinal Josip Bozanic said Croatia must confront what happened in Croatia during the Holocaust and reject all forms of anti-Semitism.

The government commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the liberation of the Jasenovac camp with an official event at Jasenovac, which normally incudes the prime minister, members of the cabinet, and the president.  However, Jewish, Serb, and antifascist groups have boycotted the event for the past four years, arguing that the government has failed to address historical revisionism and other legacy issues, and claiming the state has not taken the necessary steps to address the minimization of Croatia’s role in the Holocaust or the continuing use of divisive Ustasha symbols in Croatian society.

The country maintains no specific registry of Holocaust memorial sites.  However, many of the almost 600 listed WWII monuments commemorating the antifascist struggle also reference the Holocaust or honor its victims.  The most important Holocaust remembrance sites are the Jasenovac Memorial Site, the Danica Memorial Site, the Slana Fascist Concentration Camp, the Tenja Concentration Camp, and the Daruvar Jewish Cemetery of Ustasha Terror.  The national government and the municipal government of Zagreb co-fund the Jasenovac Concentration Camp Memorial Site.  Historians and victims groups note that while the memorial and the information in the museum is appropriately victims-focused, the permanent exhibition notably lacks the requisite historical and cultural context, such as information on Croatia’s role in the Holocaust, the formation of and popular support for the NDH, and the full extent of crimes committed inside Croatia.

The Office of the Mayor of Zagreb solicited design proposals in 2017 for the construction of a memorial in Zagreb entitled “The Tragedy of the Jews during WWII” to commemorate the six million victims of the Holocaust.  Branko Lustig, a Holocaust survivor and advisor to the President until his passing in November 2019, presided over the commission that selected the design.  Construction of the monument has not started, and the proposed text to be displayed on or near the monument remains controversial.  Jewish groups and NGOs state that by memorializing all the Holocaust’s victims, rather than the Jews who were killed in Croatia, the memorial will lack the historical and cultural context explaining Croatia’s specific role.

The Welfare of Holocaust (Shoah) Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution

Members of Bet Israel and other Jewish groups report that Holocaust survivors receive no special welfare or assistance benefits from the Croatian government.  On July 11, 2017, Croatia’s Ministry of Justice established an internal commission to conduct a study on the types and models of assistance established in other EU member states for victims of the Holocaust.  The aim of this study was to analyze historical, economic, and demographic circumstances, as well as existing regulations related to assistance for Holocaust victims.  The outcome of this study is not known.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Croatia renounced its part of funding allocated by the Tripartite Commission for Restitution of Monetary Gold in favor of victims of the Holocaust in November 1997.

Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report: Croatia
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