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Thursday, 29 November, 2001, 11:04 GMT
Croatian holocaust still stirs controversy
George and Laura Bush at the Holocaust museum in Washington
George Bush spent Holocaust memorial day at the Washington museum
By the BBC's Nick Higham in Washington

For 23 days in January 1942, Andela Hrg had no food. She passed the time by writing a recipe book.

In tiny handwriting in a child's exercise book, she copied out from memory the ingredients for mouth-watering dishes stuffed with sugar, chocolate, eggs, butter, orange juice and whipped cream.

Many years later she gave the book to her children - as a memento of her time in one of the most brutal concentration camps of World War II.

When she wrote down her recipes, Andela Hrg was a political prisoner in one of a complex of camps at Jasenovac in Croatia. The camp population included not only Jews and political prisoners like Andela, but Serbs, gypsies and Muslims.

2,000 photographs, eight reels of film, personal effects, even human remains wrapped in old newspaper - all thrust haphazardly into crates and cardboard boxes

The complex was run by the fascist Ustasha, the Croatian nationalist regime allied to the Nazis. Up to 100,000 people died there. The numbers are small compared to the million or more who died at Auschwitz, but at Jasenovac they never managed to turn killing into an industrial process.

Instead the Croatian camp's inmates were killed individually - shot, bludgeoned or hacked to death, their bodies buried or simply dumped in the nearby Sava River.

Some inmates, especially children, were shackled and put into boats on the river - the boats were then overturned.

Evidence of evil

In the years that followed World War II, a memorial was established to those who died. A museum was set up and Angela Hrg's recipe book found its way into the collection along with many other grim mementos of life - and death - at Jasenovac.

A few days ago some of them were laid out, for the benefit of journalists, on a table at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

The numbers of people who died at Jasenovac is still disputed in Croatia
There were killing implements like an axe head, the sort you'd use for chopping wood, with the splintered remains of its shaft still attached. There were the badges and armbands worn by inmates to distinguish different racial groups. There was a small boy's schoolbook, full of written exercises and drawings of stick men.

There were even tiny clay figures of horses made by Slavko Bril, a Serbian artist who was allowed to go on working so that Ustasha propaganda could claim that Jasenovac was a work camp, not an extermination centre. He didn't survive.

These and other items had remained at Jasenovac until the early 1990s. Then they vanished, spirited away for safe-keeping as fighting raged in the area during another war, this time the civil war that tore the old Yugoslavia apart.

Resurrecting the past

They came to light again in August of last year, when they were tracked down by a researcher from the Holocaust Museum, Sanja Primorac.

She was born in Yugoslavia, and remembers at the age of 13 being sworn in as a young communist at Jasenovac. After the ceremony she and her friends were ushered into the dark and musty theatre at the memorial, to be shown a film of the liberation of the death camps.

Auschwitz survivors
More than a million people died at Auschwitz
It was, she says now, an event that changed her life - alerting her for the first time to the horrors of the holocaust.

So when she discovered the collection, literally rotting away in a damp cellar, she says she felt personally responsible for ensuring its survival.

The material had ended up in Banja Luka, in the Serb part of Bosnia. Tens of thousands of documents, 2,000 photographs, eight reels of film, personal effects, even human remains wrapped in old newspaper - all were thrust haphazardly into crates and cardboard boxes.

Still controversial

Putting the collection back on display in Croatia will help keep alive the memory of the holocaust. But it may have a less desirable effect in a part of the world, the Balkans, where ethnic tensions still fuel political differences.

Ever since World War II, Jasenovac has been a focus of controversy. For their own political purposes, successive regimes have distorted the numbers who died there.

Dinko Sakic
Dinko Sakic was jailed in 1999 for running the Jasenovac camp
Under Marshal Tito, for instance, Yugoslavia's communists greatly exaggerated the number of ethnic Serbs killed by the hated Croat Ustasha. In the 1990s, the Croatian nationalist regime of Franjo Tudjman played down the numbers.

It's still going on today. At the end of the Holocaust Museum's press conference to announce plans for the return of the collection, a Croatian diplomat approached the museum's director and its chief historian.

It was, he said, a good day for Croatia finally to open up these sad, black pages from its history. But he took issue - politely but vigorously - with the museum's best estimates of the numbers of Serbs and Muslims who died.

The Holocaust Museum is well aware of the dangers of appearing partisan. Its former chairman, Miles Lerman, himself a holocaust survivor who fought as a partisan in the forests of southern Poland, says the museum is careful not to get involved in present-day political squabbles. Our task, he says, is history not politics.

But in the former Yugoslavia it seems the two aren't so easily separated.

Nick Higham
"The Croatian camp's inmates were killed individually - their bodies buried or simply dumped in the nearby Sava River."
See also:

19 Apr 01 | Middle East
In pictures: Holocaust Day
27 Jan 01 | Europe
Europe remembers the Holocaust
13 Oct 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
Trial and retribution
04 Oct 99 | Europe
Death camp chief gets 20 years
15 Dec 98 | Europe
Croatian Nazi indicted
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