(This speech was given at the conference "Representation of the Holocaust in the Balkans, in Arts and Media", October 2014 - Belgrade, Serbia)
I was announced here as a representative of the Jewish community of Montenegro, which is true, since I was one of the founders of this youngest Jewish community in the world.
As I have lived in Belgrade most of my life, I am also a member of the Jewish Community of Belgrade.
In Montenegro, however, I am an active partner in the Community development and a founder of "Mahar" conference, which deals with important issues and problems that the Jews in the former Yugoslavia and Europe face today.
The title of this lecture itself addresses the historical revisionism in Serbia, and I will speak about this from both personal point of view, but also as a participant of the most important political events that took place in Belgrade from the beginning of the 1990s to present day. In this lecture, I will have recourse to two definitions from the book "Places of Suffering and Antifascist Struggle in Belgrade 1941-44" by the authors Rena Rädle and Milovan Pisarri.
I believe we are all aware of the dangers of revisionism: rewriting the past for political purposes is detrimental for both understanding of the modern history, but also the future that we strive to build on healthy foundations. Many great historians and sociologists have pointed to the perils of revisionism through a large number of publications and panels similar to this one. At a Limmud Keshet conference last year, I have called attention to the relationship between revisionism in Serbia and Eastern Europe, and the new wave of anti-Semitism.
It is important that the information about this strangest of all distortions of the recent history, echoes louder through social space. It's the least we can do for the millions of victims of Nazism, fascism and collaborationism.
If you have detected a personal note in my speech, it's because it is there. My background is both Jewish and Communist. My great-grandparents met at the "Bund" in Zurich. During the occupation of Belgrade, the Jewish part of the immediate family was saved with falsified documents they had obtained owing to their good financial status. However, there were those who did not want to change their names and their faith, even if it was only on paper - they ended up in gas vans. Proud but dead. Twenty-two members of the extended family will have been killed later in Dachau.
At the same time in Montenegro, in 1941, my other grandfather takes part in a 13th of July partisan uprising.
I decided to speak here because I believe that revisionism, which had started to develop in Serbia in the late 1980s, and then metastasized after the "5th October Overthrow", actually diminishes the importance of each victim of the concentration camps in Banjica and Sajmište as well as Auschwitz. Social and intellectual climate in Serbia offends both common and personal sentiments. My wish is, and it is important not to misinterpret this, not to criticize Serbia — I wish to correct the wrong, to try to raise my voice, not in the name of "my own truth" but the only truth there is.
This incomprehensible page of human history, whether we call it Shoah or Holocaust, should be crystal clear, and in order to understand it, we must make a clear distinction between the victims, the slaughterers and their sympathizers and collaborators.
The fact is that in the Second World War we, here in Serbia, have had only one true resistance movement against Nazism. The alleged "civic armed forces", similar to those in France, remain in the realm of imagination. Serbia was simply not developed enough to create a civil resistance without strong ideological denominator.
In all of former Yugoslavia, participants of the National Liberation War were killed because they fought with weapons in their hands against the greatest evil of modern civilization. Their sacrifice, as a personal decision, as an urge and as an ethical standard is absolutely impressive.
I will ask you a question: Is it possible to sincerely condemn the Holocaust and at the same time lead a cultural and state policy of "anti-antifascism"? Should one segregate victims of this collective crime, in such a way where ones would be graced with remembrance, and others, because of their ideological grounds, forgotten and less important?
Petar Atanacković defines the term "Anti-Antifascism" as a "fusion of political momentum and pseudo-scientific attempts to discredit anti-fascist values and traditions, with an attempt to put antifascism side by side with totalitarianism. This leads to relativisation of fascist crimes, rehabilitation of collaborationists and re-evaluation of victims and perpetrators during the Second World War. The key element of anti-antifascism is a vigorous anti-communism. On the one hand, its objective is to fully equalize fascism and communism, all the while rejecting the values of the socialist social system. Therefore, it denies any legitimacy to the socialist episode in the history of the countries in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, in an attempt to discredit and dismiss the anti-fascism itself."
Are we doing justice to the victims of Jasenovac if we don't publicly and continually condemn, or talk about those Serbs and citizens of Belgrade, who were the executioners of the quisling regime led by Milan Nedić? Or if we do not condemn the fascist movement "Zbor" of Dimitrije Ljotić, that delighted the Nazi leaders when they first arrived in Belgrade. They liked "Zbor“ so much that they established it to be a special communication line with the Gestapo.
Can we even begin to tell the story of Sajmište concentration camp before reminding the public of the fact that the portrait of Milan Nedić was hanging in the hall of the Government building until recently, along with the portrait of the Dragi "the Sheriff" Jovanović? Does the public know what the true nature of the 7th Department of the quisling Special Police operated by Jovan Nikolić Joca? From that very Department prisoners were dispatched to Banjica camp, in order to be executed. Nikolić's department often sent female prisoners to the Germans wrapped in blankets, for they have suffered such severe beatings during interrogation, that they were unable to stand on their feet before a firing squad.
This terrible crime committed in Belgrade and Serbia, seems to be no longer important, simply because many of the victims were communists. They were Jews and Roma, but communists, too. In Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro, these heroes still have squares and streets named after them, they have monuments and, above all, respect. Serbia wiped them out. Serbia is today ashamed of what it should be proud of, and it is proud of what it should be ashamed of.
So, how did we get here, I wonder?
Over the course of two thousand years, the Jews in Europe have survived ghettos, pogroms, inability to enrol in universities and so on. Without their own state, a large number of my fellow compatriots accepted the international communist movement, whose ideologists themselves belonged to the Jewish culture. In the early 1920s the choice was more or less narrowed down to rigid rabbis on one hand (the first reforms in synagogues were neither strong nor revolutionary and many important changes have never happened among the orthodox communities to date) and modern movements, of labour, socialist and communist provenance on the other. These movements peddled ideas of equal opportunities for all, and cosmopolitanism. Many Jews joined these movements, both in Europe and later in the Soviet Union as well as in all states of the former Yugoslavia.
During the World War II, they died together, side by side - Jews, Communists, Roma, Soviets, Slavs, the enemies of the Reich... The story has been told thousands of times; we all know the numbers, the horrible dates, and places of suffering.
After the war, the suffering of the Communists has been emphasised compared to the others who were also killed in Banjica or Sajmište and other camps in Serbia. However, the Jewish victims had their place in history, their own cemetery and respect. Schools and streets have been named after the participants of the National Liberation War, Baruh family and Moša Pijade. Due to the political interest related to the Non-Aligned Movement, Marshall Tito's regime does not establish diplomatic ties with Israel, but this does not create friction in Yugoslav society, which is largely secular and committed to the guiding principle of "brotherhood and unity."
This play, as I said, was a blockbuster, and it is not a phrase: With more than forty thousand viewers (43.746 to be exact) from 1991. to 1995. It was, by far, the hottest ticket in Belgrade during the nineties. At the same time, intellectuals and members of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts glorify the cult of personality of Slobodan Milošević but some of them also sensed the fertile ground for their militant, as Adam Michnik cleverly put it, "anti-communism with a Bolshevik face."
Milošević wanted to keep the appearance of a genuine link with the old, communist, system. His party is socialist, and he wishes to be perceived as the only successor to Yugoslav values, while at the same time he's the one who puts Yugoslavia to rest. He keeps the old national anthem but it is just a facade, a charade, because Nazi collaborationist of the second world war are having a big comeback: the affirmative stories about Ljotić and Nedić are being tolerated again, "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" are being reprinted and sold in the bookstores of the Serbian Orthodox Church and Belgrade Book Fair. Commanders of government paramilitary units Šešelj, Arkan, Dragoslav Bokan and the „Scorpions“ adopt the right wing and Chetnik symbols and iconography.
Belgrade also got its revisionist art avant-garde, the so-called "New Serbian Right Wing" fronted by Isidora Bjelica, Nebojša Pajkić, Dragoš Kalajić...
Serbian Orthodox Church has an active part in all aspects of wars in former Yugoslavia; So, Milošević’s regime, aside from a couple inarticulate reflections from Mirjana Marković's magazine column, has absolutely no connection with the values of the pre-war communist tradition, let alone with Titoism. However, the nation falls for this "spin," which is actually fuelled by the opposition parties. Anti-Milošević protesters holler "Red bandits!" while Milošević, the über-nationalist and chauvinist is being perceived as a communist and a socialist in a traditional sense of those words.
Unfortunately, the above mentioned leaders of the opposition parties does not see beyond the end of their noses and they engage in the pandering to the oblivious people. For example, the first act of then the newly elected Mayor of Belgrade, Zoran Đinđić, in 1997 was to take down the red star from the roof of the city hall building. This moment, when academic and laymen's revisionism blended together even though the contours of what is being reviewed were not clear, represents a powerful symbol of what was yet to follow.
And as predicted, the post-5th October period is characterized by targeted and ruthless state revisionism.
Definition of the State revisionism is that it is an “institutionalized political practice, motivated by historical revisionism, which alters the history for ideological and political purposes, in order to adapt this distorted historical truth to the demands of the present.” Bearing in mind that nationalist ideology maintains the need for continuity with national elements from the past, the political elite and revisionist intellectuals impose new forms of remembrance. They relativize the fascist crimes, rehabilitate quislings and, at the same time, everything that is anti-fascist is being rejected as totalitarian. The result of this systematic historical revisionism are young generations, brought up on nationalistic ideas of Serbian historical superiority over other Balkan nations, blind to all the "unpleasant truths" about "us", starting with "Judenfrei" Serbia from 1942, to the whitewashed Srebrenica genocide in 1995. Under the influence of the ideology of nationalism and authoritarian dogma of "national unity", in an attempt to construct a new identity, a whole new value system is established in Serbia. Through the negation of the Yugoslav values, all historical guidelines were revised. Turning away from communism and socialism, even the concept of fascism has been fundamentally reinterpreted.”
In 1997. during the period when Milošević's opposition was in charge of Belgrade City Council, writer Svetlana Velmar Janković became Chairwoman of the Commision for historical monuments and street names. The streets that were once named after the brave women and men who, as members of Communist party, fought for the freedom of the citizens of Serbia were changed promptly.
I said at the beginning that this lecture might sound personal, but it potentially affects only small group of people present here today. But to inaugurate a daughter of Vladimir Velmar-Janković, who served as an assistant to the Serbian Minister of culture and religion Velibor Jonić in the quisling government during the World War II, that is beyond personal. That was and still is dangerous for the whole society. Vladimir Velmar Janković's ministry was responsible for racist teachings in Serbian schools during the Second World War. His daughter was very active in order to rehabilitate her father, urging consecutive Serbian governments to do so.
After that point some heads of similar commissions, as well as many zealots of Democratic party's ”pro-revisionist“ wing, including members of Ministry of Justice, were elected because of their background and expectation that they would be biased. That was, in fact, a recommendation for such positions.
This state revisionism after the year 2000 was followed by a wave of increasing influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church; the introduction of religious education in schools was a political move, that was meant to be a trade off for church, in order to silence it on the subject of Milošević's extradition to the Hague tribunal.
And finally, in 2003, Serbia has put in question the sincerity of respect for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, by the canonization of Nikolaj Velimirović. As you may know, Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović compared Adolf Hitler with Saint Sava in a lecture held at People’s University Kolarac in Belgrade, in 1935. I quote Velimirović:
“However, we must commend the current German leader, who, being a simple workman and a man of the people, realized that nationalism without faith is nothing but an aberration, a cold and vulnerable mechanism. And here, in the twentieth century, he introduced the same ideas as once Saint Sava himself, he has undertaken the most important job for his people, which is a trait of a true saint, a genius and a hero.“
Vladimirović’s antisemitism is undisputed; thus, he wrote in 1944: “All modern European principles were crafted by Jews, who crucified Christ: democracy, strikes, socialism, atheism, religious tolerance, pacifism, universal revolution, capitalism and communism. These are all Jews’ inventions, as well as their father’s, the devil. “ Velimirović wrote these words in the chapter called "The Jews and Their Father the Devil"
As a result of these reference points, which additionally include the Law on Equal Rights for both Partisans and members of Ravna Gora movement (in 2004), "victims of Communism" have now become: Milan Nedić, the commanders of camps in Belgrade, the members of the Special Police as well as members of the infamous 7th department and many, many other Nazi collaborators and executioners.
This exhibition is a proof that audacious and deliberate reinterpretation of history can sometimes have repercussions as severe as the crimes it wants to “interpret”. It neither calls for reconciliation nor for the review of this period of Tito's regime. It's only purpose is to incite yet deeper antagonism.
But among many amateurish and deliberatery malicious exibits one is especially disguisting: instead of a photograph from the camp chamber on Goli Otok, we see Dachau. This is a strong indicator of an ideological tendency of this exhibition curators. They want to teach us how Tito's generals were the same as Eichmann, that Goli Otok was the same as the Nazi death camps, the camps in which six million men, women and children have died. It is a bigoted, shameful, cruel interpretation and sacrilege against the victims of the Holocaust.
Series "Ravna Gora" and the exhibition "In the Name of the People" represent a rotten crown of the process that started in the limelight of the theatre stage, a quarter of a century ago.
I think we can all agree that a review of all Communist crimes against people who were not collaborators with Nazis is needed. Also, we need to enlighten the predicaments of those who were dissidents during Tito’s era - good example of how well it can be done is a play “Everyman Djilas” by Radmila Vojvodić in Montenegrin National Theatre. But, in order to do all this properly we cannot throw liberators and freedom fighters in the gutter of history, in the basements. If we go ahead with this scam, this shameless lie will became so dominant, and it will take us decades to clarify the truth, even if we start doing it right now.
The attempt to paint everyone with the same brush - Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Tito, Marx, Jelena Ćetković, brothers Ribar, brothers Baruh and Mengele, under the pretext of their common totalitarian provenance or support for such political systems, goes far beyond any civilized standpoint and common sense.
On the other hand, Israeli representatives shall, after visiting Kusturica and Andrićgrad,maybe visit Mokra Gora as well, and get a chance to sit at the pub "Lotika". Tragicomically, this restaurant is named after my most famous ancestor, the heroine of the novel "The Bridge over the Drina", a woman whose descendants would later die in that same Dachau, which is ridiculously displayed at the exhibition organized by “the elite worse than the mob” as Mirko Kovač would say.
The path of shame was paved by those whom we least expected it from. However, we are still here, to try to save from oblivion all honourable people who resisted Nazism and save them from oblivion. At this moment, we can rely on wise words of the likes of Filip David, Ivan Ivanji, Slobodan Šnajder or Lordan Zafranović. But who is going to spread the facts about what happened 70 years ago in Serbia or Croatia after these great men are no longer with us? In 1943, Paul Eluard dedicated his song "Liberty" to the French Resistance. At the very end he writes:
On naked solitude
On the marches of death
I write your name
On health that’s regained
On danger that’s past
On hope without memories
I write your name
By the power of the word
I regain my life
I was born to know you
And to name you
Translated by: Ksenija Latinović