The Jasenovac Committee of the Serbian Orthodox Church: The Remembrance of the Common Suffering As the Path to the Future
Hieromonk Jovan Ćulibrk
If someone ask an average Serbian man, a shepherd on the slopes of Skopska Crna Gora in northern Macedonia or a fisherman from the Montenegrin seacoast, same as a peasant from the plains under Stara Planina (the Old Mountain = Balkans) on the Bulgarian border or a keyboard designer the Silicon Valley who went there in a search for his chance in New World, he may not know what words “Shoah” or "Holocaust" means. But if the word Jasenovac will be uttered, outburst of the answers will follow with “the place where they slaughtered us, Jews and Gypsies” as the most common and at the same time the most comprehensive one.
In the self-consciousness of the Serbian nation, word "Jasenovac" gained the same place as the word "Shoah" in a Jewish world: a symbol for an unprecedented catastrophe. Moreover, in a similar way it became a formative event of the national identity, comparable only with the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 when medieval Serbian Kingdom had its self-sacrificing last stand against Turks. Finally, for those killed because of their nation and the faith, Jasenovac was a source of the resistance against a project of a new socialistic Yugoslavian man, conceived in a World War Two as seen by a "titoistic" historiography.
What was Jasenovac? The only concentration and death camp in WWII established not by Germans – in this case by the Croatian Nazis – Usta ši – in which around 30,000 Jews, tens of thousands of Gypsies and probably few hundred thousand Serbs along with some Croatian and Slovenian antifascists were put on death. Although the numbers sometimes are contested, the sadistic way in which inmates were slaughtered – usually by knife or hammer; very few were shot - forced Yehuda Bauer to conclude, "Jasenovac was, if anything, more horrible than its Nazi counterparts".
Not only that we today can not tell to whom belongs bones interweaved in the soil of Donja Gradina – Jasenovac killing ground – but the souls are interweaved in our memory. While there is a strong sentiment towards the co-suffering Gypsies, the bond with the Jews became a metaphysical one: in the most famous novel about Jasenovac, Ljubo Jandrić, himself an inmate, devotes whole chapter to the image of a Jew in the camp and depicts a Rabbi "who do not pray anymore only for the blood of Abraham (...) as if the evil made all the inmates - Jews” . He interferred into the argue between the Serbian highlander and his Orthodox priest and asks the first to stop contesting God: “This is the home of the plague, my brother in pain" , Rabbi said.
Both in the Serbian and Jewish thought this biblical comparison found its place. Matija Bećković, a great Serbian poet, writing about his own poem about Jasenovac A Tale , called the Jews "proto-martyrs with no comparison" - and he thinks that in Jasenovac "the Serbs, with their innocent blood, joined Jews." Enriko Josif, a Jewish composer from Belgrade, called two nations "two echatological peoples with terribly similar fate". "Jasenovac is for Serbs what Dachau is for us," he concludes.
Therefore, when the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church established its Jasenovac Committee that was, first of all, the recognition of the echatological dimension of the event of martyred Jasenovac. Second, it was a way to preserve the memory of the Jasenovac victims in the forthcoming "time without survivors" as the Chairman of Yad Vashem Directorate Avner Shalev called it recently. And third, there was an aim to maintain a mutual comradship sealed by the sacrifice of our ancestors.
Finally, the Jasenovac Committee has responsibillity towards truth, the reponsibillity shattered by many during the recent Balkan wars and allthrough the years that preceeded them. The numbers of victims of Ustaši regime were shamelessly downsized or exagerrated in order to provoke the feelings of anger and endangerment – in fact, in order to confront the peoples and to manipulate with them. In the same way that the Orthodox Church, along with Jewish community, challenged communist depersonalization of the so-called “antifascists” victims deprived of their national identity, the Jasenovac Committee is now here to help full truth about Jasenovac to be revealed.
The lack of truth in the afterwards of WWII caused the lack of justice, which was followed with the lack of repentance and reconcilliation. And without them, it was easy to became beast. Therefore the recent Balkan wars are in the first place post-communist wars, wars of the peoples whose morality was destroyed by long accumulated hate. And the hate against the enemies of Yugoslavian way of communism – common enemy united Yugoslav communists more than anything - just over night became hate against the enemies of MY nation. The substance remained the same.
The basic truth to be preserved here is the uniqueness of the Holocaust: although “more horrible” then Auschwitz, the complex of the Jasenovac camps just through its Jewish victims belongs to the universe of the Shoah. But the Holocaust opened the doors of horror, made the whole crime possible and settled the parameters of evil. The uniqueness of Jasenovac for us is in the common legacy of suffering that Jews, Serbs and Gypsies share same in the same way they share the vast graveyards in the killing fields of Donja Gradina.
This legacy of common suffering and sacrifice is also the most powerfull medicine for the global anti-Semitism, the plague that emerges from our computer screens even among those who previously used to be immune to it. But, in order to confront it we should understand that human heart and mind still prefere a personal experience to universally proclaimed humanistic principles. Thus, in the situation when Jasenovac became the very core of the Serbian identity, the legacy of common suffering should be also very powerful tool to chase the uninvited and multifaced guest that we already encountered in Tito's Yugoslavia as the leftist "anti-Zionism" of the time.
So, the question is the question of the identity – and nineties showed how dangerous is to destroy it. As the symbol of the Jasenovac Committee on its web-site, the medieval Serbian fresco of Rachel, "weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more" ( Jeremiah 31:15 , Matthew 2:18) is used. For Serbs, Jews and Gypsies that prophecy was fulfilled in Jasenovac in a way that forever tied their dead and their memory.
To revive and preserve that memory, the Jasenovac Committee will consider it as its ultimate and sacred task.
Hieromonk Jovan Ćulibrk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Coordinator of the Jasenovac Committee of the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church.