Recent years have seen an increase in public debates and controversies concerning the Jasenovac camp complex, built in August 1941 after the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH). Concurrently, scholars are fast approaching a consensus regarding life and death in the camp, while beginning to explore how its memory affects present-day societies in Serbia, Croatia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia.
The conference Jasenovac Past and Present: History and Memory of Institutionalised Destruction is scheduled for 24–26 March 2020 and will gather a team of international experts to examine the history and memory of Jasenovac by critically analysing an intricate web of connections transcending past and present. Scholars will revisit long-standing historical controversies and present new research findings, but also gain a better understanding of how the memory of the camp has changed over the years.
By connecting local history and memory with wider European trends, the conference will pave the way for increased research cooperation across national borders, while helping to situate Jasenovac more firmly in European consciousness as an important locality of the Holocaust. It will furthermore engage with media, policymakers, educators and the public at large, thus helping to counter the distortions and manipulations that continue to plague public debates and perceptions about the camp.
The various activities will take place during three consecutive days in Belgrade, Jasenovac and Zagreb in order to achieve the highest impact in the societies most affected by the painful heritage represented by Jasenovac. They will combine scientific panel discussions with several public events that seek to
- increase knowledge about the state-of-the-art in terms of research
- stimulate regional and wider international research cooperation
- connect the history and memory of Jasenovac to broader European trends
- inspire discussion about the camp in the public domain
- raise awareness about manipulations, distortions and denial pertaining to Jasenovac
23 March: Belgrade
- Panel discussion: “Jasenovac in Serbo-Croat Relations”
24 March: Belgrade
- Keynote address by Ulrich Herbert, Albert-Ludwig University, Freiburg:
“Jasenovac and the Concentration Camp System in Europe”
26 March: Zagreb
- Keynote address by Deborah Lipstadt, Emory University:
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Basic Facts about the Jasenovac-Stara Gradiška Camp
Immediately after the Ustašas and their leader Ante Pavelić came to power on 10 April 1941, the new fascist regime embarked on a campaign of persecution and mass killing of the nation’s Serbs, Jews, and Roma. Added to the targeted ethnic communities were numerous Croat, Muslim (today Bosniak) and other political enemies of the regime.
The new authorities established the Jasenovac camp in August 1941, placing it administratively under Section III of the Ustaša Supervisory Office (Ustaška Nadzorna Služba). Adding to the compound in Jasenovac was the Stara Gradiška camp, used for the incarceration of political prisoners alongside Serbian women and children.
Jasenovac remained in operation until May 1945, when it was liberated by forces of the “People’s Liberation Army” under Josip Broz Tito. A ceremony is held on 22 April each year to commemorate the camp’s victims, marking an attempt by prisoners to escape just before liberation.
Since the Ustaša administration destroyed most of the camp before liberation, there were hardly any buildings left after the war. Today, the Jasenovac Memorial Area comprises small mounds mark where the barracks used to be, a museum exhibition and Bogdan Bogdanović’s memorial monument The Flower. Inscribed at the foot of the monument is a passage from Croatian poet and partisan Ivan Goran Kovačić’s war poem “The Pit” (transl. by Alec Brown):
That simple happiness, the window’s glint;
Swallow and young; or windborne garden sweet –
Where? – The unhurried cradle’s drowsy tilt?
Or, by the threshold, sunshine at my feet?
Kovačić’s fate is symbolic of the suffering of over one million Yugoslavs during the Second World War. He was killed by Četniks (a Serbian nationalist organisation) in 1943 and thrown into a pit similar to the one he had described. At the end of the poem, he ponders whether people would overcome the past and present to make a better future:
Is there a place where suffering and pain
Men suffer, and endure, but yet alive?
Is there a place where men forget again
And live with those who wronged them by their side?