Croatia's Tudjman plays host to 'Schindler's List'

March 27, 1994|By Samantha Power | Samantha Power,Contributing Writer

ZAGREB, Croatia -- The final film credit rolled at Friday night's premiere of "Schindler's List," and all heads in Zagreb's packed European Theater turned toward the mezzanine, where Croatian President Franjo Tudjman sat stone-faced next to the film's Oscar-winning co-producer, Branko Lustig.

Amid a round of subdued applause, Mr. Tudjman rose and embraced Mr. Lustig, a Croatian native and Auschwitz survivor. Coming from Mr. Tudjman, whose sensitivities regarding Jews in Croatia have been questioned, the gesture seemed to go beyond one of appreciation.

Screenings of the Holocaust account will be politically and personally charged everywhere in Eastern Europe. But the premiere was particularly loaded in Croatia, the first European postwar scene of "ethnic cleansing," now plagued by controversy over a fascist past and an overly nostalgic present.

Mr. Tudjman, like the rest of the audience, looked drained after the film. He praised it as "the strongest work of art I have ever seen on the subject of the evil of Nazi fascism."

Mr. Tudjman compared the suffering of the Jews to that of those expelled and killed in Croatia's war with Serbia.

"This film is a most convincing testimony of what we had to live through and what we have to fight against," he said.

Mr. Tudjman fought with the Communist partisans against the Croatian "Ustashe," the Nazi puppet regime that exterminated 80 percent of Croatia's Jews between 1941 and 1945. But since Croatia declared independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia in June 1991, his record has been spotty at best.

He claimed that Holocaust figures were inflated with "the obvious aim of making the Croatian nation odious in the eyes of the world and itself." Elie Wiesel termed Mr. Tudjman's presence at last April's Holocaust Museum opening in Washington an "outrage."

Unlike in Germany, where fringe neo-Nazi groups have resurrected swastikas and fascist slogans, it has been the government that has generated paranoia in Croatia.

In 1990 the state ignored protests and changed the name of Croatia's symbolic Square of Anti-fascist Resistance to the Square of Croatian Giants.

It has since renamed several streets and schools after Milan Budak, the man who signed the Ustashe laws for racial persecution, and it has attempted to appoint another known Ustashe leader as ambassador to Argentina. Slavko Goldstein, a leader in the Zagreb Jewish community, describes both men as "moderate fascists" because they left the World War II regime long before it was defeated.

The move that is most vociferously condemned by Croatian Jewish and opposition leaders is the planned re-introduction of the "kuna," a currency that Jewish leaders describe as "the symbol of the Ustashe state." It is ironic that just as the Tudjman government puts the finishing touches on this new currency, the president himself is taking steps to make amends.

Mr. Tudjman turned Friday night's "Schindler's List" premiere into a gala event by sending out personalized invitations to diplomats, members of Parliament and local celebrities.

Last month he presented a formal letter of apology to Jewish leaders at B'nai B'rith for the sections in his 1989 book "Wastelands of Historical Reality" that cast doubt on whether 6 million Jews had been killed in the Holocaust.

Describing his "evolving relationship with and increased understanding of the Jewish people," he wrote, "I now realize the hurtfulness of certain portions of this book and the misunderstanding they have caused."

Only 2,000 Jews are left in Croatia, but few feel insecure. Despite the revival of fascist symbols, they insist that Mr. Tudjman is not anti-Semitic.

"After fighting for five years in the war against fascists," explained Hans Bienenfeld, a Jewish businessman in Zagreb who lost most of his family in the Holocaust, "the one thing Tudjman cannot be is a fascist."

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