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Presentation of Alojzije Stepinac: Pillar of Human Rights, by Dr. Esther Gitman, at the Catholic University of Croatia in Zagreb

Zagreb (IKA)

The book Alojzije Stepinac: Pillar of Human Rights, by Dr. Esther Gitman, published by Kršćanska sadašnjost, was presented on Wednesday, February 13, at the Catholic University of Croatia in Zagreb by its editor, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mario Kevo; the political analyst and publicist Višnja Starešina, and the author.

In this book, Dr. Gitman investigates how and why a Croatian priest in his thirties from a rural background became a hero to his people, the Catholic Church and many throughout the world. Dr. Gitman explained that with the declassification U.S. Intelligence Records under the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act of 1998, many one-sided perspectives were slowly beginning to be replaced by a new and nuanced version of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac’s  during the Second World War. “My own research demonstrates that Stepinac forcefully denounced the human rights violations perpetrated through the implementation of the Ustaša legislation directed again Jews, Serbs and Roma … and on every occasion demanded a return to the law of God. In 1941, when two of his priests and six nuns of Jewish origin were absolved from wearing the yellow Star of David, Stepinac solemnly declared: ‘I have requested that these priests and nuns continue wearing this sign of belonging to the people from which Our Savior was born as long as others will have to do so,’” said Dr. Gitman.

Dr. Gitman pointed out that the Vatican had offered Stepinac the opportunity to choose a different type of life but, owing to the dictates of his conscience and conviction that every person has the right to live the life given to him by the Creator, he remained in Zagreb to care for the thousands of victims who depended upon him, first of all his parishioners but also many others whom the Nazi and Ustaša regime scorned, such as 58 elderly residents of a Jewish home for the aged, orphans and 1,000 Jews in mixed marriages. Upon learning that Giuseppe Bastianini, governor of Italian-occupied Dalmatia, intended to send the refugees living in the relative safety of the Italian zone back to the Ustaša-controlled Independent State of Croatia (NDH), Stepinac and Abbot Marcone, the Pope’s legate with the Croatian episcopate, announced that they were duty-bound to save the refugees, the majority of whom, they said, were converts to Christianity. With the help of the Vatican minister of foreign affairs, Maglione, they were able to obtain permits for all the Jewish refugees, which allowed them to remain in the Italian occupied zones, where 5,000 survived: 1,000 on the island of Korčula, 3,600 on the island of Rab, and in other places. Stepinac’s life was in danger during these undertakings and only spared due to the high esteem, admiration and loyalty of his people, said the author.

Through her study of the unchartered territory of the rescue of Jews during the regime of the Independent State of Croatia within the broader context of the Holocaust, Dr. Gitman challenged the broad perception promoted by some historians, including two Israelis, and the Serbian regime, that the entire Croatian population, then and now, was culpable for the crimes committed by the Ustaša. Stepinac’s detractors fail to mention that Stepinac was decorated during the First World War and that 150,000 Croats were Partisans, including members of Stepinac’s family, explained Dr. Gitman.

She mentioned that Stepinac voiced his concerns to the leadership of the Independent State of Croatia, warning that their inhumane policies toward the Jews were totalitarian in nature, which threatened to inflict grave harm to the Croatian people and Catholic Church in the years to come, and predicted that owing to the vicious behavior of Pavelić’s regime, the Croatian people would bear full responsibility for the conduct of the Ustaša, as well as for the rise of communism.

In the Croatian State Archives, Dr. Gitman discovered 420 petitions written on behalf of Jews, signed by thousands of people, concerned citizens who expected a response from the authorities. Stepinac’s letters, as well as those from his parishioners addressed to the prime minister, Ante Pavelić; and the minister of internal affairs, Andrije Artuković, expressed their distress due to the authorities’ conduct. Owing to the regulations of the Church, the Hague Convention and the Geneva Convention, Stepinac was obligated to maintain contact with the occupying forces for the sake of public order. Stepinac had to be able to speak with Pavelić, who was the only authority in a position to mitigate the terror and murder, explained Dr. Gitman.

She emphasized that Stepinac denounced Nazism, fascism, communism and the inhumanity of the Ustaša, and “throughout the war years followed but one rule: ‘Only one race exists and that is the Divine race.’” As the representative of the Catholic Church, Stepinac considered raising his voice in protest against the atrocities perpetrated by the Ustaša government to be his sacred duty.

Dr. Gitman explained that, like an Old Testament prophet, Stepinac remained relentlessly true to his Church and the natural laws, by being the voice of conscience during three successive and contrasting dictatorial regimes. He defended the teachings of the Church and, in this way, showed how a religious man attuned to the universal laws can comprehend the unity of the world in its differences. In his sermons, letters, entire life and death, Stepinac denounced the brutalities perpetrated by the Ustaša and by Nazi Germany, when the world was divided by race, and by the communist political theocracy, said the author.

Stepinac represented Croatian values and the values of Western civilization through his unflagging defense of freedom and the value of the individual as an independent entity, freedom and respect for religious beliefs and nationalities, freedom and respect for every race and nationality, freedom and respect for private property as the foundation of the personal freedom of the individual and the family, and freedom and respect for the right of every nation to the complete and independent development of national life, according to Dr. Gitman.