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Zagreb: Lecture by Dr. Esther Gitman Introduces Conference on Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac


An exhibition of caricatures, Alojzije Stepinac in Images and Words: The Influence of Communist Propaganda in Creating a Negative Image of the Archbishop of Zagreb, was also opened.

Zagreb, (IKA) – On Monday, November 23, in the Vijenac Auditorium of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Institute in Zagreb, a lecture entitled “Dr. Alojzije Stepinac, the Archbishop of Zagreb on Trial by Tito’s Regime, Historians and the Current Serbian Regime” was presented by Dr. Esther Gitman, which introduced a one-day conference, Archbishop Stepinac and the Serbs in Croatia in the Context of World War II and the Postwar Period, jointly organized by the Archdiocese of Zagreb and the Catholic University of Croatia.
Prior to the lecture, the Rector of the Catholic University of Croatia, Prof. Dr. Željko Tanjić, briefly introduced Dr. Gitman. He spoke about her book, When Courage Prevailed, the Croatian edition of which was published in 2011 by Kršćanska sadašnjost. The book deals with the topic of the rescue and survival of Jews during the World War II regime of the Independent State of Croatia and the role of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac during that period. Since the publication of that book, Dr. Gitman has been systematically investigating the topic of Jews in Croatia during World War II and the question of the innocence of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac. During the 2013/2014 academic year, she was a Visiting Professor at the Catholic University of Croatia, where she taught a course on the rescue of the Jews, and this summer published a well-received study on this topic. These are all reasons why it was decided that Dr. Gitman would open the conference, in order to call attention to this important issue for us, the Croatian nation and our Church, said Rector Tanjić.
Dr. Gitman began her lecture by saying that she would like to speak about Stepinac in light of his efforts to alleviate human suffering and, thereby, refute the allegations against him that have been made for the past seven decades. She based her lecture on a directive that Archbishop Stepinac sent to priests in 1941, which refers to the civil authorities who were forcing Orthodox Christians to convert to Catholicism in Croatia: “When persons of the Jewish or Orthodox religion who are in mortal danger come and want to convert to Catholicism, accept them in order to save human lives. Do not require any special religious knowledge from them, because the Orthodox are Christians like ourselves, and the Jewish faith is the one from which Christianity draws its roots. The role and task of a Christian, in the first place, is to save people. When this time of madness and savagery passes, those who converted out of conviction will remain in our Church while others, when the danger is over, will return to their own.” Placing particular emphasis on anti-Semitism, Dr. Gitman pointed out that between the two world wars this phenomenon was not promoted by the Ustasha but actually the media, which published books such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Brochures were distributed in Serbia, despite a court ban. Then she recalled that in 1938, Anton Korošec announced that in Yugoslavia there was no Jewish question and declared refugee Jews to be undesirables. Unlike Korošec, in 1939 Archbishop Stepinac appealed to the faithful to help Jewish refugees because it was their Christian duty. Even in 1938, Stepinac still hoped that Germany’s interests in Russia would keep the war at a distance from the Southern Slavs, and that Croats would have the opportunity to secure their own state, in which law and justice would prevail. During an encounter with students, he said: “Love toward one’s own nation cannot turn a man into a wild animal, which destroys everything and calls for reprisal, but it must ennoble him, so that his own nation secures the respect and love of other nations.”
During the lecture, Dr. Gitman also commented on the accusation that Stepinac collaborated with the Ustasha. Citing the dates of meetings between Stepinac and Ustasha officials, including Pavelić, she said that these visits were quite formal, i.e., “in accordance with the protocol as befits a Church leader.” Archbishop Stepinac actively rebuked the authorities and asked priests not to join the Ustasha. He protested the persecution of the Jews to the authorities. Dr. Gitman also cited Archbishop Stepinac’s sharp protest of the killing of 260 Serbs in Glina. Since the authorities did not like these protests, he was only permitted to speak inside a church. However, this did not prevent him from spreading his message. In a written summary of the defense, Ivo Politeo, Stepinac’s attorney, described the power of Stepinac’s sermons that condemned atrocities and defended human rights. The sermons were retold, transcribed and thousands upon thousands of copies were distributed among the people, even in the liberated territories. Thus, they became a type of “underground press” successfully spreading propaganda against the Ustasha, a partial replacement for an opposition press. Stepinac spoke about the Christian principles of justice and freedom for the individual and nation, said Dr. Gitman. She also commented that some historians have criticized Stepinac’s behavior during the Ustasha regime. Their claim was that a person in his position could have done much more but the facts neither prove nor support such an assertion.
“My objective today was to present Stepinac and his role as the Archbishop of Zagreb during World War II. He was in an unenviable position between the ‘hammer and anvil,’ i.e., between the Nazis and communists. He was a loyal official of the Roman Catholic Church and served humanity, never abandoning his faith, with the moral law as his guide. On every occasion, he condemned the inhumane actions of the Ustasha regime,” said Dr. Gitman. She concluded the lecture by citing the historian Raul Hilberg: “The churches, once a powerful presence in Europe, reached the nadir of their influence during World War II, unable as they were to maintain independence against the political order. Despite this, during the war Stepinac followed a single maxim, and that was ‘only one race exists and that is the Divine race.'”
The lecture was attended by the Church leadership and representatives from political and public life, including the Deputy Speaker of the Croatian Parliament, Academician Željko Reiner, as well as representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
On the same day was the opening of an exhibition of caricatures at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Institute, Alojzije Stepinac in Images and Words: The Influence of Communist Propaganda in Creating a Negative Image of the Archbishop of Zagreb. The Postulator for the Cause of the Canonization of the Blessed Alojzije Stepinac, Msgr. Juraj Batelja, said by way of introduction that the exhibition presents some of the many documents assembled by the attorney Dr. Ivo Politeo, which were presented to the court during the defense of Archbishop Stepinac. The public prosecutor or a representative of the Supreme Court wrote either “yes” or “no” on each of them, indicating whether they could be entered in evidence during the court proceedings. This was also done with the list of witnesses. It is significant that those documents and witnesses that refuted the indictment were excluded. This is an injustice that has gone unpunished, reverberates among the domestic and world public even today, and defames “the most illustrious figure of the Church among the Croats.” It is to be hoped that this exhibition and symposium will contribute to a confrontation of the facts and a true evaluation of the person and works of the Blessed Alojzije Stepinac, even where he is still denied welcome to this day, said Msgr. Batelja.
An overview of the exhibition was provided by Associate Professor Dr. Frano Dulibić of the Department of Art History, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zagreb, considered to be the foremost authority on caricature in Croatia. Among other things, he said that during World War II, some cartoonists were enlisted to produce ideological propaganda for the Independent State of Croatia, creating anti-Semitic cartoons and posters in the service of ideology. After the war, the magazine Kerempuh was founded, which contained a multitude of caricatures mocking Cardinal Stepinac. A motley group formed around the magazine, from those who had previously worked for the Independent State of Croatia to young cartoonists who had come from the ranks of the partisans. The magazine was under ideological pressure because the editor had to submit each issue for approval, said Dr. Dubilić, who also noted that never in the history of caricature in Croatia was there ever such a campaign waged against an individual as there was against Cardinal Stepinac. The objective was to defame the Church, using Cardinal Stepinac to create a negative stereotype, so that an enormous number of caricatures were created, he said. He also presented findings by Tomislav Jonjić that over 1,400 caricatures and texts against the Church were published from the end of the war to the sentencing of Cardinal Stepinac, which means about 2.5 per day.
The authors of the exhibition, Dr. Mario Kevo and Dr. Tomislav Anić, Associate Professors at the Department of History, Catholic University of Croatia, and Professor Suzana Obrovac Lipar, Head of the Department of Public Relations, Catholic University of Croatia, wanted to show how the Communist Party of the former Yugoslavia had used the satirical publications Kerempuh in Zagreb and Jež in Belgrade to shape public opinion during the period from 1945 to 1946.