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Open Letter from the Catholic Bishops of the Metropolis of Zagreb to Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Porfirije

Zagreb (IKA)

On the Feast of St. James, July 25, 2022, the Catholic bishops of the Ecclesiastical Province of Zagreb sent an open letter to Patriarch Porfirije of the Serbian Orthodox Church about untruths regarding children housed at shelters in Jastrebarsko and Sisak during the Second World War, which we hereby present in its entirety:

Your Holiness!

1. When the Petition to the Holy Synod of Bishops, dated May 15, 2021, to submit a proposal to the Commission for the Canonization of New Saints of the Holy Synod of Bishops for the inclusion of the Feast Day of the Holy Martyred Children of Jastrebarsko in the Heortologion (Calendar of the Saints), was published on the website of the Eparchy of Upper Karlovac, we read the Petition together with the attached materials and were greatly astonished, nevertheless believing that the number of untruths presented therein could not be the basis for the Holy Synod of Bishops to accede to this proposal.

However, from the press release of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church, dated May 23, 2022, we learned that at its regular session, held in Srijemski Karlovac and Belgrade from May 15 to 21, 2022, the Synod fathers had added to the number of saints, including, among others, the “holy martyred children of Jastrebarsko and Sisak, to be commemorated on July 13/August 26.”

Therefore, we felt both called and obligated to write this letter, with profound respect for the suffering of those who had to endure the consequences of the cruelty of war in their early childhood.

No one has the right to overlook the pain of those children who were lonely, owing to the loss of their parents, abandonment or being forced to live as orphans. Moreover, no one has the right to overlook or belittle the sacrifices of those who cared for them, fought for their lives and health, to the utmost of their abilities, showing them humanity together with no little renunciation and accepting them into their lives, homes and families. Even today, no one has the right to injure their dignity or the truth about their life path, including their sufferings. Finally, no one has the right to cover up the tragedy of children with narrow interests or attempts, as means for some goals that are far from any compassion for children or commitment to justice.

On the one hand, we know that we must not remain silent about the truth and should give a voice to all whose voice has been taken from them or not sufficiently heard, while on the other hand, we regret that we have to speak out in this way at all. At the same time, we are certain that every well-intentioned person open to the truth will recognize our sincere intention of striving for the truth.

2. Since the explanations for this decision are not available to us, from which we could discern the basis for “counting as saints” children who found themselves in the children’s shelters in Jastrebarsko and Sisak during the Second World War, we are left with the conclusion that part of the answer to that question can be found, first of all, in the Petition for Canonization and the aforementioned materials attached to it.

Thus, Bishop Gerasim of Upper Karlovac writes in his Petition that the Eparchy of Upper Karlovac has been working on the collection of data for a long time but also asserts the conclusion that it concerned the “terrible and unprecedented torture of innocent children in the Jastrebarsko camp [sic!] formed during the Second World War.”

Moreover, he writes that the “camp was administered by the Sisters of the Congregation of St. Vincent de Paul,” and therefore the direct responsibility for the deaths (clearly qualified as the killing) of children was attributed to nuns. In the Petition, the syntagma “attached testimonies and historical facts” is used, although it is clear that these testimonies, from the viewpoint of credibility, are of nearly no value, and that which are called “historical facts”  are actually in profound disagreement with them.

Archival documents and numerous scientific studies by distinguished historians are mentioned that allegedly support the claim that these children perished “only because they were of the Orthodox faith,” although no indications are given as to which documents, scientific works and historians are being referred to.

3. In the appendices to the Petition, which contain easily disputable testimonies and descriptions of the work of the shelters, nuns are mentioned in approximately forty places. Without entering into the inaccuracies with regard to the religious communities to which certain nuns belonged or incorrect names, it is striking that there are no nice words about them but instead they are slandered and portrayed as callous and selfish, moreover as people who denied children care in terms of food, clothing, shoes and bedding; tortured them with interrogations, whipped and beat them, forced them to sing Ustasha songs, participated in murders, killed children and stuffed their dead bodies into overcrowded coffins.

Such slanders refer mainly to Sr. Pulherija (Barta), the director of the shelter in Jastrebarsko, Sr. Božimira Hoić, Sr.  Gracioza (Ivanšek) and nuns  known by the names of Bernardeta and Laurencija. Several other nuns are mentioned, whose “last names are unknown,” as it is written. Thus, there is mention of Sr. Valdemara (probably Sr. Aldemara Koščak), then Vinfrid, i.e., Sr. Vinfrida Šušak, Sr. Viktorija, whose last name was Kukenberger, and nuns whose names were allegedly Florijana, Arcosa, Gaudencije [sic!].

It certainly must be kept in mind that these were educated persons who had consecrated their lives to God and devoted themselves to people in need (which is the charism of the Sisters of Mercy), who came under exhausting conditions and, nevertheless, always devotedly and honorably performed their works of Christian love.

In several places in the accompanying materials, Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac was also mentioned, with tendentious descriptions and negative undertones in the interpretations, as if he, too, had been a participant in some of the crimes that were allegedly committed in these shelters.

Forty-seven years ago, on September 27, 1975, in the church of the Sisters of Mercy [St. Vincent de Paul] in Zagreb, Archbishop Franjo Kuharić spoke about the serious accusations and refuted public slanders, which were evidently more intense then, against the nuns who worked at the children’s shelters in Jastrebarsko. He emphasized the fact that not a single nun was summoned to court or tried for her actions after the war. Moreover, at the time of the archbishop’s remarks, several of the nuns were still alive and receiving pensions for their work in their ministry. If they had done what is still being attributed to them today, they would have certainly been treated differently.  They were given the opportunity to work in this shelter even after the war, under the condition that they would not wear their religious habits, which they did not agree to do. Archbishop Kuharić mentioned that the children were provided with medical care by doctors who were “known for their convictions, among whom were a Jew and a Serb.”

We deem it necessary to present a longer quotation from his remarks of nearly fifty years ago: “We could be silent about the slanders uttered. However, when it comes to falsehoods that reverberate far and wide, then we must follow Jesus’ example when he said to the soldier who had struck him: ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’(Jn 18:23).”

Furthermore, Archbishop Kuharić said: “In Jastrebarsko, there are future plans to gather young people from all the republics. Every year they would have them repeat the same story about the crimes of the nuns. […] Every year, new generations of the young would have to be poisoned by hatred at that grave. We ask ourselves, toward whom? Toward nuns. But not only toward them! That hatred would necessarily spread from those young hearts to the Catholic Church! […] We see the danger that such claims could inflame national hatred in young souls. […] I did not say this in order to arouse any kind of hatred toward anyone. Hatred is a curse and must be extinguished. I said this so that such slanders would no longer be repeated and so that there would be less hatred, more truth, more justice and more love” (Glas Koncila, October 12, 1975, No. 21, p. 3).

4. Looking at the entirety of the events of that time, it is especially painful today to see the continuation of the ideological propaganda from the era of Yugoslav communist totalitarianism, according to which physicians, medical personnel and, above all, nuns, as well as many benefactors and foster parents who invested their strength and knowledge, who made sacrifices to save the children at the shelters in Sisak and Jastrebarsko, are portrayed as the worst criminals. Namely, if these children are declared martyrs, there must also be torturers, and from the appendices it is understood that these are precisely the aforementioned people who are truly responsible for the fact that many of the children cared for were able to survive under exceptionally difficult circumstances.

Instead of pointing out their acts of mercy, sometimes with signs of genuine holiness, and being grateful for their examples, monstrous accusations and guilt are being attributed to their names and deeds.

It is known that the children who were housed in the shelters in 1942 were abandoned orphans, nearly naked, starving and suffering from infectious diseases, and that in such serious condition they were provided with medical and every other possible assistance during wartime circumstances.

It should be self-evident that the data on the high mortality rate of the children should be placed in the context of the general mortality rate at the time and the specific conditions.

On the one hand, there are wonderful testimonies about the great concern and engagement of the people of Croatia, especially Catholics, who fed these children and adopted thousands of war orphans, thus demonstrating great Christian love for those who were in need. On the other hand, despite all the efforts to prove the opposite, there are no documents or testimonies at the trials after the Second World War stating that even a single orphaned child was killed or tortured. Indeed, is it not strange that not a single one of those nuns who allegedly committed terrifying crimes was convicted or sentenced during the postwar trials, when we know with what kind of “objectivity and justice” such trials were conducted? It is also interesting that there is no mention of the activities of the Partisans, owing to which the children suffered, both prior to arriving at the shelter, during their stay there and after the war. It would be a genuine contribution to shed light on all the aspects of the survival and lives of the victims, as well as the roles of institutions and individuals during and after the Second World War.

The Catholic Church headed by Archbishop Alojzije Stepiance, especially through the activities of Caritas of the Archdiocese of Zagreb, performed exemplary acts of love of neighbor by  caring for these children, whereby sacrifices for the children in Jastrebarsko and Sisak were especially manifested by Catholic priests and nuns, so that while caring for the sick, some of them became infected and one of them died as a result.

5. Although we are certain that you are acquainted with many valuable scientific papers and contributions, in which, through the methodology of the historical sciences, attempts have been made to obtain the most accurate data possible and learn further details about the care received by the so-called “children from Kozara” and the shelters in Sisak and Jastrebarsko, we list at least a few of the contributions that can help in easily distinguishing the truth from untruth, and are much more objective than the malicious pamphlets.

First of all, it would be necessary to obtain a manuscript that has been kept secret and, therefore, is still unpublished (although available) by Narcisa Lengel-Krizman, Saving Children. It is valuable in that the author is a historian of communist and pro-Yugoslav provenance, and her writings can provide additional help in reasoning that avoids bias and takes the diversity of sources into account.

Looking at articles going back thirty-five years, it is worthwhile to read writings by Stanko Žakelj, a Slovenian Catholic Lazarist priest, published in the weekly newspaper Glas Koncila (Nos. 7–13) from February 15 to March 29, 1987.

Furthermore, a work by Ćiril Petešić, Jastrebarsko Children’s Shelter, Zagreb, 1990, should not be ignored. It contains, among other things, valuable statements and testimonies by Dr. Branko Dragišić, a physician at the shelter, pediatrician, professor at the School of Medicine in Zagreb and son of an Orthodox priest.

Certainly, a lot of light is shed from the Diary of Diana Budisavljević, Zagreb, 2003, as well as a work by Nataša Mataušić, Diana Budisavljević, Unsung Heroine of the Second World War, Zagreb, 2020.

In the book Blessed Alojzije Stepinac and the Town of Jastrebarsko, Zagreb, 2008 (Section III: Blessed Alojzije Stepinac in the Home for War Orphans in Jastrebarsko, pp. 69–120), Juraj Batelja succinctly presents sufficient information to provide insight into various issues relating to the shelters, with emphasis on the activity of Archbishop Stepinac.

A paper published last year by Igor Vukić and Ilija Kuzman,  Some Insights into the Housing and Healthcare of Children from Kozara in Children’s Shelters in 1942,  in: PILAR – Časopis za društvene i humanističke studije, 16 (2021) No. 31, pp. 67–02, merits particular attention.  It contains significant information about the medical aspects of treatment and housing at the shelters in Sisak and Jastrebarsko, as well as centers in Zagreb, in the form of analysis, explanations and conclusions written by Professor Emeritus Ilija Kuzman, a specialist in infectious diseases at the School of Medicine, University of Zagreb, and the Croatian Academy of Medical Sciences.

Accordingly, we feel that the contents of the aforementioned contributions indicate that enough has been collected, published and available, and invite us to open our minds and hearts in order to see the exceptional care, concern and dedication to saving children that have been called crime and torture.

6. Due to all of this, we remain in disbelief and sadness because we have the impression that, with regard to this matter, the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church has obviously accepted rhetoric and communist propaganda, full of untruths and manipulations, with which it is being attempted to blame innocent people for the alleged torture and murder of children, thousands of whom, owing to the love and care of Croatian Catholics, were saved from death and survived the difficult wartime conditions.

With disbelief and sadness, without any intention of encroaching upon the criteria for canonization of other churches, we express our profound concern if this decision is based on untrue facts. Namely, such acts can seriously disrupt mutual understanding and the common service to the Truth between the Ecclesiastical Province of Zagreb and the leadership of the Serbian Orthodox Church. We grieve deeply for the dead children, and this pain is intensified when attempts are made to exploit their suffering in the crudest manner.

With regard to the insufficiently illuminated topics from past relations between Croats and Serbs, Catholics and Orthodox Christians, we believe that it is indispensable to repudiate every temptation to coopt and prolong the falsehoods promoted under communism, as well as to adapt them to current ideological and political objectives that are contrary to the gospel of Christ and the spread of the heavenly kingdom

If the complex issues regarding the care of children at the shelters in Jastrebarsko and Sisak are approached uncritically, without basis in historical facts and the truth, the dignity of the victims, first of all, but also of those who have absurdly been humiliated for their good deeds, is indirectly insulted. The slanders uttered allow a tree to grow that can only bear the evil fruits of the increasing distance between the Catholic and Orthodox faithful, instead of purification and drawing closer to each other by the power of God’s Spirit, the Spirit of truth that the heavenly Father, through our Savior, has given to his Church.

Praying to the Lord to keep us in love, full of hope that we are writing to a heart open to the Truth, we salute you in the Lord.

The Bishops of the Ecclesiastical Province of Zagreb:

Cardinal Josip Bozanić, Metropolitan Archbishop of Zagreb
Vlado Košić, Bishop of Sisak
Vjekoslav Huzjak, Bishop of Bjelovar-Križevci
Bože Radoš, Bishop of Varaždin
Milan Stipić, Bishop of the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Križevci
Ivan Šaško, Auxiliary Bishop of Zagreb and
Mijo Gorski, Auxiliary Bishop of Zagreb

Zagreb, July 25, 2022, on the Feast of St. James the Apostle