Jasenovac Memorial Site: What we have seen behind ‘The Flower’

On the 30th May 2016 we visited the Memorial of Jasenovac. After a two-and-a-half-hour lasting trip by train from Zagreb we arrived at the train station of the village Jasenovac – in the middle of nowhere, near the Bosnian border. We didn´t have internet connection and unfortunately no idea how to find the way to […]

On the 30th May 2016 we visited the Memorial of Jasenovac. After a two-and-a-half-hour lasting trip by train from Zagreb we arrived at the train station of the village Jasenovac – in the middle of nowhere, near the Bosnian border. We didn´t have internet connection and unfortunately no idea how to find the way to the memorial. There wasn’t even a direction sign. Luckily an older man left the train with us and showed us the way.

During our ten minutes’ walk through the heat of the day we crossed nice small houses with lovely gardens as well as destroyed and left ones – probably remains of the war during the 90ies. Finally, we arrived at the memorial and could see the famous flower monument built by Bogdan Bogdanovic in 1966 which stands on a big empty field and is surrounded by a lake which developed as a result of the forced labor in Jasenovac.

The concentration and extermination camp Jasenovac was one of 27 concentration camps the Ustasha erected in the “Independent State of Croatia” from 1941-1945. It was the biggest camp complex, consisting of five camps and was built for up to 5000 prisoners.More than 83 000 prisoners– most of them were Serbs, Jews and Roma, were brutally killed by the Ustasha or died because of the inhuman living and working conditions.

On the 2nd May 1945 the “Yugoslav People´s Liberation Army” liberated Jasenovac. Most parts of the camp had already been destroyed. In Spring 1995 the first allied shelling of Jasenovac began. This is why the Ustascha commanded the Liquidation of the Prisoners and the destruction of the whole camp. Lots of People lost their lives during the last days of Jasenovacsome during their try to escape.

The Jasenovac Memorial Site was opened in July 1966 – two years later the opening of the museum followed. After Croatia’s Declaration of Independence in June 1991 the memorial site was divided into two different countries. The part of DonjaGradina now belonged to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was still a member of Yugoslavia. During the war from 1991-1995 the Jasenovac Memorial was highly damaged and the museum was left empty. After the war the search for the missing inventory began. With the support of the Holocaust Museum in Washington the museum and archive inventory returned to Jasenovac memorial in February 2001. A new permanent exhibition was prepared which opened in 2006 and can still be seen.

Nowadays, there are two Memorial sites which are commemorating former Jasenovac camp, one is on the Croatian part of the Sava river and the other is on the Bosnian side, it is situated in RepublikaSrpska and it is called DonjaGradina. These two sites don’t agree upon the number of victims in the concentration camp, JasenovacMemorial Site is working with the number of almost 84 000, but in DonjaGradinathe official number of victims is 700 000. The two institutions don’t formally cooperate and they are supporting different narratives regarding the former camp.

Jasenovac Memorial is an emotionally powerful site, surrounded by debates alongside historical and political manipulations. That is why the number of victims at the camp has fluctuated wildly over the years, from 2500 to 1 million. Each year in April, a commemoration is held at the camp’s memorial site, marking the last escape attempt by Jasenovac inmates in 1945, which is attended by top state officials and representatives of the Serb, Roma and Jewish communities in Croatia. In April 2016 the movie debut of the documentary entitled Jasenovac – The Truth, made by Croatian director JakovSedlar took place in Zagreb. The movie questions the number of killings at the camp.In his movie Sedlarused counterfeited and false materials as an attempt to manipulate the story of Jasenovac but journalists quickly discovered that fake newspaper headlines, photographs and suspicious interviews can be seen in the movie. The Croatian Minister of Culture Zlatko Hasanbegovic, who is known for his controversial views about the NDH, attended the screening and praised the film. All this have angered representatives of the country’s Jewish and Serb community, who saw this as the peak of the new Government’s relativist and revisionist policies. That is why they made a decision to boycott this year’s official state commemoration at Jasenovac. These events caused that three separate commemorations were held in Jasenovac. The first one took place on 15thApril and was organized by the Jewish and Serb communities. The second was be held on 22ndApril by the representatives of the State, and the third was organized by antifascist organizations.

Our guided tour through the memorial site led us along the river, which marks the border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. We passed an old train, which was given to the memorial by Slovenia – maybe it is an original train which transported people to Jasenovac, but it is not for sure. Some minutes later we stopped in front of a huge tree. Behind that tree, so our guide told us, was a transition over the river. On the other side, which is the Bosnian part of the memorial, many people were brutally killed by the Ustasha and buried in mass graves. Finally, our way led us over a wooden path to the famous “Flower monument”. It is surrounded by a lake and little hills, which symbolize the locations of the barracks for the prisoners. This monument is definitely the landmark of the Jasenovac Memorial Site.

We returned to the museum across the empty area – no signs to find, which give information about the past and specific places of the former concentration camp, no photographs except of these which were shown by the guide. This means that people who walk through the memorial site without a guide have no access to these photographs and will hardly understand what happened at that place from 1941-1945.

After the guided tour we had the chance to visit the museum. We entered a small and dark room. It took some time until our eyes got used to it. What we saw then was a succession of pictures, texts and multimedia elements without any structure and common thread – the names of the victims were written on plates, which we could see on the ceiling.The exhibition is not divided into different “chapters” which would structure the learning process.The focus of the exhibition lies on the victims of Jasenovac, their stories and personal belongings – the perpetrators are hardly mentioned as well as the daily routines of the prisoners. Even some instruments of killing are exhibited the so called “Manufacture of Death” is not shown. The Ustasha conducted the concentration camp Jasenovac in full own responsibility. The exhibition however maintains the narrative that the Ustasha was only the puppet of Nazi Germany and acted in its will – a big photograph of the first meeting between Adolf Hitler and Ante Pavelic, the Ustasha leader, shall proof that.

Without any doubts the exhibition of the museum of the Jasenovac Memorial is a modern one. Modern technology – consisting of screens on which the visitor can watch interviews of survivors or read their stories – support the focus of the exhibition on the victims. Unfortunately, there are no headphones so the different voices are hearable everywhere in the building. Because of that it was very difficult for us to concentrate on the exhibition. With the voices all around us the atmosphere of the small and dark museum appeared even more depressing and frightening, which can be hardly appropriate for a place of education. In the whole exhibition only a few photographs are shown and they are hardly explained. Some explanations we could read on screens, but the text to the picture vanished after some minutes so there wasn´t really the time to read everything through and deal with the information. It would be much easier to deal with the information if they could be read right next to the picture and not on a screen which keeps changing its content.

What we missed mostly in the museum is a narration that could connect all the exhibits into one concrete whole. Most of the exhibits are personal belongings of Jasenovac camp inmates. The original historical background of the exhibits has been replaced by artificial museum context which is not sufficiently clarified. That is why it is difficult to understand the meanings of objects, photographs, posters and Ustasha propaganda movies without having previous knowledge about it. It seems like the emphasis is put much more on esthetic design of the museum rather than trying to represent the truth about the place and the horrible ideology that stood behind it. The whole museum is putting emphasis on depicting the victims rather than perpetrators which totally avoids discourse about the committedcrimes.

In our opinion in the Jasenovac Memorial Site lots of things has to be done to improve the learning effect of the visitors. A start could be the installation of a proper map of the place from 1941-1945 at the entrance of the memorial site to give at least an idea how the area of the concentration camp looked like. In the exhibition the focus should be expanded to the perpetrators and what happened to them after the Second World War and the daily routines in the concentration camps. This will support the visitors to get a full perspective on the past. There should also be more information about the historical context not just of the particular exhibits, but also about what happened before the NDH was established, how the WW2 started in Croatia, how the Ustashacame to power and what kind of ideology supported the establishment of concentration camps.

All in all, we can say that we had a really interesting trip to the Jasenov Memorial Site even when the visiting of the museum was more than disappointing. Luckily we had a guided tour through the memorial site – otherwise it wouldn´t have been possible for us to explore the place and gain fundamental knowledge about the historical context of the former concentration camp Jasenovac.