Jasa Almuli and Holocaust revisionism: The making of a Serbian anti-Wiesenthal
Earlier this year, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Belgrade came under attack from Jasa Almuli, a Serbian journalist and former president of the Belgrade Jewish community. What apparently provoked Almuli’s ire was the claim made by the Helsinki Committee’s 2006 report: ‘During the course of the Second World War, the Jews in Serbia perished at a high rate, not only at the hands of the German occupation authorities, but at the hands of the Government of National Salvation of Milan Nedic, the Ljoticites [Serbian fascists], gendarmes and Special Police, whose effective work contributed to the fact that, already in August 1942, Belgrade, as the first European capital city, was proclaimed a city cleansed of Jews (Judenrein).’
Almuli objected: ‘This equation of the German occupiers and the quisling organs in the destruction of the Serbian Jews does not accord with the truth.’ Allegedly basing himself on Serbian Jewish sources, Almuli claimed that ‘they all state that the German occupiers alone decided on the destruction of the Jews in Serbia and that the perpetrators were German organs.’
This is far from the first attempt by Almuli to defend the Serbian fascists and quislings of World War II from the charge that they participated in the Holocaust. In a letter published in the UK’s Sunday Telegraph on 27 February 1994, Almuli wrote:
‘As one of the few Serbian Jews who survived the Holocaust I can testify that the Serbian government of Milan Nedic under German military occupation did not “manage to deport every Serbian Jew to face the Holocaust”, as Tom Carter alleged (letter, February 20). The deportation of Jews in Serbia and their complete destruction was a crime exclusively committed by the Nazi Germans. They alone deported the Jews and killed them in camps they established in Serbia. The Serbs, who always resisted German invasion, rebelled against the Nazis and were subjected to exceptionally cruel reprisals in which for each German soldier killed by the Serbian partisans 100 Serbian hostages were executed. All Jewish males were killed by the German army as Serbian hostages, and no history of the Holocaust written by Jews blamed the Serbs for their deportation.’
However, what Almuli claims – that the Serbian quislings of Milan Nedic were innocent of any role in the Holocaust, and that no history of the Holocaust written by Jews blames ‘the Serbs’ for deporting Jews to the Nazis – is untrue. According to Israeli historian Menachem Shelah, writing in Israel Gutman’s Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (MacMillan, New York, 1990), the extermination of Serbia’s Jews was indeed the work of the Nazi SS and military leaders, but ‘Others involved in determining and carrying out Jewish policy were… the Serbian quisling puppet government, under Milan Nedic, whose police and gendarmerie assisted the Germans in rounding up the Jews.’ (p. 1341) Shelah writes in the same volume (p. 289): ‘There were many instances of Chetniks murdering Jews or handing them over to the Germans.’
Thus, whereas Almuli claims that the deportation and extermination of the Serbian Jews was ‘exclusively’ the work of the Nazis and that the Serbian quislings were innocent of any involvement, a respected standard reference work on the Holocaust says otherwise.
This is not the extent of Almuli’s efforts to whitewash the role of the Serbian quislings in the Holocaust. But before I go into this in greater detail, it is necessary to say a few words about him. According to the Serbian independent news magazine Vreme in June 1992, Almuli was one of a group of Serbian Jewish leaders who ‘directed all their efforts to just one goal: to be as close as possible to the existing regime.’ The regime in question was the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. This resulted, Vreme‘s journalist continued, in ‘the fact that Mr Almuli was a frequent guest at sessions of the Serbian government, at which propaganda activities were discussed.’ (Ivan Radovanovic, ‘Guzva u jevrejskoj opstini: Ovozemaljski izbori’, Vreme, 1 June 1992). Another member of this group of Serbian Jewish leaders was Klara Mandic, who founded the ‘Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society’ in 1987, to lobby the Jewish world, and in particular Israel, on behalf of Milosevic’s Serbia. Mandic had been a close ally of Milosevic and his intermediary in dealings with semilegal business enterprises on whose support he drew. She lived for nine months with the Serb paramilitary leader Dragan Vasiljkovic (‘Captain Dragan’) and was a close associate of both Radovan Karadzic and Zeljko Raznatovic ‘Arkan’. She was murdered in Belgrade shortly after the overthrow of Milosevic.
According to Vreme‘s journalist, Almuli resigned as Belgrade Jewish community president in the face of opposition from among Belgrade Jews to his initiative to publish an attack on the leadership of the sister Jewish community in Zagreb (for its own alleged closeness to its ruling regime – in this case, Croatian). He subsequently emigrated to the UK. Whereas Mandic was a flamboyant propagandist for the Serbian nationalist cause, her former mentor Almuli more quietly wrote letters in defence of the Serbian cause, as he saw it, for publication in newspapers.
On 25 May 1992, at the height of the Bosnian genocide, a letter of Almuli’s was published in the Jerusalem Post, attacking what he claimed was the Israeli newspaper’s ‘lack of objectivity’ with regard to Serbia: ‘We deplore your one-sided, biased presentation of the situation in the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. You do not state a single fact or argument bearing out your claims that Serbia is “aggressive and cruel”, that it has become a “grave danger to stability in Europe” and that it should be punished by a “total trade embargo and diplomatic isolation”.’ In a non sequitur which was already becoming all too familiar to anyone paying attention to Serbian propaganda in the early 1990s, Almuli then jumped straight from the events of 1990s Bosnia into an account of Serb suffering and Croat and Muslim wrongdoing in World War II.
Almuli then proceeded to present the Serb-nationalist case to his Israeli audience:
‘We, the Jews, who, together with the Serbs, suffered in Ustasha death camps – of which Jasenovac is recorded in the Hall of Remembrance in Yad Vashem – understand their current concerns. The Serbs want the Yugosalv crisis settled in a way that will not reduce them in the republics other than Serbia to a helpless minority… The republic of Serbia is not indifferent to the fate of the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the same as Israel is not indifferent to the fate of the Jews in the Diaspora.’
In a further apparent effort to mitigate Serb war-crimes in Bosnia and appeal to Israeli sensibilities, Almuli claimed: ‘In recent years, the Republic of Serbia took on the leading role in demanding the re-establishment [by Yugoslavia] of diplomatic relations with Israel.’
In other words Almuli, as the former pro-regime leader of the Belgrade Jewish community, was using these credentials to agitate on behalf of the Serb nationalist cause. Despite his readiness to attack his fellow Jews in Croatia for their own alleged closeness to their own regime, he frequently presented his polemics in terms of ‘we Jews’ or ‘us Jews’ – as if his past history of official service in Serbia qualified him to make statements on behalf of all Jews in the former Yugoslavia. Thus, in a letter published back in November 1993 (see below), Almuli claimed that ‘In the present propaganda battle among the waring factions in former Yugoslavia the history of the Holocaust is insistently revised with the aim of making the opposing faction guilty of killing the Jews.’ He finished by saying that ‘I plead with the warring factions in former Yugoslavia, and with their respective friends abroad, to stop using Jews in their propaganda warfare.’ Yet he failed to mention that he himself sided with one of the warring factions, that his own agenda was to whitewash his own country’s (Serbia’s) role in the Holocaust while emphasising the role of its enemy (Croatia), and that he himself was ‘using Jews’ in his own propaganda warfare aimed at defending the role of Serbia in the Bosnian war.
Almuli made an additional intervention in the propaganda war over Bosnia in January 1994, in response to an article in the International Herald Tribune by Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, who condemned Serb aggression as involving ‘genocide’ and a ‘Holocaust that is taking place in the heart of Europe’, and who called for US military action to halt in, and for the lifting of the arms embargo against Bosnia. Almuli responded:
‘It is very dangerous for a Jewish leader to take sides in an alien civil war with strong religious connotations, as Mr. Siegman does in Bosnia. He barely mentions the Catholic Croats, although they exposed themselves to widespread criticism by their military involvement in Bosnia and the resurgence of Ustase elements, which are of grave concern to the local Jewish community. He strongly supports the Bosnian Muslims, despite the fundamentalism of their leader, Alija Izetbegovic. And he invites Western military intervention against the Bosnian Serbs, who are Christian Orthodox, thus provoking possible reactions against Jews in other Christian Orthodox countries.’
In this way, Almuli attempted to silence Jewish criticism of the Serb genocide in Bosnia by raising the spectre of Orthodox Christian retaliation against Jews elsewhere.
In his recent attack on the Serbian Helsinki Committee, Almuli claims:
‘I am not defending Nedic or his regime, but defamed Serbia, and I fight always against revision of the history of the Holocaust. Therefore I present the question: Do the ladies and gentlement of the Helsinki Committee in Belgrade not know all this, or did not know how to read ? Some great Western powers, in the absence of any kind of international legal basis, claim that Serbia has no moral right to Kosovo, because it has killed there many Albanians at the time of the bombardment in 1999. Does this moral disqualification of Serbia need to be covered by the lie that Serbia is just as guilty as the Germans for the murder of the Serbian Jews ?!’
So it is, that this former leader of the Belgrade Jewish community sees his task as ‘defending defamed Serbia’ over Kosovo by whitewashing Serbia’s Nazi collaborators.
If readers are wondering why I am bringing up the subject at this time, it is not only because I have only just learned of Almuli’s attack on the Helsinki Committee, but also because I figured in his attack, as a ‘Briton with family links to Croatia’, who has also been ‘guilty’ of bringing up the Nedic regime’s role in the Holocaust. Almuli refers to a letter he had published in the London Review of Books back in November 1993, in which he accused me – back when I was a 21-year-old undergraduate – of making false claims about the Nedic regime. You can read his letter here. Indeed, I made some mistakes; above all, I put the figure for Jewish Holocaust victims in Serbia at 23,000, when it was closer to 15,000 (though Almuli, through confusing the territory of wartime Croatia proper – which I referred to – with the territory of the ‘Independent State of Croatia’, falsely accused me of getting the figure for Croatian Jewish victims wrong as well). I also mistakenly attributed the building of the quisling Serbian death-camp of Banjica to Nedic, though in fact its construction was initiated in quisling Serbia before Nedic personally took office. Yet while Almuli correctly pointed out the first of these errors, his letter otherwise consisted of a factually inaccurate apologia for the quisling regime in Serbia.
The allegation that the regime of Milan Nedic, installed by the Germans in Serbia in August 1941., enthusiastically participated in the Holocaust, is the second incorrect statement in Mr. Hoare’s letter. No anti – Jewish legislation was passed by this regime, no death camp for Jews was established or run by it and virtually no killing perpetrated. All that was done by the German Army, police and SS which had almost entirely destroyed the Serbian Jewish population by May 1942., although several hundred Jews were still hiding with Serbian friends. The German police were hunting them and many were caught with the help of police loyal to Nedic’s regime, attracted by the financial reward the Germans were paying. This is all that can be found about Nedic in the published research of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia. The Germans themselves dealt with the Jews in Serbia; the duty of Nedic‘s regime was to carry out internal administration.
The half – truth in Mr. Hoare’s letter refers to the concentration camp Banjica in Belgrade. It was indeed a death camp and staffed by Serbian policemen, but it was not destined for Jews. This camp was established by German order and the Serbian personnel were subject to the control of the Gestapo. The camp was intended for Serbs who opposed the German occupation, for Partisans, Communists and liberal patriots. Out of 23,697 persons who were imprisoned in this camp only 455 were Jews.
In absolving the Nedic regime of responsibility for anti-Jewish legislation, Almuli did not choose to mention that the German commander in Serbia had issued an anti-Jewish and anti-gypsy decree on 31 May 1941, which required Jews to register with the Serbian police and wear the yellow star, banned them from public service, prevented them from visiting theatres and cinemas, and so forth. The decree specified: ‘The Serbian authorities are responsible for carrying out the orders contained in this decree.’ As Serbian prime minister from August 1941, Nedic presided over the enforcement of this decree by the Serbian authorities. Almuli’s claim that the Germans alone were responsible for measures against the Jews, while Nedic merely carried out internal Serbian administration, is therefore false.
As for Almuli’s attempt to downplay the role of the Serb quislings in the organisation and management of the Banjica death camp, and its role in the destruction of the Jews, historian Jennie Lebel (Zeni Lebl), in her book ‘Until the final solution: The Jews in Belgrade 1521-1942’ (‘Do konacnog resenja: Jevreji u Beogradu 1521-1942’, Cigoja stampa, Belgrade, 2001, pp. 312-313), has this to say:
The decision [to establish the Banjica camp] was taken in the staff of the German military commander for Serbia on 22 June 1941, and the same day the chief of the administrative staff Dr Turner informed the first person of the Commissars’ Administration [Serbian quisling government] Milan Acimovic of it. As it was a question of a joint, Nazi-collaborationist camp, the carrying out of the order was entrusted to the administrator of the city of Belgrade, Dragi Jovanovic, i.e. to the Administration of the city of Belgrade, the Belgrade municipality and the Gestapo. Dragi Jovanovic appointed on 5 July Svetozar M. Vujkovic as the first manager of that first concentration camp in Belgrade; and for his assistant, Djordje Kosmajac. They maintained daily close contact with the Special Police and with them decided the question of life or death for tens of thousands of prisoners in the camp. The security of the camp was exercised by a special detachment of the gendarmerie of the city of Belgrade, under the supervision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and with the special engagement of the Department of the Special Police. The German part of the camp was under the administration of the Gestapo.
The camp building had to be very quickly repaired and organised to suit its new purpose. According to the model of German concentration camps, metal walls, iron doors and bars were put up at Banjica, and grates were put on the windows. The first prisoners were brought to the newly formed camp already on 9 July, while the adaptation of the building was still in progress, even before the building of the high camp walls. The bringing of prisoners, Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, was carried out at a fast tempo, as were their daily executions.‘ (emphasis added)
Lebel is not the only historian to write about the role of Banjica in the Holocaust. Sima Begovic, a Yugoslav historian who was himself imprisoned in the camp during the war, is the author of a two-volume history of Banjica (‘Logor Banjica 1941-1944’, Institut za savremenu istoriju, Belgrade, 1989). He writes the following (vol. 2, pp. 25-26):
Larger groups of Jews reached the camp at Banjica on 14, 15 and 16 September 1941. Among them appear the surnames of well known Belgrade Jewish families: Albano, Gris, Finci, Pijade, Konfino, Sabitaj, Demojorovic, Mandilovic, Ruso, Gozes, Solomon, Almulzino, Amar, Demajo, Benvenisti, Janjatovic, Frajdenfeld, Isakovic, Zonensajn, Nisim, Altarac, Singer, Adanja, Melamed, Karic, Masic, Kon, Nahimijas, Kabiljo, Naftali, Grinberger, Anaf, Mor, Razencvajg, Munk, Blau, Hercog, Gutman and others. From the Banat group there were in the Banjica camp four Jews, doctors by profession: Djordje Farago from Petrovgrad (Zrenjanin), Franjo Loza from Srpska Crnja, Pavle Miler from Kovino, and Branko Auspic from Vrsac. In those three days alone 202 Jews were brought to the camp at Banjica. All of these were transferred, as recorded in the first register of the Banjica camp, to a different camp on 17 September 1941. Because the camp at the Old Fairground still was not completely finished, this was probably a matter of transfer to the camp at Topovske supe. It is a still more likely assumption that they were then, or a little later, executed at the village of Jabuka in the Banat, where the first executions were carried out both of Banjica prisoners and of Jews imprisoned at Topovske supe.
In terms of the numbers of Jewish victims from Banjica, Begovic writes (vol. 2, p. 28):
It is not easy or straightforward to determine the number of Jews who resided at the camp at Banjica and from it taken to the execution site. Judging by the Banjica registers, that number just exceeded 900 individuals. However, not all Jews were recorded in the registers of the Banjica prisoners.
Thus Almuli’s claim, that ‘only 455’ Jews passed through Banjica, is false. His figure of 23,697 prisoners at Banjica is also rejected by both Begovic and Lebel, who point out that this only represents the number of prisoners recorded in the camp registers, and does not include the thousands or possibly tens of thousands more who went unrecorded.
The camp at Topovske supe that Begovic mentions is described by Lebel as ‘the first Jewish death camp in Belgrade’. She writes (pp. 312-314) of the incarceration of the Jewish prisoners:
‘The guard was kept by Nedic’s gendarmes, who were inhuman and, to show their loyalty to the Germans, often worse than the latter. They prohibited them things that the Germans sometimes permitted. At the entrance there were not many guards, and even on the occasion of the transport of the prisoners to work there was not a particularly prominent guard. But it was made clear to them that every attempt at escape would be punished most strictly. They were soon convinced of this: when some nevertheless attempted to escape and were caught, in front of all the prisoners they were hanged in the camp courtyard.’
Nedic himself was an anti-Semite. As I demonstrate in my book, ‘Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943’ (Oxford University Press, London, 2006), he peppered his speeches with references to the ‘Communist-Jewish rabble’ and ‘Communist-Masonic-Jewish-English-mafia’ against which he was supposedly fighting. On 22 June 1942 he wrote to German General Bader to complain that Serbian prisoners-of-war in German camps were being confined alongside Jews and Communists, and requested that ‘it would be very desirable if Jews and leftists-Communists be removed from the common camps and kept apart from the nationally healthy officers.’ Consequently, ‘The Serbian government, concerned by this action, would be extremely grateful if the German Reich would take effective measures for a maximally rapid separation, etc.’ (‘Genocide and Resistance’, pp. 158-159; the citations are from archival documents that I located in Belgrade; photocopies of them are in my possession).
The Serbian historian Olivera Milosavljevic, in her recently published study of the Serbian quislings (‘Potisnuta istina: Kolaboracija u Srbiji 1941-1944′, Helsinski odbor za ljudska prava u Srbiji’, Belgrade, 2006, p. 25), based principally on an extensive examination of the Serbian quisling press, has this to say of Nedic’s official ideology:
‘The principle of a ‘clean’ nation encompassed all spheres of social life in Nedic’s Serbia, in which state officials, professors, pupils and students had to demonstrate that they were Serbs. The ‘Aryan paragraph’ entered the official documents of Nedic’s goverment which, on the occasion of employment in state service, required that candidates provide evidence that they were of Serb nationality and ‘Aryan origin’ and that their families did not have ‘Jewish or Gypsy blood’. Confirmations were provided by the municipal authorities.’
The Serbian fascist leader Dimitrije Ljotic, a central figure of the Serbian quisling regime, was most explicit in his statements on the Jews. For example, in a speech over Radio Belgrade in August 1941: ‘I have said, that the Christian nations have become so blind, that they see danger in every imperialism – except the most dangerous imperialism: the Jewish’; ‘Only the Jew could on the one hand be the creator and user of capitalism, and on the other create Marxism and lead revolutions, supposedly against capitalism’; ‘And to the Jews it must be clear that for the forseeable future the realisation of their dream of world revolution is ended’; ‘You will only then, with the fall of red Bolshevik Moscow, see what wrong toward the Russian nation and toward you, Serbian tribe, has been committed by those renegades, who convinced you that that Jewish-Unrussian creation is – your Slavic Russia’. (Dimitrije V. Ljotic, ‘Sabrana dela’, vol. 8, Iskra, Belgrade, 2003, pp. 46-48). Ljotic’s militia was closely involved in hunting down and arresting Jews.
This, then, is the true face of the Serbian quisling regime of World War II, whose record Almuli sees fit to defend. Almuli’s record may be set against that of Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor who devoted his life to bringing Nazi war-criminals to justice and fighting Holocaust revisionism. In contrast to Wiesenthal, Almuli has tried his best to ensure that the crimes of his own fellow-countrymen, who participated in the Holocaust, are forgotten.
Addendum: For another defence of Milan Nedic’s Nazi-quisling regime, one that writes its role in the Holocaust out of history, see amateur historian Carl Savich at Serbianna.com, who writes that in its collaboration with the Nazis, ‘the regime Germany established in Serbia had no choice in the matter. They were not allies or loyal partners as Ante Pavelic was. The goal was to preserve the Serbian population.’ The Nedic regime’s involvement in Nazi genocide has also been written out of the history of World War II by the Jasenovac Research Institute and other Serb nationalist organisations and websites that claim to deal with the subject.
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