27 January 2004 – Zagreb
Speech of the President of the Republic of Croatia, Stjepan Mesic, at the award of "The Righteous Among the Nations" title
We are gathered here today to witness the award of unique honours, the Righteous Among the Nations title. Daring, noble people of strong moral principles were ready to run a risk by aiding Jews at the time of Nazi persecutions.
This was dangerous because laws imposed especially harsh punishments for that. Nevertheless, many risked their lives assisting the persecuted Jews.
After the end of the greatest calamity that befell Jews during their difficult history, the State of Israel was founded in 1948 and Jews could officially honour the courage and nobility of their rescuers. Thus was born the idea of proclaiming rescuers the Righteous among the Nations.
The honour for the Righteous consists of a medal and a certificate. Only a non-Jew who rendered critical assistance to Jews during the Holocaust rescuing them from persecution under the provisions of racial laws and in doing so risked his or her life and safety can be proclaimed a Righteous Among the Nations.
The Righteous title entitles one to have a plaque with his or her name and the name of the country of his or her descent placed in the park on the premises of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Around 16,000 persons have been proclaimed the Righteous among the Nations up to now, including several dozens from Croatia.
This honour is the highest decoration a non-Jew can receive from the State of Israel. It symbolizes gratitude and eternal memory of the sacrifice the Righteous made for the salvation of Jews as a nation.
Therefore, a sentence from the Talmud inscribed on the medal that is presented to a Righteous reads: "He who saves one life saves the world entire."
The most profound meaning of this honour is the eternal bond that is thus created between a Righteous and the Jewish people.
Jews were first systematically deprived of their fundamental rights, discriminated on every step. Later, the so-called final solution was resorted to – deportation to concentration camps where thousands, tens and hundreds of thousands and millions of them were – killed.
The Holocaust did not appear overnight. Antisemitism that preceded it has been, unfortunately, an inseparable part of European history. There is no European nation not having longer or shorter Antisemitic periods or events.
Our young generation must know that the Ustasha regime that was established with the assistance of the German and Italian occupying forces on the territories under their control did the same thing done by Hitler's Nazis – maybe in a slightly less organised manner.
Here as well, Jews were first forbidden from doing this or that, for example it was forbidden for them to live in the city centre, to have a radio or a telephone, they were dismissed from their jobs and then collected and sent to death camps, the most infamous one being Jasenovac.
Another point needs to be made – not just Jews, but also Serbs, Romanies and Croats who were political opponents of the Ustasha regime ended up in the camps.
However, like everywhere else, there were honest and on top of that daring people in Croatia too.
They saw and some only guessed what was happening and extended a hand of salvation to their Jewish fellow-citizens.
In doing so they did not think about themselves and they consciously risked their own lives but they did not want to reconcile with injustice and violence.
Several tens of thousands of persecuted European Jews (according to some estimates even more than that, up to several hundreds of thousands), including several hundred in Croatia, were rescued with the assistance of Church authorities and immigration offices and with the goodness and courage of the Righteous Among the Nations, those non-Jews who rescued Jews from persecution disregarding the amoral legal bans.
However, it is a historical truth that most of the Jews in the territory of the so-called NDH (Independent State of Croatia) were rescued through their active participation in the Anti-Fascist Struggle.
Everybody and especially the young must know and hear the real truth about what happened in the past including the Second World War, they must know that there are persons whose acts we must be ashamed of, and because of which I, as President of the Republic of Croatia, expressed my public apology and regret in Israel; but also that there are people, we must be proud of.
A group of such people, honest and brave people, is present with us today.
I wish that all of us present here remember this day, remember why we have gathered and remember all these brave people who have contributed that present-day Croatia can be a member of the democratic community of peoples and nations with head high.
We must not forget the past, neither its glorious pages nor those we usually call dark ones. We must not allow the so-called history revisionists to fake the past.
There are very good grounds for saying that one who fails to draw a lesson from history is doomed to repeat this history.
The history of the Jewish people, not just theirs, but most of all theirs, in the Second World War was a horrible one indeed. This history must never and nowhere be repeated again.
In this, we shall be assisted by the "Righteous Among the Nations", whom we are honouring today, those common as well as great people who did not accept to be mere by-standers, but rather chose to intervene as much as they could and at the time when they could, turning themselves from witnesses of history to its creators.
May their example be an eternal lesson for us.