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Croatian President Makes Restitution Pledge to B'nai B'rith

"I don't believe there should be any doubt of our impartiality" on property restitution related to Holocaust-era claims, Croatian President Stjepan Mesic told B'nai B'rith International leaders today. His new government certainly wants to correct the many injustices committed before."

Mesic's large delegation included Prime Minister Ivica Racan; Foreign Minister Tonino Picula; and Zagreb's ambassador to the United States, Miomir Zuzul. They met at B'nai B'rith International headquarters with President Richard D. Heideman, Honorary Presidents Tommy P. Baer and Kent Schiner, Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin and other B'nai B'rith leaders. Also present were representatives of the American Jewish Committee, led by Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of European Affairs.

Croatians, and Croatian Jews in particular, suffered from two criminal ideas, Mesic said. First was the Nazis' "mega-criminal idea that some nations should rule over others." This false doctrine of superiority "hid another criminal idea of robbery and plunder." In 1944, Mesic noted, with World War II still raging, Yugoslav Communists decreed that all property confiscated by the ousted fascist government would be nationalized unless claimed by its owners within six months.

"This was a decree to expropriate the property of others," Mesic said. "Many could not return within six months" because they were in concentration camps, in hiding, with the resistance or otherwise displaced. The decree affected not only Jews, the Croatian president said - 11 members of his family died in the war and all of his wife's family perished in the camps - but it affected Jews most extensively.

When Croatia declared its independence from post-Tito Yugoslavia in 1991, the authoritarian government of the late President Franjo Trudjman still enforced "certain disadvantages" regarding property restitution, Mesic noted. These included a citizenship requirement so that if World War II survivors or their heirs had become citizens of other countries, "you still can't get back your property." But speaking for his government, elected early this year, Mesic promised "we are prepared to do all we can" on the issue.

Heideman, Mariaschin, Baer and Rabbi Baker praised President Mesic for his policies, among them ending Tudjman's wariness toward the West, broadening rule of law in Croatia, and cooperating more closely with the United States and Israel. Heideman noted that it was to B'nai B'rith that Tudjman agreed to remove antisemitic passages in revisions of his book Wastelands of Historical Reality. He also pointed out that it was B'nai B'rith - under the leadership of then-President Baer - that led the five-year effort resulting in the extradition, trial and conviction last year in Croatia of Dinko Sakic, commander of the World War II Jasenovac concentration camp, known as the "Auschwitz of the Balkans."

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