When Esther Gitman proposed a topic for a Fulbright Fellowship, the administrator taking proposals was incredulous.
In her 50s at the time, Gitman was already well past the age of most applicants to the prestigious fellowship. But what shocked the representative was not Gitman’s age, but her story.
“I’ll write about the rescue of Jews in the independent state of Croatia (during World War II),” Gitman said.
“Why in the world would you like to write such a thing?” the representative asked. “Don’t you know that all the Jews and many of the Serbs and Gypsies were murdered there?”
But Gitman was living proof that this was not the full story. She, her mother, and all the Jews she had known in her childhood, had been spared – protected in Italian-occupied territory while the Ustase, the facist puppet-state of the Nazis, controlled Croatia and the surrounding region.
Gitman could barely finish her story of survival before the Fulbright representative blurted out: “Look, I have never heard this story. This is an amazing story. Write a good proposal and then you can even send it to me for a review.”
The proposal was approved. But even when she arrived in Croatia to begin the project, Gitman faced serious doubts from her Croatian collaborators that the research would be fruitful at all. Gitman said she promised to write whatever she found, and if she found nothing, she would describe how she came to find nothing.
It wasn’t until Gitman was well into her research for her Fulbright fellowship in Zagreb, Croatia that she learned the name of the man to whom she and thousands of others owed their rescue: Archbishop Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac.
Learning of Archbishop Stepinac
When Gitman began her application for a Fulbright, she knew little about her own rescue as a Jew from Bosnia-Herzegovina (in the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia) other than that she and all the other Jews she knew during her childhood were spared.
She was spurred to learn more not, initially, out of her own curiosity, but her daughter’s.
“I really never asked my mother and my stepfather about it. I wasn’t interested in it,” Gitman told CNA. Moreover, her family, like most others in the region, didn’t speak of their rescuers out of fear of retaliation from the Communist regime that took control of the region after the war.
“I remember that after the war my family had an expression, ‘the walls have ears,’” Gitman wrote in her book “Alojzije Stepinac: Pillar of Human Rights.”
But her daughter’s questions sent her down a road of research that led her back to school to earn her Ph.D. and a Fulbright fellowship to study those very questions.
Gitman’s Fulbright research included combing through thousands of pages of documents – including 5,000 specifically related to rescues during the war – and interviewing 67 Croatian survivors and rescuers from the war.
As she amassed page after page on Jewish rescue in the region, Gitman’s husband encouraged her to narrow down her work by selecting a common denominator among the documents on which to focus.
One name, in particular, kept popping up: Archbishop Stepinac.
“When I started to hear the name of Stepinac, I, in my own biased mind, thought: it cannot be that a priest and still an archbishop would save Jews,” Gitman said.
But as she searched through the archives of the Catholic cathedral in Zagreb, where Stepinac was assigned during the war, “I couldn’t believe what this man has done. I had a few hundred documents and I started to interview people and I just collected hundreds and hundreds of them and I saw…what an amazing thing this man has done.”
In total, and through various strategies, Stepinac directly and indirectly rescued more than 6,000 Jews from the Holocaust.
Who was Archbishop Stepinac?
Aloysius Stepinac was born on May 8, 1898 to a farming family in the village of Brezaric, some 30 miles south and west of the capital of Zagreb.
In 1916, he graduated high school and soon after was drafted to fight in World War I as an Austrian officer on the Italian front, where he was taken as an Italian prisoner of war from July-December of 1918. After the war, he briefly enrolled in a university to study agronomy, but soon returned home to work on the farm and further discern his vocation, and he found himself torn between the priesthood and farming.
“If I were a child again…I would still choose as my vocation either to be a priest or a farmer. A man is somehow closest to God there. Look at the peasant: he works and toils, but he sees how, in everything, he depends on God. He finds Him in nature. He observes His traces,” Stepinac once said. In 1924, Stepinac entered seminary and was sent to study in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. His ordination to the priesthood took place on October 26, 1930.
While his heart was that of a parish priest, Stepinac was brought to serve as a master of ceremonies at the chancery by Archbishop Antun Bauer in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. While there, Stepinac established the Zagreb branch of the Catholic charity Caritas, and founded the Caritas magazine, in which he advocated for better economic policies for the poor and urged the wealthy to donate generously to those in need.
In 1934, Pius XI named Stepinac as coadjutor to Bauer. At the age of 37, Stepinac reluctantly became the youngest bishop in the world at the time, after begging Archbishop Bauer to change his mind.
“It shocked me so much that at first I thought that the old man had lost his reason…on the occasion of the consecration everyone cheered and rejoiced. But my heart bled,” Stepinac would later recall.
Not long after being made a bishop, as early as 1936, Stepinac knew of the threat facing Jewish people in Europe and sought to raise funds to help those who were fleeing Nazi Germany and Austria.
He appealed to wealthy Croatian Catholics for their help: “Dear Sir, due to violent and inhumane persecution, a large number of people have had to leave their homeland. Left without means for a normal life, they wander throughout the world…Every day, a large number of emigrants contact us asking for intervention…It is our Christian duty to help them…I am free to address you, as a member of our Church, to ask for support for our fund in favor of emigrants. I ask you to write your free monthly allotment on the enclosed leaflet,” he wrote to them.
In an address to students in 1938, Stepinac condemned the racist ideologies of the Third Reich: “Love toward one’s nation cannot turn a man into a wild animal, which destroys everything and calls for reprisal, but it must ennoble him, so that his own nation secures respect and love of other nations.”
In 1939, he launched another fundraising campaign to help Jews and other persecuted migrants fleeing their countries because of the war, again emphasizing the Christian’s duty to help those in need regardless of their race or creed.
Stepinac and the rescue of Jews during World War II
War officially came to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (which was comprised of modern-day Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia) on April 6, 1941, when German forces invaded the region.
During the occupation, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was divided by the Axis powers, who thought that they could control the region better with divided countries that could be pitted against each other, Gitman said. The Independent State of Croatia was established as a puppet state of the Nazis, with Ante Pavelić at the head of the Ustase – the Croatian fascists loyal to Hitler.
Stepinac, as head of the Catholic Church in the majority-Catholic Croatia, had the difficult task of opposing the Ustase’s violent and inhumane policies while still attempting to maintain peace and order in his country.
“His duty as the head of such a big group (as) the Catholics was to go and establish a working relationship (with Pavelic),” Gitman said, a move that angered many Croatians at the time.
“They hated each other, but he had to establish a working relationship for the sake of peace and order,” she added.
Stepinac found subtle and not-so-subtle ways to oppose Pavelic and the Ustase regime. Gitman said that, for instance, there were two priests and five nuns in the archdiocese who were of Jewish ethnicity, and therefore had to wear the Jewish star.
At one point, Pavelic decided it was embarrassing to the regime to have priests and nuns wearing the star, and so he absolved them of the obligation. But Stepinac urged the priests and nuns to continue wearing the star, as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people. It humiliated Pavelic.
“This was an embarrassment to Pavelic that, Stepinac is telling them to wear the sign when they got permission not to wear (it),” Gitman said.
Gitman also learned that the rabbi in Zagreb came to rely on the friendship and help of Stepinac during the war. Unlike the rabbi, Stepinac was granted what were known as “Aryan rights” under the Ustase regime, which meant he was free to roam around the city like a normal citizen, while Jews were forced to wear a yellow star to identify themselves, and their movements were curtailed and monitored. Stepinac used this right to help those without such privileges.
“So whenever (the rabbi) needed something, he would send a request to Stepinac, and he always did whatever he could,” Gitman said.
Privately, Stepinac organized hiding places for an unknown number of Jews using Croatian Catholic connections he had throughout the country, or raised funds to help them escape to a safer place. When Stepinac’s own life was in danger, he warned all those that he had helped hide, and told them to find a different hiding place so that they would not be found out.
Stepinac also told his priests in no uncertain terms that they were to accept any requests from people who wanted to convert to the Catholic Church in order to try to save their lives – whether they were Jewish, Serbian, Gypsies, or other persecuted groups.
“He had a policy: when you (a priest) are approached by a Jew or a Serb whose life is in danger and they wished to convert, convert them, because the Christian duty is in the first place to save (their) life,” Gitman said.
“When you are visited by people of the Jewish or Eastern Orthodox faith, whose lives are in danger and who express the wish to convert to Catholicism, accept them in order to save human lives. Do not require any special religious knowledge from them, because the Eastern Orthodox are Christians like us, and the Jewish faith is the faith from which Christianity draws its roots. The role and duty of Christians is in the first place to save people. When this time of madness and savagery has passed, those who would convert out of conviction will remain in our church, while others, after the danger passes, will return to their church,” read a note distributed to parishes in Zagreb during the war.
Stepinac also stood up to the Ustase to protect Jewish people in mixed marriages with Christians. Stepinac told the Ustase that if they started sending Jews in mixed marriages to the concentration camps, he would close his churches indefinitely and their bells would not stop ringing. He was able to save roughly 1,000 Jews in mixed marriages.
A 1943 letter from Nazi agent Hubner to Hans Helms the Nazi police attaché in Zagreb, later reviewed by Gitman, shows that the Nazi’s were aware of Stepinac’s tactic to protect the Jews:
“…the Archbishop promised protection and that he sent a letter to the Pope in Rome. According to the ‘dogmas’ of the Catholic Church, a couple in a mixed marriage cannot be separated. And if the Croat government undertakes action against mixed marriages, then in protest against such acts, the Archbishop will close all the Catholic Churches for a certain period. Such acts he [Stepinac] considers interference in the internal affairs of the church. Furthermore, the rumors circulating in Zagreb are that the Pope turned personally to the Fuehrer to obtain assurances that no actions would be taken against mixed marriages. For the time being, verification of this information cannot be obtained. But it is probable that this information is accurate because it is acknowledged that Stepinac is a protector of the Jews.”
The act of Stepinac that saved the most Jews – roughly 5,000 – from the Holocaust was his appeal to the Vatican to protect the Jewish refugees from Yugoslavia living in Italian-controlled territory.
When the war came to Yugoslavia, Gitman and her mother, along with thousands of other Jews, flocked to the Dalmatian coast, which was controlled by the Italians. Originally from Sarajevo in the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Gitman’s mother had heard that Jews would be safe in Italian territory, because they didn’t have the same mentality toward Jewish people as Nazi Germany did. (Gitman’s father died before the war came to Yugoslavia.)
But by 1942, just a year after the start of the war, the governor of this Italian region, Giuseppe Bastionini, “decided that he cannot have so many people unemployed, roaming around his territory and so he will collect all of them and ship them off back to the Ustase, to the Croatian fascists,” Gitman said.
When Stepinac heard this, he knew it would be certain death if the Jews were sent back to the Ustase. Together with the apostolic visitor to Croatia, Benedictine abbot Dom Giuseppe Ramiro Marcone, Stepinac pleaded with the Vatican to help them negotiate permissions for the Yugoslav Jews to remain in Italian territory. According to Gitman, the men emphasized the terrible conditions for Jews under the Ustase, as well as the fact that many of the Jews living in Italian territory were actually Catholic converts.
“Many were (Catholics),” Gitman said, “but not by a large measure. But it helped, and they received the permit to stay and the Italian second army protected them until the capitulation of Italy in 1943.”
In 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allied powers, the status of the Jews in Italian territory was once again thrown into question. Germans were now invading Italy, and most of the Jews in Italian territory had to be transferred to other regions to stay safe, if they didn’t leave to fight on the Partisan front (comprised of Jewish resistance and local resistance groups).
Gitman and her mother, along with some of the other Jews, were transferred from Korcula (a Croatian island occupied by Italians) to Bari, Italy on the coast of the Adriatic by some fishermen. They remained there until the war ended in 1945.
Stepinac also saved a group of 58 elderly Jews who were living in “Lavoslav Schwarz,” a nursing home in Zagreb. In 1943, German authorities ordered the elderly people to evacuate the building or face deportation to Auschwitz. Stepinac relocated the group to nearby Church property, secured humanitarian aid for them from Switzerland, and frequently visited the home. The elderly Jews lived in the Church-owned building until 1947, and only five of them died during the war of natural causes, Gitman wrote.
Besides the Jews he rescued, Stepinac also spoke out against the Ustase and Nazi ideology in his sermons, which were banned by the Ustase from being printed and redistributed. But that does not mean the people of Croatia listened.
Stepinac’s defense lawyer wrote in 1946: “His sermons were attended in masses, not only by the Catholics but even by those who otherwise did not go to Church. Those sermons were spread, recounted, copied and propagated in thousands and thousands of copies among the people and even penetrated to the liberated territory. They became an underground press, a means of successful propaganda against the Ustase, a substitute for an opposition press.”
Glaise von Horstenau, a German general in Zagreb, said of the sermons: “If any bishop in Germany spoke this way in public, he would not come down alive from his pulpit!”
Stepinac’s activities earned him the ire of the Nazis and the Ustase, who called him and his collaborators “judenfreundlich (friends of the Jews) and therefore enemies of National Socialism.”
Angered by his sermons on the human dignity of all, including Serbs and Jews and Gypsies, a group of Ustase youth wrote to Stepinac: “You have to know that you are ‘Our greatest enemy’, but we are letting you know that if you go on speaking against us as you have been doing till now, and despite your red Roman belt, we will kill you in the street like a dog.”
In 1943, during a visit to the Vatican, Stepinac was informed that he had officially been labeled a traitor by the Nazis and that his life was therefore in danger. He had “no illusions” about the consequences of his words and actions, Gitman wrote, but stood by them, prepared to die. While in Rome, he met a famous Croatian sculptor, and told him he expected to be killed either by the Nazis or by the communist regime that would follow: “With God (a farewell), it is most likely that we will not see each other again. My life is threatened, either the Nazis will kill me now, or the Communists will kill me later.”
Trial and legacy of Cardinal Stepinac
Less than a month after the end of World War II, on June 2, 1945, the communist regime of Josip Broz Tito came to power and once again united Yugoslavia.
Threatened by the influential Stepinac, who also opposed communism, Tito tried to force Stepinac and other Catholic leaders in the country to cut ties with Rome and form an independent Catholic Church in Croatia – one that could be more easily contained and controlled.
Stepinac did not show up to the meetings where such negotiations were taking place, and instead continued to speak out against the regime, including against their imprisoning of priests, prohibition of religious marriages, and the confiscation of Church property, Gitman wrote.
Because of his obstinance towards the regime, and his popularity, Stepinac was seen as an obstacle to the regime’s success. Tito and his official launched a campaign to smear Stepinac’s reputation by trying to paint him as the main Catholic supporter of the Ustase during World War II.
Stepinac was first placed under house arrest, and then under actual arrest in on September 18, 1946, for the charges. After what many considered to be a “bogus” trial, Stepinac was found guilty on all charges and was sentenced to 16 years of hard labor on October 11, 1946.
At the time, Tito said: “It is not true that we persecute the church, we simply do not tolerate that certain people serve with impunity foreign interests instead of the interests of their own people.”
Gitman wrote that even many officials in Tito’s government recognized the trial and verdict as a sham, “because the Ustase had violated every precept of the church, and…Stepinac was not their supporter.”
Milovan Djilas, Tito’s former secretary of media and propaganda, later admitted as much.
“To tell you truthfully, I think, and not only me, that Stepinac is a man of integrity, a strong and unbreakable character. Although really innocent he was convicted; but then history frequently tells of innocent people being convicted for political necessity.”
A dispatch from the American embassy in Belgrade to the U.S. State Department noted on November 9, 1946 – before the trial’s conclusion – that it had been “fixed.”
“Everybody in Yugoslavia knows that Archbishop Stepinac was arrested and condemned by the Communist Party, and that his sentence was fixed outside the court and long before the trial itself took place. While the trial was still in progress, a highly placed Communist in the executive branch of the government said: ‘We can’t shoot him as we should like to do, because he is an archbishop;he will get a term in prison.’”
In 1950, American senators tried to negotiate for Stepinac’s freedom by making it a condition of American aid to Yugoslavia. Tito agreed to the deal but said that once freed, Stepinac must leave Yugoslavia.
But the Vatican rejected the arrangement, in accord with Stepinac’s own wishes, Gitman wrote. “They will never make me leave unless they put me on a place by force and take me over the frontier. It is my duty in these difficult times to stay with the people,” Stepinac had declared. It was a wish he expressed repeatedly – not to leave his people as long as his country was not free. In December 1951, Tito released Stepinac and placed him again under house arrest in his hometown of Krasic, where he died in 1960 from illnesses he had contracted while in prison, according to the Blessed Aloysius Stepinac Croatian Catholic Mission.
“Tito’s acts against Stepinac made him both a Croatian martyr and a Catholic icon,” Gitman wrote. In 1953, Pope Pius XII made Stepinac a cardinal. On October 3, 1998, Stepinac was beatified by Pope John Paul II.
Nevertheless, to this day, there are many today who still oppose Stepinac and try to smear his reputation, Gitman said.
Beginning in the 1950s, many historians within Yugoslavia started arguing in their accounts that while Stepinac did some good during the war, he could have used his position to do much more, and that he dragged his feet in opposing the Ustase.
As an example Menachem Shelah, an Israeli historian from Zagreb, write of Stepinac that while it is true that he worked to save Jews “towards the middle of 1943” and saved Jews in mixed marriages, “Stepinac cannot be absolved because by his procrastination and public expressions he convinced the public that the Ustase were a lesser evil than the communists, because the Ustase crimes were a childhood malaise…Stepinac’s failure in taking action against dozens of priests who willingly took part in the murders.”
According to Gitman: “Historians who argued that Stepinac could have done much more are arguing in hindsight and on wishful thinking. Thus, such declarations are speculative because their claims could be neither evaluated nor substantiated by facts. Can any historian rightfully claim that if Stepinac had acted differently the outcome would have been substantially different and more Jews, Serbs and others would have survived? The answer clearly is no.”
Stepinac also continues to face criticism from many Serbians, in large part because of the propaganda promulgated against Stepinac in their country, and because of Croatia and Serbia’s hundreds of years of fraught history over border disputes, accusations of genocide against one another, and religious conflicts between Catholic Croatia and the Orthodox Serbia.
“As I said, Stepinac is an icon. He represents in the Croatian psyche everything that is good, righteous and so on. And he believed that the Catholic church in this part of the world should remain and exist. He did everything to accomplish that,” Gitman said.
“Whereas the objective of King Alexander (a Serb), of Tito, and the communist regime…was always to annex Croatia and make a greater Serbia. And I think without the glue, which is Stepinac, that keeps the people so loyal to him – and no matter under what circumstances, they believe in him – without his image, without his persona, they would be able to achieve it because there were many communists in Croatia also,” Gitman added.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church has long held that Stepinac was a holy man who acted to uphold human dignity in some of the most difficult times his country had seen. Upon Stepinac’s death in 1960, Pope Pius XII called Stepinac “a shepherd who is an example of Apostolic zeal and Christian fortitude.”
At his beatification, Pope John Paul II called Stepinac an “outstanding figure of the Catholic Church” who risked his own life to help others.
“In his human and spiritual journey Blessed Alojzije Stepinac gave his people a sort of compass to serve as an orientation. And these were its cardinal points: faith in God, respect for man, love towards all even to the offer of forgiveness, and unity with the Church guided by the Successor of Peter,” Pope John Paul II said.
“He knew well that no bargains can be made with truth, because truth is not negotiable. Thus he faced suffering rather than betray his conscience and not abide by the promise given to Christ and the Church.”
This article was originally published on CNA Nov 22, 2019.