A Bosnian historian of Jewish origin wanted to know more about how her family was saved during the Second World War, a taboo subject in the former communist Yugoslavia. The conclusion of his investigation helped to deconstruct the black legend built around the figure of Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, long accused of collaborating with the National Socialist regime.
“Croatia: Bishop Stepinac, martyr and collaborator,” did not hesitate to run a headline in the newspaper Liberation in 1998, at the time of the beatification of Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac (1898-1960), the former Archbishop of Zagreb (Croatia), who died following the ill-treatment he had suffered during nearly 15 years of detention.
The work of Esther Gitman, a Bosnian historian of Jewish origin living in the United States, was highlighted in November 2019 by several news sites, including The Boston Pilot and Catholic News Agency (CNA).
The research conducted by the historian led her to read thousands of pages of documents, including 5,000 pages specifically related to Jewish rescue operations during the war. She was also able to interview 67 Croatian survivors who saved many lives during this troubled time. Throughout the various testimonies, a name appears frequently: that of Aloysius 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,” admits the researcher, before to get to the obvious: “I have seen what an amazing thing this man has done; he directly and indirectly rescued more than 6,000 Jews.” The astonishment of this woman comes from the fact that she was a victim of Communist propaganda that wanted to soil the figure of the Archbishop of Zagreb by accusing him of collusion with “Nazi fascism,” and without doubt the prejudice against his co-religionists .
Church Man Persecuted by Inherently Evil Communism
Taking power in 1945, Marshal Tito imposed Communism throughout Yugoslavia. New strongman of the country, he tried by force to establish a national catholic church, independent of Rome. Archbishop Stepinac, anti-communist in his soul, opposed Tito and did not hesitate to openly denounce the arrests of priests and confiscations of Church property.
In September 1946, he was charged and sentenced to 16 years of forced labor, after a sham trial. He was accused of alleged collaboration with the Ustashi and the German National Socialist regime, which he had also denounced, without fear of reprisals.
In December 1951, his sentence was commuted to house arrest. Two years later, Pius XII made him a cardinal. Bishop Stepinac died in 1960 as a result of the mistreatment he suffered in prison.
Esther Gitman’s work once again reveals the primordial role played by the Church—and especially by Pope Pius XII—during the Second World War, fighting relentlessly against Communist and National-Socialist totalitarianism in order to save as many innocent lives as possible and to make the voice of true civilization heard.