How this Croatian cardinal saved thousands of Jewish lives

How this Croatian cardinal saved thousands of Jewish lives

Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac.

By Mary Farrow

Catholic News Agency

November 22, 2019

ZAGREB, Croatia— 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 Stepanic

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.