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Lawsuit to uncover a hidden
As my plane touched down at the Banja Luka airport in the Serb Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, I remembered a Serbian proverb George Zivkovich told me: "Still waters tear down mountains."
George has endured and seen so much hate and violence, and yet he has a heart of gold. George was orphaned at 6 when his mother was murdered by a World War II Nazi-puppet regime known as the Ustasha.
The Croatian Ustasha plundered and murdered approximately 700,000 people, including Serbian Orthodox Christians, Jews and Gypsies. George survived only by the grace of God. During the war and after the death of his mother, George wandered from village to village, looking for food and shelter. As a Serb, his Slavic descent made him indistinguishable from Croats, yet he was targeted for death by the Ustasha.
George was ultimately rescued by the humanity of many people. For six years, George lived by the kindness of others who would take care of a young boy during and immediately after the war. Not until he was 12 did he arrive in the United States, to the safety of a Pittsburgh family that adopted him.
As a grateful citizen of the United States, George enlisted in the Army. For 29 years, he served the United States, through a tour in Korea, two tours in Vietnam, and 17 years at the East German border. George now lives in California with his wife. His children are grown.
Yet George continues to fight for respect for his people, determined that their memory must not die. The Ustasha's reign of terror is unknown to most schoolchildren and history books. It is a "hidden holocaust."
Years of plunder and murder
In April 1941, when the people of Belgrade refused to support a pact with Germany, Italy, and Japan, Hitler's army bombed Belgrade and installed the Ustasha as a puppet regime in Zagreb. The regime destroyed the Yugoslav state and was declared the Independent State of Croatia. Under the leadership of Ante Pavelic, and with the blessing of Hitler, the state set out to cleanse the territory of all Jews, Orthodox Serbs and Gypsies.
The predominately Catholic Croatians sought the support of the Vatican, and Pavelic was received by Pope Pius XII on May 18, 1941. Pavelic's government promised a totally Roman Catholic state within 10 years.
Pavelic ordered that all people convert to Catholicism or their belongings would be taken, and they would be transported to a concentration camp.
After four years of plundering the property of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, Pavelic and the Ustasha were the holders of gold coins, watches, rings and teeth. In 1945, with the Allies approaching, Pavelic fled from Zagreb to Rome with some of this property.
Recently declassified U.S. documents suggest that much of the loot was ultimately deposited at the Vatican Bank for safekeeping. Additional declassified documents from the Argentine Commission, which is performing its own research on World War II criminal activities, state that the Vatican provided the financial support, passports and visas for war criminals to flee Europe for Buenos Aires. Some historians have referred to this well-funded escape route as "the ratline."
Last January, on behalf of himself and other American survivors, George filed a lawsuit seeking to confirm the conclusions of the U.S. and Argentine documents, which suggest the Vatican Bank is holding the valuables of his family. The Vatican has denied any involvement and has limited its disclosure to a restricted 11-volume set of material to establish its innocence. Members of an International Catholic-Jewish Commission are reviewing the documents to determine, among other things, whether there are any apparent gaps in the disclosures.
Many powerful and respected voices have urged the Vatican Bank to open all its World War II archives -Stuart E. Eizenstat, the U.S. deputy secretary of the Treasury; the Simon Wiesenthal Center; the World Jewish Congress - without success. This lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles, will request that the court exercise jurisdiction over the Vatican Bank because of the business it conducts in the United States. Through this action, George will seek answers to questions other entities have been unable to obtain.
Ultimately, if the Vatican Bank does hold some of the plunder or was involved in wrongfully transferring looted property to others, the lawsuit requests its return, just as Swiss Banks have recently agreed to make reparations to Holocaust survivors.
Evidence of genocide
Last May I traveled to Bosnia-Herzegovina for an international conference. As George's attorney, I had been asked to present research about the "hidden holocaust."
As an American lawyer, I was unsure how my participation in the conference would be received. Many of these 60-, 70-, and 80-year-old survivors have little hope that their history will ever be written.
These survivors might have received me with skepticism and suspicion. Instead, after I presented research and evidence obtained in months of work, and spoke about the efforts my firm employed to help people like George, the support was overwhelming.
With presenters from Russia, Britain, France, Italy, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Yugoslavia and the United States, the conference was well-attended by experts from around the world. I did not know what to expect as we arrived at the site of one of the largest systems of World War II concentration camps. The lush green countryside reminded me of western Wisconsin with quaint farms of cattle and chickens. The picture I was seeing could have been near my home in Minneapolis, not halfway around the world.
As we walked along a dirt path through elderly chestnut trees, a clearing appeared: a massive field of sunken earth. Nine different mass-grave fields, comprising 105 total mass-grave sites, were organized into fields for dead children, body parts, and people buried alive. In the distance were rusted barrels used to make soap out of human remains.
Despite this evidence, a Croatian man insisted that no genocide occurred and that only a few thousand people died. He was ready to write his own version of history, even in the midst of testimony and convincing scientific evidence of genocide.
An incredibly difficult task awaits us. The lawsuit presents legal questions of sovereignty and jurisdiction. Nevertheless, George and the law firm where I work, Zimmerman Reed, are determined to uncover the truth about this horrific event and inform the world of this little-known chapter of World War II. As the survivors of this hidden holocaust face the last years of their lives, they cling to the hope that the international community will listen and insist upon full disclosure of the truth.
-- Keelyn M. Friesen is a Minneapolis attorney with the firm of Zimmerman Reed
Copyright 'Star Tribune' (Minneapolis, MN),
July 23, 2000
There are currently two lawsuits concerning Vatican involvement in the Ustashe murder of Yugoslav Serbs, Jews and "Gypsies". To read about the other lawsuit see "They are all together" at http://emperors-clothes.com/interviews/dor.htm
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