Published On: Wed, Jul 31st, 2019



CROATIA was definitely in the news in Israel this week, with the state visit of its eloquent and charming president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who may have started a new custom. Like many world leaders who go to Yad Vashem, she stopped off at the nearby section of Mount Herzl reserved for the final resting place of leaders of the nation.

Over the past 30-plus months, world leaders came to pay their respects at the grave of Peres, but Grabar-Kitarović opted to place a bouquet of white flowers on the tomb of Nechama Rivlin.

Emotionally moved by the gesture, President Rivlin, who hosted a state dinner on Monday night in honor of his Croatian counterpart, said how touched he was, and added that Nechama would have been pleased because she always preferred women leaders.

He reminded Grabar-Kitarović that when they visited the notorious Jasenovac death camp during his visit to Croatia last year, he told her about Miriam Steiner-Aviezer, a Croatian child Holocaust survivor born in 1935, who came to Israel in 1971, where she spent her first months at the Beit Giora absorption center in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Yovel. Samuel Aviezer, whom she married, lived across the road. The couple raised a family, and for 30 years she worked for Yad Vashem, interviewing Holocaust survivors from the former Yugoslavia, while working simultaneously in a committee that brought to light Righteous among the Nations. She also wrote several books. When their children grew up, the couple left Jerusalem and settled in Givatayim. Following Samuel’s death four years ago, Miriam moved to Ness Ziona to be closer to her grandchildren.

Rivlin was happy to report that Steiner-Aviezer was among the guests at the dinner.

Also present was historian Esther Gitman, who likewise is from the former Yugoslavia.
In October 1941, Gitman escaped from Sarajevo and managed to get to the Italian occupied zone on the Adriatic, where she was saved by Righteous Gentiles. That example of selflessness remained with her. Many years later, after winning a Fulbright Scholarship in 2002, she spent a year in Croatia researching the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust.

Among the Holocaust survivors interviewed by Steiner-Aviezer was the mother of Mirko Stefanovic, the Serbian-born ambassador of the former Yugoslavia, which maintained an embassy in Israel prior to Serbia winning its independence. The ambassador’s mother was Jewish and an Auschwitz survivor.

After the war, when she was already an adult, and her fortunes had improved, she took a gypsy woman as a housemaid. The gypsy noticed that her employer had a number on her arm, then bared her own arm, to show that she, too, was an Auschwitz survivor. After that, the two women developed a close relationship and were more like sisters than employer and employee, Steiner-Aviezer told The Jerusalem Post.

The chemistry between Rivlin and Grabar-Kitarović was unmistakable. He addressed her as “My dear Kolinda,” and she called him “Ruvi.”

Although he repeated, both at the morning reception that he hosted for her and at the state dinner, how very welcome she was in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem, there was a difference between the pomp and ceremony welcome that Rivlin received in Croatia and that which his Croatian counterpart received in Jerusalem, where the honor guard was dressed in drab khaki, as compared to the gold-braided red livery, reminiscent of another era, of the honor guard in Croatia.

One of the things that Rivlin and Grabar-Kitarović have in common is a love of soccer, and she was delighted to see among the state dinner guests Croatian-born former midfielder Giovanni Rosso, who played for several teams in Israel, but mostly Maccabi Haifa. She referred to that and also congratulated him on winning the TV reality show Survivor: VIP which was broadcast on Channel 13.

Poland has invited several world leaders to come to Warsaw on September 1 to mark the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland, which signified the start of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Included among the invitees is US President Donald Trump; excluded is Russian President Vladimir Putin because the USSR invaded Poland on September 17, 1939.

Croatia which for the first time will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union in January 2020, will be devoting a lot of time to Holocaust remembrance, though Grabar-Kitarović made it clear that it would not deny the atrocities of its fascist Ustashe regime. She was very proud that in contrast to the Ustashe, 118 Croats have been listed by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for risking their lives to save Jews.

Rivlin had said earlier that “we must never seek to minimize the crimes of Ustashe,” but he also mentioned the 118 righteous Croats and referred to them as “a shining example.” He invited Grabar-Kitarović to return to Jerusalem in January for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and she said she would be honored to accept the invitation.

There will also be a commemorative event and an exhibition of Righteous Among the Nations at United Nations headquarters in New York.
In April, the Polish government, as it does every year, will commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

During its presidency of the EU, Croatia intends to provide a more positive platform for Israel to be heard, and will also do more to champion the fight against growing antisemitism.

The Jerusalem Post