The profound idea behind the Illinois Holocaust Museum’s inspirational Fountain of the Righteous located outside its building now extends to the inside – to a never-before-used narrow hallway on the second floor.
That’s where visitors will find “Croatian Righteous Among the Nations,” a stirring photographic exhibit telling some 30 stories that form a testament to bravery and compassion.
The Illinois Holocaust Museum calls such people “upstanders,” and while those listed on the outside fountain or the inside photographic display faced unimaginable danger, the concept of being an “upstander” lends itself to day-to-day living and can start at an early age, the museum teaches.
Those honored by the museum and designated as “Righteous” were non-Jews during World War II who helped fellow citizens facing persecution and the threat of extinction.
In Croatia, the exhibit explains, the highlighted citizens living under the Nazi puppet Ustashi regime risked their lives to help save Jews.
“This is a new gallery space that we opened in the museum,” said Arielle Weininger, chief curator of collections and exhibitions. “We were really excited when the Consul General of Croatia called and wanted to see if we were interested in showing an exhibition about the Croatian Righteous.”
It was not difficult for the museum to say yes. The exhibition is a seamless extension of the Ferro Fountain of the Righteous, but maybe more importantly, it’s an ideal reflection of a message that the museum tries to deliver every day: One person can make a difference.
Created several years ago and shown in Los Angeles, this is its first time on display in the Midwest.
The Righteous Among the Nations title is given by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. A special commission, headed by the Supreme Court Justice of the State of Israel, bestows the title on each honoree. Rescuers receive a plaque of honor and medal and their names are engraved on the walls of the Garden of the Righteous in Israel.
“From Croatia, there are now 109 recognized righteous,” Weininger explained.
The stories of two-and-a-half dozen of them are extraordinary to read as they paint a picture of the best of humanity.
Ratimir Deletis helped the Jews of Tuzla, located in Bosnia and Herzogovina – the first time securing the release of 30 to 40 mostly Jews being held captive. More dangerously, he was able to free Jews who were to be executed thanks to his connections and his gift for persuasion.
Marica Guina’s house, considered one of the most reputable in the area, became a refuge for many Jews.
Dr. Dragutin Jesih, from Scitarjevo near Zagreb, was killed during the war. But he first saved Jews sent to him by Croatian Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac. Local peasants also helped to save lives.
Professor Zarko Dolinar, a well-known Croatian biologist working in Switzerland, and his brother Boris, saved about 300 Jews.
Mate Ujevic, a Croatian lexicographer and editor in chief of the Croatian encyclopedia saved his close collaborator and friend Manko Berman from the infamous Jasenovac concentration camp, along with sisters Stefa and Hermina Müller.
Historian Lujo Stefan managed to secretly prepare books about the history of fascism and anti-Semitism in Serbia during World War II.
The impact of this new museum exhibition rests not only in the memorable stories but in the accompanying photographs, which appear to freeze everyday people simply living their lives. Each panel is devoted to one of the righteous, his or her story buttressed by a picture or pictures.
Based on a book by Miriam Steiner-Aviezer, “Hrvatski pravednici” (Croatian Righteous), “Croatian Righteous Among the Nations” also includes two panels summarizing grave conditions in Croatia at the time.
By the end of 1941, two thirds of Croatia’s Jews had been sent to camps, where most of them were killed on arrival. In August 1942 and May 1943, the Germans deported the remaining Jews from Croatia to Auschwitz.
Among Croatia’s 37,000 Jews, 30,000 of them perished in the Holocaust.