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Auschwitz to honor Holocaust victims from Yugoslavia

Most of the 20,000 Yugoslav prisoners passed through Block 17 at the Auschwitz I camp

Most of the 20,000 Yugoslav prisoners passed through Block 17 at the Auschwitz I camp

An exhibition at Auschwitz will commemorate Yugoslav Holocaust victims once again after years of neglect that followed the country's disintegration.

Over a decade of lobbying and negotiations went into the agreement between the successor states of Yugoslavia to set up the exhibition on the victims of the Holocaust at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland.

"Today, 14 years of diplomatic negotiations are finally bearing fruit," Audrey Azoulay, the director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said during the January 25 ceremony at the Yugoslav Pavilion in Paris to celebrate the agreement to redesign the exhibition. "This historic agreement fills a void, an absence of memory at the very site where these horrors unfolded."

Six culture ministers from the successor states of Yugoslavia pledged to fill the exhibition space on the second floor of Block 17 of the Auschwitz I concentration camp with historic content about what took place there.

'Victims of fascism'

Since the 1960s, permanent exhibitions designed by various countries at the memorial have provided information about the fates of deported people. The Yugoslavia Memorial made Block 17 available in 1963 to commemorate the stories of the Yugoslav victims. However, the government in Belgrade at the time dedicated the space to the partisan struggle during World War II instead, ignoring that most of the deportees, of whom only about 100 survived, were of Jewish origin. In total, about 66,000 of Yugoslavia's 80,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

"During communism, not just in Yugoslavia but in all communist states, the question of victims' ethnicity was not asked at all because the attitude was that all victims were 'victims of fascism,'" said Jelena Subotic, a political scientist at Georgia State University and author of the book "Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism."

Following Yugoslavia's collapse, the exhibition was neglected and then completely abandoned. There was nothing left to remind people of the estimated 20,000 citizens from the territories of the former Yugoslavia who were deported to Auschwitz — the majority of whom passed through Block 17.

UNESCO had worked for years to get the successor states of Yugoslavia to reach an agreement to jointly rebuild an exhibition. The director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, Wojciech Soczewica, praised the governments for taking on the responsibility of preserving the memory of the Holocaust by signing the agreement.

"Today's ceremony is a clear sign that the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia are willing to join this coalition and thus to contribute to memory and our responsibility towards future generations," Soczewica said.

Designed by Libeskind

Only one of Mirna Herman's family members from Osijek survived: her grandfather. His descendants founded the Herman Family Trust, which has been working for years to rebuild the exhibition in Block 17.

"You could say it's a historic event, because it's rare for these six countries to agree on something," Herman told DW. It is especially rare when the topic is as sensitive as the Holocaust in Yugoslavia, which has often been misused by politicians for their own political purposes, she added.

"Why it has taken so long to start renovating the exhibition is not our question, but rather a political question for the ministries," Herman said. "But I think that, now that an agreement has been reached, we should be happy."

Herman noted that the exhibition requires the collaboration of six governments. Other national commemorations generally involve officials from a single country.

The Herman Family Trust was able to recruit the renowned architect Daniel Libeskind and curator Henri Lustiger-Thaler for the project. Different sections will provide information on the time period, victims, perpetrators and resistance fighters. There will also be portraits of the camp's victims and survivors.

"It is important to say that there is no division by country. Rather, the exhibition deals thematically with one territory and all the victims," Herman said. "So there is no hierarchy of victims, as was previously the case. For example, Roma were not mentioned at all."

Opening in 2026

Organizers originally intended to open the exhibition on January 27, 2025, the 80th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. But Herman said this was unrealistic.

"The Auschwitz Museum is already preparing for the big celebration of the 80th anniversary of the camp's liberation.," Herman said. "So it's impossible to work on two such complex things at the same time. So a more realistic opening date for the exhibition in the Yugoslav pavilion is 2026."

Like Herman, many of the initiators hope that the exhibition will bring more visitors from the countries of former Yugoslavia to Auschwitz — young people in particular.

This article was originally written in Croatian.