Croatian president quietly visits Holocaust Museum
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was there before the museum even opened.
Former President Bill Clinton and Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel spoke and toured the facility on opening day. Rwandan humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina took a tour on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
But for all the dignitaries and distinguished guests of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center over the last two years, no one has been a sitting head of state.
With little pre-tour fanfare at the request of higher-up security, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic visited the museum last week. Museum leaders and other dignitaries including Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen were on hand to greet him.
Museum officials said they were under strict instructions not to notify media before the May 2 visit. Skokie police said they were told ahead of time but were not part of any security force.
The museum visit became part of Josipovic’s official agenda, museum officials said, after the president’s advanced team toured the facility. They knew Josipovic would not want to miss this sacred site.
In many ways, Josipovic is the ideal first head of state to come to Skokie’s renowned facility. He shared with his tour guides that his 86-year-old father was a resistance fighter against the Nazis in his native Yugoslavia.
President Josipovic, museum leaders said, has been a lifelong champion of human rights and helped to establish the International Criminal Court.
“It was a very special and particularly moving experience visiting the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, being guided by the survivors of the Holocaust,” Josipovic wrote in the museum’s guest book.
He was referring to Museum President Fritzie Friztshall and former President Sam Harris, the first president of the new facility. Fritzshall recounted for him how she was transported to Auschwitz and lost close family members during the Holocaust.
“Croatia believes firmly that the Holocaust can never be forgotten,” Josipovic wrote. “We have to do everything in our power never to allow for any such horrific event to happen ever again.”
During his visit, Josipovic spoke about the Jewish community in Zagreb and presented Museum Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut with a special book detailing the long history of Jewish life in this community.
He toured the Karkomi Permanent Exhibition and was especially moved by the authentic German rail car, which serves as the anchor artifact in the facility, museum leaders said.
Museum Director of Education Noreen Brand told the president about the many Croatians who have been named “Righteous Among the Nations,” an official title awarded by Yad Vashem on behalf of Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
In fact, she singled out three for the Croatian leader.
Ante Fugosi was a medical student in Gospic, Croatia who created a false diagnosis and forged paperwork for a Jewish mother and her daughter. They were taken to the Italian zone and lived as Gentiles for two years before being liberated.
Dervis and Servet Korkut were ethnic Albanian Muslims who lived in Sarajevo. Dervis Korkut recognized the importance of the Sarajevo Haggadah, an item Hitler hoped to preserve in a museum of an extinct population. But Korkut hid the Haggadah under his coat and quietly slipped it out of the museum.
The Korkuts also took a young woman into their home, dressed her in traditional Muslim clothing and gave her a Muslim name. She survived the war.
Olga Kukovic, a Serb, lived with her young daughter in Sarajevo. Kukovic took a brother and sister in great danger to Mostar where the Italian commander there refused to enforce anti-Jewish measures. She helped them gain disguises and false identities to survive.
Josipovic was inaugurated as the third Croatian President on Feb. 3 last year. His term officially began 16 days later.