Who knows the fate of Filip Baum from old Zagreb?: Robert Fisk finds secrets of a dark past and discovers how easily the fragile facade of Croatian civilisation can crack

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The Independent Online
THE calendar was hanging on the wall of the Croatian Ministry of Culture, a snapshot of old Zagreb for each month. And when I asked the assistant if I could study the pictures, she willingly took the calendar down for me. The illustrations were good quality and portrayed the Croatian capital, which this year celebrates its 900th anniversary, as a place of peace and tranquillity. But studying the captions, I noticed that seven of the twelve were taken between 1941 and 1945, the years when Ante Pavelic's vicious Nazi puppet government ran the so-called Independent State of Croatia with almost unsurpassed cruelty.

There was no reference to this - just a series of innocent photographs with captions indicating the location and date: a line of fine old German taxis in Jelacic Square, coffee-drinkers in a boulevard cafe, a flock of sheep moving through an empty street, two milk carts in Radiceva Street. If a Frenchman wished to celebrate the history of Paris, he might choose similar photographs - but he would not, surely, have selected pictures taken during the German occupation. Under Hitler's surrogate, Pavelic, the Croatian Ustashe slaughtered up to 700,000 Serbs and Jews. Yet the photographs on this calendar seemed designed to legitimise this dark period as a time of calm and stability.

Then, above the weeks for Listopad (October), in the photograph of Radiceva Street, I noticed a name. Above the door of a three- storey Austro-Hungarian townhouse was a sign: Filip Baum. It was the only human name visible in any of the pictures. Baum is a Jewish name. The date on the photograph was 1941. What happened to him in the Holocaust that had begun to sweep over Nazi Croatia when the picture was taken?

Radiceva Street lies in the old part of Zagreb, above the Catholic Cathedral, and I recognised the building, No 32, behind whose crumbling facade now lived the proprietor of a ballet school, a railwayman and a street vendor. They were not alive in 1941. The old lady who once owned the house - and who could be seen in the 1941 picture peering from a first-floor window - had long since died.

I found the woman's grand- daughter, but she had no records of previous tenants. A middle-aged woman from a downstairs flat knew that milk was once sold on the ground floor - hence the milk-carts in the 1941 picture - but she had never heard of Filip Baum. Then, from the back of the building, came an old lady. 'I remember Filip Baum,' she said. 'He was a Jew, very old, very stooped. He had a big beard. He used to make children's prams out of wood. He worked with his son at the back of the building. But then the Pavelic people and Ustashe took over and he was forced to flee. I heard he went secretly to America.' That was all.

She never heard if Filip Baum reached his destination. So I telephoned the secretary of the Jewish community in Zagreb and asked her to check her list of Holocaust victims. Eleven Baums had been murdered by the Ustashe or Nazis, she said, but none called Filip. 'Around 11,000 or 12,000 Jews perished and about 3,000 survived. The list is not comprehensive. Most Jews who got away sought safety on the Adriatic coast which was ruled then by the Italians.'

So Filip Baum may have survived. But it remained a remarkable irony that the only name in a modern calendar celebrating Zagreb's history should be that of a man who had to flee for his life. Nor did the current occupants of the Radiceva Street house seem particularly interested in his fate. It was before they were born and, although a teacher from the ballet school showed some sympathy, the street vendor was positively hostile when he learned that a reporter was trying to find out what happened to a Jew.

It would be grotesque, almost half a century after the war, to hold Zagreb's modern and largely young population to account for the events of 1941-45. Croatia boasts of its nascent democracy and hopes to join the European Union. Yet on the very afternoon I found Filip Baum's old home, I met a young Belgian army officer who was working as a European Community monitor in the eastern Croatian city of Osijek, badly damaged during the 1991 war with the Serbs.

'The other day, I went to the cinema in Osijek to see Schindler's List,' he told me. 'But once the film started, I couldn't believe what I saw and heard. The audience were mostly young Croatians and they were laughing and whistling at the terrible scenes where the Jews were murdered. I wanted to walk out. When it was over, the audience went off to drink beer, very cheerfully; for them it was just one more new film they'd seen. I suppose they've seen so many brutal things, but this is just the same cruelty they show towards Serbs and Muslims. What kind of people behave like this?'

How easily the facade of Croatian civilisation cracks. Two days later, in the Bosnian city of Mostar - at tenuous peace but still divided after Croatian Catholic forces staged a pogrom against the Bosnian Muslims, driving them into a makeshift ghetto in the east - I asked a young woman for directions to the bus station. We were on the Croatian side of the city but as we walked, she said: 'My name is Amra. I am 19. I am a Muslim among Christians. I still live here among the Croats. I have finished high school but they will not allow me to go to university.' She had long blonde hair and freckles and wore sunglasses. 'The Croats can't tell I'm a Muslim from the way I look or from my accent - only from my name. So unless I know people well, I use a false name like Maria.'

At the bus station, Amra left me for her dangerous home. In the bus, not far from her road, I passed Croatian houses with the hooked 'U' for 'Ustashe' on their walls. Filip Baum, I suspect, would have understood how Amra felt.

(Photograph omitted)