Israeli President Shimon Peres pays his respect after laying a wreath by a monument at Jasenovac World War II concentration camp on July 25, 2010. Israeli President Shimon Peres ends today a three-day visit to Croatia. AFP PHOTO
Photo: AFP Copyright 2010
JASENOVAC (AFP)---Israeli President Shimon Peres on Sunday paid tribute to thousands of victims killed by Croatia's pro-Nazi regime during World War II at the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp.
"As a Jewish president clearly I cannot come to this place without being moved to the depth of my bones. I cannot be neither quiet nor neutral," Peres said speaking under a flower-shaped monument for the victims.
"This camp is different from other camps in several ways. One, because the victims are not necessarily just Jewish.... The second difference is the way they killed people -- hammers, knives and stones," he said.
It was a "demonstration of sheer sadism," he added.
The number of people killed in Jasenovac -- mostly Serbs, followed by Jews, Roma and anti-fascist Croatians -- is disputed. They vary from tens of thousands to 700,000 according to Serbian figures.
A Jewish prayer was also held at the site of the camp, known as 'Croatia's Auschwitz', some 100 kilometers (60 miles) southeast of the capital Zagreb. The camp was set up in mid-1941 by the pro-Nazi regime and later dismantled in April 1945.
Peres stressed the need to educate future generations about the Holocaust "to save our children" from experiencing a repetition of such a crime.
"But I'm proud that the two of us are trying to raise a civilisation of humanity, a civilisation of respect for human lives," said Peres, accompanied by his Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovic.
Josipovic said Jasenovac was a place where people must face "a past that was difficult and painful."
"We have to learn lessons from the past in order that our tomorrow be better and that the atrocities that happened here and elsewhere do not repeat again," the Croat head of state said.
"Thank you for being with us here today to pay tribute to the victims, thank you that with your presence here you have also helped us to face our past," Josipovic told Peres
The two presidents also visited the Jasenovac camp memorial museum and laid wreaths at the monument.
Peres, wrapping up a three-day visit to Croatia, is the second Jewish head of state to have visited the camp. In 2003, then Israeli president Moshe Katsav also went to Jasenovac.
Relations between Croatia and Israel were strained during the 1990s rule of the late autocratic Croatian president Franjo Tudjman. Israel had accused him of failing to make a strong denunciation of the country's pro-Nazi Ustasha regime.
An estimated 75 percent of Croatia's 40,000 Jews were murdered by the Ustasha.
The ties between the two countries have improved since Tudjman's death in 2000.
Peres stressed on Friday that Israelis "look upon Croatia as a friend not
just as a country."
Israel has the "highest regard" for the Croatian people and the country's "decision not to repeat the tragedies of the past but to introduce a new way of living and hoping together," he said.