Six months ago, Prof. Gideon Greif was on top of the world.
A respected Holocaust scholar, he was set to receive Germany’s highest civilian honor for his research on the Sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners who were forced to dispose of bodies at the Nazi death camps. Years earlier his research was adapted into an award-winning feature film, "Son of Saul."
But the civilian honor in Germany was soon rescinded amid allegations that Greif was a genocide denier who tried to whitewash the murder of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica in July 1995.
Now the 71-year-old scholar, who this year announced plans to revise a controversial war crimes report he co-wrote on behalf of Serb nationalists, again faces allegations of sacrificing historical accuracy to bolster a nationalist narrative.
He allegedly has inflated the death toll at Jasenovac, a Croatian death camp where, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the German-allied Ustasha regime murdered between 77,000 and 99,000 people during the Holocaust.
The controversy relates to Greif’s cooperation with the Serbian government to produce an exhibit, and later a book, about Jasenovac. According to Greif, at least 700,000 people died at the camp, a figure repudiated by contemporary scholars and promoted by Serbian nationalists.
Both the exhibit and the book followed a number of cooperation agreements brokered by the Serbian Foreign Ministry and signed by Greif in 2016 and 2017 on behalf of two groups he was affiliated with, the International Group of Experts GH7-Stop Revisionism and Shem Olam, an Israeli Holocaust education and research institute. The Serbian signatories included civil society groups and the country’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development.
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The result was a 2018 UN exhibit about Jasenovac curated by Greif and sponsored by the Serbian Foreign Ministry. It was soon followed by the 700-plus page book "Jasenovac: Auschwitz of the Balkans," where Greif said his efforts were part of a “Serbian-Jewish bastion against revisionism.”
In the book, Greif credited an Israeli Foreign Ministry official for his first meeting with the Serbs and stated that the Israeli ambassador to Belgrade was present when he signed a memorandum of understanding with Belgrade on behalf of Shem Olam.
Greif wrote that the Croat Ustashas even surpassed the German Nazis in their wickedness and in their bloodlust,” juxtaposing statistics about Auschwitz and Jasenovac on facing pages and highlighting various death toll estimates in a way appearing to equate the two camps.
He also quoted estimates that the death toll at Jasenovac, where the majority of victims were ethnic Serbs, could be as high as 1.4 million, exceeding even Auschwitz, though the number he has promoted in a raft of media appearances is significantly lower.
“I would say that the minimum number is 700,000 and maybe more,” he said on Serbian television in 2019. “So this is the beginning number. Maybe about 800,000 Serbs, 40,000 Jews.”
But this estimate has been discredited by modern scholarship, said Yad Vashem historian Rob Rozett, who added that Greif's estimate was based on inflated figures produced by the communist Yugoslav government following World War II.
The scholarly community, including Yad Vashem, “has rejected those numbers,” and Greif’s conclusions “are way outside of what scholars consider to be legitimate discussion these days,” Rozett said.
'Serbian nationalist narrative'
Ernest Herzog, the World Jewish Congress’ Belgrade-born director of operations, recalled a visit by Greif in 2019 where the historian tried to win the Congress' support for a Jasenovac event in Jerusalem. Herzog said he declined the offer because he believed that Greif only presented “the Serbian nationalist narrative.”
“I wasn’t sure he was aware what he was getting into,” Herzog said. “It’s not that I think he’s some kind of a crook, but I just think that he ended up on the wrong side of history when it comes to this because on Jasenovac he didn’t explore all the avenues and research, and completely dismissed all the work done in the '80s and the '90s.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Efraim Zuroff, referred to as an expert in Greif’s book, had a different take.
Referring to honors Greif has received from Serbia – including the country’s Gold Medal of Merit in 2019 – Zuroff said that while he couldn’t identify Greif’s motives, “it seems clear he has been given rewards of different sorts and perhaps it’s those rewards that motivated him to produce the kind of goods that the people who gave him the rewards want to see.
“The question is what are you willing to do to receive those awards,” Zuroff said, adding that “it’s sad to see what happened to this person.”
For his part, Greif seemed aggrieved by the criticism against him, complaining in a statement to Haaretz about “vicious incitement” and “terrorist-like pressure” that he said included 23 death threats in recent years.
“I do not know another historian in the whole world who lives in the shadow of death threats just because he expresses his own opinions,” Greif wrote, adding that his research on Jasenovac was not part of the cooperation agreements he signed, which were “standard agreements for academic, educational, pedagogical and research cooperation.”
His books “were not funded by any Serbian government office, and no one but me had any influence on their content,” he added. “I received no payment, not even one shekel, not even one euro, not even one dollar.”
Dismissing the 1.4-million-victim number as unrealistic, Greif said that "statistical issues like the number of victims concern me less, and are secondary to me, firstly because my attention is given to the world of the victim.” He said he based his work on a number of works published decades ago by Yad Vashem, which he considered the “most reliable and well-established sources.”
He added: “I have no interest in reducing or increasing the number of murders at Jasenovac. I try to choose the most realistic and authentic data available to me.”
One source he mentioned was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which he said put the death toll at Jasenovac at 500,000.
Emil Kerenji, a scholar at the museum, said that between 77,000 and 99,000 people were murdered at the Croatian camp, a number in line with an estimate by Ivo Pejakovic, the head of the Jasenovac memorial site in Croatia. He said his database currently contains the names of over 83,000 victims.
“Dr. Greif didn’t make any research regarding the number of victims of Jasenovac camp. As far as I understand, he simply quoted estimation of 700,000 victims or more, which were the official numbers of victims during the period of Yugoslavia,” Pejakovic wrote in an email.
“So he disregarded all new research that was done in the last years and decades. There is no methodology or research to comment on.”
Ono Academic College, where Greif lectures on history, distanced itself from the controversial scholar's book on Jasenovac. It said in a statement that even though its logo appeared on the cover of Greif's book, it had nothing to do with it.
An Israeli official, meanwhile, disputed Greif’s claim that the Foreign Ministry facilitated his cooperation agreements with Belgrade.
“We have no recollection of ever putting him in touch with the Serbs,” the official said.