Eighty-two-year-old Ivan Vranetic said he felt excited like a little boy about meeting Pope Benedict XVI.
A Catholic born in Yugoslavia in 1927, Vranetic and six Jewish Holocaust survivors met the pope during the memorial ceremony at the Yad Vashem Hall of Remembrance May 11.
"It is very emotional for me," said Vranetic, who now lives in Israel and was given honorary citizenship. "The pope is not just a regular person. It is a big honor for me and for all my family. I want the pope to bring peace to the world. I have always wanted peace all my life. That is why I did what I did."
In 1970 Vranetic was honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority with its "Righteous Among the Nations" award for helping hide Jewish refugees in his hometown of Topeka, Croatia, when he was 17 years old.
Vranetic, now chairman of the Society for the Righteous Among the Nations in Israel, said his first attempt to help an older Jewish doctor from his village who was struggling with a heavy bag was met with such a beating from a Nazi-allied Croatian soldier that he lost the hearing in his left ear.
The teenager risked his life aiding Jews who had escaped to his village despite the fact that the majority of the people in the village supported the Ustasha, the Nazi-allied Croatian militia. He befriended the refugees, found them places to hide, and moved them to new refuges when they were no longer safe in the old hiding places. He provided them with food and other supplies.
After the war, he kept in touch with many of the Jews he had saved, among them his future wife, Arna Montilio. Montilio moved to Israel with her young daughter, whom Vranetic also helped save. Montilio's first husband was killed in the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia.
Some 20 years after the war Vranetic came to Israel and married Montilio, who died 12 years ago. Vranetic was accompanied at Yad Vashem by his grandson.
"Only someone who has lived (through the Holocaust years) can understand what it was like," Vranetic said. "Today, still, 70 percent of people hate the other because they're from a different religion or different group."
Though his parents were not specifically religious, he was educated to love and respect others, he said.
"I received a different type of education from my parents," he said, explaining how he was able to ignore the threat to his own life and help rescue Jews. "It wasn't just religious; it was something else."
He said only "abnormal" people could claim that the Holocaust had not happened.
"The entire world knows what the Holocaust was like and what that man called Hitler did in every country he went to," said Vranetic.
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