One of the Most Remarkable Books About the Holocaust Was Just Published
In Slavko Goldstein’s newly translated ‘1941,’ Nazi-backed fascists tear through the Balkans. Yugoslavia never recovered.
“I think I can pinpoint exactly the hour and day when my childhood ended,” writes Slavko Goldstein near the beginning of 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning. The date was April 13, 1941, when Goldstein was 13 years old. That morning, he asked his father if he could go out to play with friends. His father, Ivo, was hesitant: Just two days earlier, German troops had marched unopposed into Croatia, and tanks were on the streets of their small city, Karlovac. But he gave his permission, and Slavko went off. When he returned that afternoon, his father was gone: He was part of the first group of Karlovac citizens arrested by the new fascist regime. Ivo would never return home again, and by August he was dead, one of thousands of prisoners executed at the Jadovno camp that summer.
1941 is Goldstein’s attempt, 70 years later, to make sense of exactly what happened to his father and his country in that brutal year. In its combination of personal intimacy and historical rigor, it is one of the most remarkable books about the Holocaust to have appeared in recent years. The recipient of many prizes when it was published in Croatia in 2007, it has now been translated by Michael Gable and published in the United States by New York Review Books. I had the chance to talk to Slavko Goldstein about the book, his life, and the tragedies of Yugoslav history this month, when he visited New York as part of his U.S. book tour. Today, at 87, he remains a vigorous and forceful presence; while he apologized in advance for his English, it was in fact almost completely fluent.
To understand the story Goldstein tells in 1941, it’s useful to know something about the situation of Yugoslavia at the time. The country was created by diplomatic fiat at the end of WWI, as the union of several mutually hostile Slavic peoples. It struggled to stay viable for two decades, and when the Germans occupied the country in April 1941 they quickly divided it into its constituent parts. Serbia, in the south, was directly occupied by the German Army; some coastal territory was handed over to fascist Italy. But Croatia, in the north, was turned into a puppet state, ironically named the Independent State of Croatia.
To rule this small country, the Nazis brought in the Ustaše (anglicized as Ustasha), a fascist party, fanatically anti-Serb and anti-Semitic, whose leadership had spent the last several years in exile in Italy. Ante Pavelic became the dictator of Croatia—his title, Polglavnik, was the Croatian equivalent of Führer or Duce—and immediately began to terrorize his people. Goldstein recalled that, unlike in Germany, where the Nazis were a mass movement with near majority support, the Ustasha regime struck Croatia like a bolt from the blue. “At the moment of the establishment of the Ustasha state,” he explained, “the Ustasha movement was a very, very minor movement—they had no more than 4,000 active members. For a country of 4 million, it wasn’t much. But when the so-called Independent State of Croatia was established in 1941, many Croats—not the majority, but many—thought that independence was something that they had wished for, and they hoped that Croatia would be able to stay out of the war.” The first pages of 1941 describe the welcome that crowds of Croats gave to the German army: “Children were waving small paper flags, while from the ranks of people a jubilant refrain sounded: ‘No war and we have a state!’ ”
“Of course,” Goldstein told me, “disillusion and disappointment started very soon. After seven weeks it was obvious there was no independence and that Croatia had to participate in the war on the wrong side—on the side of the fascists.” The Ustasha regime was wholly indebted to Nazi Germany and had to follow its lead, especially with regard to the Holocaust. Goldstein can give the figures easily, from memory: “When the Independent State of Croatia was established in April 1941, its population included about 39,000 Jews. Of those, 8,500 survived the war, and 31,000 were killed; 24,000 were killed on the territory of Croatia and Bosnia, mainly by the Ustasha; 6,000 were deported to Auschwitz and other death camps in Poland—they were arrested by the Ustasha and deported by the German SS.”
The persecution of Jews, in Goldstein’s description, was in stark contrast with the generally peaceful and well-assimilated life of the Jewish community in Croatia. When I asked him if, growing up in the 1930s, he felt that he was a Croat or a Jew, he replied, “My feeling was that I was a Jew—but integrated into the life of Croatia. Karlovac, where I grew up, was a town of 25,000 inhabitants, and there were something like 300 Jews. We had Hebrew lessons—I still remember some Hebrew from those three years of lessons. My father was a young Zionist in his student days; he wasn’t Orthodox or even religious, but he took me to the synagogue four or five times during the year—on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Sukkot. We were Jews very openly, without any complexes.”
His father was arrested so quickly not because he was a Jew, Goldstein explained, but because of his well-known leftist politics. “In this small town,” he recalled, “my father was a successful bookseller, and his store was a center for leftist intellectuals. Some Communists also, but not only Communists—these were people who supported the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, for instance, who were completely anti-fascist. That was the reason why he was the target of the first arrests in Karlovac, which I describe in the book, together with about 20 other people. Only two Jews were arrested in this first round-up by the Ustasha police—two Jews, more than 10 Serbs, and the rest were Croatian leftists and communists.”
Using evidence that only became available much later, Goldstein traces his father’s likely fate, as he was moved from jail to jail, and finally to Jadovno, where 3,000 prisoners were executed en masse in the summer of 1941. At the time, however, his mother Lea could only wonder about her husband’s fate, even as conditions for Jews in Karlovac grew steadily worse. In May, the order came down that Jews had to wear the yellow star; children of Slavko’s age were exempt, but “my mother had to wear it, and she certainly did so when she was on the street.” Still, he writes, in an honest admission of the fallibility of memory, “I don’t remember that symbol on my mother’s chest. She said that she was not ashamed to wear it; those who ordered her to wear it should be ashamed. I can vaguely remember once holding that symbol in my hands, both the early cloth one and the later metal one, but I don’t remember seeing it on my mother.”
Lea Goldstein, too, ended up being arrested by the Ustasha police. But unlike Ivo, she was able to escape, thanks to one of the many figures in 1941 who remain, in Goldstein’s probing assessment, deeply morally ambiguous: a police chief named Milan Stilinovic. Stilinovic released Goldstein’s mother from jail along with a number of other prisoners, sparing them from certain death at the hands of the Ustasha. He arranged for her to get a travel pass to enter the Italian zone of occupation, from where she was able to join the Partisans, along with her two sons. After the war, this brave action was counted in Stilinovic’s favor, and he was spared the death penalty meted out to many collaborators. Yet at the same time, Goldstein writes, “during his mandate more than one hundred people had been sent to Jasenovac,” the main Croatian death camp. “Why then did he not resign?” Goldstein asked. “Or at least feign illness and seek a transfer?” The answer, like so many answers in this story, remains out of reach.
Stilinovic’s hesitation to fully embrace the Ustasha’s regime of terror was shared, Goldstein shows, by many Croats. Terror was necessary, the Ustasha believed, because Croatia was far from the ethnically homogeneous state of their dreams. The main problem was not the small Jewish community, which numbered a mere 40,000, but the enormous number of Serbs—1.8 million of them, nearly a third of the state’s whole population. To achieve a pure Croatia, the Ustasha would have to murder or drive out almost 2 million people.
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