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.
Their attempts to do this led to disaster, not just for the victims, but for their own regime. In 1941, Goldstein describes how the Ustasha turned even Croat public opinion against them by their extreme, undisguised brutality: “The cleansing occurred in the home, the courtyard, on the road, with parents in the presence of children or vice versa. … There were drinking binges; there were barbarous scenes of cleansing children in the cradle, the elderly, entire families together, sadistic enjoyment of terrible tortures. … Such acts provoked disapproval among honest and solid Croats, and whispers could be heard: This is a disgrace for the people of Croatia, our culture, and the Catholic faith.”
Goldstein describes how, starting in the summer of 1941, Ustasha outrages led many Serbs to take up arms against the regime. They came under the leadership of the Communist party, which was best positioned to organize a partisan resistance. Many of its leaders were themselves combat veterans of the Spanish Civil War, and they had the unity and discipline needed to create an army. Indeed, nowhere in Europe was the resistance to fascism more effective than in Yugoslavia, where the partisans, under the leadership of Josip Tito, managed to take control of huge swaths of territory.
Starting in 1942, the 14-year-old Slavko Goldstein fought in their ranks. He writes about the partisans in largely glowing terms, and in conversation he describes the transition from civilian to military life as feeling “natural.” “As children we played cowboys and Indians—for me, perhaps, that was part of why I was delighted to join the partisans,” he said jokingly. “But of course for my mother, who brought me and my brother to the partisans, it was a way to save our lives—and it did save us. In her youth, my mother was a member of Hashomer Hatzair, and she had connections with the partisans through that. And from the first moment that we came—I think this is not something I invented later—from the first moment I felt free. After a year of persecution, hiding, escaping, in danger for my life, at once we were in a surrounding of people who didn’t ask me if I was a Jew or a Serb or a Croat. It was a movement without ethnic controversies.”
Goldstein’s mention of Hashomer Hatzair was fascinating to me. I’ve heard about that left-wing Zionist youth movement ever since I was a child—my grandparents were members in the 1930s—and in reading about the Holocaust, I’ve discovered that several of the great heroes of the Ghetto resistance were members: Abba Kovner in Vilna, Mordecai Anielewicz in Warsaw. I asked Goldstein whether he believed there was a connection between his mother’s membership in Hashomer Hatzair and her ability to move so swiftly into the partisan resistance. “I don’t think directly, but indirectly, yes,” he replied. “It was the same orientation in society. I think members of Hashomer Hatzair—they felt something like a friendship with the leftists in the public life of Yugoslavia and had friends among them.”
Today, Goldstein speaks proudly of the role the partisans played in rescuing the Jews of Yugoslavia. “Of the 8,500 Jews who survived, 5,000 survived thanks completely or partly to the partisans,” he explained. “For instance, there was an Italian concentration camp for Jews on the island of Rab, with 3,200 inmates. On the day the Italians surrendered, they immediately formed a partisan battalion with 272 young people. Our partisan division, in connection with those young people, organized the transportation of the Jews from the island to the mainland. It is a unique example in occupied Europe—a whole concentration camp of Jews was saved.”
Goldstein mentioned his disappointment that this event is not mentioned in the public exhibitions at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which he recently visited in Washington. But he recalled another moment when the Jewish debt to the partisans was acknowledged. “in the late 1970s, as a publisher, I was part of the Yugoslav delegation to the Jerusalem Book Fair, and Yitzhak Navon, who was then president of Israel, visited the fair,” he told me. “He came to the Yugoslav tent, and he spent perhaps 10 minutes, which for a protocol visit is a pretty long time, speaking with us. And then before he left he said, ‘Notwithstanding the break in diplomatic relations between Yugoslavia and Israel, I want to say that we, the Jewish people, are grateful to Marshal Tito and his partisans for giving our people a chance to fight against the worst evil that ever struck our people in our whole history.’ ”
Given Goldstein’s pride in the partisans’ achievements, it is all the more remarkable that, in 1941, he writes honestly and critically about the Communist regime that emerged out of the movement in 1945. “After the war,” he told me, “Tito and his leadership and the Communist Party established a very strong dictatorship on the model of Stalin’s dictatorship. It was Stalinism, but without anti-Semitism—there was no anti-Semitism, especially not from the leadership. And I would say without the brutality against the peasants—because the peasants were the fighters in the partisan war. But in the towns, the political dictatorship was as tough as in other East European countries.”
Personally, too, Goldstein was disillusioned by the harsh measures the Party began to implement after the war. In the book, he writes about how some family friends, who had helped him survive in 1941, had their factory confiscated by a Communist court. He alludes to the episode in our interview: “The Stalinist regime made trouble for some of my friends, and some of the people who helped me in the year 1941. It was a personal feeling of disillusionment. People who I knew were honest people—anti-fascist, helped the movement—why did they have to be sentenced for nothing, just to take their property? Such things happened under Communism, especially Stalinism. After 1948, I wasn’t a member of the Party.”
In 1949, in fact, Goldstein actually left Yugoslavia and moved to the new state of Israel. He had family connections there: His parents had met in pre-state Palestine, where they spent time in the 1920s, and there was an uncle living in Petach Tikvah. For a year and a half, Goldstein studied in Israel for a college degree, working part-time as a border guard. But his heart remained in Croatia, and on a trip back there in 1951, he decided to return. What had changed, he told me, was Tito’s regime, which introduced a form of “mild Communism” in place of its earlier hard-line Stalinism. “I will give you an example. When I left Zagreb in 1949, it was impossible to get Western newspapers. On my trip back in 1951, one of my first impressions was that in the main square, in the kiosks, they had Corriere della Sera and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. And I was still very much involved, emotionally, in Croatian culture.”
In his long career as a writer and publisher, Goldstein made important contributions to that culture, of which 1941 is perhaps the biggest. In the late 1980s and ’90s, when Yugoslavia dissolved into civil war, Goldstein was a political and journalistic voice for reconciliation or, at least, amicable separation. And in writing about WWII in Croatia, he is helping to illuminate and detoxify memories that fuelled the ethnic hatred of the 1990s. Indeed, he explained that the failure of Communist Yugoslavia to honestly confront its wartime past was one of the reasons the civil wars of the 1990s were so bitter.
“Even after Communism in Yugoslavia began to liberalize, in 1951, there were some fields which were not liberalized,” he explained. “Among the subjects which you could not discuss critically were the army, Tito as commander and leader, and the antifascist war during the Second World War. There were no mistakes, everything was excellent, and criticism was suppressed. That was part of the reason why the right began to promote its own re-evaluation of the period, though they were not allowed to publish anything except abroad, in the Croatian emigration. The right was not completely Ustasha, but it was and still is very near to it. It is now a minority in the state, but it still exists, and what I’m doing now in public is to criticize this rightist movement and to publish books which tell the complete truth. The reason why this revisionist criticism flourishes is that for too long we were silent about it.”
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