“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.
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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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.