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He Understood Evil

1941: Godina koja se vraća [1941: The Year That Keeps Returning]

by Slavko Goldstein
Zagreb: Novi Liber, 494 pp., HRK180.00
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Ranko Šuvar/Cropix
Slavko Goldstein in his office at the publishing company Novi Liber, Zagreb, Croatia, 2006

I came across this remarkable book, which has not yet been translated into English, while writing recently about the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It deserves attention, because it explains, perhaps better than any book I know of, how different ethnic groups, who lived side by side in peace for centuries, were made to turn against one another and become each other’s executioners in that unhappy country. Written by the distinguished Croatian journalist and publisher Slavko Goldstein, whose father was killed by the Ustashas, the pro-fascist nationalists who were brought to power in Croatia by the Nazis when they occupied Yugoslavia in 1941, the book is a memoir of that fateful year, a meticulous historical recreation, and the cautionary account of the events that led to the deaths of some 32,000 Jews, 40,000 Gypsies, and 350,000 Serbs between 1941 and 1945.

The great instrument of moral good is the imagination,” Shelley wrote in A Defense of Poetry. Unlike many intellectuals who tend to rationalize and minimize the disagreeable chapters in their nation’s history, Goldstein not only wishes to tell the truth, but to put himself in the shoes of various victims and even a few of their executioners. That makes 1941 a most unusual book, a story of one family’s tragedy that is also a careful work of history that, because of its interest in many individual human beings and their parallel stories, often reads like a novel.

The tale Goldstein tells starts in April 1941, after an uprising on March 27 in Belgrade led to a military coup. The army overthrew the Yugoslav coalition government that had been forced to join the Tripartite Pact with the Axis powers two days earlier; and the new government, consisting of Serbian officers, aware that the Nazis were making preparations to invade the country, tried to make itself more representative by also including some Croatian politicians. It was too late. Hitler declared that the uprising in Yugoslavia had drastically changed the entire political situation. Originally, he wanted to leave Yugoslavia alone, so that he could attack Russia. Now, he said, Yugoslavia must be regarded as an enemy and dismembered as quickly as possible.

The Germans encouraged Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria, which had long-standing claims on Yugoslav territory, to participate in the invasion by extending to them the opportunity of annexing the Adriatic coast, Banat, and Macedonia respectively. Likewise, a promise of political independence was extended to the Croats. Days later, on April 6, Yugoslavia was attacked by Germany without a declaration of war, Belgrade was bombed, and the country was quickly occupied and partitioned. Croatia proclaimed its independence on April 10 and German troops were greeted as liberators when they entered Zagreb, the Croatian capital. For the Croats, after more than eight centuries of subordination to other powers, having their own state for the first time was a happy occasion.

Goldstein, born in 1928, was thirteen years old and living with his father, mother, and younger brother in Karlovac, a beautiful old city situated some fifty miles southwest of Zagreb, where his father owned a bookstore known as a meeting place of socialists, Communists, liberals, union workers, and other antifascists. There they bought, or borrowed from a lending library, books by such progressive writers as Gorky, Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Thomas Mann, and Berthold Brecht. Goldstein recalls the day his childhood ended. On April 13, Catholic Easter, with the city already occupied by the Nazis, he recalls telling his father that he was going out to play with a friend. The father seemed surprised. There were German tanks and soldiers in the streets. After a bit of wavering, he gave his permission.

When the son came home for lunch, his father was gone, never to return again. He was rounded up with some twenty other well-known local Serbs, Communists, and Yugoslav sympathizers, the very day the future leader of the Independent State of Croatia, Ante Pavelić, returned from exile in Italy and passed through Karlovac on his way to Zagreb with two hundred Ustasha immigrants in Italian uniforms, many of whom had been interned for six years in various camps in Sicily, Sardinia, and the Lipari islands, and who were on their way to serve as the ruling elite of the new Nazi puppet state.

Most of the men arrested with Goldstein’s father were soon released, but for reasons that are not clear to this day, he was kept in custody with a few other “unreliables,” most likely because he was a known leftist. The new regime at the time didn’t yet have a clear Jewish policy. The main enemies of the Ustasha movement were the Serbs and the Belgrade regime. Furthermore, many of the nationalist leaders of the earlier generation in Croatia, the so-called Frankists, were Jewish. It was only in the 1930s, under the influence of Hitler’s ideas, that the Ustasha ideology, a blend of fascist and Nazi doctrines, became more and more anti-Semitic. Of course, anyone who was Jewish and had seen what had happened in Germany had to be worried.

What they did not know, and could not possibly imagine, is that it would be the local nationalists, rather than the Nazis, who would be their executioners. So they waited, expecting that the state would not harm peaceful citizens. This was true of local Serbs too. Not many of them were aware that Dr. Mladen Lorković, one of the future Ustasha ministers, had said that the

Croatian state cannot exist if 1,800,000 Serbs live in it, if at the same time we have a strong Serbian state behind our backs…. We, therefore, must strive to make the Serbs vanish from our midst.

Supposedly, even Himmler was horrified when he heard from one of Pavelić’s emissaries in 1941 that they intended to kill two million Serbs.

The most disheartening aspect of the early chapters of Goldstein’s book is how much time it takes for future victims under such a regime to realize that they are doomed, and how quickly others, who may have barely given them a thought a week before, become their eager persecutors. Since many of those in Karlovac who participated in the atrocities were either Goldstein’s neighbors, school friends, or known to him as prominent citizens, he’s able to tell us in considerable detail how they behaved during and after the war.

It’s a story made even more depressing by its close resemblance to the events in Croatia and Bosnia not long ago. A plan concocted by a small group of extreme nationalist intellectuals to undo the ethnic and religious mix of the population, which the wars with the Ottoman Empire and expulsions of peoples over the centuries had produced, was swiftly enacted. One day you were a citizen of Yugoslavia with full rights, a nd the next day you were told that unless you were a member of the Croatian nation by origin and blood, you did not exist legally. When it comes to this kind of evil, most human beings are innocents. Who can possibly believe that the prospect of having complete power over someone who has none would be such an enticement to people from all walks of life? Who can accept the idea that their school friends will turn into killers the first chance they get?

Goldstein describes the first political killings in Karlovac, of three prominent Serbian citizens who were taken from their homes on May 5, 1941, by five young men and shot in a nearby forest. The secret order came from Zagreb and was directed to officials in various towns whose job was to select the killers and their victims. This demonstration, of what Goldstein calls “synchronized violence,” on St. George’s Day, the Serbian religious holiday, was to show both Serbs and Croats that from now on blood would flow. The five who participated were known to Goldstein, one or two quite well. They were the usual small-town types from different social backgrounds, one a young lawyer, one a gifted high school student with a bright future, and the rest apprentices in various trades. As fanatical nationalists, all they needed was for some opportunist, who had rushed to embrace the new regime, to whisper in their ear whom to liquidate that day.

In the meantime, Goldstein’s father had been transferred from Karlovac to a prison in Zagreb, despite his mother’s frantic effort to have him released. In such situations, women can usually smell trouble better than men. Before he was arrested, both his wife and their house servant, a young woman from a nearby village, urged him to go and hide in the countryside. His son, who has made it his life’s mission to hunt down everyone who knew his father in prison, has a fair amount of information on how he spent his time there. For a while, he and his mother were able to visit him and bring parcels of food to him in Zagreb and at the camp called Danica (Morning Star), to which he was next sent. Although it was not yet clear what the Ustashas intended to do with the Serbs and Jews they had rounded up, the signs were ominous.

One day while visiting the father in Zagreb, his wife noticed that he had bruises and that his face was swollen in places. In the Danica camp it was even worse. Torture is one of the perks of any regime that uses terror as a political instrument. Sadists get to have their fun and to be thought of as patriots. One of the camp officers even brought his sixteen-year-old son to participate in beatings. Goldstein has learned who some of these brutal characters were and what happened to them afterward. One of the worst among them, for instance, later switched sides, joined the resistance, and fought heroically against the Ustashas. After the war, a woman who had been an inmate recognized him and he was hanged in public on the site of the old camp.

The mass slaughter of Serbs began in late April 1941, less than three weeks after the proclamation of the new state, and continued throughout the war. The killing was done by special Ustasha units that would descend upon a village or town, round up all the Serb men they could find at home, and, after locking them up and mistreating them, take them out to a nearby forest and execute them. A few hundred people were killed on a typical night. The intention at first was to slay every man in the community; later, they didn’t spare women, children, and old people either.

The local Croatian population did not directly participate in the killings. They dug mass graves and covered them and were told to keep their mouths shut. In the town of Glina, several hundred men were tricked into coming into the Orthodox church to be converted to Catholicism; they were slaughtered and the church set on fire. On another occasion, the Ustashas made the condemned roast suckling pigs and baby lambs and then dig their own graves while being forced to sing. As in Bosnia in the 1990s, the butchery was accompanied by pillage. The killers took everything that had any value, even clothes and shoes.

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Slavko Goldstein
Slavko Goldstein’s father, Ivo Goldstein, in a photograph from the files of the prison in Petrinjska Street, Zagreb, April 1941, with a detail of the letter he wrote to his thirteen-year-old son the following month; from 1941: Godina koja se vráca (1941: The Year That Keeps Returning)

We need to kill one third so that one third will run away and one third will convert,” Ustashas used to say. That formula, Goldstein points out, was not invented by them. It originated in Russia in the years 1881 and 1882 and was attributed to Konstantin Petrovich Pobyedonostzev, close adviser of Tsar Alexander III, who commented on the latest wave of pogroms against the Jews: “Let a third immigrate, a third become Orthodox, and a third await their death.” It made no difference to the leaders of the new regime that someone would have to pay for emulating the worst policies of Nazi Germany. As Goldstein observes, it was more important for Pavelić to kill Serbs than to stabilize Croatia.

Both Germans and Italians complained about the massacres of Serbs to Pavelić. They didn’t care what he did with the Jews, but the commanders of the two armies could easily anticipate that they would have a rebellion on their hands. Ustashas, like the SS in Russia, believed that harsh policies would suppress any insurgency, but as one would expect, it only strengthened the resistance. For the desperate Serbs fleeing into the woods and mountains, there were two insurrections they could join: the Partisans, led by the Communists, or the Chetniks, who were led by pro-royalist officers. Communists called for an uprising against both the occupiers and the Ustasha with the aim of getting the Croatian population on their side, while the Chetniks wanted revenge against the Croats, and were willing to ally themselves with the Italians and Germans to ensure the survival of their people. This split between Partisans and Chetniks, into which the Serbian population was driven in 1941, has had tragic consequences and has not healed to this day.

Where was Goldstein’s father while all this was going on? The family had no idea. His destination after he was transferred from the Danica camp was unknown. To make matters worse, the mother, too, was imprisoned. Slavko’s younger brother Danko was sent to his grandparents in Bosnia and he himself remained in Karlovac living with friends and waiting for his parents to come home. It was a period when, under the threat of arrest and severe punishment, all Jews and Orthodox Christians could move around town only between the hours of eight in the morning and six at night.

Still, he didn’t feel like a hunted person in his hometown. As he says, at thirteen he wasn’t mature enough to grasp the depth of suffering and unhappiness about him. Years later, reading the local Ustasha press of the period, he came to understand better what the times were like when almost daily some new discriminatory law appeared depriving Jews and Serbs of a basic human right or means of livelihood. “Law after law, one better than the other,” wrote one editorial writer.

Thousands of unnecessary lives will disappear, all those who had wealth, were of no use to their people and only hindered them. That huge and poisonous boil, Croatia will get rid of [it] not with injections and pills, but with a surgeon’s intervention…[since] if you wish to live the way you are supposed to, the first law is to get rid of the enemy in your home. That ought to be clear and understandable to everyone.

As is generally the case, the story of Goldstein’s and his mother’s survival is one of a few good people coming to their aid and one or two disreputable characters who decided to act decently for once. That’s how his mother got her “temporary” release from prison. The moment she was out, she took the only option a Jew who wanted to flee had in Croatia in 1941: she crossed over into the more moderately governed Italian occupation zone, and then, when things became dangerous for her there, she took both her sons and went over to the Partisans. Resourceful and tough, understanding better than others that one must act decisively, she reminds me of the women in the apartment building in Belgrade where I grew up during that same war, who found food where there was none and took care of their children and old people while their husbands and sons were either fighting with some army or insurgency, or were in prison or dead.

Goldstein’s mother didn’t say to her son that leaving Karlovac meant giving up hope that they would see his father again. Neither she nor anyone else knew that the Ustashas had already set up several extermination camps, one of them in the village of Jadovno near the town of Gospić among the deep woods and ravines of the Velebit Mountains. That particular camp existed for fifty-five days and had about four thousand prisoners, all of whom, except one who escaped, were killed. Most of the inmates were Serbs and the rest Jews. The method of killing was to take a group of about twenty people to the edge of a pit, tie the hands of all of them with wire, and then kill the first few with a sledgehammer, axe, or knife and let the dead pull the living down into their grave. This is where Goldstein’s father ended his days.

Although the Ustashas tried to keep the existence of that death camp and the others in the region a secret, the local population began talking about seeing columns of badly mistreated people led toward the camp and hearing screams and shots in the night. The Italian occupying forces complained about “wild massacres” perpetrated in the proximity of their units, which forced the Ustashas to close the camps and relocate them farther up north and closer to Zagreb. After the war, a number of camp guards were tried for crimes committed in Jadovno, but Goldstein admits that he couldn’t bring himself to read their confessions. Besides, as he says, those who planned and gave orders were always of more interest to him than those who merely obeyed.

Goldstein’s reason for his detailed documentation of terror in 1941 is the pain that he feels every time he finds the revisionist lie in one of his grandchildren’s schoolbooks that the Ustashas’ crimes were nothing more than a response to the Serbian uprising against the Croatian state. He is the kind of truth-teller even nations with far less on their conscience prefer not to hear from. In this book, in addition to the genocide of Serbs and Jews, he also writes about the slaughter of thousands of Ustashas, Chetniks, and other political opponents of the Communists, who were trapped in May 1945 as they were trying to escape into Austria, some of them with their families. This was a taboo subject in postwar Yugoslavia for forty years, and once it became possible to write about it, it was instantly used by the various nationalist factions to feed the passions of ethnic hatred.

One of the most poignant chapters of Goldstein’s moving book is the story of two villages near Karlovac, one Serbian and one Croatian, that lived in relative harmony before World War II and even continued to coexist afterward despite the Ustasha crimes and postwar suspicions, because of two remarkable men, one in each village, who kept trying to have their communities get along. In the end, too many people died on both sides, and although most of them were killed by outsiders, the mutual hatred grew and culminated in 1991 when Serbs, with the help of Belgrade, expelled the Croatian population from Krajina, only to have 250,000 Serbs expelled in turn by the Croats four years later. “Revenge doesn’t know how to choose between the guilty and the innocent,” Goldstein writes. The victims turn into oppressors and the oppressors are victims again. Once more, the culprit was nationalism, that madness of identifying with a single ethnic group to a point where one recognizes no other duty than furthering its interests even if it means placing its actions beyond good and evil. Many the world over believe this is the only way; that the survival of their people justifies any crime they commit. They find the scruples of those who cringe at the shedding of innocent blood in pursuit of some noble case naive and repugnant.

Goldstein’s wise book gives one hope. He is not an angry man, even though he has every right to be one when we consider how many members of his family were killed by Ustashas. He fought with the Partisans, became a Communist, but quickly turned against the Party and its repressive policies after being discharged from the victorious army after the war. He immigrated to Israel in 1948, but returned two years later, feeling that even with everything that happened to his family, Croatia was still his home.

That was not the end of his troubles, though. His wife was imprisoned for a year and a half in one of Tito’s labor camps for telling a political joke in her office. His brother Danko, too, went to jail for siding with Mihajlo Mihajlov, the Serbian dissident who had published a book in 1964 critical of the Soviet Union and who was himself subsequently arrested when he tried to publish an opposition newspaper. An intelligentsia, “secretly inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty,” as Orwell described them, has been Goldstein’s enemy. As a publisher, and now as an author, he has sought books that mean to set a few things right and honor the memory of the innocent whose lives were found expendable because of some cause.

While helping with the research for this book in the archives of the national and university library in Zagreb, the librarian in charge of old manuscripts and books found for Goldstein, among the papers of an Ustasha official (a minor poet and later the editor of a prestigious émigré magazine), two pages of a letter his father wrote while he was in prison, which the official, who had immigrated to Argentina and then returned to Croatia when it became independent in 1991, had kept all these years for some unknown reason. The letter is dated May 2, 1941. It says:

Dear Slavko!

I heard from mother that you cried last Saturday because I’m in prison. That news made me more sad than glad. I know that you didn’t cry out of shame that your father is in jail! You should know that there are times when it’s more honorable to be in prison than on the outside. Perhaps you cried because injustice is being done to your father. It’s better to bear injustice than to inflict it. Or perhaps you cried because you feel sorry for me in my present situation. It’s true that it’s not nice and comfortable to be without freedom; still my situation is not such that you need to pity me. Even if it were much worse than it is, your tears would not be the right reaction. You are thirteen years old and I always wanted you to become—a champ. When you were a little kid, I showed you how one can be brave in a physical sense (better boxer than me, stronger than Prince Marko), but later I strove to show you another kind of courage. As much as your athletic and academic success make me happy, I would like you to become in that other sense, and primarily in that other sense—a hero. It’s not a question here of just one but of many inner traits. I won’t list them for you since I wouldn’t remember them all, although I think I have indicated them to you all on different occasions.

Such heroes and nonheroes best reveal themselves in the cell. About that—both comic and serious—I will tell you at length, so you will understand better what kind of man I want you to be. For example: we have in our cell, among others, three Slovenians, fat, pink-faced, and rich. They receive baskets full of food. They occupy the best corner of the cell—close to the window. You ought to know that we lie on a cement floor and that the scarcity of fresh air is the hardest one to bear in our circumstances. (So that your mother doesn’t burst into tears: it’s now much better, since there are less than forty of us, though at one time we had even sixty in the cell.) These three do not budge day or night from their places, won’t share their food or cigarettes with anyone, even with their poor countrymen to whom no one sends any food.

You ought to know that from prison food one cannot live since we only have one meal a day and it consists of seven ounces of bread with which we get, every other day, a lean, poorly cooked dish of some sort. Thus, the custom here and probably in every other cell is that those who get food from “the outside” share it with those who are reduced to getting only prison food. All do it, regardless of religions or other convictions, so it becomes one of the finest experiences one can have here. But those three don’t do that. They also won’t do something else, which I regard as even a greater sin. Never, and to no one, do they ever say a nice or consoling word, and that word in certain moments is more important to certain people than food or fresh air. (One evening I consoled and tried to cheer up a man, seeing how depressed he was. He burst into tears and confessed to me that that night while we slept, he wanted to hang himself.) These three do not help to keep our spirits high and pass our time in the cell.

We call them “Kranjci,” for one of them reads the Bible several times per day. Of course, people grumble in the cell and at times tell them to their faces that all people from Kranj are selfish, a state within a state, etc. You know that such generalization about all Slovenes is as true as when all Jews are attacked because of some individual Jews. Still, you can see how such nonheroic attitude of some people affects their surroundings, near and far, and even them. On the other hand, we have a Jew who is upset and shouts and curses if no one shares with him the last morsel of food and drinks the last drop of tea from his thermos and smokes together his last cigarette. Isn’t he a hero? We also have an Austrian we call the Kraut. He did dangerous spying work for Germany. He was locked up because he didn’t have identification (so he tells to us)….

Slavko Goldstein did not receive this fragment of his father’s letter until sixty-five years after it was written, but the man he became in his long and rich life was the one his father wanted him to be.

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