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1941: The Year That Keeps Returning by…

1941: The Year That Keeps Returning (2007)

by Slavko Goldstein

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This is a stunning and important book, very readable and yet very hard to read. Slavko Goldstein, a Croatian Jewish journalist and publisher, set out to describe not only what happened to his family and him when the Ustasha, a fascist nationalist Croatian military group, returned to Croatia in the wake of the 1941 Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia, but also to document as thoroughly as possible what happened generally in Croatia in 1941 and how the impact of those actions reverberated in 1945, at the time of liberation, and then again starting in 1989. He has done this in detail, not shying away from the horrors of ethnic hatred, mass killings, and genocide, and as fairly as possible, attributing responsibility as precisely as the records permit. This is a a book of shining integrity.

At the beginning of the book, Goldstein explains his methods:

"So, in writing this book, I have placed all of my memories under suspicion. I have filled in the gaps and sought to make sense of them by poring over newspapers, official documents, personal letters, and memoirs of the time. My recollections were also on trial in conversations with my brother and with friends from that time whom I still see today. For the description of these times I have relied on the many documents in which I discovered a variety of lesser-known or unknown details that shed better light on the important events of this period. I have tried to be faithful to myself, to future readers of this text, and those about whom I am writing and who are no more."

and then concludes:

" 'For the living we owe respect, but to the dead only the truth' is an often quoted aphorism of Voltaire. To me it seems that we owe the truth to everyone, living and dead, equally. And we owe respect to many, both the living and the dead, but not to everyone." p. 11

It was especially meaningful for me to read this book during the time that Nelson Mandela died and was eulogized and buried. The search for truth Goldstein attempts in this book is analogous in purpose to the aims of the South African Truth and Reconciliation process.

Essentially chronological, the chapters interweave Goldstein's personal story with the documentation of the mass killings and ethnic "cleansings" that took place in the year 1941. Goldstein was 13 when first the Nazis and then the Ustasha entered his home town of Karlovac. Two days after the Germans arrived, his father, the proprietor of a bookstore and lending library, was arrested along with about 20 others, including Serbians and communists as well as Goldstein's father and one other Jew. They were first transported to various jails, where Goldstein's mother could visit and bring food to his father, and then to a nearby, newly built concentration camp; ultimately his father was probably shot in one of the many mass killings, although no records exist. Goldstein and his younger brother stayed with his mother until she was arrested, although another family was moved into their apartment, and then were farmed out to brave friends who took them in. His mother was released and joined the partisans with her two sons. Their personal stories are moving and dramatically convey the extreme tension and terror of the times, as well as the mother's courage and the courage of the friends who stood by them.

The Nazis basically left the Ustasha in charge of Croatia, and the goal of the Ustasha was to create a nationalist Croatia: to eliminate not only the Jews and the Roma but perhaps more importantly the Serbians (who were Orthodox, as opposed to the Catholic Croatians). They did so brutally, and in a variety of ways, but principally by arresting/rounding up Serbians in their villages and then taking them out to the woods, shooting them, and throwing their bodies into pits or caverns. They also burned Serbian villages to the ground to drive out any remaining women, children, and old people, although they also frequently killed them too. Through detailing the history step by step, Goldstein attempts to understand the original causes of what he calls "ethnic cleansing" as well as the forces that caused it to grow into an ever more horrifying series of events.

Throughout the book, but especially in a chapter entitled "A Tale of Two Villages," Goldstein develops the theme of "the year that keeps returning." By looking at neighboring Serbian and Croatian villages, he shows how the destruction of and mass killings in the Serbian village in 1941 led to fear and some revenge killings in the Croatian village in 1945. For some time after that, they coexisted uneasily, but this all fell apart again in the wars of the early 1990s, when there were mass killings of Croatians. Goldstein repeatedly makes the point that it is wrong to punish the mass of the population for the crimes of individuals. As he writes:

"Today's district of Lasinja includes only two Serbian villages, Sjeničak and Prkos. During the second world war, between 600 and 700 civilian inhabitants of these two villages and more than 100 members of the Partisan army were killed. During the same war and in the immediate postwar period about 150 residents of Lasinja and the Croatian villages were killed and several dozen more were killed in the ranks of the Home Guard and the Partisan and Ustasha armies. The war ended for these victims a long time ago. Is it not time that we stop commemorating them separately and in opposition to each other? They are not all equal victims nor are they equal criminals, but we should stop trying to use our victims in provocations, we should establish who the criminals were and single them out from all collective entities: villages, movements, and peoples alike." p. 465

The end of the book brings the reader up to date, with Goldstein's experiences during the communist era. Starting out as a partisan (and a commissar within his military unit), but then leaving the party and returning to school, he found himself frustrated during a particularly harsh period of the Tito era and going to Israel for a few years, but ended up returning to what he considered his home.

What I would like to convey about this book is that while the history is horrifying (and new to me), it is Goldstein's approach that is so remarkable. His desire to find out the truth and document both the good and the evil so we can know who did what is compelling and moving, and his portraits of individuals and what they did or failed to do is fascinating. He recovers the personal and the individual from the mass of numbers.

At the end of the book, he writes:

"The twentieth century produced the greatest hopes for mankind, but it buried most of them. It became the graveyard of great ideals. It taught us that ideals are most often a seductive chimera and that doubt is not a fatal weakness but a necessary defense against fatal beliefs.

This book was written with such thoughts in mind."
pp. 559-560
14 vote rebeccanyc | Dec 21, 2013 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Slavko Goldsteinprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gable, MichaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Simic, CharlesIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The Year That Keeps Returning is Goldstein's astonishing historical memoir of that fateful year--when the Ustasha, the pro-fascist nationalists, were brought to power in Croatia by the Nazi occupiers of Yugoslavia. On April 10, when the German troops marched into Zagreb, the Croatian capital, they were greeted as liberators by the Croats. Three days later, Ante Pavelić, the future leader of the Independent State of Croatia, returned from exile in Italy and Goldstein's father, the proprietor of a leftist bookstore in Karlovac--a beautiful old city fifty miles from the capital--was arrested along with other local Serbs, communists, and Yugoslav sympathizers. Goldstein was only thirteen years old, and he would never see his father again. More than fifty years later, Goldstein seeks to piece together the facts of his father's last days. The moving narrative threads stories of family, friends, and other ordinary people who lived through those dark times together with personal memories and an impressive depth of carefully researched historic details. The other central figure in Goldstein's heartrending tale is his mother--a strong, resourceful woman who understands how to act decisively in a time of terror in order to keep her family alive.… (more)

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