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Obituary 15 Sep 17

Croatia Mourns Slavko Goldstein – a Moral Giant

A survivor of the fascist terrors of the 1940s, Slavko Goldstein had a rich publishing career – but perhaps made a greater contribution to society through his stalwart defence of liberal, humane values.

Sven Milekic
Slavko Goldstein. Photo: Beta

One of Croatia’s best-known publicists, writers and intellectuals Slavko Goldstein, died on Wednesday aged 89 in hospital in Zagreb. His passing leaves an enormous literary and moral gap that it will be hard to fill.

Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 1928, he moved to Karlovac in Croatia at an early age. His family owned a well-known bookstore in the town. Owing to their Jewish background, a dark shadow fell over them in April 1941, when, under Nazi German auspices, anti-Semitic fascists took power in Zagreb, proclaimed an independent Croatian state and started persecuting and killing Serbs, Jews and Roma.

In May 1941, the Ustasa, as they were known, arrested his father, Ivo, and took him to the Danica concentration camp and then later to the camp at Jadovno on Mt Velebit mountain, where they killed him.

Slavko, his younger brother, Daniel, and their mother, Lea, joined the anti-fascist Partisan forces in 1942 and survived the war.

However, during the war, many of Goldstein’s family members were killed in Croatia’s biggest and most notorious Ustasa concentration camp at Jasenovac, or in the Nazi-run death camp at Auschwitz.

In the memory of their father, Goldstein named his son Ivo. His brother Daniel went so far as to change his last name into Ivin [“Ivo’s].

After the war, he went to live in the newly formed state of Israel, but returned to Yugoslavia in the late-1940s, continuing where his father had left off, publishing books.

Over almost six decades, both in Yugoslavia and independent Croatia, Goldstein’s publishing houses translated and published a number of treasures of Yugoslav and international literature. He edited more than 150 books himself, wrote four film scripts and co-authored a book with his son Ivo, “Holocaust in Zagreb”.

He took risks. In the early 1950s, in communist Yugoslavia, he translated from excerpts of Arthur Koestler’s novel “Darkness at Noon” from German, portraying the terror of life in Soviet Russia in the late-1930s. Although the work was fictional, it contained a strong critique of Stalinism.

This was Goldstein’s great virtue – critically reflecting on every regime or injustice with a good deal of common sense. An ardent champion of liberal values, human rights, democracy and anti-fascism, he was never afraid to “sweep in front of his own front porch”, as he liked to say.

During the late Yugoslav era, in 1989, he edited and published the memoirs of the dissident Vlado Gotovac, a known persona non grata to the Yugoslav regime.

In 1988, he also involved in the publishing the first book on the Partisan leader Andrija Hebrang, who fell out of favour with the Yugoslav regime in 1948 following the split with Stalin.

Hebrang’s mysterious death in 1949, possibly as a result of suicide – the event remains disputed by some historians – was a taboo topic for the next 40 years.

However, Goldstein was first to criticise the statements of his son, Andrija, a right-wing politician in Croatia, when he said in 2009 that both his father and the commander of the Ustasa concentration camps had “both fought for Croatia”.

He was also active in the life of Zagreb’s Jewish community, of which he was president for some years.

Goldstein was politically active and was one of the founders and first presidents of the Croatian Social Liberal Party, HSLS, the first party to be registered in Croatia in 1989, ahead of the republic’s first post-war multiparty elections in 1990.

Initially, the HSLS gathered a wide spectrum of people, from moderate rightists to moderate leftists and liberals.

Goldstein was president for a year, before handing his post over to Drazen Budisa, another former Croat political dissident.

In the 1990s, Goldstein became a staunch opponent of Croatia’s nationalist president, Franjo Tudjman, opposing him through statements and by publishing books of opposing voices. He was highly critical of Tudjman’s nationalist policies and especially of Croatia’s role in the 1992-5 war in neighbouring Bosnia.

During Croatia’s own war, in the 1990s, Viktor Ivancic, the editor-in-chief of the legendary anti-establishment weekly Feral Tribune, received a call to be mobilised in the Croatian Army in 1993 – despite a state ruling exempting editors, journalists and students from the draft.

Knowing the Tudjman regime’s hostility to him, Ivancic feared that might be assassinated and went to Zagreb to seek help from Goldstein who promptly contacted the Defence Minister, Gojko Susak, and demanded a guarantee that nothing would happen to him. Ivancic duly returned to Split, turned himself in and served for a month in the army.

From the early 1990s on, Goldstein was increasingly worried about Ustasa-nostalgia and about the trend towards historical revisionism that he felt was distorting known facts.

How much the year 1941 dramatically changed his own life Goldstein described in his best-known book, “1941: The Year That Comes Back”. Published in 2007, it gathered up his own recollections of that year, as well as recounting historical events and the atmosphere of the time.

In the book, Slavko a;so presented a letter his father wrote from prison in 1941, encouraging him to be brave.

What was especially moving was that Goldstein only got the letter 65 years after it was written, when a librarian found it in some archives.

“You should know that there are times when it’s more honourable 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,” his father wrote to him.

The book also reflected Goldstein’s ever-present unease about attempts to revive fascist tendencies in society. He wrote about how easy it was for victims to become villains, and again victims, noting the massive crimes done to the defeated Croatian Serbs in 1995 – following the massive crimes the Croatian Serbs committed against the Croats, four years earlier.

“Revenge doesn’t know how to choose between the guilty and the innocent,” he wrote in the book.

First published only in Croatian, the book was republished in English in 2013, after the poet and New York Review of Books contributor, Charles Simic, wrote a review in 2009.

Even after his publishing houses closed in the early 2010s, Goldstein remained active well into his eighties.

Worried by growing historical revisionism over the camp at Jasenovac, Goldstein wrote his last book, “Jasenovac – Tragedy, Mythomania, Truth”.  It was published in 2016.

Extensively quoting historical documents, Goldstein tried to disentangle misinterpretations and distortions of events at Jasenovac, after an association began claiming that the camp’s death toll was only around 1,000, instead the more than 83,000 names contained on a name-by-name list.

He also took on revisionist claims that the Yugoslav Communists maintained their own death camp at Jasenovac from 1945 to 1951.

Goldstein said his main motive for writing the book was shock on discovering that these new versions of history were even being presented to children in primary schools. “I knew I somehow had to react,” he said on publishing the book.

“Croatian honour was saved from Ustasa shame by the Croatian people, with their active and passive resistance to the Ustasa state and its non-Croatian tutors [Germany and Italy],” he wrote.

“We won, but unfortunately, we didn’t know how to be good winners. I am among the first ones of the former Partisans who, in addition to our war merits, admitted our post-war sins,” he added.

That same year, for a film reportage on growing historical revisionism, Goldstein, despite his age, went with the TV crew to Jasenovac – where he had been president of the council running the memorial site for years – to tell the story.

He was confronted there by a group of far-rightists who came to the memorial site and taunted him. Some wore T-shirts emblazoned with the Ustasa slogan “Za dom spremni” [“Ready for the Homeland”] and had tattoos of Ustasa insignia.

Goldstein never turned himself a victim. “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,” his father wrote to him in his long-lost letter. Goldstein fulfilled all his father’s hopes.

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