Charles Simic first encountered Croatian journalist and publisher Slavko Goldstein’s book 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning in Serbo-Croatian when it was forwarded to him by The New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers. At the time, Belgrade-born Simic, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, essayist and translator (The Horse Has Six Legs, 1992), was writing about the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s; he found Goldstein’s work tremendously moving as it recounted the crucial year—1941—that saw both his country violated by the Nazis and his father taken away and executed. Moreover, as Simic’s own Serbian family had lived through Nazi occupation in Belgrade and the ensuing absence of his father, Goldstein’s story resonated significantly.
“The history has not really been told in any detail,” Simic notes. “Aspects of history for obvious reasons the Croats have tried to conceal,” he says, aspects which had to do with the setting up of a puppet state by the Nazis using fascist elements of the nationalist Ustasha leaders bent on purging Croatia of Serbs as well as Jews, Gypsies and communists. Goldstein’s father was a Jewish bookseller with Communist sympathies in the idyllic town of Karlovac when he was taken from home to the local police station by Ustasha lackeys on Easter Sunday, 1941. Shuffled from jail to concentration camp, his father was executed some months later, probably at Jadovno.
At the time his father was taken away, Goldstein was 13 years old: “I think I can pinpoint exactly the hour and day when my childhood ended,” Goldstein writes. His mother was also imprisoned, though briefly, and he shares in his book an astounding letter his father wrote to him from a Zagreb jail in May 1941 that only came to Goldstein’s attention 64 years after the fact.
In it, his father relates the privations the inmates had to endure but also incidences of courage and heroism. Goldstein and his mother gravitated toward the partisan fight; Simic, whose own mother kept the family together during a haunting occupation and postwar escape from Yugoslavia, admires Goldstein’s depiction of his mother: “Resourceful and tough, understanding better than others that one must act decisively, she reminds me of the women I grew up with 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.” In his fine introduction, first published in the July 1, 2009 issue of the NYRB, Simic writes that Goldstein “is the kind of truth-teller even nations with far less on their conscience prefer not to hear from.”
The book needed editing: It was full of long footnotes and “stuff that doesn’t travel well,” says Simic, who has brought to English-speaking readers the work of writers like Vasko Popa, Ivan Lalic, Aleksandar Ristovic and Tomaž Šalamun. The actual editing of 1941 fell to Drenka Willen, the longtime editor of what is now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “It is a story about an unhappy country,” Simic muses. “So many people were displaced. I know and knew many people who were there. I know exactly what was being described. A comparative place would be in Ukraine or eastern Poland. Even the Germans were astonished by the numbers of Serbians being killed—the Nazis said take it easy. It’s a story of nationalism, going crazy and anti-Semitism.”
The act of truth-seeking has been hard in the former Yugoslavia. “The communists when they took over discouraged talking about atrocities in detail because they wanted to quiet all nationalist feelings on all sides,” Simic says. “They were not permitted to dwell on these things, in elaborate documentations. The problem with Yugoslavia was, you have three or four nationalities and everybody did something awful to everybody else. The way to acknowledge the evil done to others—the way to deal—is don’t talk about it in detail. When communism collapsed, nationalists used the people for their own purposes.” Goldstein delineates how the complicated, murderous tensions that ensued with the dissolution of Yugoslavia were sown by the “ethnic cleansing” of 1941.
Simic had never met Goldstein, whom he describes as “quite old, very brave, very courageous,” until the two appeared together at a Barnes & Noble function on the Upper West Side in New York City earlier this month.
Goldstein’s act of palpating the deep wounds of history was “done without any attempt to soften these things,” Simic says. “It’s about time.”
Amy Boaz is the author of the novels A Richer Dust and Beat, and lives in New York.