Extract > The House of Remembering and Forgetting – an introduction to the novel

 

Introduction
by Dejan Djokić

 

Filip David’s The House of Remembering and Forgetting, which in 2014 won the NIN prize (Serbia’s major literary award) for best novel of the year, is his first book to appear in English translation. The main protagonist is Albert Weisz, a Holocaust survivor haunted by memories of a tragic family loss and traumas of his own subsequent quest for survival during the Second World War in occupied Yugoslavia. Together with several friends and fellow survivors, Albert struggles to make sense of what happened until, during a visit to New York, he chances upon a mysterious house, with its Remembering Room and its Forgetting Room, where his family history is displayed in front of him. Weisz’s character is in some important ways based on David, whose book may be described as a mix of a semi-fictional autobiography and a collective biography of European Jews in the twentieth century. The novel is set in two time frames: the present-day, in the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, and during the Second World War. A seemingly fragmented structure is eventually brought together into a powerful, deeply moving story of loss and identity, of being torn between traumatic memories and a fear of forgetting. This is a universal story, and it is also a Holocaust story situated in the specific context of occupied Yugoslavia.

David was born in 1940, in the central Serbian town of Kragujevac, a year before the Kingdom of Yugoslavia would be occupied and partitioned by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and their revisionist collaborators outside and inside the country. His mother’s family were Sephardim, descendants of Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century, who found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, of which Serbia was then a part. The Sephardim kept their Jewish tradition and an archaic form of the Spanish language – Judeo-Spanish or Ladino – and many prospered in the Muslim-dominated empire. They lived in relatively large numbers in urban centres across the Balkans, including Sarajevo, where David’s Galician-born father grew up. The Sarajevo Davids belonged to an eminent Ashkenazi Jewish family whose members lived throughout Habsburg-controlled Europe including Vienna – Sigmund Freud was a distant relative. Not unlike other Ashkenazim, David’s paternal grandparents looked down on the Sephardim, and it was no surprise that they initially disapproved of their future daughter-in-law. Overcoming family resistance, the young couple married and eventually settled in Sremska Mitrovica, north-west of Belgrade, after David’s father was appointed a local judge there on the eve of the invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941.

The changing political map of ‘Turkey-in-Europe’ during the course of the long nineteenth century threatened the Empire’s long-established, pre-national plural communities, which had tended to co-exist more or less peacefully. The emergence of Christian nation-states, whose elites believed that they could only be ‘in Europe’ by eliminating ‘Turkey’ (although a considerable degree of tolerance was displayed towards an Ottoman-style authoritarian form of ruling), led to the mass emigration of Muslims, most of whom were local converts to Islam rather than ethnic Turks. Protection of minority rights was one of the conditions for the international recognition of several Balkan states, Serbia among them, at the 1878 Congress of Berlin. While Serbian Jews remained, Serbian-speaking Muslims left to be replaced by Christian and Jewish migrants from neighbouring Habsburg and Ottoman provinces. Serbia, therefore, was a new state in more than one way, and the Jews played a prominent role in the creation of the modern Serbian society. By the early twentieth century they had been fully integrated, some declaring themselves ‘Serbs of Moses’ faith’, and they regarded Serbian to be their mother tongue; among them was the Judić family of Filip David’s mother. Meanwhile, philo-Semitism developed among Serbs, especially after the 1912–13 Balkan Wars and the First World War, in which Serbian Jewish officers and soldiers participated with distinction, many losing their lives in battle.

To be sure, anti-Jewish prejudice has existed in Serbia, including in some Orthodox Church circles and among conservative intellectuals influenced by Western European anti-Semitic ideas. However, anti-Semitism in Serbia was neither as widespread nor as deep as it was in Central Europe, and no pogroms took place in Serbia, unlike in Poland and Russia. The same was true of interwar Yugoslavia, despite the authorities adopting in late 1940, under Nazi pressure, two anti-Semitic laws reducing Jewish rights. In the 1930s Serbian academics supported their German-Jewish colleagues by publishing their work – including texts by the philosopher Husserl – and offering teaching posts in some cases; this resembled, although never matched in scale, support previously offered to refugees from the Russian Revolution. During this period Yugoslavia facilitated the transit of some 55,000 Jewish refugees from Central Europe to Palestine. Around a thousand were still awaiting Britain’s permission to continue the journey when Yugoslavia was invaded; all would perish, together with the majority of local Jews. Out of some 70,000 to 80,000 Jews living in Yugoslavia before the war, just 12,500 to 15,000 survived. Nearly two-thirds of the survivors would emigrate to Israel, although David’s parents were not among them. The novel thus also tells the story of a community that all but disappeared in the mid twentieth century.

After the partition of Yugoslavia, a rump Serbia was placed under German military occupation, and a quisling administration was established during the summer of 1941. The Government of National Salvation was without popular legitimacy and enjoyed limited power, and some of its German masters were unconvinced by its usefulness. Its police and a small military force were largely ineffective in fighting the resistance and became increasingly demoralized as the war went on. An influx of Serb refugees from Bosnia, Croatia and other parts of occupied Yugoslavia created additional problems and added to a sense of powerlessness; although, curiously, it was the Communists, Jews and the government-in-exile who were blamed by the quislings for what was quickly turning into a national catastrophe. The collaborationist government did not even exercise authority across all of an already reduced Serbia, the Banat region enjoying a special status because of its large German minority (the Volksdeutsche) living there. Nevertheless, leading Serbian collaborators shared National-Socialist values, including anti-Semitism, while Serb quislings indirectly participated in the Holocaust by helping to identify and round up local Jews. There were ‘ordinary’ Serbs who risked their lives to protect and shelter their Jewish neighbours, as this novel shows, but some were complicit in the Holocaust, even if the Germans carried out the killing. The history of Yugoslavia in the Second World War remains under-researched, with questions of collaboration, complicity in the murder of Jews and other innocent civilians and of resistance and civil war still being subjects of much controversy and little genuine debate.

The Holocaust in Serbia occupies a place on the margins of a vast Western literature on the Second World War, and it does not fit into the pattern of systematic killing of Eastern European Jewry. It was the Wehrmacht, the regular German army, that carried out the majority of the killing, not the SS Einsatzgruppen, as was the case in occupied Poland and the Soviet Union. German army officers in Serbia tended to be former Habsburg army personnel who had already fought against the Serbs in the First World War – which, of course, began with Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia in the aftermath of the Sarajevo assassination and ultimately resulted in the dissolution of the dual monarchy. The Wehrmacht officers’ hostility towards the local population therefore required little encouragement from the Führer, himself a former Habsburg soldier, and the leadership in Berlin.

The killings started soon after the occupation, as part of a policy of reprisals for acts of resistance (the question of who actually resisted – the Communist-led Partisans or the royalist Četniks or both – is also one of the ongoing controversies). The prime targets of German reprisals were Communists and Jews – although often there was no distinction in the eyes of the occupier – but Serb and Roma civilians were also used as hostages. While Serbs would sometimes survive when no Communist connection could be established, no such escape route existed for Serbian Jews. Initially, Jewish men were taken hostage and executed – women, children and the elderly were at this point mostly used for slave labour. After the uprising in Serbia was defeated in late 1941 (and a civil war between the Partisans and Četniks escalated), the remaining Jews, regardless of gender and age, were sent to death camps or killed in a specially designed gas van. The German occupation authorities in Serbia did not merely take part in the Final Solution, by carrying out a systematic murder of Jews independently of Berlin they had in fact anticipated it by several months. Believing – wrongly, as it turned out – that all the Jews were exterminated, they proclaimed Serbia Judenfrei in early 1942. Most members of David’s maternal family were killed in the infamous Kragujevac massacre of October 1941, when German soldiers shot nearly 2,800 Serbs, Jews and Roma (rounded up with the help of Serb collaborators); this was the largest but not the only such mass killing of civilians in Serbia during the autumn of 1941. Meanwhile in Sarajevo the Ustaše would murder around forty-five members of David’s extended family.

David and his parents found themselves in Sremska Mitrovica at the beginning of the war and were perhaps saved by the confusion of the early days of the establishment of the Ustaše-run independent Croatia – which stretched almost as far as Belgrade – and the presence of rival Hungarian and German occupation forces in the region. Judge David immediately lost his job, but the family was saved by a Volksdeutscher, whose contacts with local Communists facilitated David’s father joining the Partisan resistance. He would frequently visit his wife and two small children – David’s brother Miša was born in 1942 – who assumed a Serbian identity and were sheltered by a Serbian farmer. An entire village kept the secret, made easier by the enemy’s belief that there were no Jews left alive in the area. Yet this did not mean that they were safe. Young Filip David – now known as Fića Kalinić – survived because of his love of cherries: exhausted by a long march and unable to walk any further, he was about to be shot by an Ustaša soldier but found additional strength to continue when his mother told him a cherry tree awaited at the destination as a reward for those who arrived first (David would write a short story about this experience after the war). On another occasion a Partisan commander asked David’s mother to strangle her son because his crying threatened to reveal their hiding place. His parents refused, taking their two small children away from the rest of the group and somehow finding a way to safety; the others were less fortunate and failed to get through the German encirclement.

After the war David started writing, eventually becoming one of the leading young authors in the country. His works gained praise from, among others, Ivo Andrić, the sole Yugoslav winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. With three other contemporaries – Danilo Kiš, Mirko Kovač and Borislav Pekić – David was part of an informal writers’ kruzhok. They kept regular correspondence after Pekić, Kiš and eventually Kovač left Belgrade, where David continues to live to this day. Independent-minded intellectuals, the four writers inevitably clashed with the authorities, and yet all four were published to high acclaim and received major national literary prizes – perhaps an example of the peculiarity of former Yugoslavia. In the late 1980s, as post-Tito Yugoslavia entered its final crisis, David founded an independent writers’ union in Sarajevo, while, during the 1990s, he would help found and emerge as one of the most eminent members of the small Belgrade Circle of anti-war intellectuals. He has been a vocal opponent and a consistent critic of anti-Semitism and nationalism more generally, an engaged intellectual and a leading voice for democracy and reconciliation in former Yugoslavia. The latter is alluded to in the book, which opens with a conference on ‘Crimes, Reconciliation, Forgetting’ at the Hotel Park in Belgrade in 2004. The only time I saw Filip David in person was at a similar event a few years ago in central Belgrade convened by a German foundation to discuss ways of remembering and commemorating the Holocaust in Serbia. He was one of the most impressive speakers at the conference.

The House of Remembering and Forgetting has a strong auto-biographical element: Sigmund Freud was David’s distant relative on his father’s side, and a relationship between Freud and the family of David’s fictional hero Albert Weisz is alluded to in the novel. Weisz is also related to the great magician Houdini (whose real name was Erik Weisz), a probable metaphor for David and his family’s several near-miraculous escapes during the Second World War. Like David, Weisz and his friends in the novel survive the Holocaust thanks to their parents’ sacrifice and the humanity of non-Jews, local Germans and Serbs. Unlike Weisz’s parents, David’s survived the war, and, unlike Weisz’s mother, they did not throw their younger son from a concentration-camp-bound train in the hope that he might survive. However, leaving children in the care of non-Jewish neighbours and sometimes complete strangers before being taken away to a camp was not uncommon among Serbian Jews. And it is easy to imagine that Filip David understands only too well the ghosts of the past haunting Albert Weisz and other main characters in the book.

This is an original, powerful novel in which David skilfully leads his reader through a complex narrative until its fragments come together in an emotional finale. The story that he tells is a highly personal one and specific to its geographical context, but it is also a universal tale of the human survival instinct in the face of evil and a need to remember and make sense of it all, however tempting it may be to forget those painful memories. The House of Remembering and Forgetting is a wonderful book that deserves a wide readership which this edition will, hopefully, bring.

Dejan Djokić
Professor of History
Goldsmiths University of London,
2017

 

Order Filip David’s The House of Remembering and Forgetting today.

 

 

This entry was posted in Extract, World Series and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.