For three decades, Ruth H. Bloch dreamed of having the Holocaust memoir of her late uncle, Egon Berger, translated from Croatian into English. Now, those closest to Bloch have made that dream a reality.
“The publication of this book has become a family affair,” says Bloch, a Mount Washington resident who recently turned 80.
“44 Months in Jasenovac” (Sentia Publishing) chronicles Berger’s time in Jasenovac, a concentration camp in Croatia. In the book, originally published in 1966, Berger recalled the horrors he witnessed during his nearly four years in the “Auschwitz of the Balkans,” as well as how he survived and eventually escaped.
It’s a story Ben Hiller, Bloch’s grandson and editor of the recently published English translation, says needed to be told.
“When you learn about the Holocaust in school, you learn about Auschwitz and Birkenau. You learn about Poland, Germany and France,” says Hiller. “I knew very little about anything that happened in this part of Europe before my grandma started talking about it. Now, there is a story about a camp few realized existed.”
Jasenovac was the largest concentration camp in Croatia. Between 1941 and 1945, the Ustaše, the governing Croatian fascist regime sympathetic to the Nazis, exterminated between 77,000 and 99,000 Jews, Roma and Serbs at Jasenovac. Among the victims were Berger’s father and brother.
A native of the central Croatian town of Glina, Bloch was 4 when the Ustaše imprisoned her and her parents, brother, grandmother and aunt.
“Believe it or not, I have a vision of that jail in my mind as though it was yesterday,” says Bloch. “It was a great, big room. I remember my grandmother was sitting on a barrel at the end of the room, and we were all sleeping on the floor.”
Bloch and her family came to the United States in 1949 and resettled in New York. In 1963, she and her family relocated in Baltimore.
“I have learned more about the Jewish religion since I’ve moved to Baltimore than ever in my life,” says Bloch. “I’m very spiritual, and in my heart I will always be a Jew. … I feel like there is a reason why I am here, and this is why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
After its publication, Berger’s book became crucial to pursuing justice in Croatia.
“Berger specifically names all the Ustaše officers,” says Hiller. “If he knew who the officer was and he knew their name, he wrote it down. This book was actually used in post-war prosecutions because a lot of the Ustaše fled the country. Those involved in the prosecutions used this book to find some of those people, and there was at least one conviction where they used some of what Berger wrote in the trial.”
Bloch’s mother gave her a copy of “44 Months in Jasenovac” in the 1970s, and since then she had tried to find someone to translate the book into English. In September 2014, a friend introduced her to Anamaria Skaro, a Croatian student attending Garrett College in Western Maryland. Skaro spent eight months translating the book.
“I am really proud to be a part of this project, and it feels amazing to see the book published,” says Skaro. “I didn’t know there were so many horrors happening in the concentration camps, and it really opened my eyes to enjoy and appreciate life more. Today’s world has a lot of hate going on, and I think books such as ‘44 Months in Jasenovac’ can help us learn to stop hating each other because of differences.”
After translating the book, Skaro handed it over for editing to Hiller, a graduate of the Shoshana S. Cardin School and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“Editing this book was really difficult, emotionally,” he says. “I could only edit a few pages every day because it was mentally taxing. But it was really interesting because I learned a lot I didn’t know about both my family and the Holocaust. … To be part of taking a story that was only known in Croatia, because that was the only place it was published, and publish it in English is insane.”
Once Hiller finished editing the book, it was passed along to Bloch’s cousins, Dan and John Berger, who coordinated the business details of getting the book published. Egon’s grandson Ivan Magic, a graphic designer in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, did the artwork for the book’s cover.
On May 21, nearly everyone involved in the project gathered at Pikesville’s Citron restaurant to celebrate the publication and Bloch’s 80th birthday.
“Having Dan, John, Anamaria and Ben in the same room was amazing,” says Bloch. “That’s when I actually realized what a great accomplishment it is to bring this book to the United States for people to learn more about what took place during World War II. It’s the next generation’s responsibility to keep those stories alive so it never happens again.”
A mother of two and grandmother of five, Bloch started speaking publicly about her wartime experiences two years ago.
“This is my legacy,” says Bloch, who works on a Baltimore Jewish Council committee to raise money for Holocaust survivors. “Family is very important to me. My daughters and my grandchildren — this is my revenge against Hitler. It’s my way of saying, ‘I made it.’”
Top photo: “44 Months in Jasenovac” (Sentia Publishing) chronicles Egon Berger’s time in Jasenovac, a concentration camp in Croatia.
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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