Every time Ruth Bloch's favorite uncle traveled from his native Yugoslavia to visit her in the United States, he struck her as one of the gentlest, most thoughtful, most optimistic people she had ever met.
Bloch and Egon Berger went to the movies. They hit the sights around her hometowns of New York and Baltimore. They told stories and laughed.
She never knew, because Berger never told her, that he'd endured nearly four years in one of the most barbaric — but least remembered — of the major concentration camps in World War II Europe.
Berger was one of the few survivors of Jasenovac, a camp in Croatia where tens of thousands were abused, tortured and killed. Even Gen. Edmund von Horstenau, Hitler's envoy in the capital city of Zagreb, called the place "the epitome of horror."
At least 80,000 people, including 50,000 Serbs and 20,000 Jews, were killed at the camp.
Berger died in 1988, but not before leaving a lasting mark: "44 Months in Jasenovac," a gripping and unusually explicit Croatian-language account of the atrocities he witnessed and suffered.
The memoir, which was published in Zagreb in 1966, went out of print years ago. But Bloch, 80, is now bringing its contents to a new audience.
The Mount Washington woman, a retired businesswoman and grandmother of five, has spent the better part of four years spearheading a project to to get the work illustrated, translated into English and published in the United States.
The result is a fast-moving, excruciatingly detailed 77-page version of the memoir from the vanity publisher Sentia Press that is finding an audience among scholars of
The Yad Vashem Center, a Holocaust studies institute in Jerusalem, and the
Though the book describes life at just one of the 45,000 labor camps established in Europe during World War II, historians say works like it provide a fuller sense of the depravities of the Nazi regime and its allies — and thus of what human beings are capable of doing.
"It's another strand in the tapestry of knowledge we have about the Holocaust," says Beth Luers, a retired humanities professor at Garrett College in Western Maryland who has spent 30 years researching the genocide. "The book makes it all the more likely we'll learn from past mistakes and never let such things happen again."
Luers played a key role in the project: She introduced Bloch, a friend, to a student at Garrett — a member of the women's basketball team from Croatia named Anamaria Skaro.
Bloch said she developed an immediate connection with Skaro. She persuaded the student to provide translation services.
Luers has made multiple trips to Europe over decades of studying the Holocaust. But she says she had never come across the story of Jasenovac, a collection of five detention and extermination facilities in a remote stretch of the Sava River about 60 miles south of Zagreb.
Skaro, from the city of Split on the Adriatic Sea, learned of the camp in school — but not much. Croatian textbooks provide only general information.
Bloch's grandson, Ben Hiller, who spent six months editing Skaro's translation, had heard about the camp "only in the broadest terms," and then only because of its significance within the family.
Their unfamiliarity was probably no accident.
Historians say the fascist Ustase government, the puppet regime of Hitler's Third Reich that ran Croatia during the war, kept few records of their deeds and twice incinerated what they did have — once in 1943, then again as they levelled the camp toward war's end in 1945.
Political and ideological conflicts in the region in the decades since have made it hard for researchers to authenticate and verify counts of victims. One Serbian-American historian, Carl Savich, argues that historical and scholarly accounts of the atrocities committed at Jasenovac have long been "censored, suppressed, and covered-up in the U.S. and the West" for political reasons.
Good thing, then, that about 600 desperate prisoners, all on the verge of starvation, decided to stage a do-or-die mass breakout in April 1945.
As the prisoners breached the walls, machine gun-wielding Ustase guards shot about 520 to death. The rest, including Berger, made it to freedom.
Historians have used the escapees' reports to help reconstruct what happened at Jasenovac, including an assessment of the numbers killed.
Elizabeth White, a historian with the National Holocaust Museum, says the remains of 80,000 victims have been identified on the former grounds of the camp. Many were in mass graves that had been described by escapees.
White says she doubts the estimates of some organizations, which put the total killed at 500,000 or more. It would have been difficult for a camp of its configuration to have killed so many people in less than four years, she says, and census records of the time don't support such numbers.
More than half of those officially accounted for were ethnic Serbs, a population the Ustase sought to exterminate. Thousands of Roma and members of the Croatian resistance were also victims.
But it fell to Berger and his fellow escapees to communicate what really happened at the Auschwitz of the Balkans.
The details are grisly.
White says the Ustase regime, which never established full control over Croatia, was notoriously chaotic and violent, and bloody disarray ran rampant at Jasenovac.
Unlike in German camps, which used machinery such as gas chambers to kill prisoners on a larger scale, Jasenovac guards and officials were allowed to slaughter inmates at any time, for any reason, by any means they chose.
In Berger's telling, they did so often, and with relish.
Guards used axes, mallets and sledgehammers on their victims. They sliced prisoners' abdomens open and threw them, weighted down with stones, into the Sava.
They used the custom-designed, wrist-mounted knives they called Srbosjek — "Serb-cutter" — to dispatch victims, tossed prisoners into incinerators alive, boiled many in cauldrons, and placed bets on who could invent the most creative means of slaughter.
Unlike the Nazis, they routinely brought children to the camp, and exposed them to those and many other torments.
"It was unusually cruel and chaotic, an extremely brutal place," says White, who spent nearly 30 years as a Department of Justice investigator on international genocide cases, including Nazi war crimes.
Skaro and Hiller say they could work on the book for only a day or two at a time.
"It was very hard to keep going, knowing that people were treated in that way," Skaro says.
Berger's story begins in 1941, when a plainclothes Ustase agent arrived at his workplace and asked for him by name.
A Jew, he was arrested, then taken overnight by wagon, to a camp he was told would be a part of "the new Europe."
Historians say most Jews brought to Jasenovac were put to death immediately. But camp officials apparently kept the physically fit Berger alive in order to put him to work.
He writes of Ustase guards forcing him to help build a dam and several buildings in which fellow prisoners would later be tortured and exterminated.
He wasn't the only family member brought there. Two of his brothers, Otto and Hugo, died at Jasenovac, both of starvation-related illnesses. Another brother, Leon, was a rare solo escapee.
Berger was also forced to dig graves. One cold winter day, he was ordered to move and bury some of the bodies that constantly littered the camp. He stumbled on the remains of an older man.
It was his father, Leopold. His throat had been cut. Egon had to dump the body in an open grave.
In April 1945, as reports circulated that the camp would soon be liberated, Berger and other prisoners feared the guards would kill them all.
They made crude knives and wirecutters and attempted their escape.
Berger got out, then survived in the nearby woods for two weeks before soldiers of the National Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia, an anti-fascist Communist force better known as the Partisans, rescued him.
"Tears came to my eyes," he writes. "I wiped them away so nobody could see."
Bloch has still been unable to force herself to read the full account, but knowing some of the details, she remembers with amazement Berger's occasional visits to the United States in the decade or so after the war.
He never mentioned being in a camp, let alone what happened there.
"This man who went through these horrors — he never let those experiences turn him into a hateful person," she says. "How did he do that?
"I know I couldn't have."
But Bloch's life, too, has been one of persistence and triumph.
She was born in Croatia, one of two children of a successful merchant, Irving Kohn, and his wife, Erna Berger Kohn.
Bloch was 4 when police — probably Ustase agents —arrested and jailed the family for the "crime" of being Jewish.
Another uncle, who had joined the Ustase army to oppose the regime from within, managed to get them released.
They spent the next five years in hiding, moving to a succession of towns in Italy before finally making her way to the United States.
Bloch remembers those days as a time of perpetual insecurity and fear. She missed three years of school, she says, and "never really caught up."
After the war, Egon Berger spent the rest of his life in the former Yugoslavia. Bloch moved with her family to Baltimore in 1963.
Sometime in the 1970s, Berger's family sent copies of his memoir to Bloch and her cousins. She thought of translating it, but didn't remember enough Croatian to do the job herself. She left the idea "on the back burner" for years as she and her then-husband raised two daughters and ran a sign business.
She retired several years ago and began speaking to small groups as a Holocaust survivor in her own right. A fellow survivor, Leo Bretholz, introduced her to Luers, and the project started to seem like a real possibility.
It built up steam when two of Leon Berger's sons, Bloch's cousins John and Dan Berger, got wind of the mission and helped fund the translation. Egon's grandson, the Zagreb artist Ivan Magic, designed a cover, and the book became a family affair.
Hiller, 27, says he has heard his grandmother's story for years, but never grasped its full importance until now.
"It's up to my generation to pick up the baton and keep the stories alive," he says. "Holocaust survivors won't be around forever."
Sentia did a first printing in March. When the principals got together for Bloch's 80th birthday two months later, the occasion doubled as a publication bash.
Now she looks forward to speaking, with Hiller, at the Ivy Bookstore in October and continuing to spread Berger's story.
Bloch can think of no better way to kick off her ninth decade.
"I'm still alive, and look at my children and grandchildren," she says. "I call this my way of saying, 'Hitler, the heck with you.'"