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  • Representations of Trauma in Narratives of Goli Otok
  • Radmila Gorup

The year 1948 holds a special place in the history of former Yugoslavia. For a variety of reasons, ranging from political to personal, the ruling Communist Party, headed by Josip Broz Tito, broke off from Stalin and the Communist family of nations to embark on an independent road to build socialism. A great number of Yugoslav Communists and non-Communists alike paid dearly for this break, Communists at the hands of their own comrades. Fearing an invasion from the Soviets, a threat that may have been unfounded but nonetheless seemed psychologically real, the Communist leadership imprisoned and persecuted thousands of those who refused to change their ideological affiliations overnight and denounce Stalin as an enemy or in any way expressed doubt that an outright interruption of relations with the first country of socialism should be avoided.

Among those imprisoned there was a large number of those who were completely innocent of the charges. They were never made aware of their guilt and they spent years in prison guessing what their transgression might be. They were subjected to a process of "reeducation" that amounted to a reign of terror not seen before. A vast majority of prisoners gave in to torture and psychological pressure and made false confessions, denouncing friends and foes, including family members. Even though Tito's camps did not aim at the liquidation of prisoners, thousands died as a result of harsh treatment, starvation and diseases in prison and from the consequences of these after their release. The precise numbers are still not available.

In persecuting those who disagreed with them, the Yugoslav Communists had learned their trade from the masters, organizers of the Nazi concentration camps and Stalin's gulags. For some, what happened to the inmates in these camps paled in comparison with what was happening in Tito's camps. Writing about his prison experiences, author Dragoslav Mihailović observes: "What Solzhenitsyn describes in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a picnic, brother, compared to what happened here."1 [End Page 151]

Of a number of Yugoslav camps in existence the one on Goli Otok, a desolate island off the Adriatic coast, stands out as an embodiment of evil. Now, sixty years later, when the last surviving prisoners are succumbing to old age and the realities of Goli Otok are passing out of living memory, scholars are looking at Goli Otok as a site of memory and asking a number of questions: What does it mean today to remember Goli Otok? Can this past be narrated and what power does it hold over the present? Should we worry that the passage of time will obliterate this horrendous experience? How has the memory of the tortured and the dead been preserved and how can it be used to prevent a re-occurrence?

Without trying to answer these questions or name the guilty party, this essay looks at the aftermath of Goli Otok, at the ravages of the camp in those who passed through its system and suffered the powerful destructive effects on their psyche. In particular, I will focus on the perpetrators of the crimes.

The historical dispute between Tito and Stalin transformed the literary scene in Yugoslavia. As the country abandoned the Soviet model, it established contacts with the West, opening up Yugoslav literatures to contemporary modern trends. Belgrade became a neutral capital and Yugoslavia an interesting buffer zone from which to observe the Cold War. Literature became freer and more profound, yet still found itself in the shadow of socialist ideology.

Political reasons more than aesthetic ones made this "freedom" possible. Searching for its own way and interpreting the theory of Marxism-Leninism more freely, the Yugoslav Communist Party created an alliance with the intellectual elite by allowing a certain amount of freedom as long as the writers reconciled, as much as possible, their aesthetic principles to the ideological views of the Party. Reaffirming the autonomy of art, Yugoslav writers tried to lessen the effects of ideology by turning away from the present, which allowed them to steer from sensitive issues. As a result, the freedom of expression exhausted itself primarily in terms...


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pp. 151-160
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