Ahead of European Day of Jewish Culture
An interview with Jasminka Domas
Speaking with me is Jasminka Domas, one of the most prominent individuals in the Croatian Jewish community. She is the spokesperson for Bet Israel, the Jewish religious community, and was the president of the Croatian Religious Freedom Association. She is a member of PEN and the Croatian Writers Society. She is listed in the Croatian Literary Encyclopaedia. To date, she has published approximately twenty books, with themes on Judaism, as well as novels and poetry collections. She was a journalist and editor for the Foreign Affairs section of Croatian Radio. From 1995-1998 she was a collaborator on the American Visual History Archive: Testimonies of Holocaust Survivors and Other Witnesses founded by Steven Spielberg. She is known as a screenwriter and author of a dozen documentary films produced by Croatian Radio Television, mostly focusing on Holocaust survivors. Some of Jasminka's films and books are kept in The Holocaust History Museum – Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as well as in the Eventov Institute in Israel which researches and explores Jewish history.
September 4th is European Day of Jewish Culture. You will be giving a lecture in Zagreb entitled Jewish Writers and Languages. What would you like to highlight?
There is an infinite list of Jewish writers and languages. Through writing, Jews consciously and subconsciously fight for continuity under a continuous, thousand year-old threat to break continuity. It hasn't changed today if we view little Israel surrounded by a big Arab sea. Writing is also a defence against a difficult history and affirms, despite this history, Israel's existence. Without Jewish authors the literary world would be significantly impoverished. The fact is that man cannot outsmart the fragility of his existence, but he can write. It is a way of overcoming transience.
Your work is recognised beyond Croatia's borders. Your books and poetry have been translated into many languages. You are well-known in Israel. What are your thoughts on that?
Recently I was promoting a poet's book in Bjelovar, a hundred or so kilometres away from Zagreb. I was deeply touched that some of the visitors came with my books and asked for autographs. It was also nice to learn that some of my books can be found in the local library. It's like that with writers; when they write, the book is theirs, but after, the book is free to travel the world. For example, The Mispaha Family can be found in the Library of Congress in America, as well as in the European Parliament Library in Brussels. Meeting with readers who like and appreciate my work assures me that the massive effort I invested in the discipline of creating and writing was not in vain. As a writer, it is a wonderful feeling to hear that one of your books has helped someone overcome a very difficult period in life. In those moments you know that your mission is accomplished.
Your love for writing is boundless?
We are born with heavenly gifts. Some use them for healing, some to build aircraft, I write. People call it a mission. Some recognise it, some don’t, or they discover it too late. In my case I haven't lost any time. Long ago, I was in awe of David Albahari's writing and convinced myself that I can write too. And look, I was right. I especially love Sufi literature because it reflects my spirit.
Do you find yourself in your own poetry?
I don't have a need to find myself in my poetry, because my verses are my stamp; further analysis is unnecessary, unless you are a literary critic. Writing is a form of meditation for me, or sometimes just entertainment. If someone likes it, all the better.
In your startling book on the Holocaust you describe the life of a Jewish girl whose family was killed in a concentration camp. The girl survived World War II, but was left deeply scarred. Who is Rebecca?
The protagonist Rebecca in the book Rebeka u nutrini duše (Rebecca Within) is a fictitious character. She is based on the stories and experiences of those who survived the Holocaust. In Italy, Rebecca was described as the Anne Frank of Zagreb.
Your recently published book Dan po dan (Day by Day) has been wonderfully received by the public. What can you tell us about your latest book?
We live in very complex times. Europe, especially Croatia and other European countries, is faced with an ongoing economic crisis, while the far right is gaining strength. Knowing that the average person is struggling, I wanted to offer a spiritual map to help guide them. In this way I was able to connect ancient Jewish spiritual teachings with modern events. As a writer, and individual, a member of the Jewish faith with a wealthy spiritual heritage, I too want to make this world a better place.
You teach Judaism at Zagreb University. What experience do you bring from theological faculties?
Sometimes you are aware that some students come with prejudices and stereotypes about Jews. The best gift, at the end of a semester, is when a student comes up to me and says, 'I knew nothing about Judaism,' or, 'I see now how prejudiced I was,' or, 'This was the most interesting course I've studied at the university.'
What can you say about today's generation and their relationship towards culture and cultural heritage left behind by members of the Jewish nation?
Younger generations are, on average, less interested in history. New technology can offer quick, but sometimes superficial answers that remain superficial. Today speed is critical, there is often not enough time to check things and research them thoroughly. For example, many citizens of Zagreb today, walking down some of our most beautiful streets, are not aware that Jewish architects developed more than 70 buildings in the city's centre. Thousands of people walk through Zrinjevac Park, but few know that the Music Pavilion was a gift from the Pristers, a Jewish family, or that the meteorological post was donated by Jewish doctor Adolf Holzer. It would take too much time to list all that Jews in Croatia have given to their fellow citizens, ranging from economics to sciences to art.
During my stay in Israel, I had the opportunity to experience the wealth of languages Israel has from the many emigrants that brought with them the traits of the countries they came from. Jews are often synonymous with knowledge, are we talking about a nation of books?
Jews have experienced both persecution and pogroms and are well aware that material goods can be lost at any moment, but knowledge remains and lets one know that while he lives he can succeed and keep himself and his family alive. Learning is not optional but a responsibility. After all, we all know how many Jews have received the Nobel Prize.
During World War II in Croatia, and in Zagreb, there was a strong anti-fascist movement and many Croats were declared Righteous among the Nations. Zagreb has a square devoted to those Righteous among the Nations, but a monument to victims of the Holocaust has still not been installed. I believe that the process will be quickened and that a new Synagogue will be built at its old location on Praska Street. As the author of this text, I hope, as well, that a place in Zagreb will be found for the legendary Lea Deutsch, the youngest actress to ever take the stage of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. They often referred to her as a wonder child and the Croatian Shirley Temple. Lea died in a wagon on the way to Auschwitz at the age of 15. No matter how time flies it always forces us to face new challenges, memories that need to be preserved, not only for those no longer with us but for those yet to come. Jasminka Domas is steadfast in her work and I'd like to end this article with her words:
I live 24 hours a day and do what I love. And I don't see it as an obligation but as a beautiful choice. I am aware that this is exceptional. Creating is a constant challenge, it requires courage, sacrifice, originality. Not a day goes by that I don't thank God.
God bless you all.