Jovan Rajs

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Have you met Hitler? Stories of anti-Semitism and racism.

“In the spring of 1944 I was deported, together with over 400 000 Hungarian Jews, to the smoky world of the Third Reich concentration camps. I Wandered thorugh ghettoes, slave work and concentration camps and survived through somewhat too many un-explicable coincidences.”

Have you met Hitler? contains six autobiographic stories connected to racism and the Holocaust. In The yellow piece of cloth the sight of a little piece of cloth reminds the author of the Jewish star he once had to wear. In The Gleaners and the Angelus he spends a sleepless night in the bed of his recently deceased old relative, while short, film-like sequences visualize repressed memories. A lucky day in Bergen-Belsen describes a day in one of the nastiest concentration camps from an eleven year old boy’s angle. Here over sixty named and correctly numbered prisoners pass in review. Role calls, maltreatment, hunger, death, rats and lice mix with songs and memories of the time of peace. In Hungarians’ Camp the author returns after sixty years to the camp, now a research and information center. Here the insight grows that young Germans cannot be blamed for the deeds of their fathers. Hunting safari in Sweden points out that racism should not lightly be attributed to other countries and ages. Here Sweden’s most notorious racist serial killer, the “laser man”, is brought into focus.

Jovan Rajs, retired professor of forensic medicine and aging survivor, often visits schools and talks about racism. The pupils often ask him questions of an existential nature. And almost every time someone asks: Have you met Hitler?

Many survivors would not understand, not accept the final outcome of the Holocaust. Advertisements like this

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appeared for several decades after Germany’s unconditional surrender.

And they may still yield results. In 2003, sixty-three years after the breakup of the family, Ruza and Beniek Shlamowitz, sister and brother, were reunited thanks to the data base of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyr’s and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. She had survived the Warsaw ghetto, Auschwitz, and the horrible women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück, he had been a soldier in the Red Army. They lived in Israel, only seventy kilometers apart, both convinced that no one else in the family had survived. Hilda and Simon Glasberg from Romania met again after no less than sixty-five years. In the meantime she had lived in Uzbekistan and Israel, he in Canada. It was Hilda’s grandchildren who decided to make their grandma happy and applied to Yad Vashem. The year was 2006. When I read such news items I cry unrestrainedly.

Jovan Rajs, born in 1933 in Zrenjanin in Yogoslavia, experienced both Nazism and Communism as he grew up. In 1968 he moved to Sweden. From 1986 till his retirement in 2000 he was professor of forensic medicine at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. His autobiography Ombud för de tystade (Deputy for the silenced) (in collaboration with Kristina Hjertén) appeared in 2001. Two years later appeared Fallet Osmo Vallo (The case Osmo Vallo), where Rajs investigates one of Sweden’s most notorious cases. In 2007 Nordens farligaste kvinna (The most dangerous woman in Scandinavia) was published; it describes the work of a medico-legal expert in murder investigations.

Credible remainder of what has happened

In Raj’s stories the same matter-of-fact distance emerges as by the judge of the International Court of Justice in the Hague, who also had survived the Holocaust as a child and written his autobiography in order that the murdered should be remembered. He writes in a confidence-inspiring, vivid and captivating way about difficult matters. He does not ask for sympathy by veiling his experiences and presenting them in a more palatable form. One understands that this could have happened to anybody and that he feels that it is his duty to tell about it.


Paradoxically, his book gets real life in his descriptions of existence in the camps – the rules which governed life there, all the seemingly trivial things that made it possible to survive. Here he neither attends a creative writing course or appears in front of school children. Instead, he remembers the ruddy-brown enameled bowl in which the diarrhoea-inducing vegetable-sludge that was called food was served. Or the best way to treat the lice, which became an inescapable part of life in the camp. Or how and about what one talked during the role call. Or the shining boots worn by a pair of female capos.

Rajs shows that it is a question of remembering as unerringly as possible. In a way, what he is doing is a vivisection of living tissue. Interpretation and context are the business of others. A witness has only one task: to tell the truth.


The most powerful of the texts describes a day in Bergen-Belsen from an eleven years old boy’s angle. Rajs describes life in the camp in an artless, almost cheerful prose, a way of narrating that makes the reality of the camp - with its lice, heaps of corpses, violence, diarrhoea-inducing soup and mouldy blankets – all the more palpable and awful. In another chapter he writes about the ravages of the “laser man”, establishing icy connections between the present-day growing racism in Sweden and the anti-Semitism of the thirties and forties in Europe.


Today Rajs visits schools and lectures for the pupils about his experiences from the camps, and that is also the subject of his book Have you met Hitler? (a question that often comes up during the lectures). Figures tend to become abstract and impersonal, incomprehensible, especially when they become huge. Personal stories are therefore important, for it is only then you can relate to them as a human being. In these short stories Jovan describes his childhood in a Jewish family in former Yugoslavia, bright and idyllic memories, and the family’s life during the German occupation, when Jew became second class citizens; in the story The yellow piece of cloth a piece of cloth brings to mind how they were forced to wear the star of David in public. It is the contrast between the idyllic memories and the inhumanity that makes Jovan’s memories affect the reader.

Even in the camp people tried to create a human existence, with song, spiritual values and family life. At the same time the inhuman reality is described, with the scanty rations, the slave work, the brutal collaborators (“Kapos” and “Jupos”), the many dead, the language (“camp language”) that developed, and so forth.

In the stories, Jovan moves between the past and the present, describing the mental scars which result when a ten years old boy loses practically his whole family and at the same time has decided not to let evil prevail. Many survivors pined away or took their lives, but Rajs has consciously chosen to live as fully as possible. He has also not adopted a generalizing way of thinking, and does not consider the Germans of today responsible for what happened in the thirties and forties. But he also deals with the historic parallels, in the story Hunting safari in Sweden, where he focuses on “the laser man”. The unwillingness to acknowledge the humanity of others finds different expressions in different times.


Having published the autobiography Ombud för de tystade (Deputy for the silenced; in collaboration with Kristina Hjertén, 2001), Fallet Osmo Vallo (The case Osmo Vallo, 2003, and a book about the role of a medical examiner in murder investigations, the author new returns with a book about the destruction of the European Jews, reflected in his own experience and recollections. In a very captivating way he relates his childhood memories from the city of Petrovgrad in the Yugoslav province of Banat and the horrible experiences of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. But he also treats his activity as a lecturer in schools about the Holocaust, and his encounters with inquisitive youths. The book also contains a chapter on the “laser man” and his deeds, which were conditioned by xenophobia. The book is suitable for all categories of readers and could to advantage be used as a supplementary reader in history lessons in the schools.


Jovan Raj’s new book contains five “stories about anti-Semitism and racism”. The most powerful are “A luck day in Bergen-Belsen” and the essay that has the book’s title as caption. In the former, the author gives a detailed description of how an eleven years old boy experienced life in a concentration camp. Despite all the misery – the crowding, the filth, the body lice, the hunger, the dying around him – every day has its little joys among the people he observes and learns to know. (The story reminds me of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich.)

After his retirement, Jovan Rajs has travelled about in schools lecturing about the Holocaust. At the question times after the lessons the pupils compelled him to answer questions of the most varying kind, among others that which the book’s title asks. “Were you afraid to die?” asks a freckled little girl of the Pippi Longstocking type. – Not at all, is the answer. A boy of eleven does not think of death. That is perhaps why he could experience a day in the camp as happy. Only once do the emotions burst forth: when he gets to know that his whole family is annihilated.


Raj’s book is a remainder of that which we must not allow ourselves to forget … how ideology and collective actions erase humanity and individuality … Rajs gives the victims of the Holocaust flesh and blood and saves them from the facelessness of cold statistics.