Accident of Fate
A Personal Account, 1938–1945
Paper 240 pp.
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Accident of Fate is a first-hand account of persecution, rescue, and resistance in the Axis-occupied former Yugoslavia. At the age of thirteen, Imre Rochlitz fled to Yugoslavia from his childhood home in Vienna following the Nazi Anschluss, leaving his family behind. In January 1942 the Ustashe (Croatian Fascists) arrested and interned him in the Jasenovac death camp, where he dug mass graves. On the verge of death, Rochlitz was released due to the extraordinary intervention of a Nazi general. He escaped to the Adriatic coast, where he and several thousand other Jewish refugees were protected by the army of Fascist Italy. After Italy’s surrender, he joined Tito’s Partisans, becoming an officer and army veterinarian, and rescued dozens of downed Allied airmen. In 1945, he fled Yugoslavia’s Communist regime and reached liberated southern Italy. In 1947, at the age of twenty-two, he emigrated to the United States.
With unique personal photographs and documents supporting the text, this eyewitness narrative covers little-known topics and provides a revealing historical account of the period. The book helps clarify and render accessible the complexities and contradictions of conflict and genocide in wartime Yugoslavia.
Imre Rochlitz was born in Budapest in 1925 but he spent his childhood in Vienna, where he lived until 1938. After surviving the war years in Yugoslavia, he emigrated to the United States and earned a law degree at New York University. He moved back to Europe in 1958. Encouraged by his family, he made a return trip to Yugoslavia in 1981, which sparked the writing of these memoirs.
Joseph Rochlitz is an opera and film director. He collaborated in the research and writing of Accident of Fate and based his documentary film The Righteous Enemy, about the Italian protection of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, on his father’s story.
“Rochlitz intersperses his taught, lively narrative with both textual and visual documentary material.... Here too he interjects his own later discoveries or encounters with characters from the main story. The documents come from private and general archival sources, all of which are cited in the acknowledgements at the end. The book also includes a helpful glossary of names and places, an index, a short bibliography of works in English for the general reader, and a list of the some sixty Allied airmen and POWs whom the young Imre encountered during the war in Yugoslavia.... American readers will appreciate the book’s illumination of the complex Yugoslav political landscape as battleground between the Allied and the Axis powers, and among the different ethnic groups. The young Rochlitz himself, fighting with the Yugoslav partisans and struggling to negotiate anti-Semitic, anti-German, and anti-Hungarian (since at that point the Hungarians were allied with the Germans) sentiment, claimed to be a Slovene, a group ‘not particularly hated by either the Serbs or the Croats, who were busy hating each other’.”
— Cecile Cazort Zorach, Franklin and Marshall College, Yearbook of German-American Studies
“With Accident of Fate we have a first-hand record of the much darker period between 1938 and 1945 which, as Rochlitz insists, he survived by pure chance. And very convincingly, after one discovers that over these few years Rochlitz was imprisoned several times, forced to dig mass graves at the Jasenovac death camp and fought alongside fugitive Partisans. It is not, however, Rochlitz’s tribulations that distinguish this book, but his sombre observations and unbiased perspective. As a foreign Jew in Yugoslavia, Rochlitz was an outsider, but being young, having learnt the language and being in possession of an amiable character, Imre easily became the Yugoslav Mirko. This peculiar double-sidedness gives Rochlitz’s memoir invaluable significance for the historiography of Yugoslavia’s wartime fratricide.... The value of Imre Rochlit’z memoir is that it does not attempt to conceal the ordinary. Thus we find rare and rather unpleasant descriptions of how biological needs were met in death transports and camps, or of matters of hygiene during prolonged guerilla resistance. There are also vivid descriptions and scrutiny of the Partisans’ sex lives or lack thereof, which remains a taboo for Yugoslav veterans and a controversial subject in historiography to this day. Equally valuable are Rochlitz’s stories of how food was procured and provisioned, as well as everyday pastimes and entertainment in zones of war. Finally, he describes how the Partisans perceived the Jews, how they treated dissent and Otherness, and how they navigated between allies and enemies to emerge as sole victors, although at a high price.... Rochlitz proves himself to be a shrewd, incisive and very critical observer.... [In] this book which so impresses with its thoroughness of historic detail, its meticulous research and contextualization, illustrated with authentic photographs, and reprints of original documents and maps. This is a book both for scholars and for the general reader, but especially for young readers who find the horrors of the Holocaust to hard to imagine. While gruff at times, Rochlitz’s recollections are never ill-hearted. Behind his criticisms we find a deep, unchallenged humanity and an inspiring passion for life.”
— Bojan Aleksov, SEER
“Today more than 100,000 [Holocaust] testimonies have been collected. Accident of Fate is one of the latest autobiographies and one that intertwines history and memory in a most skilful and impressive way. In my view, Imre Rochlitz’s account bears the hallmark of a masterpiece of Holocaust memoir. It took the author more than fifty years to tell the story of his survival. He presents a moving, illuminating, occasionally even thrilling tale of suffering, resilience, and resistance. Meticulously researched and eloquently written, the narrative follows a chronological path. Vivid vignettes of memory and historical findings reconstruct the long journey through the period of the Holocaust, lasting more than seven years. Divided into twenty chapters, the retrospective sheds light on many themes and areas. The work introduces the reader to the Jewish world in Vienna that preceded the world of Auschwitz, to experiences of exile in Croatia, and to incarceration in a death camp set up by the Ustashe. It moves from the verge of death in the concentration camp to life in internment camps, located in the Italian zone of occupation, and finally to Amidah—the Hebrew word for ‘standing up’—to Jewish resistance carried out as a partisan fighter within the ranks of Tito’s Communist partisan movement.... Rochlitz not only recalls episodes, but also reflects on the experience gained and on the lessons learned. Accident of Fate makes fascinating reading, and offers an important contribution to Holocaust scholarship. It provides new historical information and remarkable insights into themes and spaces some of which are still largely unexplored.”
— Konrad Kwiet, University of Sydney, Journal of Genocide Research
“Rochlitz’s memory is fresh...and while his account benefits from knowledge acquired later, it is primarily the view of a young person living through the most difficult period of European history.... [A] well-written and humane memoir which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the history of Europe. The book is well illustrated with personal photos and documents and well-drawn maps.”
— Vesna Domany Hardy, Jewish Renaissance
“Imre Rochlitz’s book is a memoir of his unique coming of age as a Jewish teenager first in Austria until 1938, and then in Croatia before and during World War II. It manages to combine several books’ worth of material in barely two hundred pages. It is simultaneously a Holocaust memoir, a testimony about the Yugoslav Partisan movement from one of its participants, and a lucid reflection on the past by an amateur historian.... Interspersed with the text are the author’s comments about the postwar fates of some of the people mentioned, as well as reproductions of wartime documents he found in various archives, and even a bit of his 1995 interview with Fitzroy Maclean, former head of the Allied Mission to Yugoslavia. More interesting for the professional historian are Rochlitz’s thought-provoking and occasionally provocative comments about the survivor’s burden of memory, Holocaust research, and the very nature of survival. Though he is adamant that he survived by pure chance, not by courage or wits or the intervention of a higher power, the ambiguous title of the book is reflected in the multiple layers of memory and narrative interpretation it contains.”
— Mirna Zakic, Ohio University, Austrian History Yearbook
“Imre Rochlitz’s book is enlightening and relevant. Sparse and understated, it is all the more powerful and emotionally moving. The author suffered many devastating personal losses during the war, and retains to this day a profound sorrow about mishaps and mistakes, bad timing, and sheer bad luck. He never expresses self-pity, but writes of what he might have done better and what he learned from his experiences. His readers acquire a deep respect for his courage and humanity under the most horrifying of circumstances. Accident of Fate is one of the best Holocaust memoirs I have read in a long time.”
— Susan Zuccotti, author of The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue and Survival and Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy