Disappeared books of Socialist Yugoslavia

Report on the rare findings
by Dr. Lilijana Burcar, guest researcher at the International Youth Library
in summer 2018

The central part of my research, which I conducted at the IYL between 1st July and 30th September 2018, focused on poverty in children’s literature and the differences in approaches to this issue between realistic fiction of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and mainstream Anglo-Saxon children’s literature. I consulted more than 600 books and the findings were not surprising. Unlike their Western counterparts, Yugoslav authors in their socially engaged realist fiction paid special attention to systemic investigation of the root causes of poverty, drawing attention to the structural inequalities and the need for their systemic overcoming. But my research into socially engaged children’s literature of the Yugoslav authors also yielded another, a very worrisome and shocking result. Upon my scouring of the IYL archive, it quickly became apparent that the majority of the holdings the IYL has of Yugoslav children’s literature produced between 1945 and 1989 in general – that is, regardless of the topic it deals with – can be today already classified as precious rarities despite the fact that only twenty-five years have elapsed since the dismantling of the socialist Yugoslavia. This is due to the historical revisionism and deliberate, ideologically-driven retrospective distortion of socialist reality which followed in the wake of the destruction of Yugoslavia after 1991. Historical revisionism is one of the ideological axes of the newly created mini capitalist states in the Balkans. It has rested on an implicit or explicit smear campaign against the achievements of socialism, thus also providing a platform for the justification of the nationalistic enclavisation of the Balkans after 1991. To justify the imposition of the new capitalist order, which is based on the combined promotion of capitalist social relations and nationalism, everything associated with socialism, including children’s literature, has been removed from public libraries (and archives). This happened either en masse overnight, or in some other cases gradually over two decades under the flimsy pretext that libraries are bursting at seams and are supposedly no longer able to accommodate older books for children and young adults while taking on new ones although their production after 1991 has been meagre.

My research shows that the unexpected rarities that IYL holds with regard to the Yugoslav literature produced between 1945 and 1990 can be divided into several categories and subcategories. The main category, however, includes those children’s books that deal directly with the issue of poverty, with the hard working and living conditions facing the majority of people in capitalism be it an industrial or agricultural sector, and with the issue of socialist revolution that turned this reality upside down. These two major strands of children’s literary production were the first types of books that disappeared from public libraries and their archives overnight. This list of disappeared books is headed by a specific subgenre, which includes those children’s books that deal specifically with the partisan movement and the collective effort to bring about the socialist revolution in an organized fight for a better future. In this respect, Yugoslavia amongst others produced a special series of picture books in which the focus is placed on the most important historical battles between the Yugoslav partisans and the Nazi occupational imperialist army that took place between 1941 and 1945. These were the key battles that went down into the annals of WWII history as decisive battles that took place in the Balkans and had wider implications for the way the events turned out at the end of WWII, of course in favour of the Western allies who therefore eventually started supporting the partisan movement. The IYL has a complete first part of this series, which includes four different titles (Užička republika, Igmanski marš, Bitka za ranjenike and Desant na Drvar). In the republics of former Yugoslavia, these are today indeed a rarity to behold. If you go in search of the entire series, this is a mission condemned to failure. If you go in search of individual titles in the series, it is like going in search for a needle in a haystack, the haystack being all of the former republics of Yugoslavia. For example, Desant na Drvar (The Desant on Drvar) is a picture book with accompanying text that documents the Nazi SS parachuters’ attack against the partisan main military headquarters and its leader Tito. The headquarters was stationed in Drvar at the time of one of the last major offensives in the first half of 1944 in this part of the Balkans. With 15.000 copies printed in Sarajevo in 1974 alone, not a single copy from this batch is today held by any of more than 900 public libraries in Slovenia according to the online Cobiss catalogue that covers public libraries in the entire region. In Serbia, only two copies remain and are both held by the National library, in Macedonia there is one copy that can be viewed only on the premises of the National library’s reading room and the same goes for Bosnia and Hercegovina and Montenegro with only one copy still available for viewing on each of the two libraries’ premises. That makes altogether only 5 copies of the 1974 edition, which carried 15.000 copies, still around in five out of six former republics of Yugoslavia. This makes one housed by the IYL in Munich indeed a rarity.

The above is just one of many, that is, hundreds and hundreds of examples. The era of socialist Yugoslavia was the most prolific period in the history of quality children’s literature production in this part of the world. Its authors, illustrators and publishing houses such as Mladinska knjiga and Školska knjiga enjoyed a world-wide reputation with their works fetching many major international prizes at fairs such as those in Frankfurt and Bologna to say the least about TV series they gave rise to and which also fetched major prizes at film festivals across the globe. Yet all in all, children’s (and YAL) books of all kinds, be it picture books, short stories, school primers and novels associated with the socialist period and on topics of all kinds are being systematically made to disappear. They are being eliminated from public libraries’ holdings, with only a few boutique copies still randomly in place and mostly off limit to the general public. It is therefore imperative for IYL to declare its collection of socialist Yugoslav literature a special collection and to digitalise its holdings on the socialist Yugoslav literature, for at least two thirds of which I managed to establish are rarities. By putting these books online, the IYL would not only give them a new lease of life thus ensuring the continuity of their existence but also possibly put them back into circulation among young readers, their parents, and the rest of the adults and scholars. All of us would most certainly benefit from its comeback in these much troubled and difficult times, no matter how numerically modest the IYL collection might be in its actual size.

Participants of the Fellowship Programme 2017

Serbia, Iran, Turkey, Taiwan, USA, Korea, Singapore, Poland, Chile, China, Australia, New Zealand, Spain: In 2017, 19 fellows from all over the world researched in the field of children’s and young adults‘ literature with the unique stock of primary and secondary literature of the International Youth Library.

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