Oleg Mandić was born a dissident. His father, also Oleg Mandić, one of the leaders of the national revival in Opatija and Rijeka, decided that his heir would not be born in Volosko, a town nearby under the Italian occupation, but in free Sušak (district in Rijeka). This is how politics began to shape the life and name of Oleg Mandić already before his birth. The laws of the time imposed for all newborns to wear an Italian name, with the exemption of names given in the heat of the moment (e.g. father naming his son after him). Such names needed to be “Italianized”, i.e. translated, but since the name Oleg did not have an appropriate Italian version, he remained simply - Oleg.
Politics has followed him ever since his birth and struck him deepest in that sensitive period when a boy is turning into a young man. It left a mark, which would influence him just as deeply and long as the name he was given: even though he was later the youngest lawyer in Yugoslavia, a successful sales representative, as well as member and president of a civil society association, Oleg Mandić will forever be known as the last boy to leave the hell of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
83 years of my life have been marked by Auschwitz, which I was taken to as a 10-year-old boy. Before I grew as a person, I had lived through a year in a concentration camp. It changed my perception of life. The main idea that I’d come to realize was that the worst that could had happened in my life, had already happened. And when you use this idea as your starting point, you’ve got all the predispositions for a wonderful life.
Yes. Wonderful... I would do it all over again, even if all the beautiful things that have happened to me were accompanied with the experience in the camp.
Fascinatingly dark, revolting... The conclusion that man had been using the achievements of over five millennia of civilization in order to develop and perform a death industry is the worst. I didn’t see a single German during my stay in Auschwitz, besides doctors. If you stuck to the camp rules, at least in the final year, nobody touched you. But you were destined to die.
Holocaust represented extermination of not only Jews, but every enemy of the German, i.e. Nazi ideology, and every opponent was prosecuted, including anti-fascists from our area. We were under the Italian occupation until September 1943. A National Liberation Committee was formed in Opatija, head of which was my nono (coll. grandfather) Ante Mandić. The building of the City of Opatija holds his bust to commemorate him as the first war major. They had one very original idea - to give food to Italian soldiers that brought weapons for their further journey to Italy. There was a heap of weapon, meters high, at the parking lot behind the court... Trucks would arrive and take it to Učka (mountain range over the Opatija riviera), to partisans. After ten days, Germans arrived and partisans warned about tanks descending to Volosko. My father and nono joined the partisans, whereas we stayed. They imprisoned my mom, babuška (loc. grandmother) and me as a means of repression. They first took us to Via Roma (prison in Rijeka), then to Coroneo (prison in Trieste), and finally to Auschwitz.
We were first stationed together in the women’s camp, but they realized I ended up there by mistake because as a 10-year-old boy I was supposed to be in the men’s camp. However, at a scene of mass murders, I was supposed to go through a medical exam according to strict German rules before being sent to the camp. When I heard that, I immediately “shit my pants” and got a fever, so they concluded that they couldn’t take me to the men’s camp, and I couldn’t stay in the women’s camp, either. Then one of them remembered there was a “twins unit” that was led by dr. Mengele. It accommodated children up to 18 years old, and that is how I ended up in Mengele’s unit. I had stayed there for over a month because I immediately realized that the hospital offered better treatment than the camp - I would rub the thermometer or eat raw potatoes in order to raise my body temperature... Then I got ill, I had measles and diarrhea, so they put me in the infectious diseases department and then returned me to the twins unit after a month. They would all leave one by one, whereas I was the only one to stay there until the end of the war. I would make flowers from paper napkins in the patient room. I hadn’t seen a single bird or strand of grass during my stay in Auschwitz. Nor the sky because it wasn’t visible from the thick smoke coming out of the crematorium.
Of course we knew. When my mom started complaining about the treatment, other inmates soon hurried to explain she better be quiet because that was Auschwitz. Vernichtungslager. An extermination camp.
We didn’t think about that. We soon adapted to the camp life, where your main concern was to make it through the day. It was important to wake up alive.
The very last.
- Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians, after which many visitors would come - journalists, Red Cross workers, politicians, etc. Whenever somebody arrived, mom and I would stop and ask them to send a message to Yugoslavia that we were still alive. We know that my nono was in ZAVNOH (State Anti-fascist Council for the National Liberation of Croatia), so we expected the message would reach him. Somebody listened to our plea. At that time, nono Ante was a state president, i.e. one of the three regents who controlled the executive in Yugoslavia. When Mandić received such information, international phones started ringing and an order was issued via Moscow to find us in the camp. Commander of military power, Colonel Fedosenko, came to find us in person together with a film crew. I wasn’t even aware that the tape had been preserved, so when I came back to Auschwitz 25 years later, I nearly had a heart attack when I saw the tape showing me, my mom and babuška with Russian officers. Of course, they couldn’t translate our words right away, so we stayed with the Russian camp commander during the evacuation of the survivors. This lasted for over a month, and when everybody was evacuated, we sat together with him in a car and left for Krakow. When the door of Auschwitz closed behind us, we were the last inmates to leave the camp.
- I lived in Belgrade for two years after the war. I settled down right away without a problem. I think that I subconsciously felt that Belgrade had suffered a lot, and the war damage of the city could had been compared to mine in a way. We later moved to Zagreb, where I didn’t really like the locals and I hadn’t been able to adapt for a long time.
- I’ve already mentioned that after having faced my trauma, I realized a nice future was ahead of me because the worst had already happened. That is why my adaptation was so fast, somewhat easier in Belgrade, but it eventually happened in Zagreb, as well. When you’re 15 or 16, you’re able to adapt to any city, a nice girl’s smile is all it takes... Even though I lost two years of school in the war, it was compensated thanks to a war victims provision, and since I started school early according to Italian regulations, I graduated from high school when I was 18 years old. I graduated from law school when I was 22, worked as an apprentice at a court for three years, and passed my bar examination at 25. I was the youngest lawyer in Yugoslavia at that time.
I never opened a practice. I worked in foreign trade. When 27 years old, I was offered to become one of the managing directors of Rudar in Zagreb, a big import/export company that exists to this day. I continued to perfect my skills professionally and scientifically, so I wrote professional papers that would be released in Informator, as well as two technical books later on. After eight years in Rudar, there were some disputes in the firm, and after two years of negotiations, I was convinced by Informator to join them, so I finally took that step.
- I was responsible for a column called “You ask, we answer”. Readers would ask for professional opinion, and I would organize answers to those questions. After a year, the director called and said that planned economy was abolished by the new constitution and that market rules of supply and demand prevailed. That meant that advertising and propaganda would emerge, and we would have to make sure to win as much advertising space as possible. Informator was quite avant-garde at that time, the biggest company specialized in topics concerning the economy. Italy and Germany were the biggest exporters to Yugoslavia. We had a base in Germany that was put-together well, unlike Italy. The firm needed somebody who could speak Italian and owned a car in order to organize business in Italy and arrange advertising. I owned my second car while I was in Zagreb; before that I had a motorcycle, but I had an accident and received enough money from the insurance to buy a used car. I spoke Italian, owned a car and so I was sent to a new mission. I was offered a job and a 3-month travel order. I stayed in Italy for 33 years.
Look, I both liked it and organized it well. I made a good profit for both Informator and myself. I guess I was one of the few in Yugoslavia that were paid for performance, and from that money I built this house in Opatija.
Actually, it was only in 1969 that I went there for the first time. During the times of Cominform, it was inconvenient to cross the Iron Curtain, but in the same year my mom died in a car accident. It was her great wish to return to Auschwitz, and since her wish was unfulfilled, I pledged at her catafalque to do that for her. I was already married to Duška at that time, so we went there together. I arranged with the Novi list daily newspaper in the 70’s to issue a feuilleton in 14 sequels about my experience in Auschwitz, so I went back to the camp with Borislav Ostojić to make suitable illustrations. I visited it once more before my retirement, after which I became a much more frequent visitor.
I’ve been a member of the organization for over 11 years, eight of which the president. We have carried out numerous quality projects. We have Days of Anti-Fascism in Opatija with seven years behind us, and we are preparing the eighth edition. I think it is one of the better projects aiming to promote positive human values. One neat project is the travelling exhibition “Crna noć je šapićala” (Whispers of the Black Night), dedicated to the victims of fascism and nacizm in Istria and Liburnia, with which we’ve visited seven towns. But I’ve been particularly pleased these last few years that we’ve been a part of the Train of Commemoration, a project that we were invited to since our activity on the above mentioned projects has been recognized outside Croatia. It is a project organized by several associations from northern Italy which takes a train with 650 seats to Auschwitz and includes lectures, workshops, history overview, etc. But I prefer most to educate youth because we’ve managed to present the atrocities of fascism and values of anti-fascism to younger generations, and to keep the memory and awareness about what was happening is extremely important in order to prevent these things from happening again.
You’ve said it yourself that You were in Auschwitz as a boy, and now You’re 83. One full lifetime has passed in the meantime, does it make sense to continue talking about it? Does anti-fascism continue to be an omnipresent and relevant topic?
My perspective of anti-fascism is far away from WW2. To me, fascism - Nazism, the Ustaše ideology, xenophobia and all of their derivations - is evil, all forms of evil in the society. And anti-fascism is what stands in its way, everything that is good and positive. Anti-fascism is a superior humanistic value, whereas fascism is every form of violence. Approximately 10 years ago I held a lecture in a grammar school in Opatija, one of my first about Auschwitz, and I came to a conclusion that it is one of the ways of explaining youth how to differentiate good from bad. Because, unfortunately, that was not a part of the curriculum at that time. And it was clearly interesting for them as well because was often invited to other schools as they heard about it. Last year I was hosted in 32 schools, many of which in Italy, where I believe the public awareness about anti-fascism is developed even more.
Yes, it’s a humanitarian organization that was started 115 years ago in Chicago. It has a long tradition in our area, as well. The organization was prohibited in the 1930’s in Rijeka under the Italian rule, but was active in Sušak. Two members of Rotary club Sušak from Rijeka would cross the borders to participate in the humanitarian war. There was no place for Rotary in our Yugoslav totalitarian system, but this activity was recovered in the 90’s and Rotary club Rijeka was founded as the third club in Croatia. I issued a book in 2005 to mark the 100th anniversary of Rotary in the world, and now I’ve written an addition about the history of this organization in Croatia, and just as I was about to hand in the manuscript, we were informed that our club in Rijeka was declared one of the top five clubs in the world due to our efforts in the previous year. “Kraljevica” was the main project for many years. From an inadequate accomodation for handicapped children that were war refugees in the town of Kraljevica, over constant care for 30-ish wards, all the way to the inclusion of the institution into the regular medical social system. I was in charge of the project the whole time, which brought me the highest Rotary recognition - Paul Harris Fellow.
I started in 1850. Mattheus Mandić, who married Ms. Dubrović, lived up there in the small town of Kastav, and Frane was their oldest son. As a well-off peasant, he was able to send Frane to school and became a doctor in Vienna. He was later head of the medical service during railway construction from Vienna to Trieste, involving over 2000 workers. There was no money for his brother’s education, even though the family wanted to enable him one. So he became a priest. That brother was Matko Mandić, a famous patriot and educator, founder of the first Croatian newspaper “Naša sloga” (Our unity), half of which would not had been possible if there weren’t for Frane, who supported him financially the whole time. Frane Mandić was my great grandfather, his oldest son was Ante Mandić, my grandfather, who proved his worth already in WW1 and was later a member of the Yugoslav Committee. He was one of the advocates of Yugoslavia, but was so disappointed in that country that he returned to Volosko in 1922, which was under the Italian rule at that time, and opened a legal practice. Nono Ante had a brother, Josip, who was also a lawyer in Prague, but he had a great passion for music and became a famous Yugoslav composer during the interwar years. My dad Oleg was a venerable university professor, sociologist, scholar and scientist. There was another Oleg Mandić after me, my son.
Yes, there was a big fuss in the National Library around authorships of our books... My father got his name due to nostalgic reasons - his mother was from Kiev and Oleg was a Kiev knight. He named me Oleg out of political reasons, but my motives were different. Because I realized that there were many Ivans, Antes, Josips, and I was always the only Oleg. That is how I always stood out, and found it very useful. I decided to name my son Oleg as well, so I could help him the same way. Instead of putting a gold coin under his butt as a baby, I’ll give him this competitive advantage in life. He is 50 now and has confessed that it truly is so.
Hey, it comes in handy in life.
A scientific conference took place recently dedicated to the Mandićs.
Yes, academic Petar Strčić, the initiator of the conference urged me for years to organize the conference. I’m convinced that us, Mandićs, meant something for this area and that something should be done about it before we both “kick the bucket”. And I said: “Fine, but there’s my son, too, who - if nothing else - is called Oleg Mandić.” I showed him my son’s online articles. He has a doctorate in paleontology, teaches at a faculty and works in the natural history museum in Vienna. And exactly 15 days before the conference, the news of a million years old mammoth being found near Vienna stormed across Europe, beautifully preserved with tusks, with over 2.5 m in size. It was found by - Oleg Mandić. So, Petar Strčić could barely wait for my son to arrive to the conference dedicated to the Mandićs...
If the life of Oleg Mandić has been turbulent politics-wise, the same could be said for his private life. As he says in his book, his first marriage, with Iva, hasn’t managed to “cure” him from other women, and shortly after his son Oleg was born, the marriage ended. Oleg met Duška in the meantime, who had also been married once already, and the love story that would last for half a century began. - Duška is my muse, my inspiration, my eternal companion and guardian. This year we celebrate 50 years of marriage filled with love. Interestingly enough, we both feel great passion for travelling, so we made an agreement in the start to visit at least one country a year that we had been to. I have counted over 90, said Mandić.
Interviewed by: Davor ŽIC
Recorded by: Petar FABIJAN
Every Monday at 7:00 p.m. (19:00)
Rotary Palace Ruzic
51000 Rijeka, Croatia
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