I am continually amazed at the bravery and selflessness exhibited by ordinary people during the Holocaust. Often these feats are not fully recognized until many years later or even after their death. Also, many of these heroes who risked their lives to help Jews and others were not Jewish, themselves, and therefore were not at risk. Rather than “sit out” the war they chose to risk their lives to help those in need. Such is the following case.
Žarko Dolinar was born in Yugoslavia on July 3, 1920. His parents had immigrated from Slovenia. Zarko had a natural ability in table tennis. Americans call it ping pong, although if you have ever watched a table tennis match you know that the manner in which the two sports are played is substantially different.
He worked hard at the sport, and in 1938 at the tender age of 18 Zarko won the Yugoslavia TT championship. Then, in 1939 he won a bronze medal in the individual international world championships and a silver in the team competition. That performance elevated him to hero status in Yugoslavia. He followed up that performance by winning the championship of what was known as the “Independent State of Croatia,” which comprised most of present-day Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. By the advent of WWII Zarko had achieved celebrity status in the region. As we shall see, this was to be of great assistance to him in his more significant endeavors.
The Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941. As they did everywhere, they quickly promulgated anti-Jewish laws as part of their “final solution.” The handwriting was on the wall. Zarko and his brother, Boris, were determined to help Jews escape any way they could.
Due to his notoriety Zarko was above reproach. He had connections and access few others did. He was able to operate freely anywhere and everywhere under the very noses of the Nazis and their collaborators, including at administrative and municipal offices. He took full advantage. When the roundup of young Jews began in June 1941, Zarko and Boris commenced to rescue as many Jews as possible without regard for their personal safety. Zarko was able to procure blank identity papers and seals, which he and Boris used to create travel permits and identity papers for a large number of Jews.
- Geršon Apfel, was one of Zarko’s Maccabi students. In the spring of 1941 he learned that Apfel and all his colleagues in Hashomer Hatzair were scheduled for imminent “deportation.” Zarko took Apfel into his home, prepared a special pass, called a passierschein, for him, and accompanied him to the train station from where a train would take him to the Hungarian-controlled area, where Jews still lived freely.
- Žuži Färler, an acquaintance from the Maccabi Sports Club, requested his help to flee. Zarko transferred her and her deaf-mute parents to his apartment, arranged documents for them, and, personally escorted the family by train to Sušak, which was in the Italian occupied zone. In Susak Zarko made sure they had secured accommodations before he returned to Zagreb.
- Dr. Josef Deutsch was a Jewish refugee from Germany who had fled to Zagreb, where he was arrested. Using his connections, Zarko managed to have Deutsch released and assisted him in reaching the partisans.
- Similarly, Zarko helped a fellow sportsman, Gustav Perl, to reach Tito’s partisans.
Eventually, the Nazis came to suspect Zarko and Boris of assisting Jews to escape, but, for some reason, they never arrested them.
After the war Zarko was a very busy man. For example:
- He continued to compete internationally winning eight medals in World Table Tennis Championships. He was generally considered to be Europe’s best player in the mid-1950s. He was the first Croatian to win a world title. He won the world’s doubles championship in London in 1954 and was the singles vice-champion in Utrecht in 1955.
- He worked as a sports coach in various places, in particular at the Maccabi Sports Club run by the Jewish community in Zagreb.
- He designed and produced more than 80 different types of rackets.
- For good measure, Zarko continued his education. In 1949 he graduated from the University of Zagreb with a degree in veterinary medicine, and in 1959 he earned a doctorate in the field.
- Later he became a professor of biology in Basel University in Switzerland.
Žarko Dolinar was married to Judith Duić, whose family he and his brother Boris had saved during the Holocaust. They had one daughter.
On September 8, 1993, Yad Vashem recognized Žarko and Boris Dolinar, as Righteous Among the Nations, an honor they truly and fully deserved. Unfortunately, Boris never lived to see the honor. He had passed away in 1992.
Zarko passed away on March 9, 2003. They may be gone, but their memory and accomplishments will live forever.