At a time when sectarian wars are on the rise, a fascinating exhibit at the Free Library of Philadelphia reminds us that people aren’t born with these visceral hatreds, but are taught them.
Called “Survival in Sarajevo: Jews, Muslims, Serbs and Croats during the siege of Sarajevo, 1992-1995,” the exhibit raises a fascinating question: Why are some people able to rise above political and media machinations that aim to instill hate?
In the polyglot city of Sarajevo, few thought the sectarian violence sparked by the breakup of Yugoslavia would reach them. But the city was besieged, mortared and starved by Belgrade-backed Serbs for three years while the world looked on and did nothing. The Serbs only let sporadic shipments of food aid enter the city, while sniping and shelling those who queued for bread and water.
So a handful of Holocaust survivors turned Sarajevo’s one remaining synagogue into a humanitarian aid agency, La Benevolencija (meaning “good will”). There, Jews and Muslims, along with Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats, worked together to feed hundreds of near-starving citizens daily. I have a personal interest in this story, as I visited Sarajevo during the siege and attended Passover seder in 1996 at the synagogue. (More about that below.)
The large, turn-of-the-century Ashkenazi synagogue became a shelter, clinic and storage hall for the needy, with no questions asked about background. About 500,000 medical prescriptions were filled and 20,000 patients treated.
“At La Benevolencija they did what was naturally right,” says Edward Serotta, director of Centropa, the Jewish historical institute that organized the exhibition. La Benevolencija proved wrong Serb leader Radovan Karadzic’s claim that different ethnic groups could not live together.
What was different about this group?
For one thing, the Jews’ deep historic ties to Sarajevo put them in a unique position to initiate the project. Sephardic Jews migrated to the city at the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century, and, under the Ottoman Empire, were never required to live in ghettos; Ashkenazi Jews arrived when the Austro-Hungarian empire took control of Bosnia in the late 19th century.
Nazis and Croatian fascists decimated the community during World War II, with only slightly more than 1,000 Jews remaining at the beginning of the siege. But many of them had lived through the Holocaust or fought with the Yugoslav partisans. In the words of the exhibit, La Benevolencija’s organizers “shared with a lesson Jews in Europe had been learning for centuries: how to survive.”
Equally important, the fact that Jews were considered neutral enabled their vans to pass through Bosniak Muslim, Croatian Catholic or Serbian Orthodox checkpoints. And they were able to access Jewish aid groups abroad, primarily the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provided the bulk of their supplies.
But the small number of Jews could not have done this alone, and the Croats, Serbs and Muslims who joined them were also special. Thirty-two percent of Sarajevo’s population before the siege was intermarried. In this sophisticated city, most young people believed their former Yugoslav identity had trumped religion, and tried to cling to that belief when war came. Many Sarajevan Croats and Serbs remained in the city, although it became the capital of the Muslim sector of Bosnia, and were denounced as “traitors” by other Croats and Serbs.
I wish I could say that their splendid nonsectarianism resonated after the siege. Sadly, postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina is still bitterly divided into Serb, Croat and Muslim sectors, and, even in Sarajevo, sectarianian sentiments have increased. Meantime, civic activists who try to surmount religious and ethnic divides in places such as Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan have mostly been crushed.
However, even in divided countries, one constantly sees examples of young people defying the hatemongers. At the Passover seder I attended in Sarajevo, local Jews were joined by Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims, and by the then-Bosnian ambassador to Washington, Sven Alkalaj, a Sarajevan who was half-Jewish and half-Croatian Catholic.
The rabbi, Moshe Tutnauer, an American Israeli who once officiated at Philadelphia’s congregation Har Zion, recited a prayer from the famous 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah (Passover prayerbook) as he held the traditional unleavened bread, saying: “This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let anyone who is hungry come and eat.”
“That,” he added, “is the message of La Benevolencija.”
And that example remains a model of how to rise above sectarian hate.
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