I know of few foreigners who have been to Sarajevo and did not leave a little piece of their heart behind when they departed. I am certainly one of them. I first saw Sarajevo in 1994, on one of those rare occasions when a ceasefire held for more than a few minutes. I returned there very briefly a few more times, also when the shooting stopped, and I certainly cannot claim to have endured even a tiny fraction of the suffering that those under siege experienced every day. These brief visits did, however, give me a small sense of this fascinating place. Perhaps it was not surprising, then, that I returned a decade later.
Sarajevo was clearly not the place to be if you wished to spend a placid twentieth century. Bookstores are now full of thick volumes describing the origins of the First World War. They all trace this back to one place—which is why, at the end of this month, we will surely hear much about the one hundredth anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on the riverside street by the Latinska Cuprija.
The Second World War treated Sarajevo no more kindly. It became part of the Independent State of Croatia, which was not a good place to be, especially if you were a Serb, a Roma, or a Jew. At least one of that state’s many concentration camps was located in Sarajevo as well. But even in the Holocaust, the darkest of times, there were people that the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Authority Yad Vashem calls “Righteous Among The Nations” because they saved Jews. Yad Vashem lists 42 such people from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Our own Holocaust Memorial Museum simply calls such courageous people “rescuers.” It’s a good term, and though I do not think anyone has assigned similar designations to those who did what La Benevolencija did during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the nineteen-nineties they certainly could have. But now, thanks to Edward Serotta, remarkable and brave people like Jacob Finci are at last getting the recognition they have long deserved.
Having learned a bit about the horrors of the Holocaust in my current job, I find it all the more remarkable that barely fifty years after the terrible persecutions it suffered then, the Jewish community in Sarajevo was able to become a rescuer itself—and to bring together like-minded people from all different ethnic groups to join it as well.
Sadly, the shining example that the community set has not been enough to overcome the persistent ethnic divisions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Perhaps no one can. But what the Jewish Community did there now twenty years ago helped preserve not just lives but also the spirit that had made Sarajevo famous—an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding that is perhaps now in danger of being lost.
This is why “Survival in Sarajevo” is of such value. Exhibits like this can help remind people not just in Sarajevo, but everywhere, that the seemingly small things that people do in order to fulfill The Golden Rule can make a difference. Exhibits like this keep the lessons of the past alive and, by doing so, provide us with reminders that common human decency can pay dividends even in the worst of times. This is no small accomplishment, and I salute the organizers and sponsors of this exhibit for making it possible here—and even for inviting me to speak.