Bosnian Jews and the Siege of Sarajevo

By Symi Rom-Rymer

People have wrestled with the question of what drives human beings to commit genocide since the end of the Holocaust.  Less often considered is the flip side: Why do some societies subsumed by violence not lead to genocide?  A paper recently presented at the annual Association for the Study of Nationalities conference, held at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, examines two cases of recent genocides in which two different religious minority groups not only abstained from the mass killings, but actively tried to help those who were under threat.  The instance most pertinent to this forum is the case of the Sarajevo Jewish community, who in the midst of the Bosnian War (1992-1996), rescued, fed, and even educated those who were attempting to escape the military onslaught.

The Jewish presence in Bosnia dates back to the 16th century.  Chased out of Spain and Portugal, Jews found a welcoming haven in the regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.  For nearly 500 years, Jews flourished in Bosnia, settling primarily in Sarajevo, the capital city.  Under Josip Tito, the prime minister and later president of Yugoslavia from 1943-1980, the Jewish community in Bosnia subsumed their Jewish identity and heritage into a larger Yugoslav identity, like many Jews did elsewhere in Communist Eastern Europe.   Francine Friedman, the author of the paper, explains that the multiethnic mix of Bosnia before the war resulted in widespread intermarriage between all the major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Many Jews were assimilated into the larger culture and considered themselves to be Yugoslav first and Jewish second.

The Bosnian war of the early 1990s, however, smashed that secular-religious construct.  Since the war hinged not only on a nationalist, but also religious, identification, Friedman argues that it was impossible for Jews to continue to maintain their pan-ethnic Yugoslav identity.  On the other hand, they could not consider themselves Serbs, Croats, or Bosnians since each of those ethnicities was closely aligned with specific religious beliefs, even though many individuals in each of those groups were secular.  There was very little choice then but for Jews to reengage with their Jewish identity.  In fact, one of the unexpected by-products of the Bosnian war was the discovery of just how many Jews lived in Sarajevo.  As Sonja Elazar, the wartime president of Bohoreta, the Sarajevo Jewish community women’s association, described to Friedman, “We had more and more members [coming to us] all the time….I was so surprised when I even saw some people [at the Jewish community building] from my company, people who had worked with me on the same floor,” but had not previously publicly identified themselves as Jewish.

The Bosnian war is one of the few European ethnic conflicts of the 20th century that did not target the Jewish community. Even the propaganda that preceded the ethno-religious conflict did not reference Jews or the Jewish community.  As the animosity among the Serbs, Croats, and the Bosnian intensified, Jews were left in a unique position. Independent from each of the warring factions—they were even offered an opportunity to leave Sarajevo at the beginning of the siege of the city—the Jewish community had access to food, medical supplies and other goods during the war that were unavailable to the rest of the population.  Although some did leave (primarily women, children, and the elderly), most stayed and offered assistance to Jews and non-Jews alike.  They set up pharmacies and soup kitchens at different points in Sarajevo. Through these actions, the Jewish community of Sarajevo kept, in a small and ephemeral way, the multiethnic experiment that was Yugoslavia alive. Ivan Čerešnješ, president of the Jewish Community in Sarajevo and later president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina (1988-1996), poignantly summed up the Jewish response when he said, “I am proud to affirm that we Jews are faithful to our country, Bosnia and Herzegovina….In these horrible times, when our brothers and sisters, relatives and friends are exterminating each other we have been working especially hard to keep our doors open to everyone to provide sanctuary, help, and friendship.”

So why did the Jewish community actively take steps to help those who were at risk?  Friedman hypothesizes that the secular nature of the Jewish community, with its belief in a multi-confessional Yugoslavia and a strong leadership that advocated policies of non-political engagement during the war, were key factors in this particular conflict. In all of the discussions about genocide and its causes, it is easy to overlook examples that offer a sliver of hope amidst the darkness of war. We may not yet understand why some are able to resist the lure of violence but studies such as this one is an important step towards discovering that elusive answer.

One response to “Bosnian Jews and the Siege of Sarajevo

  1. Bosnian Jews also joined Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and many died defending the besieged Sarajevo. Jews of Sarajevo loved President Alija Izetbegovic and he loved them. Thank you for this post!

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