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Lessons from Sarajevo

Beauty pageant held in the midst of war torn Sarajevo.
Beauty Pageant Held in the War-Torn Sarajevo (Stylist/Corbis)

Passover is traditionally known as the “time of our freedom”. At seder tables across the world, the Jewish community gathered last week to mark the biblical exodus from slavery in Egypt.

Having been to Ukraine twice for Passover, the conversation at my seders and, I am sure, many others turned to our Ukrainian Jewish brothers and sisters and what this Passover must be like.

This month also marks the 30th anniversary of the start of the horrific war that devastated what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. (The United States recognized April 6th as the start of “full scale hostilities”).

The world Jewish community heeded the instruction of the Prophet Isaiah millennia ago “to be a light unto the nations”.  Working in large part through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), we assisted with humanitarian efforts in the Former Yugoslavia just as we are today in Ukraine.

While still Yugoslavia, a 1991 census totaled 44% of the population considering themselves Muslim, 33% Serbian Orthodox and 17% Croatian Catholic. The remaining 6% described themselves as “Yugoslav”. This included the relatively small, but resilient Jewish community.

The Jewish community in and around Sarajevo dates back nearly five centuries. Records from 1541 show Jewish doctors and merchants from Thessaloniki arriving with skills to benefit this increasingly important hub for the Ottoman Empire. Legends abound on who amongst these early migrants brought the fabled cold and copper illuminated Passover Haggadah from Barcelona.

An impressive synagogue opened in 1581 built with the support of a Turkish benefactor. Before the Holocaust, 14 other synagogues also had regular worship services in Sarajevo. Indeed, 20% of Sarajevo before World War II was Jewish.  The Nazis were not able to exterminate just how interwoven this community was within society.  For example, in 1965 Marshal Josip Broz Tito as leader of Yugoslavia held ceremonies to celebrate 400 years of Jewish contributions to the country.

This week 30 years ago, the Sarajevo Jewish community was watching as centuries of history were beginning to painfully fade away. The community had already enacted a cultural and social welfare organization, La Benevolencija. The leadership decided to contact JDC headquarters in New York.

In the months that followed, 11 convoys would leave war torn Sarajevo. The international Jewish community assisted not only our own, but also over 2,300 Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

Similar to today in Ukraine, for a variety of reasons not all members of the Jewish community left on those convoys.

With an outpouring of support from Jewish Day School students, synagogue sisterhoods, Jewish Federations across North America and diverse other small and large philanthropists, JDC launched an initiative Open Mailbox for Yugoslavia. Over 1,500 tons of clothing, food and medicine were shipped to both Sarajevo and Belgrade (now Serbia).

In 1993, La Benevolencija attempted what was perhaps their most aspirational initiative. While planning seders for 250 remaining Jews would be difficult enough, the community decided to very publicly invite the Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim faith leaders to join the remaining Jewish Sarajevans.

In November 1995, the three warring factions agreed to end the war at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Over 100,000 had died. Countless others had become refugees not just in Israel and the United States, but also in countries as diverse as Sweden to Pakistan and numerous locations in between.

The resilience of the Jewish community of the Former Yugoslavia and commitment to their neighbors is a courageous reminder for all.

Then, like now, the world Jewish community must remain a beacon of hope for both our brothers and sisters in harm’s way, but also for our non-Jewish neighbors.

About the Author
Ari Mittleman works at the nexus of politics, policymaking and the press in Washington, DC. He has worked with American and international heads of state, elected officials, celebrities and global business and non-profit leaders. As a native Pennsylvanian actively involved in the Jewish community, the tragedy in Pittsburgh compelled him to author his first book, Paths of the Righteous by Gefen Publishing House. A new father, Ari lives in Pikesville, Maryland, with his wife and daughter.
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