Yonathan Bar-On

Lessons from Sarajevo

The first three weeks of this summer month I have spent in Europe. At the end of June I traveled to the Netherlands with our youngest son. There we spent time with my father and siblings, and we visited some of the amazing museums in Utrecht, Amsterdam and elsewhere. For a seven-year-old our son has an extraordinary interest in art. At the end of the week he wanted to stay with his opa (grandfather), because he liked Holland so much. And that was before he knew that a few days after our return home he had to seek shelter in the ‘bunker’ that we have in our house, together with my wife and his two siblings, who still remember the Second Lebanon War, when after a week of staying inside the secure room we fled to my parents for five weeks, mainly because of the children and because my wife was six months pregnant with our youngest.

The day after my son and I landed at Ben Gurion Airport I flew back to Europe, to Vienna this time. I am writing this article (an adaptation/translation of a Dutch original, which was published in the Dutch daily Friesch Dagblad) at the famous Café Central in Vienna. The last two weeks I attended the Centropa Summer Academy in Vienna, Zagreb, and Sarajevo. For several years now Centropa, a Vienna-based organization, has brought together dozens of teachers from many different countries (this year more than eighty teachers from twenty countries participated), to come up with and share ideas for joint, cross-cultural and cross-border class projects, based on the life stories of elderly Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. Centropa collects those stories, and has turned some of them into short videos. It offers those videos, and many other free sources and resources, to teachers, to use in their classrooms. This year Ed Serotta and his team had chosen Vienna and Sarajevo as the main venues for the CSA, because of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, a war that set the tone for the whole previous century and that has affected the European reality until this very day. I myself presented one project and have come up with a follow-up project. Using Centropa videos on the Kindertransport (in which Jewish children were brought from Europe to Great Britain in the years 1938-39) and on the Bosnian war and La Benevolencija, the charity organization of the Jewish community of Sarajevo which helped Muslims, Orthodox and Catholic Christians, and Jews survive that war, and referring to concepts from Judaism and the Pesach holiday, I have my students emphatize with the plight of refugees, and teach them about the importance of the fight for human rights.


At first I wanted to fly back home from Vienna right after the seminar started, but it soon became clear that the rockets fired at Haifa and the north of Israel were ‘only’ incidents, and that neither Lebanon nor Hezbollah were interested in an escalation of the conflict. My wife reassured me, told me that life in Haifa was more or less going on as usual, and that she and the children could manage without me. Nevertheless, they have stayed with my mother-in-law for the past two weeks, simply to be together. After all, you never know. I felt guilty – because of my family, but even more because I knew that the people in Southern Israel and the Tel Aviv area experienced what led us to pack and flee after less than a week in 2006, and that the poor people of Gaza had it even more difficult than the Israelis – but decided to stay with Centropa in Vienna, and to travel with all the other teachers to Zagreb and Bosnia-Herzegovina. I closely followed the developments in Israel and Gaza, though, through Whatsapp and two different Israeli news apps.

The corner where Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated.
The corner where Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated.

The teachers’ seminar was a very informative and valuable experience. In addition to the presentations, the lectures, the workshops, the walking tours of three beautiful European capitals, the museum visits, and the interviews with elderly Jewish Europeans who often have a fascinating life story to tell, some of the most impressive experiences of the eight days of the CSA were the meetings between colleagues from former Yugoslavia. There were teachers from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Srpska, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia. The wars of the 1990s in Bosnia and the rest of the Balkan, as well as the massacre in Srebenica were brought up several times. The wounds of those wars are still very fresh and visible, so emotions ran high more than once. In spite of everything, the talks and discussions were always respectful and conciliatory, and all teachers agreed on a number of points. Each war has, besides actors and criminals, mainly victims. It is up to our leaders to search for solutions and to serve the true interests of their citizens. And, not less important, the key to cooperation, reconciliation and coexistence lies in upbringing and education, with us teachers and the students’ parents.

The Romeo & Juliet of Sarajevo

The grave of Admira Ismić and Boško Brkić, whose story is told in the movie Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo 

On the day that I flew back from Sarajevo to Vienna, almost 300 people aboard flight MH17 were murdered. Although all details are not known yet (and many indicators of possible guilt are being erased as we speak), it is obvious that those people have fallen victim to heartless criminals. Nevertheless, I have not seen any demonstration calling for punative measures against the ‘separatists’ or their Russian sponsors. What I did see were demonstrations in many European cities, where demonstrators vented not so much their solidarity with the people of Gaza as their hatred of Jews (and Israel). Not surprisingly, not one of them referred to the fact that Hamas does all it can to hurt civilians on both sides of the border between Gaza and Israel.

Let us all recognize, once and for all, that victims are victims, that each victim of war, political violence, or ethnic and religious hatred, deserves our sympathy and solidarity, that the suffering of one victim does not justify the suffering of another victim, and that we have to bring our leaders to doing all that they can to prevent more suffering and casualties. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we saw one day peaceful mass demonstrations all over the world in support of áll victims and in protest against áll forms of violence against citizens. Maybe last week’s demonstrators in Warsaw, London, Paris and elsewhere in Europe ought to be invited to a seminar in Sarajevo. On the other hand, as far as I am aware there is no cure for blind hatred, stupidity, religious fanaticism, and a total lack of empathy.


About the Author
Yonathan Bar-On (Bert de Bruin) is a historian and an EAL teacher. He teaches English at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, and has written extensively for Dutch newspapers, and occasionally for American and Israeli newspapers and online media. Yonathan writes a weekly column for the Dutch daily Friesch Dagblad. In 1995 he immigrated to Israel from the Netherlands.
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