As soon as the shelling began, marking the start of the three-year-long Bosnian War, several people rushed to Sarajevo’s only synagogue for shelter. Within a short time, that city’s last remaining synagogue became not just a place of refuge but also a round-the-clock assistance provider for Jews, Muslims and Croatians.
The amazing story of how, even in wartime, people got along and helped each other was depicted last week in a large, nine-panel display at the entrance of the Russell Senate Office Building.
As the war started in 1992, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, cooks, two-way radio operators, security workers, mail deliverers and others formed La Benevolencija, a humanitarian aid organization with open doors for all. A group of women spent their days making treats for the children and putting on puppet shows.
Most of the organization’s funding was provided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. It also underwrote the 11 convoys which took people out of Sarajevo to the Croatian coast.
La Benevolencija was staffed by Holocaust survivors and their families, Bosnian Muslims, Catholics and Serbian Orthodox. Their tale was made into a moving 11-minute film, Survival in Sarajevo-Friendship in a Time of War.
Having been expelled from Spain during the Inquisition and suffered greatly through the Holocaust, the Jews in Bosnia tended to view themselves more as residents of Europe than actual Bosnians, explained Edward Serotta, who created the exhibit and is director of Centropa, an oral history project that interviews elderly Jews living throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Sephardi communities of Greece, Turkey and the Balkans.
“They refused to take sides and insisted upon being neutral,” Serotta said of the Jews. Whoever came to the synagogue was helped. “They did what they felt was normal. They refused to give in to hate,” he said.
The synagogue and its social hall “was such a warm, welcoming place” in a city in which up to 1,600 mortar shells were dropped on many days. “Sure, everybody was frightened. Mortars and snipers have that reaction on people,” he said.
All those who came to the synagogue were helped in some way, and no one was asked their ethnic or religious background, he said. “No one asked. No one cared,” it is stated in the display, which is traveling around the country, mostly being exhibited at schools.
Serotta told of a refugee who needed help and was told, “ ‘Go to the Jews. They will help you, and if they can’t help, at least they’ll listen.’ ” There was a saying in the streets of Sarajevo, Serotta said. “When the Jews are leaving, it’s a bad sign for the city.”
The display was created from Serotta’s book, Survival in Sarajevo: Jews, Bosnia and the Lessons of the Past. Exhibited in the Russell building from May 12-16, the exhibit is filled with touching photos of those involved with La Benevolencija, as well as graphic depictions of a city at war. One of the photos is a close-up of a newspaper’s obituary page, showing how many had died. Still others show how people could speak with their relatives outside of the besieged city thanks to the workings of the organization’s two-way radio, which operated whenever the city had electricity.
In another example of how welcoming the Jewish community was, one panel simply states, “In post-World War II Yugoslavia, the Jewish community welcomed you if your mother was Jewish, your father was Jewish, or if your grandmother played bridged with someone who was Jewish.”
La Benevolencija still operates for those in need. One of its former volunteers, Denis Kanlic was a young Muslim boy who helped carry water during the war. He eventually was sent to Israel by his father for safety. He went to school in Haifa before moving to Vienna where he works for the Holocaust Restitution Agency there. In the 11-minute film, he is asked why a Muslim would be involved in such work. He replies, “So by my working here today, perhaps I can pay just a little bit of that back.”