Survival in Sarajevo: Jews, Muslims & Christians Working Together During the Bosnian War

by Alanna Berman September 26, 2012


The year 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian War, which lasted from 1992-96 and pitted neighbors — many of whom had grown up together and attended each other’s family gatherings and celebrations — against one another. Following the Bosnian declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in March 1992, Bosnian Serb nationalists and the Yugoslav National Army began a systematic policy of “ethnic cleansing” to establish a “pure” Serb republic. All other ethnic groups were forcibly displaced or killed, and entire villages were destroyed.

The worst of the war’s attrocities were centered in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital and largest city. The seige of Sarajevo was the longest in modern history, lasting three and a half years, cutting off the entire city from the rest of the world. Thousands were murdered at the hands of Serbian forces, and the city was decimated. What resulted was a story of how Muslims, Christians and Jews put aside their differences and worked together in the face of terrible adversity simply to live. It is a story of survival, and a story about doing the right thing.

San Diego State University’s Jewish Studies Program and Religious Studies Department’s Initiative For Moral Courage will tell the story this month through the series “Survival in Sarajevo: Jews, Muslims and Christians
Working Together During the Bosnian War, Oct. 14-17, as part of their second Symposium on Moral Courage. Through a multi-faceted presentation that includes photographs, film, eyewitness testimony and academic lectures, the story of the people of Sarajevo will be told.

“[Given that] it is the 20th anniversary of the siege of the city of Sarajevo, it’s kind of a fitting commemoration,” says Risa Levitt Kohn, director of SDSU’s Jewish Studies Program and co-director for the Initiative for Moral Courage.

Kohn, along with Rebecca Moore (also of the Jewish Studies Program) ran the first Symposium on Moral Courage at SDSU a year ago. Both say the decision to examine the story of Sarajevo’s Jews for the university’s second symposium was a calculated one.

“It was only 20 years ago that a city that was really a leading capital of Europe fell apart very, very rapidly, and I think that was shocking, particularly to the rest of Europe,” Kohn says. “Maybe not in the U.S., where we are not as aware of the comings and goings of eastern Europe, but certainly in Europe, the fall of Sarajevo was utterly shocking. To bring awareness to what happened during that conflict, and then to show how people of conscience resisted the urge to pick up arms, and at the same time attempted to save other people’s lives in spite of differences in class, religion and ethnicity, is really an important message.”

The story of Sarajevo, Kohn and Moore say, is a great example of moral courage, because it’s about people who “behaved in an exemplary fashion when everything around them seemed to be breaking down, and it was the least likely way in which you would believe they would behave.”

Sarajevo’s Jewish community during the war was certainly an example of moral courage. Mostly Sephardic, many of Sarajevo’s Jews came to the city after the Spanish expulsion in the 1490s, living alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbors for centuries before the German expulsion of European Jews in the 1940s. The Jewish population in Sarajevo was decimated during the Holocaust, but a small kernel of it remained.

“It was these Holocaust survivors and their children who really began the [humanitarian aid] program which became known as La Benevolencija, which was housed in this run-down synagogue in the middle of the city and brought in Christians and Serb Croats and Muslims, and they all cooperated to provide relief for the city,” Kohn says of an aid program initiated during the Bosnian War.

Bolstered by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, La Benevolencija provided a postal service, food and medical services, and it ran generators for electricity after the city was cut off from the power grid.

Writer and photographer Edward Serotta spent a week during the beginning of the war in Sarajevo taking photographs for various news agencies and returned to the city for several other trips between October 1993 and April 1995. His photographs will be the crux of the symposium and part of a month-long exhibition in the University’s library beginning Oct. 14. The same day, Serotta will speak at 11 a.m. to kick off the symposium’s events.

“The story of what happened in Sarajevo in the 1990s is the only example of a Jewish community that had been destroyed by the Holocaust, and having its few members left, [those being] Holocaust survivors and their children, reaching out in a war zone to help others,” Serotta says. “That had never happened, and that is what makes the story especially compelling, is that this was an organization founded by Holocaust survivors and their children.”

Serotta has a personal connection to the story, too: He informally adopted one of the children of war-torn Sarajevo, who was the subject of one of his photographs from the exhibition.

“The JDC was sending food and medicine in [to the region] and funding rescue missions out, so the photograph shows Denis [Karalic] leaving Sarajevo at 13 years old,” Serotta says of the powerful image he captured of a young boy alone on a bus out of the city and on his way to Israel in the middle of February 1994, during the heart of the war.

While Serotta’s photographs will be on display for a month, the symposium itself will take place over the course of four days and focus in part on the story covered in his photographs and La Benevolencija as an agency in two talks given by the Serotta and Jakob Finci, the first and current president of La Benevolencija and the Jewish Community of Sarajevo.

The rest of the symposium will examine the war from a wider lens, looking at the conflict in general terms through film and music. Kohn says this aspect of the event will look at the story in non-conventional ways.

Pamela Hogan, writer and producer of the film “I Came to Testify,” one of five films in a PBS series entitled “Women, War and Peace,” will present the film and participate in a Q and A session afterward at 3 p.m. Oct. 14.

“The series in general looks at how women are targeted in unprecedented ways in today’s wars,” Hogan says, “but also how they are really changing the rules of engagement, often in underreported and in unseen ways, both as peacemakers and as witnesses.

“In the case of this film, a small group of very courageous women who were targeted through mass rape as a tool of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces … did a really courageous thing and for the first time in history, stepped forward in a court of law and told their story, faced their attackers and told what had happened to them.”

Traveling up to 1,000 miles each day to tell their story, the 16 women in the film lost everything when their neighbors turned on them during the war. The case was the first time in the history of criminal tribunals where only sexual violence was charged, and as a result of the women’s testimony, a groundbreaking verdict determined that rape and sexual slavery were a crime against humanity, changing international law in the case of a criminal tribunal.

“The women in the film are not Jewish but are in fact Muslim, and were attacked by Serbian soldiers,” Hogan says. “The way they relate to the symposium is that we are looking at individual acts of courage, sort of the ways that ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances summon really unusual courage.”

A second film, “Grbavica: Land of My Dreams,” will be presented by retired Nasatir Chair of Modern Jewish History and former SDSU professor Lawrence Baron Oct. 15. Though the film is a fictional piece, the subject is the long-term effect of war on a Bosnian woman and her daughter. The winner of the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, the highest prize at the festival, the film was chosen to be part of the symposium for the critical acclaim it received after its release in Europe.

The closing event, “Songs of Sarajevo: Music of the Jews, Muslims and Christians,” with SDSU Artist in Residence Yale Strom, will present folk music from the intersection of these three distinct cultures Oct. 17.

“People were able to get beyond cultural and political differences to help one another,” Strom says. “Music is a common language, all people love music and in fact, some of the best musicians in Sarajevo both before the war and even today, were either Jews or Roma.

“The music is a microcosm of all these people who lived in the city of Sarajevo… the Bosnian music, the Serbian and the Roma and the Ladino music, and even the Jewish music were strongly influenced by the Ottoman church because the Ottoman Empire ruled over the region for many hundreds of years until World War I, and they left a very strong imprint in terms of cultural ways, so the music will have a definite Ottoman, Balkan flavor.”

Audiences will notice an unusual percussion style, which will be comprised of hand drums rather than a traditional drum set, and accordion sounds as part of the presentation. A reed section will add to the music’s Middle Eastern flair. Strom and his band members will perform a world premiere original piece during the concert, too, called “Nexus.” Written for two accordions and percussion, the piece will display the versatility and the various styles of music through an accordion concerto.

“We are commemorating the history [of the Bosnian War] and looking at what is going on today, and while things are better, there is still some work to be done in the Sarajevo region,” Strom says. “Music, when it comes from your mother-town, [can be transformed] and you can take in the melody, create your own lyrics and synthesize the music to your own background, history and needs, so music really is a glue and a common language among all these minorities and all the people who live in Sarajevo and continue to foster brotherhood [there].”

For the symposium’s, the take-away message from the series of events is as important as the events themselves.

“In terms of moral courage, every day, human beings perform tremendous acts of courage with great risk to themselves, their families and loved ones,” Moore says. “In terms of instruction regarding moral courage, [we try to emphasize] that anyone can do it and in fact, everyone is called to be courageous; we just never know when that will happen. In terms of Sarajevo, in a life and death situation, it was pretty clear to people living there that they had to do something, and they could either fight and engage in war, or they could choose to cooperate and engage in peacemaking. And that was a very dangerous option; it’s in fact much easier to pick up a gun than a bag of rice, [but that’s what the people there did].”

The symposiums (the first, held last year, and the second, this month) are also part of a larger plan to bring the Initiative for Moral Courage into the spotlight and eventually become an institute at SDSU, with an academic component.

“The goal is to create something permanent here,” Moore says, “where there will be a center for people to come together and explore the topic in all of its various formations: Sarajevo, genocide, the Holocaust and whatever it is, both from an academic perspective in terms of classes that could be offered here, but of course also to bring students, faculty and the community together.”

• Sponsors of the symposium include the Leichtag Family Foundation, the Jewish Federation of San Diego County, the Center for Jewish Culture, the Jewish Studies Program and San Diego State University. Registration for the symposium is free and open to the community. For more information or to register, visit


Symposium Schedule

Oct. 13: Exhibition Opening and Reception at SDSU’s Love Library (By Invitation)
with remarks by Edward Serotta and Jacob Finci

Oct. 14, 11 a.m.: Edward Serotta, director, CENTROPA: “Survival in Sarajevo: Jews, Bosnia and the Lessons of the Past.” At the Fowler Family Ballroom, Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center

Oct. 14, 1 p.m.: Jakob Finci, president of La Benevolencija, and the Jewish Community of Bosnia Herzegovina: “The Sarajevo Haggada: Symbol of Hope.” At the Fowler Family Ballroom, Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center


Oct. 14, 3 p.m.: Film Screening: “I Came to Testify” with writer/producer Pamela Hogan. At the Fowler Family Ballroom, Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center


Oct. 14-Nov. 14, during regular library hours: Photography Exhibition: “Survival in Sarajevo: Jews, Muslims, Serbs and Croats Working Together During the Bosnian War.” At SDSU’s Love Library


Oct. 15, 7 p.m.: Film Screening: “Grbavica: Land of My Dreams,” with Dr. Lawrence Baron, SDSU. At Fowler Athletic Center Auditorium


Oct. 17, 7 p.m.: Closing Musical Event. Featuing SDSU Artist in Residence Yale Strom. “The Songs of Sarajevo: Music of the Jews, Muslims and Christians.” At Rhapsody Hall, Music Building

3 thoughts on “Survival in Sarajevo: Jews, Muslims & Christians Working Together During the Bosnian War

  1. Wow, this sounds like a great symposium. I wish I lived in San Diego. I was lucky enough to be in Sarajevo as they commemorated the 20-year-anniversary this past April. There was a moving display of 11,541 chairs for every soul in Sarajevo who perished during the siege. This is an amazing city, amazing people, and I am glad you are shining the spotlight on contemporary issues too. I had never thought of going to Sarajevo until the day I read Bill Carter’s “Fools Rush In” – about his experience hand-delivering aid during the war. It’s an amazing and inspiring story of love, courage, compassion and humanity.

  2. what about the serbian woman and girls who where raped by the muslim army in sarajevo will they be mentioned

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