Holocaust survivors in conflict over Bosnian war

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But the situation may be even more complex for Holocaust survivors. Despite their angst over human suffering in Bosnia, many cannot help but associate the events in the former Yugoslavia with its dark World War II past.

While the world targets the Bosnian Serbs as the main perpetrators of atrocities, for example, survivors recall that 50 years ago the Serbs were the party considered most sympathetic to Yugoslavian Jews. And while it is the Bosnian Muslims who are currently the most visible objects of oppression, survivors point out that some Muslims in the former Yugoslavia volunteered for the Nazi's murderous Handzar division.

Meanwhile, the Croats, also widely viewed as victims in the ongoing strife, are considered to have been especially cruel to Jews — and others — as part of the World War II fascist Ustasha regime.

While survivors understand that most of the individuals involved in today's conflict were not personally responsible for World War II injustices, such tangled historical roots make an already complex situation even more complicated.

Survivors "feel that the official government stance is with the wrong party," said survivor Louis de Groot, president of the Holocaust Center of Northern California in San Francisco. "That's why the Holocaust Center has never been involved in taking a [stance] in it. The Serbs have a much better record of helping the Jews. The Croats went out of their way to murder Jews."

Early in the 3-year-old Bosnian war and again last week following the Bosnian Serb assault on United Nations "safe areas," national Jewish organizations strongly condemned the human rights abuses in Bosnia and called for international action to halt the bloodshed.

Local survivors say that just because they haven't taken an official stance against the war doesn't mean they are unmoved by the human suffering they observe. But some feel differently about expressing outrage.

"What we have to realize is that this self-righteous indignation [only] helps us to assuage our guilt, to feel we've done something about [the war]," said Dr. Michael Thaler, a survivor and former president of the Holocaust Center.

"But doing something about it means sending our sons to die on the hills of Sarajevo. I don't believe any survivor would send his son to die for that cause," he added, given the fact that Jews were once victimized by parties involved in the current conflict.

Compounding survivors' mixed feelings toward the Bosnian conflict are the frequent analogies drawn by the news media and others between the Holocaust and the Bosnian war. It's a comparison rejected by many survivors, including Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, one of the first survivors to speak out against Bosnian atrocities.

"The Holocaust was a historic tragedy and nothing can be compared to it," Wiesel said in December. "What is happening in the former Yugoslavia is already serious enough that it should not be described in an exaggerated way."

Thaler, a San Francisco pediatrician, went even further, calling the analogy "profoundly disturbing," and "historically and morally inappropriate."

"There is very little to connect it to the Holocaust other than that it's another set of atrocities being perpetrated," he said.

The analogy also disturbs Professor Gerald Feldman, a European history specialist at U.C. Berkeley who is Jewish, though not a Holocaust survivor. "I get really horribly upset with the analogies with the Holocaust, which I think are crazy," he said, "and the Jewish community has bought into all this stuff."

Many in the Jewish community have expressed dismay over the violence in Bosnia with the phrase "never again." Earlier this week, the New York Times ran an ad juxtaposing a famous picture of a young boy emerging from the Warsaw ghetto with a Nazi pointing a gun to his head and a Bosnian mother and daughter, presumably Muslim refugees, holding each other and crying. The headline reads "ethnic cleansing 1942, ethnic cleansing 1995."

"It's terrifying when you make an analogy between the Serbs, who after all fought Hitler, and Hitler. It's absolutely nuts," Feldman said. "If you want an analogy with the Holocaust, [look at] Rwanda. There you have people who plotted deliberately to systematically exterminate other people."

Nevertheless, on a visceral level, the widespread suffering taking place in Bosnia does evoke the Holocaust for some survivors.

"It makes me very mad. It makes me very hurt," said survivor Ernie Hollander of Oakland. "It wakes up what happened 50 years ago — killing so many innocent children, especially children who cannot help themselves."

Others in the Holocaust community also draw parallels between the two situations. Last fall, in fact, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., mounted a photo exhibit depicting the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.

The exhibit — which also was displayed at the United Nations and the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles — drew the ire of some in the Serbian community who called the photos anti-Serb propaganda.

But officials of the Holocaust Memorial Museum defended their decision, saying it is their mission to teach the implications of the Holocaust.

"If we were only to deal with the crimes of yesterday, we could have turned our heads, but human morality demands we cannot and should not turn our heads away," Miles Lerman, chair of the museum council, said at the exhibit opening.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, also believes that acknowledging the profound human rights violations taking place today in Bosnia does not necessarily mean ignoring the abuses various sides in the current conflict committed during World War II.

"Those who collaborated with the Nazis must still be accountable for that action," Kahn said. "One should look at those issues candidly, as survivors demand, and at the same time call the human rights atrocities as we see them."

The local JCRC, one of the first Jewish organizations in the country to speak out publicly against human rights abuses in Bosnia, will reassess the situation at its upcoming August meeting, Kahn said. At that point, he added, the organization will decide which, if any, statements it will make in regard to the crisis.

After months of silence on the Bosnian war, some national Jewish organizations again raised their voices last week in response to the July 11 assault by rebel Bosnian Serbs on the U.N. "safe area" of Srebrenica.

In separate statements, the American Jewish Congress and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council — the umbrella body for local Jewish communal relations organizations — condemned Srebrenica's fall and the West's ineffectiveness in preventing such events. The two organizations also urged the United States to lift its participation in the Bosnia arms embargo so that the Muslim-led Bosnian government can defend its citizens.

"We deplore the United States' failure to provide effective international leadership while millions of people have been forced to flee their homes and hundreds of thousands have been killed because of their ethnicity or religion," said the statement from NJCRAC chair Lynn Lyss.

Whether or not such people liken the Bosnian civil war to the Holocaust, many do see world complacency in the face of the Balkan bloodshed as disturbingly reminiscent of the silence that met Jewish cries 50 years ago.

That inaction is particularly upsetting to survivors.

"We certainly don't expect anybody to stand up for them — no one is going to do anything anyway," de Groot said. "They're all going to sit and talk and that will be it, which is a very sad commentary 50 years after the Second World War."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.