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Commentary: The Bosnia Memory Project: Worlds lost and found

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 28, 2012 - In 2005, I was asked to deliver a message, clergy style, at a memorial remembering 10 years since the massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia. The memorial took place at the History Museum,

I showed up on a Saturday afternoon, sang a song and read a poem I had written for the occasion. The song was from the lost Jewish world of Sarajevo, something I knew little about other than a few tunes taught to me by my teacher who had passed through there on his way to freedom before I was born.

The audience was mostly Bosnian Muslim, many of them refugees from the U.N. “safe havens” of Sarajevo and Srebrenica. It is estimated that there are between 35,000 and 40,000 Bosnian refugees in the St. Louis area.

It began for me with these melodies taught to me by my teacher, particularly a Spanish-Jewish song that the Bosnian Jews sang to remember their rootedness in Spain. The Jews had come to Sarajevo by way of Salonika, after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. They brought with them a language, a music, an entire culture inflected in Spanish, and a memory of a Golden Age in medieval Spain. The music had a specific character to me that was unique.

What is so beautiful about this music? What is it about the place that produced such music? What about Salonika, what about Sarajevo, what about these lost communities that produced such music? I meant to pursue it, but I didn’t. Until that commemoration for the massacred in Srebrenica, in 2005, when I was asked to prepare a song, tell a story. It moved people, and I was then asked to prepare an entire concert.

O God, I said in my heart as I pursued the story, protect the remnant, save the few and let the story rise of what happened there. What happened there? Something wonderful and something terrible.

Terrible: the worst mass murder in Europe since World War II. By the time of the Dayton accords that ended the fighting in 1995, more than 200,000 Muslim civilians had been systematically killed, more than 20,000 were missing and suspected dead, more than 2 million had become exiles.

According to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrook, it was “the greatest failure of the West since the '30s” -- a failure to intervene earlier.

Wonderful: what might have happened there, the possibilities from peace that Jews and Muslims had created and sometimes lived, in what today is called Bosnia; a second Golden Age, as one of the Bosnian Muslims who attended my concert described it.

We Jews referred to Sarajevo at one time as Yerushalayim chica, a little Jerusalem. There was a well known yeshivah [house of learning] there and a few celebrated rabbis whose stories I had uncovered through my research.

I had found a complex story in Bosnia, though the Jews there had mostly been eliminated by the Nazis, and many had left since the Bosnian war of the early '90s. Today, only a remnant remains. Still, the memory of peaceful relations, and that yearning for peace alone are a worthy story, a necessary story. I realized how important such stories are.

These are stories that belong to the category of dreams of peace that sustain; something concealed in the little-known histories of corners of the world that rose and fell and struggled to get up again and unless the stories are told no one will know.

I am dreaming peace all the time now out of these half-formed images from the past, I see how the dream of peace can inspire even when it has failed, I understand the length to which human beings will go to dream up, to attach ourselves to something that might have been, something that we could create, something that might yet be, if not for this, if not for that.

The poetry piece with music that I wrote and delivered to the mostly Bosnian audience at the History Museum combined basically four stories:

  • one of a famous rabbi of Sarajevo, early 19th century, whose burial place became revered by Jews and Muslims both;
  • the story of the Jewish community's response to the war in the early 1990s and the revival of a social service arm dormant for years that became the main avenue of support within Sarajevo during the War;
  • the longing for the Jewish community’s origins in Spain;
  • and the mysterious tale of the celebrated Sarajevo Haggadah that resides in the National Museum in Sarajevo today after a long and unusual history.

I told all the stories in poetry and music, and I struck something deep. Many of the Bosnians in the room knew these stories, parts of them anyway, even some of the music I sang was familiar, they were familiar with the Jewish story as it has played out in Sarajevo and other locations near there over the last 500 years. There were tears and much deep talk after the performance piece.
I took this dream of peace and wove it into stories and songs, gave it back to the Bosnians and a group of interested Jews another Sunday in a concert that not only reminded them of where they came from, but what might have been. It was well received, from heart to heart, it wasn’t so much a concert as a communicated dream of peace squeezed out of our shared longing for better times.

Those of us who have known exile dream deeply the sense of return, the longing for rootedness. When we dream, we dream up.

A photographic exhibit at Fontbonne University tells the history of Bosnia’s Jewish community, as well as the remarkable story of La Benevolencija, the Jewish humanitarian aid agency that provided a soup kitchen, medical clinic, pharmacy, two-way radio communication, postal services, and civilian evacuation to the besieged city’s Serbs, Croats, and Muslims without any distinction to religious-ethnic background.
James Stone Goodman is a rabbi, musician and poet. This column also appeared in his Uncommon Tales blog.