SAN FRANCISCO — Edward Serotta believes photographs he took 20 years ago during the Siege of Sarajevo are even more powerful today than when he first captured them. In a world in which sectarian violence continues to rage, the images he captured of Jews, Bosniak Muslims, Croatian Catholics and Orthodox Serbs helping one another survive in their sieged city continue to resonate.
Serotta’s photographs were originally published in a 1994 book titled, “Survival in Sarajevo: Jews, Bosnia, and the Lessons of the Past.” Now, two decades after the Bosnian War, some of them are featured in a traveling exhibit (also titled “Survival in Sarajevo”), which is currently on display at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library until March 16.
The exhibition was produced by Centropa, a Vienna-based educational non-profit organization the American Serotta founded in 2000 to document the oral histories and family photographs of elderly Jews living in Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Sephardic communities of Greece, Turkey and the Balkans.
“Survival in Sarajevo” tells the story of La Benevolencija, a Jewish ad-hoc humanitarian aid organization and community center that sprang up to help people of all backgrounds who were trapped in Sarajevo during the siege of April 1992 to February 1996. During this, the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, some 11,000 people were killed and more than 50,000 wounded.
Led by Holocaust survivors and their children, La Benevolencija (a Ladino word) was a potent example of how civil society stepped in when governments, both inside and out of the former Yugoslavia, failed.
Together with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, La Benevolencija was also able to arrange 11 convoys out of the city, the largest of which left in February 1994. Most of the 2,300 people on them — Jewish and not — ended up in Israel.
“I’m allergic to bullets, but I got on a UN C-130 transport plane and flew in to Sarajevo,” Serotta told The Times of Israel over a cup of coffee at a Palo Alto, Calif. café a few hours before the exhibition opened. “I wanted to see what was happening as Holocaust survivors were confronted again with a war of ethnic cleansing in the exact same place as before.”
Serotta, who had begun visiting Yugoslavia in 1985 to photograph for his book, “Out of the Shadows: A Photographic Portrait of Jewish Life in Central Europe Since the Holocaust,” went in and out of besieged Sarajevo between 1993 and 1995, spending a total of 45 days in the war zone. He worked as a freelance photographer and reporter for The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time, The Independent and Die Zeit, among other publications. (In 1996, he went back in search of the Sarajevo Haggadah for an ABC Nightline report.)
‘An entire society was surrounded and being starved in the heart of Europe’
“An entire society was surrounded and being starved in the heart of Europe. It was frightening, but at the same time I felt privileged to be there,” he reflected.
Both the nine-panel exhibition and an accompanying short educational film emphasize how Sarajevans of all ethnic backgrounds voluntarily pitched in to help at La Benevolencija. It was irrelevant if someone was a Jew, a Muslim, a Serb or a Croat. “No one asked, and no one cared,” Serotta said.
Several people spoke at the exhibition’s opening, including Eyal Naor, Israel’s deputy consul general in San Francisco. Before arriving in California last summer, he served as Israel’s deputy ambassador to Serbia in Belgrade from 2010 to 2013.
Tall, dark-haired Zina Besirevic spoke about how every day she would check the lists posted at La Benevolencija to see if a package had arrived for her family. Since Jews were not being targeted specifically by any of the warring sides, they were able to send and receive mail and deliver messages to the outside world.
“If a package came to La Benevolencija for you, then you knew there would be stuff still in it. All the other groups opened your packages and took stuff out so that there was nothing left when you got it,” recounted Besirevic, who was 13 when the war broke out.
Besirevic, who is now 30 and teaches human rights at the University of California at Berkeley, told the audience how she had just finished studying “The Diary of Anne Frank” before the war broke out. Stuck at home, forbidden from going outside by her parents for fear that she might be shot by a sniper, Besirevic identified strongly with the Holocaust heroine. She even took a page from Frank’s book, writing her own diary — only she addressed her entries to “Anne” instead of “Kitty.”
“It was an indescribably horrible situation,” Besirevic said. “We were living as hostages, stripped of our future and ability to dream. We were all suffering, and it was our shared humanity that pulled us through.”
In her presentation, Besirevic did not mention her religious or ethnic background. When asked later by a reporter how she identifies ethnically, she seemed offended, even wounded. “I identify as a cosmopolitan,” she answered after a few moments.
While Serotta is not from Sarajevo, he nonetheless has a personal tie to the place: A Muslim boy who appears in some of his photographs, Denis Karalic, has become, for all intents and purposes, his son.
As a young teenager, Karalic volunteered to deliver water for La Benevolencija. “He was kind of on his own, and he followed me around,” Serotta told The Times of Israel. “He just wouldn’t go away,” he added half-jokingly.
Karalic was injured in January 1994, and was sent out of Sarajevo on a convoy the next month. Serotta supported the boy financially as he studied and lived at the Yemin Orde Youth Village near Haifa. Karalic stayed in Israel between the ages of 14 and 18, and after finishing high school, he joined Serotta in Vienna.
“He had been injured in the war, so he wasn’t going to fight in anybody’s army,” Serotta remarked about Karalic’s decision not to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces.
Karalic, who is now 33 and employed by the Jewish Museum Vienna, has always worked for the Jewish community. Serotta remains the father figure in his life. “I’ve got him and he’s got me,” Serotta said.
Although “Survival in Sarajevo” is available for viewing by everyone, Serotta is most concerned about getting its message through to young people.
With kids in mind, he sums up what it is trying to get across in the simplest of terms: “You’ve got to be stupid to hate someone because of their religion.”