(photo credit: Molly Gellert)
of war left holes on buildings, we left stones on graves, but the biggest
imprint of Sarajevo was left on my heart.
“If we hadn’t pulled over so
that I could vomit, we would have never found the cemetery.”
comment from my dear friend Elise was completely true, the only thing that kept
me from laughing hysterically was the gulp of water I had just taken. I ducked
for cover and quickly swallowed, gasping for air and coughing between laughs.
Reminiscing about our Sarajevo rendezvous is one of my and Elise’s favorite
“What? It’s true!”
“I know it is, that’s what’s so funny!” I said
using the upper corner of my shirt to wipe my chin clean of the dribble of water
that had managed to escape my mouth.
Sarajevo was not on my “to see” list. If I
thought of Bosnia-Herzegovina at all, I thought of war. But last year Elise had
a conference in Sarajevo, and well, when you live in Budapest and your friend is
in Sarajevo you really have no choice but to visit.
I’ll never forget my
cab ride from the airport into downtown Sarajevo. My face clung to the glass of
the window with my mouth completely ajar in disbelief. Scars from the 1992-1995
siege, where Bosnian Serb forces encircled the city from up high, were
everywhere. There were baseball sized bullet holes on almost every building we
drove past. In the one moment I managed to turn away, I caught a glimpse of the
cab driver looking at me in the rear-view mirror. “See,” his eyes told me, “see
what we’ve survived?”
The city itself is beautiful. It sits nestled in rolling
green hills making it an unfortunately easy target for its four year siege. The
streets are busy with outdoor cafes and familiar chain stores. You see churches
next to mosques and even a synagogue or two.
After a long day tucked away at her
conference, Elise ventured out with me to experience Sarajevan nightlife. We
learned that unfortunately, that includes shots of Bosnian rubbing alcohol.
Pounding headaches and swirling stomachs plagued us the next morning. Still we
tried to be good sightseers: we posed along the Miljacka River that splits the
city, standing at the exact location of the assassination of Archduke Franz
Ferdinand - the event that sparked World War I. We even visited the
out-of-the-way yet unmissable Tunnel Museum which documents means of survival
during the siege.
It was after the Tunnel Museum visit that it happened.
We were in a taxi heading back to the city. It was a miserably hot day and our
cab driver swerved through the winding side streets as if we were in a high
pursuit. The jerkiness of the car on the windy roads combined with the remaining
residue of the Bosnian rubbing alcohol sent our stomachs into somersaults.
Somehow we communicated to him that we needed to pull over to puke. And that’s
when Elise saw it: a Star of David peeking out from a wooded hill. “There’s the
cemetery!” she said, lifting her head from the pavement to wipe her mouth. And
that is how we accidentally stumbled upon one of Sarajevo’s best off the beaten
The driver waited a few moments as we walked through the
Jewish cemetery, a place though seemingly hidden, could not hide from the
bullets of war. Originally opened in 1630, Sepulchral Ensemble, as it is called,
it is one of Europe’s largest Jewish cemeteries. Yet its strategic setting along
Mount Trebevic, made it an ideal location for Bosnian Serbs aiming down onto the
city during the siege. Generations of these Jewish tombstones became spotted
with bullet holes from crossfire. We walked around, said our hellos, a few
prayers and observed the tradition of leaving a small rock on a headstone.
a less unsettling cab ride back into the city, Elise and I decided to visit
Sarajevo’s other hot spots for Jews. We headed to Sarajevo’s only functioning
synagogue, easily referred to in English as Sarajevo Synagogue -- built in 1902
-- and Sarajevo’s Jewish Museum, housed in a synagogue constructed in 1581. We
learned that under the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia was one of the only territories in
Europe that welcomed Jews after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal. This
helped lay an important foundation of a culture of peaceful coexistence between
Jews and Muslims in Sarajevo.
The churches next to the mosques next to the
synagogues in Sarajevo started to have more meaning for me. Despite lingering
ill-will that some may have after the war, one group’s reputation came out not
only unblemished but in a more favorable light: the Jews. Considered a
religiously and ethnically neutral group, Bosnian Jews provided medical services
and food to all in need, regardless of their ethnicity or position in the war.
This neutrality allowed Jewish organizations such as La Benevolencija to
negotiate the safe passage to Croatia of about 3,000 “new Jews,” those who
either re-discovered their true Jewish heritage or could get necessary documents
in the nick of time.
On my cab ride back to the airport I was less glued to the
window and more entrenched in my own thoughts on what’s to come for Bosnian
members of the tribe. Only good things, I’m sure. This week alone, five Jewish
youths from Bosnia competed at the Maccabiah Games, the international “Jewish
Olympics” held every four years in Israel. While that’s just five Jewish youth
athletic participants out of a total of 9000, it’s certainly a start.Molly Gellert is a Jewish World columnist based in New York, US. She earned her
BA in Politics from Occidental College and MA in Government with a
specialization in Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution from the Interdisciplinary
Center in Herzliya. Previously, Molly served as a research assistant for the
International Institute for Counter-Terrorism and as an intelligence analyst for
the New Jersey Regional Operations Intelligence Center.
Contact Molly at