Europe Unexpected: I left my heart in Sarajevo

Sarajevo was not on my "to see" list, but by the time I headed back to the airport, I was entrenched in thoughts of what's to come for Bosnia's Jews.

Sarajevo 370 (photo credit: Molly Gellert)
Sarajevo 370
(photo credit: Molly Gellert)
Bullets 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.”
Although this 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 past-times.
“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 track attractions.
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.
After 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 [email protected]