Earlier this month, I was privileged to lead a delegation of the World Jewish Congress to Bosnia and Herzegovina for a commemoration marking the 28th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. On a personal level, I found this pilgrimage deeply meaningful in two respects: first, because, as the son of two survivors of the Nazi death and concentration camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and as someone who was born in a Displaced Persons camp, I identify intuitively with the victims and survivors of genocides and crimes against humanity; and second, because this was my final substantive initiative as the WJC’s associate executive vice president and general counsel before I step down from these positions at the end of August.
The horrific facts of the genocide are not in question, except in certain extreme – and discredited, mostly Bosnian Serb and Serb – circles. Between July 11 and July 16, 1995, Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces of the Bosnian Serb separatist proto-state known as Republika Srpska, under the command of General Ratko Mladić, massacred more than 8,000 Bosniak – that is, Bosnian Muslim – men and boys in and around the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which the United Nations had declared a “safe area” under its protection. These same Republika Srpska forces also deported more than 25,000 Bosniak women, children, and elderly men from Srebrenica. A Dutch U.N. battalion, known as Dutchbat, headquartered in a former battery factory at nearby Potočari, not only turned desperate Bosniaks away but callously handed over thousands to Mladić’s wannabe stormtroopers.
Since then, a succession of trial and appellate panels of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), as well as the International Court of Justice, have declared the Srebrenica killings to have been a genocide. Among the Bosnian Serbs convicted of genocide – the first such convictions in Europe since the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Genocide Convention in 1948 – were Mladić and Republika Srpska President Radovan Karadžić.
Under the terms of the November 1995 Dayton Accords meant to restore a semblance of peace to Bosnia after four years of brutal warfare, Bosnia was divided into a Bosnian Croat federation and the aforementioned Republika Srpska. While the Srebrenica genocide and the countless crimes against humanity committed by the ultranationalist Bosnian Serb troops under Mladić’s command against the Bosniaks are a continuously burning scar for the country’s Muslim population, the prevailing attitude in Republika Srpska’s governing circles is one of genocide denial and even affirmative glorification of Mladić and his troops and their Serb supremacist ideology.
Identifying With Pain and Torment
The principal goal of the WJC delegation to Bosnia on July 9-11 was to identify ourselves, both individually and as the organization representing more than 100 Jewish communities across the globe, with the tremendous pain and torment suffered to this day by the Bosniak people. Over the years, individual Jewish leaders and activists had also been to Bosnia for this July anniversary. I was privileged to address the commemoration at Potočari in 2022. This time around, however, we wanted there to be a more pronounced collective Jewish presence on this occasion, and the delegation was truly international and representative of the WJC as a whole.
Included in the group were two members of the WJC’s Steering Committee, Mary Kluk from South Africa and Eli Novershtern from Israel, as well as two members of the WJC Executive Committee, Dr. Efrat Sopher from the United Kingdom and Sonat Birnecker Hart from the United States; Konstanty Gebert, a prominent Polish-Jewish journalist and author who had been a war correspondent during the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia; members of the WJC’s Jewish Diplomatic Corps, the organization’s flagship future leadership division, from Bosnia, Germany, Israel, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States; and members of the WJC’s senior staff, including Daniel Radomski, head of strategy and programs and executive director of the JD Corps; Ernest Herzog, executive director of operations; Maya Cimeša Samokovija, executive director of community affairs; and Cory Weiss, executive director of communications strategy. A substantial number of our group were either children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.
This was not the WJC’s first identification with the commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide. Three years ago, two of the members of this year’s WJC delegation, Gila Baumöhl from Frankfurt and Vladimir Andrle from Sarajevo, started a JD Corps social media and opinion writing campaign to raise awareness of the Srebrenica genocide. “As Jews, we look back upon a more than 4,000-year-old history that has been plagued by discrimination, persecution and extermination against our people, culminating with deliberate extermination of six million Jews during the Holocaust,” Gila Baumöhl wrote on July 9, 2020, in Germany’s Jüdische Allgemeine. “We carry this history and the memory of the victims, of our relatives, with us. It is part of our DNA. Hence, we know what it means when human beings are systematically being murdered because of their religion or ethnicity – like in Srebrenica.”
The concept of a JD Corps delegation came out of a meeting some months ago between Ambassador Sven Alkalai, then Bosnia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (and now his country’s ambassador to the United States), Daniel Radomski and me, followed by a Zoom call with Emir Suljagić, the director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center at Potočari. We decided that on July 10, 2023, the day before the commemoration, we would hold a day-long conference on collective memory at the center, enabling our delegation to share and exchange thoughts with members of Bosniak civil society as well as senior staff of the center. Among the topics to be discussed were how to remember the missing and the dead; the roles of memorials, museums, and education in preserving memory; confronting Holocaust and genocide denial and distortion; our responsibility to the dead and the survivors; and fighting political and ideological extremism in Europe.
Our group arrived in Potočari on Sunday, July 9, and were taken through the memorial center, located in the very buildings where, 28 years earlier, the purported Dutchbat peacekeepers had betrayed the Bosniaks they were supposed to protect. The Srebrenica Memorial Center that is there now is extraordinarily impressive in all respects – it is in the same league as other major Holocaust or genocide memorial centers anywhere in the world. This is all the more remarkable as it was achieved on a shoestring — and largely in isolation, with Potočari situated several hours’ drive from the nearest city.
But perhaps that is one of the center’s strengths – its staff members are a group of mostly genocide survivors, spurred on by internal fires and defiant of the ideological heirs of their families’ and friends’ killers, who seek to distort, or totally erase, their nightmarish, still-vivid memories.
Amra Begić Fazlić, the center’s deputy director, has been there for more than 18 years. Her steady, reassuring presence is the yin to Suljagić’s exuberant yang. Amra’s father, grandfather, 26 other relatives, and her best friend were all murdered in the genocide. “We have waited to see our loved ones off to eternal peace,” she says, reflecting the sentiments of the entire staff, “and now we keep the memory of all of them. That’s why it’s more than work. It is a mission that has no end.” In a very real sense, she and her colleagues bear visible and hidden scars. “The victim does not necessarily have to be dead,” she explains, “we are indirect victims of the Srebrenica genocide.”
Almasa Salihović, the center’s communications director, was just eight years old when Bosnian Serbs literally tore her brother out of her arms and took him to be killed. Those are memories that could – and by all rights probably should – have psychologically scarred her for life. And yet she is upbeat, usually with a smile on her face, a consummate professional, who has channeled her understandable anger and anguish into a passionate commitment to her brother’s memory and the memory of the more than 8,000 other victims of the genocide.
Azir Osmanović, the center’s chief curator, took us through an exhibition titled “In the footsteps of those who did (not) cross,” depicting the desperate efforts of Bosniak men and boys to escape Srebrenica through the forests to the relative safety of Tuzla, the nearest free city. Most of these Bosniaks were murdered in relatively short order. The exhibition features artifacts found on their trail, including shoes – all that remains of those who once wore them – lined up like ghosts on an endless, motionless death march. Seeing these shoes, I thought of the mountains of shoes at Auschwitz, perhaps including those worn by my brother and my grandparents before they were gassed.
Azir survived the death march as a 13-year-old boy. His 16-year-old brother Azmir, who was part of a group of unarmed boys, did not. Azmir’s skull was found and identified through DNA analysis in 2018. “After I learned it was my brother’s skull,” Azir said, “I felt as if he was killed that very moment.” Azir buried his brother’s remains on July 11, 2021.
Hasan Hasanović, who runs the center’s impressive oral history program, is co-author of “Voices from Srebrenica: Survivor Narratives of the Bosnian Genocide,” a simultaneously compelling and heart-wrenching collection of narratives. Hasan showed us his growing archive, which will guarantee that the memories of the survivors will serve as an academic resource as well as ensure that the individuality of the atrocities, the descriptions of each atrocity as witnessed or experienced by the survivors, and the identities of the dead will be permanently enshrined in Bosnia’s – and the world’s – collective memory. What struck all of us was the sophisticated professionalism of Hasan and his team – the oral histories they have assembled and continue to collect are on a par with those collected at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum or by the USC Shoah Foundation.
Suljagić, the center’s director who unites his close-knit team, is a force of nature. Tall, exuberant, charismatic, intellectually brilliant with a biting, irreverent sense of humor and utterly fearless, he has turned the center from a provincial local memorial into a world-class institution of remembrance. He is also regularly vilified by Bosnian Serb and Serb ultranationalists. In July 1995, he was an interpreter for Dutchbat and survived because an American NATO official stationed in Tuzla in effect ordered Dutchbat headquarters to take all necessary measures “to ensure the safety and safe evacuation” of Suljagić and another Bosniak interpreter. Suljagić subsequently worked as a journalist, reporting from the ICTY at the Hague, and served as Bosnia’s deputy minister of defense, in addition to receiving his PhD in political science from the University of Hamburg and teaching international relations at the International University of Sarajevo.
Arrival of the Coffins
Our group was profoundly honored to witness the arrival on July 9 of 30 coffins, containing the remains of 27 men and three teenage boys, who would be buried at the Potočari cemetery following the official commemoration two days later. Birkenau has its pond of ashes. Bergen-Belsen has its mass graves. And Srebrenica has its cemetery, where by now more than 6,600 graves are evidence of the genocide, and each year brings new burials of mortal remains identified through a painstaking forensic process forced by the fact that the body parts of the victims were often scattered over several locations after being removed from their original mass graves and reburied in secondary sites in what the International Commission on Missing Persons has called “an attempt to conceal evidence.”
“It was impossible,” observed Mary Kluk, who is also the founder and director of the Durban Holocaust and Genocide Centre in South Africa, “to fully comprehend the combination of wretched heartache and perhaps some relief for the hundreds of relatives who surrounded those green cloth-clad coffins in anticipation of finally laying their loved ones to rest.”
The following day, Christian Schmidt, the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina whose mandate is to oversee the civilian implementation of the Dayton Accords, opened the Collective Memory Conference by pledging to “ensure that legal steps are taken against all those who deny the genocide.”
Dunja Mijatović, the Commissioner of Human Rights for the Council of Europe, called for July 11 to be recognized as an official international day of remembrance for the victims of the Srebrenica genocide. “This is the minimum,” she said via video, “we can and should do to respect the dignity of the victims and survivors and prevent them from being forgotten.”
On behalf of the WJC delegation, Radomski explained why we, a group of Jews from different parts of the world, were at Potočari. “In the face of unspeakable atrocities,” he said, “it is imperative that we unite – Jews and Muslims, people of all religions and backgrounds alike –recognizing the importance of solidarity and the power of joint action. By embracing our shared pain, we forge a bond that transcends religious, cultural, and ethnic boundaries.”
An Unexpected Apology
Suljagić followed with a dramatic reference to a little-known aspect of Bosnia’s history during World War II. Addressing himself to our delegation, he said:
“Eighty years ago, some among my countrymen joined the ranks in service of German Nazi ideology, bringing harm upon you, your people, and your forebears – your fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers. For this, I apologize to you and hope that you may find forgiveness in your hearts. … I stand before you on behalf of the descendants, the children and grandchildren, of the generation of Bosniaks that suffered the same fate in the 1990s as befell your ancestors in the 1940s: They were senselessly killed, solely on account of the skin they were born in. I feel it is my historical duty to deliver this message: those who served the 13th Waffen SS Division or the Ustaša regime of the Independent State of Croatia did not act in the name of our people. Their deeds did not speak for us then, nor do they today.”
Our delegation’s purpose for being in Potočari was to assure our Bosniak counterparts that we were there only and exclusively to mourn with them and to bear witness. Period. Paragraph. We did not come to ask anything of them. We had no agenda, hidden or otherwise, other than to associate ourselves unconditionally with their sorrow, with their pain.
Michaela Fuhrmann, a member of the WJC delegation from Frankfurt, recalled former U.S. President Bill Clinton declaring at the official opening of the Srebrenica Memorial Center in 2003 that “bad people who lusted for power killed these good people simply because of who they were.”
“As a Jew born in Germany who had lost family members in the Holocaust,” Michaela continued, “these words are all too familiar.” However, she added, remembrance alone is insufficient. “We need a collective memory of the Shoah, of the Srebrenica genocide, of all the atrocities against humanity … as a warning of what can happen when indifference and hatred prevail.” But, she said, we also “need collective vigilance, collective willingness to stand up against injustice and hate, and last but not least we need collective action and mutual solidarity to prevent such crimes from happening again.”
Our messages merged the intellectual and emotional dimensions of commemoration. Efrat Sopher emphasized that remembrance on its own, and memorials and museums on their own, are not enough to prevent future genocides and atrocities. Intense Holocaust and genocide education are critical components in the creation of “a community of ‘critical thinkers’ right across society, able to question the misinformation, stereotypes and conspiracy theories which are driving today’s racist hate.”
Sonat Birnecker Hart, who has a longstanding relationship with the Bosniak community in Chicago, told the conference participants:
“When we realize that when one of us is hurting, all of us are hurting, we will be able to bring the love and kindness into the world that is needed to make it a better place for each other, our children, and their children. By being here today, together, on this panel, and in this audience, we amplify our fight against denial and distortion, while at the same time expressing our desire to reach out our hearts and minds together in truth.”
And WJC JD Corps member Ira Rosensaft (no family connection that we know of ), who was born in Ukraine and now lives in Frankfurt, connected past and present:
“Traveling to Potočari and coming in touch with the consequences of the unjust war of the 1990s – a war between neighbors, between peoples, who lived together side by side sharing supposedly equal values of the multinational state – let me draw the parallels to the current war in Ukraine. Like people in the former Yugoslavia, I grew up in the belief that Russians and Ukrainians are fraternized nations, sharing the same values, similar language and culture. I wonder how much hate must have been under the surface. Or was it rather nationalism and radicalization, which created enemies overnight and unleashed so much hate and which resulted in such cruelty against civilians?”
I fervently hope that the Collective Memory Conference forged a bond, and created a sense of understanding, between the WJC delegation and our Bosniak friends – for many had indeed become friends. We may have succeeded. The chief Imam of Srebrenica, Damir ef. Pestalić, spoke at the conference about the importance of cooperation and partnerships with the WJC. For Mary Kluk, this “was symbolic affirmation that there is hope for a shared future for Jews and Muslims.”
Unique Tragedies — With Universal Implications
One final thought: We commemorate the victims of the Holocaust because they are our families, our communities, our people, but also because they were the victims of a genocide, because they were the victim of horrendous crimes against humanity. And we have to acknowledge and commemorate in equal force the genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Bosniak people at Srebrenica and elsewhere.
Our moral imperative must be that all victims of genocides, crimes against humanity and other similar atrocities deserve the dignity and respect of having their agony and suffering recognized and remembered. Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel taught that “the Holocaust was a unique Jewish tragedy with universal implications.” In the same vein, I believe that the Srebrenica genocide was a unique Bosniak tragedy, albeit with universal implications, just as the Rwandan genocide was a unique Tutsi tragedy, albeit, again, with universal implications.
Each genocide and each crime against humanity must be seen as a unique tragedy from the perspective and through the prism of its victims, but always, always, with universal implications.
I also firmly believe that it is only by making sure that all past and present horrors – Auschwitz, Srebrenica, Bergen-Belsen, Kigali, Bucha – are inexorably integrated into the world’s consciousness that we have at least a chance of prevailing against the forces of darkness, of bigotry, of antisemitism, of racism, of Islamophobia, of xenophobia, of homophobia and of hatred generally that threaten humankind as a whole. “Never again” does not mean and cannot be allowed to mean never again just to Jews. It means never again to anyone, to any people, to any minority. We will not stand by – we cannot stand by – when any group, any minority, is victimized, persecuted, oppressed, or murdered. That is why our WJC delegation traveled to Potočari, and that is why we joined the Bosniak people on July 10 and 11 in mourning the victims of the Srebrenica genocide.