20 Years Later—A Rescue Comes Full Circle

Rebecca Neuwirth

– Director, JDC Ambassadors

The view of the city of Sarajevo from the surrounding hills is striking: beautiful older buildings form the core of the city, weathered by age and history, and newer high rises recall the more recent Communist era. You can see it all from the small Jewish cemetery that lies in the foothills, testimony to the history of a community that dates back to 1541. 
 


But the peaceful landscape belies the region’s turbulent recent history, whose ripple effects are still being felt today. Once a dynamic cultural haven for people from all backgrounds, Sarajevo became the victim of regional ethnic tensions and the site of a nearly four-year siege, which began in April 1992 and was not lifted until February 29, 1996. 
 


During this infamous siege, snipers hid in the mountains and shot indiscriminately into the valley at residents, turning peaceful lives into waking nightmares for individuals and families. Some 11,541 people were killed, 643 of them children (Research and Documentation Center, Sarajevo). According to a 2010 United Nations report, an additional 56,000 people were wounded, including nearly 15,000 children. 
 


Exactly 20 years ago this week, the 10th JDC convoy transported some 350 Jews and some of their Muslim neighbors to safety in Croatia in white buses that symbolized loss of home, displacement, fear and, ultimately, hope. The harrowing 22-hour operation was part of a near impossible rescue mission that continued in fits and starts for almost three years as conditions worsened throughout the former Yugoslavia. 
 


Photographer and activist Joan Roth visited the city this fall to better understand the rescue and to see JDC’s work there today. She photographed that city’s remarkable race to promote breast cancer awareness, sponsored by JDC and Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
 


Joan was taken by many things:

The city—and its vivid traces of both architectural beauty and the ravages of war.

The Jewish community then and now. The most well-known symbol of the community is the Sarajevo Haggadah, the oldest known Sephardic Haggadah (dating from 14th century Barcelona), which remained miraculously hidden during the siege. Today, JDC helps the local Jewish community (numbering approximately 700) address the welfare needs of impoverished elderly and it provides services for Jewish children in need and their families. And to strengthen Jewish life, JDC supports informal Jewish educational programs and training activities for children and youth that include their participation in Jewish summer camps.

And finally, Joan was impressed by efforts that reach out to the general community. JDC’s broader work in Sarajevo includes continued support for the home care program of La Benevolencija, the cultural and humanitarian aid arm of the Jewish community. Today, JDC’s Women’s Health Empowerment Program is addressing the scourge of breast cancer. This year’s Race for the Cure, an event now in its 5th year, was a huge success, a tribute to JDC and the women who have dedicated themselves to this cause.

Joan spoke of the tremendous sense of joy expressed by the women she met in Sarajevo, who bridge ethnic and religious differences to combat breast cancer and are a symbol of resilience and hope.

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