As journalist and photographer Edward Serotta approached one of the last places of refuge in war-torn Sarajevo—an aging synagogue run by a cross-section of Sarajevo citizens—he could hardly believe the devastation that lay before him.
Refugees of all backgrounds, ethnic groups, and religions had gathered at the Jewish humanitarian aid agency known as La Benevolencija with nothing but the clothes on their backs, while Serotta himself, a neutral party in the conflict, entered the synagogue in a flak jacket and blast helmet.
In front of a diverse crowd filling the theater at the Dallas Holocaust Museum, including a large contingent of North Texas residents from the Balkan states, Serotta shared the one thought that kept running through his head: “It’s much easier to teach hate because hate doesn’t require us to think.”
As the guest speaker on June 16 for the opening of the Museum’s special exhibit “Survival in Sarajevo: La Benevolencija,” Serotta recounted his personal and often troubling experiences during the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995. The city of Sarajevo, a once-thriving and multi-ethnic metropolis, was brought to its knees by the fall of communism and the breakup of Yugoslavia.
In 1992, Bosnian Serbs, seeking to form a stronger Serbian nation, attacked Bosnia and instituted a policy of ethnic cleansing. In the following months, Serb forces raided Muslim and Croat homes; they interred the men in prison camps to be tortured and killed and forced the women into detention centers to be repeatedly raped.
Military and non-military forces continued to perpetrate war crimes, and as the movement of water, food, electricity, medicine and other supplies came to a grinding halt, the situation in Sarajevo became dire.
Established by Holocaust survivors and their children as a place of refuge during the war, La Benevolencija was a beacon of hope in the midst of turmoil and strife, providing critical relief at the height of the conflict. The agency’s pharmacy, mail service, and soup kitchen served all comers, regardless of their religious belief or ethnic background.
Remarkably, La Benevolencija volunteers included Jews, Muslims, Serbian Orthodox, and Catholic Croats—a coalition that was itself a great act of defiance that flew directly in the face of the era’s climate of prejudice and hate. La Benevolencija was truly the shining light in a period of utter darkness.
The exhibit “Survival in Sarajevo: La Benevolencija” is based on Edward Serotta’s book Survival in Sarajevo: Jews, Bosnia, and the Lessons of the Past. The exhibit features photos of Holocaust survivors, Catholic Croats, Muslims, and Orthodox Serbs caught in the horror of the longest siege of a city in the history of modern warfare.
The exhibition is a project of Centropa, a non-profit historical organization founded by Serotta, which serves is his commitment to preserving 20th Century Jewish family photographs and stories from Central and Eastern Europe.
“Survival in Sarajevo: La Benevolencija” is open during regular Museum hours until September 18.
Be sure to join us on July 26 at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum for a panel presentation called “Human Rights – Free Speech and Hate Speech: Can They Co-Exist?” Additional details at DallasHolocuastMuseum.org
-McGuire Boles, for the Dallas Holocaust Museum