The Balkans and its history helps us confront our identity

Elliott Karstadt
24 August 2018
The Jewish Chronicle

In his 2012 travelogue, Where the West Ends, Michael Totten talks of citizens of the former Yugoslavia wrestling with national identity in their new reality.

When asked, “who are you”, Predrad Delibasic says he made up an answer: “‘I am Jewish!’ I said. My mother said ‘no, no, no’. But I didn’t know or care. My friends were Jews, Muslim, and Catholics. After I was told I wasn’t Jewish, I said I was a Muslim. But that wasn’t right either…”

I have just returned from being the educator on Kayitz Perach, the ten-day annual tour of Europe organised by Liberal Judaism — possibly the only one of its kind for Jewish sixth-formers in the UK.

Having experienced a month-long Israel Tour following their GCSEs, the teens are now challenged to consider the development of the Jewish diaspora and their place within it. What does it mean to live as a minority? Where do we belong? From Sarajevo to Vienna — and many places in between — we asked these questions.

Many of the students had not learned about the siege of Sarajevo before and were shocked that such a major conflict had taken place in Europe in such recent times.

They met the children of members of La Benevolencija, a group of Serbs, Muslims, Croats and Jews who worked together to help those who required medical assistance during the siege.

We visited Jasenovac, the site of a death camp run by the Ustace, the Croatian fascists, in which thousands of Serbs, Roma and Jews were slaughtered between 1941 and 1945. All that stands there today is a small museum and a concrete flower designed as a memorial to those who perished.

In processing our experiences, we talked about how, after the Shoah, people said “never again”.

And yet, it did happen again – in Bosnia itself in the 1990s, thousands of men and boys were killed in the area of Srebrenica simply for being Muslim – a tragedy that occurred during my lifetime, if not in those of my students.

As our coach crossed the border from Bosnia into Croatia, my reflection was mostly on the beauty of the landscape of the two countries. Throughout the trip, we found Bosnia and Croatia to be peaceful and friendly places.

And yet, in hindsight, what a privilege that was. As I returned, The Guardian reported accusations made against Croatian police beating and robbing refugees attempting to enter from Bosnia – attempting to enter not far from the site of Jasenovac.

On Shabbat during the tour, the participants stood on the Dalmatian coast, where ships carrying Jewish refugees arrived following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. They were accepted into the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire – which is not say that life became easy.

Indeed, the Balkans has always seemed to veer between multicultural panacea and ultra-nationalist disaster zone. This is what made it such a rich landscape on which to explore questions of belonging with 17-year-old British Jews.

Elliott Karstadt is a student rabbi at Leo Baeck College
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