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Muslims and Jews give witness to deep empathy and loyal friendship
Objavljeno: 18. Jul 2017. 17:07:22

At the Italian Senate on July 11 a small ceremony marked the 22nd anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre of nearly 9000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs under the command of Ratko Mladic. Senator Aldo Di Biagio, member of the Senate Human Rights Commission, parliamentarian Giulio Marcon of “Parliamentarians for Peace”, Minister Planinic of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Embassy, Slavica Josipovic representing the c.30,000 Bosnian emigrés in Italy, and two journalists who had covered the Bosnian war, Luca Leone and Mario Boccia, spoke to an attentive audience including the vice president of the Italian Jewish Community and the Rome representative of AJC (the American Jewish Committee), as well as the president of Religions for Peace – Italy.

It was recalled that 8,372 tombstones mark the graves of the murdered, mostly boys and men who were of military age in 1995, while bodies of approximately another thousand missing victims, probably thrown into mass graves, have yet to be found, identified and buried. The horror of this barbaric post-World War II bloodbath is all the more unspeakable because it was committed under the eyes and inaction of Dutch UN troops stationed near this enclosed area that had been designated as a “safe haven” for Bosnian Muslim families.

Prof. Semso Osmanovic, now President of the Bosnian Community of Trieste, was also present at the Senate memorial lecture. As an eight year old child, he witnessed and survived the genocide because a Serbian soldier measured his height with a rifle, told him he was too small and sent him to board an evacuation bus. Four years later, Semso was able to emigrate to Trieste with his mother and two sisters. However, the rest of his well known and highly respected family was not so fortunate. As his grandfather was the Grand Mufti of Srebrenica, they were tragically singled out on a Serbian annihilation list, resulting in the murder of 33 close relatives including Semso’s grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. “The Serbs were organized and acted like the Nazis” says Prof. Osmanovic. “I still do not feel safe in Srebrenica – because several henchmen who took part in the 1995 massacre are now members of the city police force.”

The dangerous tensions caused by this failure to indict, punish and banish such war criminals, says Prof. Osmanovic, are a principal reason why Bosnia-Herzegovina feels its bid for entry into the EU is so crucial to a future of peace and the avoidance of renewed bloodshed. Only with more international controls and relations, he feels, can the horror of war memories be re-elaborated into a constructive vision of the future.

At last week’s commemorative ceremony it was noted that on that very day, the Italian parliament had failed to pass a motion to define the Srebrenica massacre as a “genocide”, even though it has already been declared as such by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, The ICC condemned the wartime Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic to 40 years of imprisonment for crimes against humanity while the ICC’s sentence on Ratko Mladic, commander of the Srebrenica massacre, will finally be issued this coming November.

A candlelight ray of hope in the course of this tragic story has been lit by the continuous testimonies of reciprocal empathy, friendship, solidarity and cooperation between Bosnian Muslims and the small Bosnian Jewish community -
- exemplary during the 1990’s despite a World War II history of the Bosnian Muslim contingent allying with the Nazis under the influence and authority of the then Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Amin al-Husseini.

Prof. Osmanovic recalls that the support of several Trieste Jewish Community members pulled him out of a dark depression after his arrival in Italy. As a teenage immigrant who had seen and survived the worst bestiality of which humans are capable, he was befriended by a kindred soul, a Holocaust survivor. Diamantina Vivante Salonicchio, now 92, is the mother of Alessandro Salonicchio, the present head of the Trieste Jewish Community. Interned in Auschwitz, she lost her mother and two sisters. Upon her return, she hid these tragic facts as long as she could from her father who had managed to remain in Trieste during World War II. Her vital, “ affirmation of life” in response to the attempt by the Nazis to annihilate the Jewish People, recalls Semso, was to create a large family after the war. The empathy and joyful strength she transmitted in conversations with the young Bosnian survivor inspired his entire future life. He chose a commitment to education, encouraged and supported by Trieste’s Chief Rabbi Ariel Haddad and Prof. Joseph Finsterwald, who was his teacher at the Adriatic United World College. The latter helped him get a scholarship to the JFK School of Government at Harvard University in Boston, where Semson earned an M.A. in Political Science and a PhD in Sociology.

Another portentous event engraved in the Bosnian student’s memory is the unforgettable meeting in New York that was arranged for him by Prof. Finsterwald with Elie Wiesel. This Shoah survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner’s personal efforts to bring about an end to the carnage of the Bosnian War were well known.
Still today, Prof. Osmanovic draws inspiration from the “amazing joie de vivre” he finds emanating from several other Shoah survivors on his regular visits to the Jewish Old Age Home in Trieste.

Semson Osmanovic’s story is but one of many examples of Jewish-Muslim solidarity with roots in the Bosnia-Herzegovina area of former Yugoslavia.
During the Bosnian War, the Sarajevo Jewish Community and its humanitarian organization, “Benevolencija” was the only charity that offered humanitarian relief – food, medical aid and protection - on a non-sectarian basis, to all factions, without discrimination: Croatian Catholics, Bosnian - Serbian Orthodox Christians and Bosnian Muslims alike. The American Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish humanitarian organization, was the only NGO that responded affirmatively to an appeal for help by the Red Cross in 1992. The AJDC (also known as “Joint”) had been sending aid to the Sarajevo Jewish Community since 1920, and “Benevolencija” (founded in 1890, closed down by the Communist regime in 1946 then reopened by the Jewish Community in 1990) turned to using AJDC funds to open a pharmacy in the Sarajevo Jewish Community Center with free distribution of medicine and food to whoever was in need, and to organize convoys of Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics out of the country. A total of about 3000 people were thus saved. Jewish volunteers who were transported daily to the Jewish Community Center to tend to all these aspects of humanitarian aid. In the Center, a sign was hung with the message, “Here we do not talk politics”. When it became too dangerous to continue their work from there, a Muslim-Palestinian owner of a nearby hardware store offered his premises for free so that these humanitarian efforts could continue with relative safety.

The relief efforts of the Sarajevo Jewish Community during the Bosnian Civil War, were led by the architect and then President of the Jewish Community, Ivan Ceresnjes and by Ambassador Jacob Finci, its Vice President. The latter is the present head of the Jewish Community and of its Benevolencija organization, as well as being a founding member and a current president of the Inter-Religious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina established in 1997. Ambassador Finci received the International Primo Levi Prize in Genoa in 2013, was named Chevalier de le Légion d’Honneur of the French Republic and was awarded other honors, such as the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, etc.
Today, the Bosnian Muslims are struggling to ward off the fundamentalist, Islamist influence of the Gulf countries. The Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Husein Kavazovic, says, “Bosnian Muslims feel they are Europeans. For this reason they are very concerned by the steadily growing influence of the Gulf countries in Bosnia.”

The former, now honorary, Grand Mufti, Dr. Mustafa Ceric, (who is also an international president of Religions for Peace) visited Auschwitz for the first time in February 2011 as part of an interreligious pilgrimage, accompanied by Prof. Semso Ismanovic. Deeply moved by what he saw, Dr. Ceric then declared, “If we had prevented the Holocaust in Auschwitz, we could have prevented the Srebrenica massacre.”

*Representative in Italy and liaison to the Holy See of AJC – the American Jewish Committee


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