Museum’s Exhibit on Bosnia Draws Ire — and Letter — from Serbs

A photo exhibit at the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum here has drawn the ire of some in the Serbian community who say it ignores Bosnia’s record during World War II and glorifies its role in the ongoing war in the Balkans.

The controversy over the exhibit on the atrocities of war in the former Yugoslavia also has raised questions about the role of the museum.

The exhibit, “Faces of Sorrow: Agony in the Former Yugoslavia” is the museum’s first exhibit not directly related to the Holocaust since the facility’s opening last year. Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic of Bosnia-Herzegovina spearheaded a program last week marking the collection’s opening for a four-month stay at the museum.

An open letter to the Serbian and Jewish communities from the Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society says the group is “appalled that the museum has chosen to present this exhibit, and has chosen to add its prestigious name to the already one-sided hateful propaganda campaign against the Serbs.

“It is ironic that the adversaries of Serbs and Jews then are very active today seeking to destroy and damage two small nations of people: Serbs and Jews,” the letter signed by 11 Serbian activists says.

But museum officials are defending their decision to display the photos as part of their mission not only to teach the history of the Holocaust but also its implications for current world events.

Miles Lerman, chairman of the museum’s council, acknowledged Bosnia’s past in a speech marking the exhibit’s opening.

“The truth is that during the Holocaust there were Bosnians and Croats who were Nazi collaborators,” Lerman said. “If we were only to deal with crimes of yesterday we could have turned our heads, but human morality demands that we not remain complacent.”

Lerman said Bosnia is “our own personal dilemma and we cannot and should not turn our heads away.”

The exhibit in the museum’s Hall of Remembrance includes graphic photos of the ethnic cleansing taking place in the former Yugoslavia and other horrors of that war. The exhibit includes 65 photos, including one photo depicting a Serbian soldier kicking a woman who had just been shot for coming to her husband’s aide, according to the photographer Ron Haviv.

JEWISH COMMUNITY SEEN AS HAVING CLOUT

The exhibit premiered at the United Nations one year ago and was recently displayed at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Mark Weitzman, director of the Wiesenthal Center’s task force against hate, underscored what he called the “importance” of the exhibit.

All sides in the war “see the Jewish community with tremendous political clout and a key element to involve on their side in this campaign,” Weitzman said.

Despite the Bosnians’ “troubling past,” he said, “what happened 50 years ago doesn’t justify what is happening today.” Silajdzic used the occasion of the exhibit’s opening to call for the international community to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. Calling the war a “deep wound on the face of humanity,” the prime minister asked for American support in removing the embargo so the Bosnians can “defend ourselves.”

Earlier in the day, amid words of praise and two standing ovations, Silajdzic accepted the Congressional Human Rights Foundation’s Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Award on behalf of Bosnian children.

Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) called Silajdzic a truthful example of Wallenberg’s heroic lesson, and said many members of Congress support Bosnia.

“We will be with you, we will stand with you, until you and your people achieve the victory that you so rightfully deserve,” Lieberman said.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, who presented the award, called Bosnia’s children courageous, and recognized Silajdzic as a leader who has upheld the principle of ethnic pluralism.

(JTA intern Jennifer Batog in Washington contributed to this report.)

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