Glimmer of Hope Shines Through to Sarajevo’s Jews

As horror stories continue to emerge from Bosnia, the Jewish community there is clinging to a glimmer of hope.

“The sky is still blue and it’s not as ugly as when you watch CNN,” a leader of Sarajevo’s Jewish community said in a phone interview this week.

Ja’akov Finci, the leader of the Bosnian Jewish humanitarian group La Benevolencija, said the Jewish community is on the priority list for electricity.

The higher priority allows the group to continue to serve the vital needs of the city’s beleaguered population, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

“We had one of our best meals [today],” Finci said: white beans, white bread and tap water, which is considered a real luxury.

The meal, served almost daily to more than 300 people — including Jews, Serbs, Croats and Muslims — is a model of collective ventures to aid the embattled region. Catholic Relief Services supplied the flour for the bread, and the American Joint Distribution Committee provided the beans.

Finci said 80 tons of food, medicine and clothing — most of it provided by the Joint — are poised to enter the city. But because roads are mined, no traffic has been allowed to pass through.

But Finci remains optimistic.

“Hopefully, it will open soon,” he said.

The supplies are not immediately critical, Finci said, estimating that there is enough to last another 45 days.

Still, he added, “It’s better to make sure it’s all here.”

Because of the dedication of international Jewish relief groups such as the Joint, the Jewish community continues to enjoy unique privileges, Finci said.

“Our pharmacy is still the best pharmacy in town,” he said.

Non-Jewish Sarajevans are also reaping the benefits, as the idea that Jews are a “light unto the nations” takes on literal significance in this city of limited electricity.

“Non-Jews join the community to watch TV, because the Jewish community is one of the few places where you can find electricity and water, without talking about politics and everything,” Finci said.

The usual tensions in Sarajevo seem to have eased, if only momentarily.

“Today was absolutely calm; there wasn’t one bullet or shell in Sarajevo,” Finci said in the phone interview Wednesday.

And the community seems intent on carrying on a normal routine, even amid rumors of new offensives from the Bosnian Serbs.

The Jewish Sunday school meets regularly, as about 40 children watch Jewish history videos and listen to lectures on Judaism, Finci said.

But there are still chilling reminders of the pervasiveness of the bloodshed.

According to Finci, many of the dead are buried in a nearby soccer field.

The Joint has done its share to improve the dire situation.

Although it has been operating in Sarajevo for about 40 years, the organization began intensive efforts in Bosnia in the early stages of the war.

In April 1992, with conditions in Bosnia steadily worsening, the Joint helped evacuate countless women and children from the area. Since then, the Joint has organized 10 more convoys of fleeing residents, both Jews and non-Jews.

Some 500 Jews have left the country since the war began, many of them going to Israel. Several hundred Jews still remain, seemingly committed to share the same fate as their neighbors.

As the president of the community, Ivan Ceresnjes, is fond of saying, “Jews have lived in Sarajevo for 500 years, and we have the right to live here another 500.”

Finci said there is a small group of Jews ready to leave, but it is too small around which to organize a convoy.

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