VIENNA (Nov. 23)
With Austria currently holding the rotating presidency of the European Union, conferences here that draw people from several European nations are common.
But a gathering here last week was unique: All of the participants were Jewish teen-agers and college students from the five republics of the former Yugoslavia.
The 40 participants — several of whom have not seen each other since war ripped their country apart in 1991 and 1992 — spent four days in Vienna attending lectures, engaging in discussions and participating in workshops in a program created by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Vienna’s Jewish Welcome Service.
Some came from towns with as few as one Jewish family.
Dejan Petrovic, from Belgrade, said, “You cannot imagine how lonely, how sad these young people have been recently. When we were all together, back before the breakup of Yugoslavia, our small communities were strong only because young people from Belgrade would just come and visit their friends in Zagreb or Sarajevo.
“We stayed strong because we had each other,” said Petrovic. “Now, with war and the economic problems we all have, much of the spirit has been lost.”
Indeed, students who are normally kept apart by political boundaries became inseparable. Daniel Atijas, a medical student living in the Republic of Serbia, spent much of his time during the conference with 26-year-old Alan Rebic and 18-year-old Maja Jankovic, both of whom live inside predominantly Muslim Sarajevo.
As one teen-ager put it, “Just because there’s an ex-Yugoslavia doesn’t mean we have to be ex-friends.”
The program was funded by the Austrian Federal Chancellor’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry for Environment, Youth and Family Affairs.
The students met with Environment Minister Martin Bartenstein and were hosted by Vienna Mayor Michael Haupl in the city’s sumptuous City Hall.
They also met with their counterparts from Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic while hashing out ideas and trends in Central Europe with some of Austria’s leading journalists.
At the same time, 100 Jewish adults living in the former Yugoslavia met in Slovenia for the first time since the war, said Yechiel Bar Chaim, JDC’s country director for the former Yugoslavia.
In order to help strengthen the Jewish content of the program, Bar Chaim brought in Jewish educators from Budapest, Munich and Israel to lead seminars, some of which were in Serbo-Croatian, although several were in English.
“This is unbelievable,” Sasha Cvetkovic, president of the Jewish youth club in Zagreb and a political science student, said after the talks, discussions and workshops. “We can learn how to help our communities and get to just be with each other, which we can’t really do so easily anymore.”
One of the biggest surprises of the conference was the session with Bartenstein. Although slated merely to give a few words of greeting, he turned his speech into a question-and-answer period — he asked the questions and the program’s participants provided the answers.
Then he left the podium, plunged into the crowd and spent nearly an hour chatting with youths from Zagreb, Belgrade and Ljubljana. “Perhaps this is the kind of program the minister might wish to help with on an ongoing basis,” said a beaming Leon Zelman, a 74-year-old survivor of Auschwitz who heads the Jewish Welcome Service.
“This is a new generation of Austrians running this country, and these youngsters are also a new generation,” he said. “It’s a perfect match.”