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Behind the Headlines: Balkan Crisis Evokes Images from the Holocaust and Exodus

April 6, 1999
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The NATO attack on Yugoslavia, and the horrific Kosovo refugee crisis that now affects several Balkan states, have sent echoes of both the Holocaust and the Exodus from Egypt resounding through the world this Passover.

Jews themselves play only an incidental role in the current conflict, but the symbolism of Jews and their historic suffering is clear.

Both sides — NATO as well as the Yugoslav government of President Slobodan Milosevic — have accused the other of using Nazi tactics and have compared each other’s leaders to Hitler.

In the West, intensely emotional buzzwords like “genocide” and “camps” serve to characterize the brutality of Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Shocking TV footage of crowded train cars filled with desperate ethnic Albanians forced from their homes call up images of grainy film showing the Jewish deportations to Auschwitz during the Shoah.

In Belgrade, where the air strikes on the city are the first since the Nazi bombardments of World War II, slogans label President Clinton as “Bill Hitler” and Serbian officials compare the “onslaught of Clinton’s and NATO’s neo-Nazis” to the German bombings.

State-controlled Yugoslav media do not report on the scope of the refugee crisis.

If the exodus is mentioned at all, it is described as people fleeing NATO bombs or Kosovo Liberation Army “terrorism.” Nor is the humanitarian disaster presented as a reason for the NATO strikes.

The message is solely that — as in World War II — tiny Serbia is defending its sovereignty against the brutal might of the most powerful nation on earth.

The Serbs stress that unlike Croatia, which during World War II was ruled as a Nazi puppet state of homegrown fascists and actively carried out anti-Jewish persecutions, Serbia opposed the Nazis.

One of the bridges destroyed by NATO missiles in Novi Sad, one Serb official pointed out, was the bridge on which the Nazis executed Jews and Serbs and threw their bodies into the Danube.

Along with these comparisons, the perception — and use — of Jews as a moral voice in the current conflict is also apparent.

“As a Jew, I feel I must speak up,” Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel told CNN, echoing the sentiment he had earlier expressed to JTA.

Wiesel called on the world to step in to help the ethnic Albanian victims. But he declined to equate the Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo as Nazi-style genocide in the full sense of the word. Despite the horrors and atrocities, he said, Milosevic’s aim was not to kill all ethnic Albanians.

In Belgrade, meanwhile, Jews have been placed in a delicate situation. About 3,000 Jews live in Serbia, most of them in the capital. Regardless of what they may feel about the situation in Kosovo or about Milosevic, they feel they are sharing the fate of their fellow Serbs in general.

“We are affected [by the bombing] the same way as everyone else,” said a Jewish man in Belgrade who has long opposed Milosevic.

The small Jewish communities in Kosovo and Macedonia reported as of Monday that they felt safe and did not wish to be evacuated despite the worsening situation there.

Even before the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Milosevic’s Serbia sought to win world Jewish — and Western — support for its policies by courting the Jews and Israel.

That effort intensified as the wars in Croatia and Bosnia intensified.

A Serbian-Israel Friendship Association was established, and Serbia’s relatively friendly historical relationship to the Jews in contrast to Croatia’s pro-Nazi anti-Semitism was frequently recalled.

Israel established full relations with Serbia in late 1996, nearly a year before it established relations with Croatia.

During the Balkan wars in the early 1990s, Yugoslavia’s Jews, fearing manipulation, attempted to steer clear of any active political role.

The community expressed no official stance, although individual members of the community spoke out privately against the Milosevic regime.

The tightly controlled Serbian media last week again demonstrated the moral character ascribed to Jewish positions.

It prominently displayed an appeal by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia that condemned the NATO bombing and urged Israel and international Jewish organizations to help mediate a peaceful, political solution to the crisis.

“The bombing hurts all Yugoslav citizens, including Jews, as we also are citizens of Yugoslavia,” the March 28 statement said.

“Bombs and missiles do not select victims according to national or religious criteria. The Federation and members of the Jewish community in Yugoslavia condemn the bombing, and request that it be stopped at once,” it said.

“They are in favor of a peaceful, political solution of the Kosovo problem, with guarantees for full equality of all its citizens and all national, ethnic and religious groups, of highest level of autonomy, and against changing of any borders by force,” it said.

“Today, the Federation requested the Government of the State of Israel, the World Jewish Congress and the European Jewish Congress to use their influence at the international level in order to stop the bombing of Yugoslavia by NATO forces and to support the peaceful, political solution of the Kosovo problem,” it added.

The WJC said it had received the appeal from the Yugoslav Jews and would “take it up at the highest level” after the Passover holiday.

The group’s executive director, Elan Steinberg, called the Yugoslav Jewish community “courageous” and said the WJC is in a difficult situation because its membership includes Jewish communities from around the world, all of whom must be consulted before a position can be taken.

In the strictly Jewish context, meanwhile, the current crisis sparked an international cooperative effort that marked what some see as a milestone in the revival of Jewish communal life and sensibilities in former Communist Europe.

More than 200 Yugoslav Jews fled to Hungary in buses rented by the Jewish community as part of a contingency plan worked out by Hungarian and Yugoslav Jewish leaders last year.

“Months before the air strikes, we agreed that we would help the Yugoslav young people,” said Gusztav Zoltai, head of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities. “All we have done is to put Jewish solidarity into action.”

Most of the evacuees were children and teen-agers sent out of the country by their parents to ride out the NATO air strikes in safety.

Unlike the ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo, the Yugoslav Jews do not consider themselves refugees, nor were they escaping persecution.

The Yugoslav Jews were first hosted by the Budapest Jewish community in the community center and a school. Later, with assistance from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, they were moved to a hotel.

The JDC and the European Council of Jewish Communities were also coordinating potential assistance from other European Jewish communities.

“Since the Holocaust, most of the Jewish communities in Communist Europe were being helped by their brothers in the West,” said Israel Sela, director of the Hungary office of the JDC. “This is the first time that a Jewish community in one former Communist state has directly helped another Jewish community in the region.”

For those who stayed in Belgrade, few Jews came to a community seder last week because of the bombings.

The community’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Yitzhak Assiel, who had been drafted into the Serbian army, was released so he could spend Passover with his family and the community.

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