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In Bosnia, a Philanthropist’s Gift Provides Work, Promotes Tolerance

October 14, 2004
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Bojana Vukotic looks up from her computer and for the first time in her 28 years has a conversation in English, a language she learned from watching movies. A bright woman with short hair, Vukotic describes her life at a unique print shop operation designed to help disabled people like herself conduct their lives in dignity.

Vukotic and about 50 co-workers live and work at the Distroficara Institution printing works, believed to be the only facility of its kind in a country struggling to rebuild in the wake of a devastating war.

Like most of the employees, Vukotic suffers from muscular dystrophy; her muscles are atrophied and her arms are semi-paralyzed. She shares a rent-free room with another worker and earns the equivalent of $100 a month, out of which she must pay utilities and other expenses.

“It was difficult to get into this place, but it is the best we can get,” she tells Yechiel Bar Chaim, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s country director for Bosnia.

If it weren’t for this print shop, she says, she doubts she would have a job.

No one at the plant is Jewish. But now, thanks to a grant from a Jewish Holocaust survivor that was channeled through the JDC, the facility will replace a 40-year-old print machine, upgrade at least some of its computers and make it easier for its workers to live productive lives.

“Meeting Bojana and hearing about her struggle ripped me up inside,” said Bar Chaim, who visited the facility in September to inspect conditions and formalize the grant.

Her wages are modest, but in a country where many able-bodied persons have no work whatsoever, “Bojana’s ability to cover many of her expenses by the fruit of her own labor should be seen, it seems to me, as a true source of pride and satisfaction,” Bar Chaim told JTA.

“The whole point of the project is to help Bojana and her fellow workers to use their abilities and remain as self-reliant as possible.”

During the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, the Jewish community emerged as one of the key conduits of nonsectarian aid to society at large, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

Nonsectarian grants such as the one at the printing facility continue that tradition and underscore core civic values of integration and tolerance.

“What the Jewish community says is that we live in a reality in which we are integrated into the general population,” Bar Chaim said. “There is no way in a crisis that we can just help ourselves.”

Banja Luka’s 70-member Jewish community will benefit too: Its leaders identified the print shop as an appropriate target for a grant and will receive a small part of the allocation both for its work in setting up the project and for helping to oversee its implementation on behalf of the JDC.

The only condition is that the print shop will publish an ecumenical calendar taking note of the symbols and primary institutions of Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Banja Luka area.

“That won’t be easy where the Jews are concerned,” Bar Chaim said. “There is no synagogue left standing in Banja Luka and the old Jewish cemetery was turned into tennis courts under the former communist regime.”

Historic mosques, too, were destroyed by Serb forces during the Bosnian War.

The grant to the Banja Luka print shop and a number of other nonsectarian, JDC-coordinated projects in Bosnia and elsewhere have been made possible by generous donations from Alfred Bader, 80, a successful chemist and art collector and dealer in Milwaukee.

Through the JDC and other channels, Bader has donated millions of dollars to institutions and individuals in Israel, the United States and Europe. Much of the funding is earmarked for Jewish communal projects or institutions, but a significant part is directed to individuals or projects in society at large.

“To put it into a nutshell,” Bader told JTA in an e-mail, “my wife and I try to help the neediest and the ablest.”

For example, he said, “Year after year we have given substantial funds to help the Roma,” or Gypsies, “this through the JDC. You must know how miserably the Roma were treated by the Nazis but haven’t been compensated as we have been, because few people have spoken up for them.”

Bader’s life story influenced his decision to use philanthropy to fight injustice.

Born in Vienna, he escaped the Nazis on a Kindertransport to England at age 14. Two years later, he was imprisoned by the British government as an “enemy alien” and deported to an internment camp in Canada.

After the war, he did a doctorate in chemistry at Harvard and founded the Aldrich Chemical Company, which eventually became Sigma-Aldrich, the 50th largest chemical company in the United States. He also has developed a “second career” as an art collector, gallery owner, curator and lecturer.

Bader, whose son Daniel is on the JDC board of directors, said a “good deal” of his donations, both for Jewish communal and nonsectarian projects, are channeled through the JDC. The funds include a roughly $1 million general endowment, as well as targeted grants.

He said he likes giving through the JDC because he trusts the judgment of field staff such as Bar Chaim in locating worthy projects.

Other projects Bader has financed in Bosnia include home care for 670 elderly Serbs, Croats, Muslims and Jews in Sarajevo and five provincial cities, and a country-wide breast cancer support and awareness initiative.

He also backs the manufacture of so-called “Bader Vests” — sweaters knitted by paraplegics and other handicapped persons in Sarajevo and then distributed to the home care recipients.

His funds also are used to buy ceramic-making equipment to provide light employment for severely retarded youth and young adults in Mortar. Like the calendar in Banja Luka, the ceramic artifacts are to feature the symbols of the four religions.

Bader likes to say that his professional life falls into four categories — art, Bible, chemistry and philanthropy.

“Of these, the fourth, giving money away sensibly, is the hardest,” he told JTA. “Luckily, we have very good people to help us.”

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