Sermon: Mattot Masei – Remembering Srebrenica and Remembering Ourselves

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 19 July 2018

We say never again – but it did happen again – and in a country which seemed to have found the secret to religious co-existence. I went to Bosnia just a month ago.  For me it was the best of springtime.  Sunny and warm, the country’s beauty at its finest.

In many ways Sarajevo, the capital city, tells a beautiful story.  It was known as the little Jerusalem.  On its main street for five hundred years there has been a large Synagogue, a large Serbian Orthodox church and a large Mosque, all beautiful and all open be seen.   Sarajevo was a haven for Jews, first those fleeing the expulsion of Jewish from Spain, which began on Tisha b’Av 1492, and then for many others from around Europe who came to join this thriving community.

By 1935 one in five Sarajevans were Jewish.  Every year at the end of Ramadan there was, and still is, a tradition for the metropolitan bishop, the Muslim Mufti and the head of the Jewish community to have coffee together in a café on the main street.    But I have to tell you that 85% of the Sarajevo Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War.

Of course, the heart was ripped out of the community but yet it has managed to reconstruct to a small extent with 650 Jews now remaining there.   They suffered together with all other residents of Sarajevo during the three-year siege by Serbia from 1992-1995.  The Serb army front line went right through the Jewish cemetery.

To help feed and educate anyone in Sarajevo in need, the main Synagogue opened its Cheder to any child, Jewish, Muslim or Christian and it remains so with 20 Jewish children and 30 best friends.

But the rhetoric of obscene ethnic cleansing has scarred the city.  Most Christian Serbs have left.  The words of Biljana Plavsic, former President of the Republica Srbska, now in prison having been convicted of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal, rang too loud in the hills around Sarajevo:

“It was genetically deformed material that embraced Islam. And now, of course, with each successive generation it simply becomes concentrated. It gets worse and worse. it simply expresses itself and dictates their style of thinking, which is rooted in their genes. And through the centuries, the genes degraded further.”  (Shatzmiller, Maya (2002). Islam and Bosnia: Conflict Resolution and Foreign Policy in Multi-Ethnic States. McGill-Queen’s University Press. p. 58)

Her rhetoric and that of her fellow Serb nationalists won out. The country now is institutionally divided between Bosnian Muslims and Christian Serbs.  The scars are deep and close to unhealable.

My journey was the same as Rabbi Deborah’s.  Our group, led by Merhri Niknam of the Joseph Interfaith Foundation, was an Orthodox Rabbi, the Chairman of the Finsbury Park Mosque which is Sunni, the head of the Al Khoei Foundation, the centre for Iranian Shia Muslims and the National Union of Student’s officer for diversity and myself.   Our guide was Sarajevan survivor, Reshad Trbonja, who gave a memorable sermon here at Alyth last year.  We too visited the desperately under resourced laboratory where they try to establish the identity of more than a thousand missing people killed in the Srebrenica genocidal murders from deliberately dispersed bones.

Can you imagine not being able to organise a funeral for your loved one, your son, your husband twenty-three years after his murder?   We’re Jews, survivors from the Shoah, so we can, but this is a call to deep empathy with a suffering people.

We too heard the testimony of survivors of the genocide – Nura Musdapic whose three sons and husband were murdered because they were Muslim between July 13th and 16th 1995, one of those sons remains have never been found.   We heard Nedzad Avdic, who was shot but not killed in one of the mass murders as a young Muslim man of 17 during the same three days and managed to escape.  Nedzad said to us “I saw these scenes of brutality.  I thought these were finished with the Holocaust and World War 2”.

My abiding impression was that it was as if I were hearing Holocaust testimony in colour, having previously heard it in black and white.  Nedzad is fifteen years younger than me, I am used to hearing such testimony from a much older generation.  We heard them in a cemetery with 6000 gravestones all marked with the same dates in 1995.

Nura still lives in Srebrenica, which is now in Serb territory, sharing a house with another widow of the genocide.  She feels that she cannot and will not leave the place her sons and husband walked.   Nedzad has also returned to live in Srebrenica as a personal act of defiance and now has three children.   He said “when I was at school we learned the Diary of Anne Frank,  my children won’t.   In schools here, they never want to speak about what happened on this soil.  We need you to bear our memory”

That is what Rabbi Deborah and I are doing today, what Rabbi Colin Eimer did yesterday together with Mohamed Kozbar at Finsbury Park Mosque and everywhere that Remembering Srebrenica has found a receptive group.

Why do we tell the story?    We tell it, as we will always tell the story of the Shoah, to warn what humanity is capable of and will never stop being capable of, to honour the victims and their memory, to condemn those who sow division in our societies, their rhetoric can very quickly become violence and then murder.

We are now eight days before the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av where we remember how hatred, scapegoating and inhumanity nearly destroyed us, were we not resilient enough to rebuild.   Surely in remembering Srebrenica as we remember our own people’s pain, we pledge to join Rabbi Daniel Farhi in his words given in a sermon, in Paris, coincidentally a few days after the siege of Sarajevo began:

“Wherever you may be, whenever that may be, I shall be there with you, the last survivor…I promise to be the memory of your memory.  I promise that what you have endured will not be erased from the human conscience.   [I] bear witness before history in order that criminals shall no longer be absolved, to teach children that, having become adults, they may build a society conscious of its past and resolutely turned towards a future of justice, love and peace.