During the war in Bosnia, 1991-1995, I began collecting stories of the resistance to the Nazi occupation 50 years earlier. Like much of Sarajevo’s history, most is lost to memory, having been erased or stifled during the post-war Communist era, buried in shame or fear or as a way of moving on past the horrors of the Second World War.
History flows through the Bosnian capital like few other places on Earth. It was here that the First World War began. barely a mile wide at its widest, and tucked in a valley not six miles long, Sarajevo is cacoon-ed by hundreds of miles of unforgiving mountain wilderness. It seems improbable to be such a focal point of history, and yet from the Middle Ages to the War on Terror, Sarajevo refuses to be ignored. There is a presence to the place that is at once haunting and transcendent, and as captivating and alluring as a beautiful woman.
The people here are a different sort, walking a fine line between a cosmopolitan city vibrant with art and music, some of Western Europe’s most profound literature, like Mesa Selimovich, and the tragic practicality of peasants. The men are strong and stalwart, the women exceptional in every way, each wearing robes of a history sooner endured than entangled. For 18 years I studied them like a scientist, hoping to glean some better understanding of their history, while realizing it offered an insight into the human heart even more. The deeperI looked the greater those characters arose from the backdrop of a vibrant and modern city, struggling from the rubble of 4 years at war. Each had a story, and I resolved to learn as many of them as I could. One stands apart from many others. A story of survival from not one war, but two.
I had read about Moris Albahari while researching the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia during the Second World War. A simple on-line search brings a sketch of his experiences during the World War. Books offer bits and pieces of his experiences, escaping from a train headed to a concentration camp, to the frontlines as a Partisan fighter.
I met him in 2004, one of only a hand full of remaining Jews who survived the holocaust in which over 85% of the Bosnia’s Jews were murdered, most in camps. Small in size and unassuming, Moris sat with me at the Jewish cultural center in Sarajevo. There was a US researcher there as well, who had been there for the better part of a year, and had spent much time with Moris. It was early, and he began with a shot of liquor, as he did dutifully each morning.
He was quickly curious of my questions. I wanted to know much more than the stories I’d read, which did little more than tease my appetite for real intimate details about one of the last living recollections of the Jewish experience from the war. The researcher, a plain, dark-haired woman with studious eyeglasses only shook her head, remarking that he always tells the same story, as though I was wasting my time in pressing him further. But I’d spent too many years in the Balkans, and seen too much to be put off so easily.
I explained that I’d been collecting stories since the war, and recently had heard the story of the now late Mihailo Nikolic, a Yugoslav national hero. Nikolic and a hand full of beleagured pilots met swarms of Luftwaffe aircraft in the skies above Belgrade in April 1941. Shot down, he climbed into another aircraft to rejoin the fight before being shot down again. Nikolic fled to Bosnia ahead of the rapidly advancing Germans where he was betrayed and captured outside Sarajevo, spending much of the rest of the war in a POW camp until being freed by Soviet forces.
“How do you know, Mihailo?” Moris exclaimed excitedly.
“I am close with his granddaughters,” I replied.
Moris clasped his hands together and swooned. “Mihailo Nikolich and I were the closest of friends!”
With that, as if I’d found the key to unlock his memories, Moris poured out details of his years during the war, escaping the train taking him to a death, living alone in the forests and mountains, hiding from fascist patrols among the dead, joining the Partisans as a boy and performing the Jewish right for the dead to a friend dying in his arms in a trench the last days of the war.
“Moris,” the researcher complained, “I’ve been here all this time and you never told me any of this.”
To that, Moris laid a hand over mine and winked with a smile. “That’s because you are not family.”