Moris Albahari:Holocaust survivor/ The story behind the photograph.

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.”

About 900poundgorilla

W.C. Turck is a Chicago playwright and the author of four widely acclaimed books.His latest is "The Last Man," a prophetic novel of a world ruled by a single corporation. His first novel, "Broken: One Soldier's Unexpected Journey Home," was reccommended by the National Association of Mental Health Institutes. His 2009 Memoir, "Everything for Love" chronicled the genocide in Bosnia and the siege of Sarajevo. His third book "Burn Down the Sky" is published exclusively on Amazon Kindle. It was in Sarajevo at the height of the siege where he met and married his wife, writer and Artist Ana Turck. FOX NEWS, ABC, CBS News, the Chicago Tribune and The Joliet Herald covered their reunion after the war. He helped organized relief into Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Turck has been a guest on WMAQ-TV, WLS in Chicago, WCPT, WBBM radio, National Public Radio, Best Of the Left and the Thom Hartmann show. He has spoken frequently on Human Rights, Genocide and Nationalism. In 2011, his play in support of the Occupy Movement, "Occupy My Heart-a revolutionary Christmas Carol" recieved national media attention and filled theaters to capacity across Chicago. He remains an activist to the cause of human rights and international peace. View all posts by 900poundgorilla

3 responses to “Moris Albahari:Holocaust survivor/ The story behind the photograph.

  • Bosnian Genocide

    Yeah, Sarajevo refuses to be ignored. Impossible to ignore such a city. I propose next time you visit it, don’t just focus on the city itself, but also on mountains that surround it. They’re full of history too, but you need to know what you’re looking for.

    • 900poundgorilla

      I appreciate that. After nearly 2 decades traveling in the Balkans there are few places I have not been. I have long held a passion for the people and the history, and you are right, there is far more to Bosnia than Sarajevo, a point I made in my book.

  • Jack Pavlik

    Good to see this story, I have known Moris since 2000, glad to hear he is still well.

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