Destroying the Memory of Jewish Presence: Yugoslavia
A Case Study: Former Yugoslavia
“The memory of the large pre-war Jewish presence in Eastern Europe is increasingly being destroyed. Part of this process is intentional; part because of neglect of Jewish sites and memorials.
“To understand the various factors at work, one can best look at the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Its breakup over the past two decades has accelerated processes that are slower elsewhere. This concerns both attempts to change the collective memory of citizens as well as the physical degradation of Jewish sites, monuments, and memorials. Monuments are usually built to commemorate a significant person or event in history, or a period of time. Memorials are usually related to death and destruction.”
Ivan Ceresnjes was the head of the Jewish community of Bosnia- Herzegovina and a vice-chairman of the Yugoslav Federation of Jewish Communities until his emigration to Israel in 1996. He assists the U.S. Congressional Commission for Protecting and Preserving American Property Abroad. This commission was created in 1985 for the survey and research of Jewish cemeteries, monuments, and memorials. Almost its entire emphasis is on Eastern Europe, because it is mainly there that this infrastructure is rapidly disappearing.
“Similar to other once-communist countries, in former Yugoslavia memorializing has developed in new directions from the politically correct, general approach of the past. In the communist view the suffering of one group of citizens under Nazi Germany and its allies could not be separated from that of others. People were told that all citizens had suffered from both external and internal enemies.
“Many Europeans collaborated with the Germans. In most areas of Yugoslavia, members of several specific groups of people were murdered at the same time. Usually it was an ethnic mixture of people that might also have included—according to the local population configuration—Muslims, other enemies of Nazism, as well as fascists.
“After the Holocaust, a new form of Jewish memorializing slowly emerged. It took place exclusively within the family at home. The next step was that memorials and monuments were gradually erected in places owned and used by Jews, such as synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. Putting up a memorial plaque was even considered a kind of protest against the communists because the Soviet Union usually didn’t allow it.
“Very slowly in the early 1950s, specific monuments for Jews started to appear in public places as well as memorial plaques on institutions, not specifically connected to Jews. Thus, Jews were given a place in national history. Memorializing in East European countries is closely connected to nationalism, which had been strongly suppressed under communist rule.
“After the demise of communism, the outburst of suppressed nationalism destroyed the Federation of Yugoslavia. Seven independent countries have emerged, each of which rewrites its history. The memory of the Holocaust is thus also fragmented according to the national context. In the history of humanity, the Holocaust is an unprecedented mega-event. This larger understanding, however, gets lost in societies where no historical research has been undertaken since the Second World War.”
Ceresnjes observes: “The murder of six million Jews in Europe has not only dramatically affected their families. It also meant that the great majority of Jewish sites in Eastern Europe became unattended. This includes a large number of synagogues, communal buildings, cemeteries, and other places that could become memorials of the former Jewish presence. In some countries the national Jewish community takes care of putting some plaques on buildings that were once synagogues, but this is a rather rare phenomenon.
“Sometimes governments or local authorities mark Jewish places. They frequently do so because they want to catch the attention of the Western world and show that the Jews are part of their history. Often, though, they nurture the memory of the murdered Jews and the communities that disappeared without elaborating on how and why this happened.
“The emergence of suppressed nationalism in the successor states to Yugoslavia has created the desire to rewrite history. This affects the history and memory of the Jews. It is a fairly widespread phenomenon that specific nations try to erase all victims of the Nazis other than those from their own nation. In this process the names of Jewish victims also disappear.
“The situation in all these countries is in flux. Questions will increasingly be asked about the erasing of names of other nationals by the various successor states. Collective memory has changed and will change further. Yet monuments, if not harmed or altered, stand while societies change.
“One can only wonder what will be the role of the Jews while new collective memories are developing. For that reason, too, it is important that the physical Jewish infrastructure is not further degraded and that memorial sites in Jewish locations are well kept. The memorials remind local people what happened to the Jews. For many, the existence of a Jewish memorial does not allow them to forget.”