I just returned from a trip to the Balkans. This Building Bridges Journey brought Muslim and Jewish women from the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom to Bosnia and Albania. The trip had two goals. First, we went to witness the results of the attempted genocide against the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) in the early 1990s. Next we traveled to Albania to honor the only country in the world that opened its borders to the Jews during the Holocaust, providing them full protection. Against the backdrop of increasing hateful rhetoric in the U.S. media, we gained additional strength and skills to confront the growing hate.
Our time in Bosnia was painful. The Mothers of Srebrencia shared their stories as they relived the horror of watching their sons, daughters, grandchildren and husbands murdered. Over 20 years later, many of the mothers still await the bodies of their loved ones to be identified in newly discovered mass graves. We heard first-hand accounts of how the Dutch UN peacekeeping force, in charge of protecting the Bosniaks, deserted their posts which allowed the Serbians to murder those they considered “other.”
While the war in Bosnia is over, the fighting continues. Beyond the physical reminders–buildings scarred with holes from bullets and shrapnel–evidence of distrust of the other remains. While presidential leadership is shared among Croates, Serbs, and Bosniaks, the so-called minority populations of Jews and Romas are not permitted to be elected to the presidency.
We also heard stories of hope. We met with Jacob Finci, the head of the small Jewish community. This community’s benevolent society, staffed by volunteers from all sides, operated throughout the war to provide food and medical care to all in need. Mandated by the Jewish value construct of the sacredness of life, this benevolent society also helped several thousand victims escape during the war.
During our conversation, Jakob was asked “Would you do it all over again today? Would he risk his life in the midst of a war that was between other communities, not his own. After a few minutes of thought, he said “No, it was too risky.” Yet, when the moment came to step up and take such risks, Jakob did so without a second thought. We all felt certain that he would probably have done so again.
The travel from Bosnia to Albania through the beautiful country of Montenegro gave us the opportunity to begin to process what we had experienced. It was a journey through the darkness into the light. A predominantly Muslim country, Albanians believe in the promise to protect the stranger, their guest. They applied this value during World War Two. At a time when the world turned its back on the Jewish community, every Albanian family was directed by the country’s king to shelter a Jewish family in their homes. They provided these Jewish families with Albanian identification. The number of Jews increased by twenty- fold during the war. As Albania’s neighbors complied with Nazi orders to round up their Jews, the Albanians refused to identify even one of its Jewish citizens or guests.
We had the privilege of meeting with family members of those righteous individuals who saved Jews during the Holocaust. We came to Albania to thank these families for standing up to the Nazi hate machine. They didn’t consider themselves heroes. They simply considered their actions as “the right things to do.” They were were perplexed by our admiration. We wanted to make sure that the Albanians knew that we recognized this special country and their people as exemplary. And we were determined to share what they did with the rest of the world.
The leaders of each religious party in Albania welcomed us. They opened their hearts and their homes to make us feel like the most honored guests, just as they had done during the war years to those who came before us. Albania’s president and first lady met with us and entertained us with a special dinner. Women to women, we learned from the Alliance of Parliamentary Women how the women in government, regardless of party representation, refuse to let political differences drive a wedge in their own consensus-building. Together they protect the needs of women and exhibit the sustaining power of dialogue.
Every person whom we met expressed an outpouring of gratitude for coming to visit and to hear their stories. We were desperate to understand how this small, poor, rural country broke out of the mold of hate to protect one another. We learned that Albania has a culture of harmony. It may lack the wealth of many other European Countries, but it certainly has one priceless export: the love and protection of the stranger.
We met many people during our trip to the Balkans. One thing was clear: our character–the “stuff” out of which we are made–is truly tested not when things are calm and the world seems peaceful. It is tested when there is no time to think. And we are not called to speak. Rather we are called to act. This trip will help all of us navigate our future. It helped us to see with our minds and our hearts. Only then will we be able to learn from the past and help shape a bright future.
The women of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom traveled on this Building Bridges Journey because we believe in the words found in expressed in our sacred texts (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9/ Quaran 5:32) which is best translated as “One who saves a life, it is as if one saves the world.” What we do in times of peace determines what we do in times of war.