U.S. Jewish leaders horrified by Bosnia atrocities

August 07, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Jewish leaders here and across the nation, horrified by reports of detention camp atrocities and "ethnic cleansing" in far-off Bosnia-Herzegovina, are demanding immediate American intervention to head off a disaster they compare to the Holocaust of half a century ago.

"Not since the Cambodian massacres [of the 1970s] have I seen the Jewish community so agitated and so energized," Rabbi A. James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee said yesterday.

Rabbi Rudin referred to "the trains, the camps, families separated, people with the 'wrong' last names or who are part of the 'wrong' group," and likened the new horrors not only to the World War II Holocaust but to the three-year reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s that killed more than a million of Cambodia's 8 million people.

"For Jews, all of this carries a special shock of recognition," he said.

One Holocaust survivor in Baltimore called it the "awful deja vu" -- the reliving of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps -- triggered by accounts of torture of Muslims and Croation Christians by Serbian forces in the conflict resulting from the breakup of Yugoslavia.

"We're hearing about meetings and conferences," said Leo Bretholz, a 71-year-old retired Baltimore book-seller who jumped from a train headed for Auschwitz and spent most of World War II in and out of captivity.

"We were hearing about meetings and conferences 50 years ago. Conferences have never solved anything," he said.

He said he was particularly upset by American reliance on the International Red Cross to determine the extent of atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, recalling the failure of that organization to find the truth about the Nazi camps in which millions of Jews met their deaths.

"The Red Cross should have known from World War II that the evidence of death camps can be destroyed before its people come in," he said.

While Jews locally were asking for "a more assertive posture" by the Bush administration in its efforts to gain access to Serbian detention camps, a spokesman for the Baltimore Jewish Council yesterday emphasized a need for Jews to work nationally and internationally toward ending the torture and killing in Bosnia.

Adam Kessler, associate director of the Jewish council, said representatives of a national coalition -- including the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, National Council of Jewish Women and B'nai B'rith -- met Tuesday in Washington with Thomas Niles, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, to press for a more forceful American response.

"The obvious connection . . ."

"The obvious connection of what is being reported now with World War II is just too painful for us to ignore," Mr. Kessler said.

Sanford V. Teplitzky, president of the Baltimore Jewish Council, and Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Ellen Hollander, chairman of its World Jewry and International Human Rights Committee, issued an "Action Alert" to more than 50 member synagogues and Jewish organizations, reporting on that meeting.

While Jewish communities have not been targeted, the report said the condition of Jews in Serbia, Bosnia and other areas of the former Yugoslav republics was being monitored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. It assured members that Jews were being evacuated to safe areas as needed and assisted with food, medicine and clothing.

But the statement stressed Jewish concern for non-Jews. "All of us have been shocked," it began, "by the reports of 'ethnic cleansing,' concentration camp executions and other atrocities

being conducted in the midst of Yugoslavia's civil war.

"These actions, although unconfirmed, inevitably evoke painful memories of the Holocaust and prompt us to call for a more assertive and forthright American response to this tragedy and for a resolution in the U.N. Security Council that would provide for humanitarian relief and actions to end the killing and human rights abuses."

Haunted by images

The group urged the Jewish community to send letters demanding action to President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker and Maryland's U.S. senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes.

Sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors, as well as survivors themselves, said they were haunted by the fresh images from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Isaiah Kuperstein, director of the Zionist Organization of America in Baltimore, and his wife, Elana, who is on the staff of The Associated, an umbrella organization of local Jewish agencies, are both children of survivors.

"We see these pictures of the cattle cars, and our memories are painful," Mrs. Kuperstein said. "The similarities are crying out."

Because of passionate Jewish reaction across the United States, "We're doing a lot," Rabbi Rudin said in New York.

His agency -- the American Jewish Committee -- joined with the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League to buy advertising space for "an open letter to world leaders" demanding an end to the "Serbian death camps."

"We are overwhelmed"

The ad, published in the New York Times Wednesday, brought a letter expressing "profound gratitude" yesterday from the Bosnian and Hercegovinian Relief Fund and Information Centre in Toronto, Rabbi Rudin said.

"We are overwhelmed by the generosity of your spirit," the Jewish leaders were told.

The Jewish groups' open letter does not mince words. It says, "To the blood-chilling names of Auschwitz, Treblinka and other Nazi death camps there seem now to have been added the names of Omarska and Brcko, where it is reported thousands have been starved, tortured and executed, and cremated as fodder for animals."

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