My Enemy, the 'Other'

SARA ENGRAM

April 18, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

Afew days from now, a haunting new monument will open in Washington. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opens to the public April 26, is an institution dedicated to the proposition, ''Never again.''

Never again will the world look on while people are systematically exterminated. Never again will the world tolerate attempts at an organized obliteration of whole peoples and cultures. Never again will the evil of a Holocaust darken the earth.

The planners and builders of the Holocaust Memorial Museum could not have foreseen that the solemn ceremonies dedicating the new building would take place against a backdrop of Western hand-wringing over Bosnia, a European conflagration in which Serbian aggression against Muslim Slavs has created uncomfortably eerie echoes of Nazi zeal to eliminate Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other groups deemed undesirable.

It would be a far better world if the hatreds and misplaced zeal that drive such murderous schemes could be confined forever between the walls of a museum, where visitors could wonder and weep at the historical aberrations of a world gone inexplicably mad. Then they could leave the nightmares behind.

Alas, the nightmares are all too real, as are the hatreds that create them.

To be sure, there is a difference in scale and detail in the Holocaust memorialized in the new museum and the horrors in Bosnia. And, most assuredly, Bosnia is not the only place today where evil and death hold sway.

Dispatches from many parts of the world, from Armenia and Azerbaijan, from Angola, from Somalia and southern Sudan, hint at the same chaos and suffering. And who could forget Pol Pot's murderous rampage in Cambodia?

But if only by geographical proximity to that other Holocaust, Bosnia resonates on the Western conscience. This week Lady (Margaret) Thatcher blasted European leaders -- and, by implication, President Clinton -- for the inaction that Serb leaders interpret as a green light to complete their quest of a greater Serbia unblemished by Muslims and other non-Serbs.

Recently a new book crossed my desk, a collection of compelling essays by the Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic entitled ''The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War.'' Although Ms. Drakulic is Croatian and lives in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, she would prefer to think of herself as Yugoslav. She is as frightened as anyone by the resurrected nationalism that fuels the fighting.

But her own discomfort provides a poignant contrast to the utter confusion of her daughter, the child of a Croat mother and Serb father who never discussed the differences. ''I was aware that he was from a Serbian family while I was from a Croatian one, but it didn't mean anything to me, one way or another,'' she writes.

''World War II was long over when the two of us were born and throughout my life it seemed to me that everyone was trying to escape its shadow, to forget and just live their lives. Your father and I never even discussed the different nationality of our families, not because it was forbidden, but because it was unimportant to the majority of our generation. It wasn't an issue.''

No longer. ''The tragedy and the paradox of this situation now is that you will have to decide, to take his or my side, to become Croat or Serb, to take on and suffer his and my 'guilt' of marrying the 'wrong' nationality. In the war there is no middle position. All of a sudden you become responsible for what all other Croats or Serbs are doing.''

We are hearing a lot about the ''ancient ethnic hatreds'' that account for the viciousness of this war. But we aren't hearing enough of these other voices, the people more interested in getting on with their lives than with avenging historic wrongs.

Ms. Drakulic notes that in the 1980 census, 1.5 million people declared themselves not Croats or Serbs or Muslims but simply ''Yugoslav.'' Virtually all of them were then around 30, members of the post-World War II generation. Now their designation -- their chosen identity -- no longer exists.

Like many people, I am mesmerized by the pictures from Bosnia. I'm drawn to the faces of the civilians who have become the pawns of this war. Especially the children, whose faces seem so hopeful and alive despite the signs of shell shock, exhaustion and hunger.

Shell-shocked babies with shrapnel wounds. What could better drive home the horror of branding people only by ethnic labels, of turning the ''Other'' -- whether Jew or Muslim, Croat or Serb -- into the Enemy?

If only those scenes could be shoved inside a museum.

If only we could keep ''Never again'' from becoming ''Always again.''

Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun.

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