Balkan war pushes one Baltimore woman into unilateral action

March 11, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

Diane W. Paul decided several years ago that the last thing she wanted to be in this world was a bystander, innocent or otherwise.

It was this aversion to dispassion that led her to write a letter to Stephen Spielberg recently telling him she couldn't bring herself to see his hit movie, "Schindler's List."

"What's the use of crying in a movie about something that happened 50 years ago?" asked the 38-year-old Ms. Paul. "People are dying today."

She had a similar reaction in April during the ceremonies opening the Holocaust Museum in Washington, to which she had been invited. In a letter to this newspaper, she wrote:

"I listened as learned men and the leaders of nations spoke about the importance of the museum, of the lessons of history, as they pledged, one by one, 'Never again.'

"At the time, I wanted to shout, 'What about Bosnia? What will you do to stop the murder of civilians happening at this very moment?' But of course I did not. I remained silent."

She is silent no longer. In fact, she is more than willing to talk about the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and even to "do something" about them. She has quit her job. She intends to devote herself to the Balkan crisis, through volunteer work, organizing relief aid, possibly by returning to the ravaged territories where she worked last year. She has already returned once, last month, at her own expense.

Her husband has supported her in this, probably more than most men in similar circumstances would. But he, and their two small boys, watch and wonder where this decision will ultimately take her. Or all of them.

Diane Paul has delicate, busy hands; they wrestle with each other, fiddle with rubber bands, leap up before her to punctuate what she says. She has shortish dark hair, regular features; a ready smile, and deep, unfulfilled eyes.

Bosnia has been much on Ms. Paul's mind. And the Holocaust as well. In fact, it's with her every day. She is the director of the Holocaust and War Victims Tracing and Information Center of the American Red Cross at its Northwest Baltimore headquarters, or will be until her resignation takes effect next week.

Its mission is to find those who disappeared in the whirlwind the Nazis set off in Europe during World War II. To trace them, the living and dead, and to "alleviate the emotional and spiritual distress of survivors and their families by providing information regarding the status of missing loved ones."

She has been doing that work for 3 1/2 years.

But to her, the tragedy at hand is the one that demands attention. And she believes it is not to diminish the importance of the larger historical one to give all her energies to the one now unfolding in the Balkans.

"I can't help but draw parallels between the situation in Bosnia and the Holocaust," she says, referring to the slave labor still going on, the concentration camps still operating, the "ethnic cleansing" in hidden mountain valleys, and the rapes of Muslim women, as a matter of policy by the Bosnian Serbs.

"Some people are opposed to this [way of thinking]. Some people see the Holocaust as a unique thing. What they don't want to see happen is for the terrible meaning of the Holocaust to get diluted by later tragedies.

"I guess what I am concerned about is that nobody can say now we don't know what's going on. For people to get up and say, 'Never Again. Never Again. Never Again,' and while things like these are happening -- and doing nothing about it -- is, to my mind, unconscionable.

'They'll just keep killing'

"There are people who think I'm foolish," she says. "They'll say, 'Why bother? Why do you care so much? They'll just keep killing each other.' They also say, 'Why intervene? It has nothing to do with us.' "

With this point of view she differs most vehemently: "It has everything to do with us."

Hers is not an easy decision, if only because she's not a free agent.

"I would anticipate I would return to the region," she says, "but it would depend on my family. It has not been easy on them."

During his wife's first sojourn in Croatia, Dr. Marc Paul, a radiologist connected with Good Samaritan Hospital, took care of their two boys, ages 7 and 5, which Ms. Paul regards as extraordinary.

Dr. Paul, aware he has done all the right things, betrays a certain ambivalence toward the implications of his wife's commitment.

The first visit, he says, "led to some difficulties. I felt I was willing to make a sacrifice by staying home, though I also felt I was vicariously helping out there as well, by taking care of things at home."

How does he feel about her going again? "We'd have to talk about the specific situation. The second time [in January] was really hard on the children. We are still very supportive of her efforts, but another extended visit over there, by herself, would be real difficult for our family."

Yet he does not rule out the possibility of their both going, or the whole family.

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