Survival in Sarajevo For the record: Photo exhibit shows how the Jewish community contributed to the life of the Bosnian capital.

November 01, 1995|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

In battered and bloodied Sarajevo, Edward Serotta drove no armored car, wore no body armor, carried no gun.

He walked through that beleaguered Bosnian city armed only with admiration, compassion, a Leica camera and an observant eye.

He learned how to survive in Sarajevo by watching the people he would photograph scurry through the besieged streets, along sniper alleys, between mortar bursts.

"On the streets where the people of Sarajevo walked, I would walk," he says. "Where people were running, I would run. Where the people didn't go, I didn't go."

Ed Serotta arrived in Sarajevo at the end of 1993 to photograph the Jewish community at a moment of great crisis. Sarajevo's Jewish community, scattered and all but erased in the Holocaust, had rebuilt itself after World War II. Now the Jews of Sarajevo faced casual, accidental destruction of their community a war in which they were nobody's enemy.

Mr. Serotta, a Jewish photographer whose name means "orphan" in Slavic, found a Jewish community that had, in fact, come to the aid of its city. And that's the subtext of the exhibition of his Sarajevo photographs at the Lloyd Street Gallery of the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland. The show, "Survival in Sarajevo," opened this week for a four-month stay at the gallery, at 15 Lloyd St., just north of Lombard.

"To put it simply," Mr. Serotta says, "for the first time during a modern European war, it is the Jews who are saving and protecting Christians and Muslims, wherever, whenever they can."

His defining image in the show is perhaps of "Titzko," the community cook, a man of great concentration, with a Vandyke beard, loose sprays of gray hair and muscular arms, stirring a great kettle of garbanzos with a long-handled paddle, like an oarsman pulling through a sea of troubles.

He fed 350 people a day out of a tiny, improvised kitchen in the Jewish Community Center. Titzko cooked at one of three stoves, electric, gas or wood depending on which fuel was available in the besieged city. By the time Ed Serotta caught up with him, Titzko and his volunteers had cooked up 380 tons of food and served 110,000 hot meals to anybody who showed up: Muslim, Serb, Croat or Jew.

The Jewish Community Center had virtually usurped the 100-year-old Ashkenazi synagogue, transforming it into a warren offices. Except for a couple of stray mortar rounds, the rose-colored brick synagogue on the narrow Miljacka River had remained relatively unscathed from the shelling of the city. The social hall had become a storeroom for food. The lounge became Titzko's lunchroom.

Aid society helps all

The Jewish mutual aid society, "La Benevolencija," founded in 1894 to help poor Sephardic Jews, turned into a humanitarian aid center for the whole city, "a free and open house for all." La Benevolencija opened three pharmacies and filled 1.6 million free prescriptions, about five for every man, woman and child in Sarajevo. The aid society opened the city's only first-aid clinic, with a multiethnic staff that made house calls. It was an ironic recycling of history: In the 19th century, all Bosnia's doctors were Jews.

Ed Serotta's pictures record the visit of the clinic's Serbian doctor, Srdjan Gornjakovich, to Zeyneba Hardaga, who had become the first Muslim named a Righteous Gentile by the State of Israel. Her family had sheltered a Jewish friend during World War II. Both her father and the Jewish man were killed.

Mr. Serotta's photographs of Zeyneba's gnarled hands grasping cane while Srdjan takes her blood pressure are nearly as evocative as his full-faced portraits that reveal the stern, implacable dignity of a woman worn by age.

The Jewish community also provided free apartments to Bosnian refugees, set up two-way radio communications with the world beyond the Serbian guns and started a post office that handled 100,000 letters. Even the Sarajevo postmaster used the Jewish community's post office. The service was better and more reliable than the government's. The community organized evacuation for 2,500 people, only a third of them Jews.

The benevolence of the Sarajevo Jewish community was funded largely by an international, nonsectarian consortium headed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, according to Jonathan Kolker, a Baltimore builder who is treasurer of "the Joint."

Through the centuries, Jewish Sarajevo had been largely a Sephardic city. The Sephardim -- Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition -- arrived in Sarajevo by 1565. Their descendants made up three-fourths of the 12,000 Jews in the city in 1941 when German and Croatian fascists scattered the community to concentration camps, where at least 8,000 died.

"Everything that was Jewish had been wrecked, ruined or

burned," Moris Albahari, a Sephardic survivor who can trace his heritage to the expulsion from Spain, told Mr. Serotta. Sixty-four members of his family were killed in the Holocaust.

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