Il Grande Kal Synagogue in Sarajevo before it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941 (Wikipedia)
It's not so unusual for authors to find different avenues to pursue, or expand upon those that they have been on. Perhaps life itself provides a good metaphor for the journeys we take. Often, those journeys hit roadblocks that must be circumvented. We have to be open to possibilities, opportunities, and even walls that get in our way. All give us the impetus to seek changes, if we choose to do so.
I had no inkling that my last book, And Still We Rise, would lead to giving presentation, being a guest on podcasts, and more importantly, meeting incredible people on the road to enlightening audiences about the lesser-known genocide in Bosnia in the early 1990s. I forged new friendships, learned great lessons, and was privy to experiences that others shared with me.
I have a manuscript with interviews of survivors of the war in Bosnia, and personal narratives by young adult children who grew up in the U.S. in households of survivors. For all of them, their strength, their resilience, and their vulnerabilities are exposed in the heartfelt sharing of deeply personal and moving portrayals of their lives. I have yet to publish this in a book, but I am in the process of seeking another forum to spread their wisdom.
Sometimes, as I've been told, the universe has a way of giving you the opportunity to pursue your own personal journey. For me, telling stories based in truth is the most powerful way to convey what it means to be human. I am nearly finished with my next book project.
Moris Albahari's life began to unfold for me last year when I learned of his death at the age of 93 in October. Always interested in what's going on in Bosnia, having immersed myself in its recent history for my previous two projects, I was struck by the convergence of Moris' death, a thirst for understanding his life, which resulted in my desire to know much more.
As a Sephardic Jew in Bosnia, Moris was one of the last Ladino speakers in that country. Ladino was the language developed by Jews fleeing the inquisitions of Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It has been referred to as Judeo-espanol. The Sephardim traveled through Turkey, Italy and eventually to Bosnia where many settled. And, Ladino continued to be spoken in households there.
Moris' family was extensive throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina through the mid-1940s. It was the Holocaust that decimated them, and thousands of others in the region. Yugoslavia was easily overrun by the German army and its allies. The fascist takeover by the Ustashe led to a temporary name change until the war's end in 1945, to the Independent State of Croatia. The Ustashe (fascists) built death camps that relied not upon gas chambers, but more primitive and brutal methods of extermination of Serbs, Jews, and Romani, all tolled about 430,000 murders.
It was Josip Bro Tito's partisans that fought the Germans, Ustashe, and Chetniks (Serb nationalists whose goal was to establish a purely Serb state) to eventually win back Yugoslavia for all people under a communist banner. This was not the communism of China or the Soviet Union, and it eventually evolved into more of a socialist democracy though Tito remained the 'strongman' until his death in 1980.
At the age of eleven, Moris Albahari was on his own wandering the mountains of northwestern Bosnia until the partisans took him in. His story is subsequently told in my upcoming book, which I hope to have published toward the end of the year.
When I watched a documentary featuring Moris called "Saved by Language," which I highly recommend, it was as if I was watching someone who could have been my family member. The warmth he conveyed was that of my ancestors. The courage he displayed as an adolescent during the Holocaust needed to be told, I thought. I found myself immersed in learning about Moris, his family, Yugoslavia, German plans for the destruction and domination of its people, and the resistance that fought back.
I spoke with Moris' son, Dado, who lives in Croatia, and with with him translating for me, Moris' widow and Dado's mother, Ela. I accessed video interviews in Croatian from 1997 from the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California. My friend, Amir Grabovica, who lives in Utica, NY, input English subtitles for me. I read personal narratives by two of Moris' sisters about their lives during the war, and other written pieces by the few that knew about the Albaharis or were in their extended family.The bits and pieces of information I gathered about Moris, combined with the newfound knowledge I'd read about the partisans of Yugoslavia, helped me to create his story. In doing so, I put myself in Moris' shoes as best I could. But not only his shoes, his heart. While writing I could, at times, feel his spirit surrounding me. What an incredible human being! For me, it was a privilege to bring his early years to life.
I can only hope that I have done the man justice in my interpretation of what life was like for him as an adolescent during World War II. He leaves behind a legacy that is rich with his philosophy of peaceful coexistence among all people. As one of the leaders in the Sephardic community in Sarajevo, he spread that message as easily as do rivers flow.
My desire is for readers to feel his spirit,, too, and to know that there were others like Moris, who represent the best of humanity, something we need to promote today as much as any time in human history.