An Infusion of Dialogues

By Paula Green | 2003-01-01 12:00:00

Members of a German and Jewish second generation Holocaust dialogue group met with Muslim and Serb educators in northern Bosnia.

By Paula Green

The Bosnian dialogue group, the Project for Dialogue and Community Building (Project DiaCom) consists of educators from the cities of Sanski Most in the Bosnian Federation and Prijedor in the Serb Republic, the two entities currently constituting Bosnia. The post-Holocaust group, One by One, meets in the US and Germany and includes members whose families were directly effected by the Holocaust. I initiated the Bosnian Dialogue Project three years ago at the request of Serb and Muslim educators whose previously intertwined lives have been split asunder by the violence that destroyed Bosnia. They wished to explore relations and to prepare their schools for repatriation and the restoration of community.

In assembling this mix of dialogue groups, several questions interested me. Observing the skills of the One by One group in the dialogue process and the intimacy many of them have achieved across seemingly impossible barriers, I wondered what they could model and teach to the Bosnians. Most of the German and Jewish members of One by One are second generation survivors of the Holocaust or people whose parents were engaged in the Third Reich. The Bosnians, on the other hand, are all immediate victims or members of bystander or perpetrator families, or perpetrators themselves. In both Project DiaCom and One by One, there are few histories of rescuers.

Another question that concerns peacebuilders is the influence of the passage of time on dialogue and the healing process. The Bosnian war ended five years ago. In Bosnia, memories are immediate, the destruction visible and the wounds palpable. For the Germans and Jews, more than fifty years have passed. The dialogue participants are descendants of victims and perpetrators. What is the right time to begin inter-ethnic dialogue after war? When it is too soon? What factors of time and readiness need to be considered in beginning dialogue besides the request of the participants and the need for safety?

In an informal discussion after a One by One dialogue, a Jewish group member remarked that he wished healing and peacebuilding efforts had existed after World War II. He believed that his parents' lives as Holocaust survivors might have been eased if structures had existed to ease the transition away from the dehumanization of the concentration camps. My colleague did not envision his parents in dialogue with Germans but wished there had been some care and attention for their devastated emotions.

His remarks encouraged my thinking that One by One might have experiences useful to the Bosnian participants in Project DiaCom who struggle so bravely to speak to each other. I sensed that the Jewish and German group could bear witness to the importance of telling the truth in the first generation, to the legacy of unprocessed trauma, and to the betrayals caused by family secrets, lies, and distorted histories. So I invited One by One to select delegates to accompany me to Bosnia. An unexpected benefit was the effect that the Bosnians would have on the One by One group, opening a way to their own future of service to others.

Public Presentations

Prijedor gained notoriety as a center of war crimes and ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian War. Formerly a well-integrated city of 100,000 Muslim and Serb Bosnians, 58,000 Muslims were expelled from Prijedor early in the war. Most of the survivors now live 30 minutes away in Sanski Most, another previously mixed city from which Serbs were pushed or fled toward the end of the war. Predominately Muslim villages surrounding Prijedor lie in ruin, heaps of rubble marking former homes, schools, and mosques. While the Dayton Accords allow repatriation, enormous psychological and physical obstacles block the process of return. There are no welcoming banners inviting Muslims or Serbs to reclaim their occupied or destroyed homes on either side.

In Sanski Most, we met each day with our dialogue leaders-in-training and with educators who had participated in at least one previous Project DiaCom workshop. In the evenings we gave public presentations in both cities, one to a largely Muslim audience and the other mainly Serb. Because the Serbs in Prijedor almost all deny their responsibility for the expulsion of 58,000 Muslims and the presence of several concentration camps inside their city, talks in Prijedor were especially difficult.

In these venues, the One by One presenters told their personal stories, allowed their emotions to surface and maintained their equanimity and balance in the face of challenges and denial. As moderator, I felt it appropriate that we not become involved in responses that would lead to counter-arguments. Encouraging reflection and stimulating dialogue between local residents was the hoped-for result of the One by One presentations. Observing post-Holocaust dialogue partners who obviously care deeply about each other gave hope to people who feel helpless in the face of their estrangement from each other. Listening to the Jews talk about the effects of multi-generational trauma and the Germans speak about the legacy of falsified history offered guidance to Bosnians struggling to raise children, to speak about the war, to give words to the carnage visible on every street. "How do we tell the truth?" a participant asked. "Help us not wait for 50 years." A fifteen-year-old student countered: "I don't want any more information about the war. I have lived it for ten years. I've heard of my grandparents' past and I'm not proud of it but I can't do anything about it." We offered no simplistic answers for their anguish, but acknowledged the possibility of finding their own wisdom through conversation.

In Dialogue

In a closed session with the ten Bosnian dialogue leaders-in-training, the four One by One members, and the facilitation and translation team, we worked steadily at exploring relations. A One by One member from Germany, a retired Lutheran minister who had been a member of the Hitler Youth, began his presentation in tears. Gottfried apologized to the Serbs for German aggression in World War II and to the Muslims for Germany's and the world's complicity in standing by and thus allowing the destruction of Bosnia. Ilona, the other German One by One presenter, spoke of her love for her father and the utter betrayal she experienced when she learned of his Nazi past. She mentioned the shame and the silence of bystanders and offered her concern for the next generation. "The younger generation will carry the guilt of their parents if the parents do not deal with their own guilt."

A Jewish member of One by One who came originally from Romania and felt vulnerable in this former-Communist Eastern Europe setting, brought tears to everyone's eyes with her description of her mother's inability to recover from the concentration camps and the consequent effect on her own life. At that point, one of the Muslim men took an emotional risk by noting that the Serbs showed more concern for Mary whom they had just met than they did for his suffering, although he is a long-term group member. "Our group shows more compassion for the Jews of One by One than for victims here. Our stories are no less touching than theirs." Watching the Serbs turn away from Mohammed's pain-filled eyes, we intervened as facilitators to encourage the group to pay attention to the statement and to their own response. For the Serbs, acknowledging Mohammed's victimization meant telling themselves the truth about Prijedor as a city of war crimes. To let in that knowledge apparently stimulated anguish, shame, and guilt. It is hard to bear so much reality, agonizing to be a bystander feeling powerless to stop the downward spiral of violence. Frequently in our lives, we are all bystanders.

A Turning Point

One by One taught me something of the depth of perpetrator groups' suffering. I see how much anguish German members carry about the behavior of their family members and their nation. I know they long to heal these wounds and to experience themselves as good people, not through denial but through facing history. Their message to the Bosnians states that the path to forgiveness and restoration of dignity and community lies through acknowledgement and atonement. Children must learn the truth of violence committed by their elders and the truth of victimhood. Repressed history re-enacts itself, generation after generation. Traumas are inherited. Ghosts demand revenge. Only the truth can set us free.

Could this message be realized among our ten Sanski Most and Prijedor educators-in-training five years after the Bosnian War? It required another risk by a Muslim participant, a woman whom I shall call Vera. The day after the One by One members left, we had one more day with the educators-in-training, the group with whom we have devoted the most energy in the past three years. Vera told a story she had never before uttered, a story of unbelievable trauma and fear that sends her into periodic episodes of despair and shock. As she poured out her anguish, a young Muslim participant held her and cried with her, for her experience and for the 36 members of his immediate family lost in the war. My heart reeled with the intensity of what I was hearing while my mind watched the participants. The Serbs, all five of whom were women, were avoiding eye contact. One buried her face by taking notes.

My co-trainer and I knew we had reached a critical moment for intervention. The ground under us seemed to shake with emotion. One by One, no longer physically present, remained with us as invisible witnesses. If the group could not respond to this outpouring of agony, if the Serb group members remained frozen in their fear and divided loyalties, we could not move forward as a group of potential facilitators. If we could not go through this pivotal incident together, we saw that the Muslim and Serb members of the group would remain separated in alienation and despair, unable to join each other.

I found the words to help the Serb women find release from their shame and helplessness so they could reach out to Vera. Nada bravely rose and crossed the room to embrace Vera. Nada, probably the most capable of the Serb future facilitators, said to Vera as she held her: "What my parents suffered in World War II was terrible, but not as tragic as your experience."

In this important moment of inter-ethnic peacebuilding Nada acknowledged that Vera's story was true and also that she had been comparing this ethnic cleansing with that of her parents' experience as victims fifty years earlier. Milka, the Serb educator in the group closest to her feelings, through a burst of tears asked her Muslim colleagues for forgiveness and reconciliation. From this crescendo of emotion, the group members moved into quiet reflection and thence to a necessary break.

In the closing circle that followed, Faik, a male math teacher from Sanski Most said: "One by One gave me the courage to tell my story. Our listening guidelines are the core of our work; we must listen to each other." Nada acknowledged the shattering that must come on the path ahead in order to break through: "I feel upset, maybe some dilemmas in myself. My head is chaotic. I thought I was really happy-a good husband, two kids, good work, everything okay. Now I feel broken and I must be with my new feelings to find out what has happened to me. I don't know whether my happiness was a real happiness."


We as facilitators stood in awe of all the participants: Muslims, Serbs, Jews and Germans as they wove a new story from their intertwined histories, this one committed to honesty, introspection, civic responsibility, and compassion. We learned the value of multi-partiality in dialogue, remembering that there is no life without suffering, especially in war, and that the journey to healing may begin with a single phrase: Yes, this tragedy happened. I acknowledge your experience. I accept your truth.

We do not use the language of forgiveness and reconciliation, but rather select more present-oriented words such as relationship, community building, collaboration and healing. Forgiveness and reconciliation, if they develop, grow out of this larger journey of rebuilding trust and restoring relations.

I believe we need public rituals to bind the community, as well as private dialogue to strengthen collegial bonds and encourage collaborative development. It is difficult but not impossible to interrupt the cycle of blame, hatred and revenge, and to balance out the needs for punishment and compassion. My commitment to inter-ethnic dialogue rests in the hope that transformation will emerge through connection and caring.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2003

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2003, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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