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Tag Archives: Sarajevo
Bosnia (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
“Look,” I said, “the river at Sarajevo runs red. That I think a bit too much. The pathetic fallacy really ought not to play with such painful matters.” “Yes, it is as blatant as a propagandist poster,” said my husband.
SARAJEVO IS ONE of my favorite cities in the world. I never had the occasion to visit Bosnia for work while living in Brussels so I took a week in the summer of 2010 to make my first visit. The experience was even more extraordinary than I anticipated and resulted in completely random encounters that made me new, lifelong friends. I can still hear the muezzins calling my friend to prayer at Salat al-‘isha my last night in the city.
Today Sarajevo is a Muslim-majority enclave in a country half-split by the Dayton peace agreement between a Croat-Bosniak federation and a self-proclaimed Serb Republic. Once the most cosmopolitan city in the most diverse republic of the former Yugoslavia, Serbs cleansed themselves of Sarajevo and left Bosnia under virtual European protectorate status that endures to this day.
As with many of the cities West visited, Sarajevo survives as an amalgam of the many empires that have possessed it. The Old Town, which survived the war of the 1990s, was built under Ottoman possession. Walking the Old Town is a delightful experience, its very human scale a reminder that cities can be beautiful at the street level for pedestrian pleasure. Rebecca West records the corso in Dubrovnik and during the spring and summer this is true for Sarajevo as well.
The culverted river and national monuments from that era are mostly Austrian, including the Town Hall, which is done up in a rococo, self-conscious Moorish style. West immediately sees this as a colonial imposition and no genuine reflection of the Islamic or Turkish character of Sarajevo and Bosnia, “stuffed with beer and sausages down to its toes.” She is correct. A feline partisan, West notes the neighboring mosque’s minaret “has the air of a cat that watches a dog making a fool of itself.”
In retrospect this judgment feels unjust. The Town Hall was converted into the Bosnian national library in 1945, housing the earliest documentation of the nation. For that reason Serb gunners laying siege to Sarajevo in the 1990s shelled it without mercy. Incendiary rounds gutted the structure and burned it from floor to ceiling. (Happily, it has been completely restored with international help during the last 15 years, although the documentation is a total loss.)
Historically Sarajevo has been a true mix of the Abrahamic faiths, including Catholics and Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews. It is known as the city of 100 mosques but also hosts cathedrals, churches, and synagogues. West’s account is sympathetic to the Muslim community, but here she sets them aside along with the Christian community to spend ample time with Jewish artists, bankers, and intellectuals who called the city home. The intent of this focus becomes more clear in retrospect. Fortunately West provides an individual touchstone who foreshadows events to come.
The reconquista of Spain in 1492 included the expulsion of Spanish Jews, who scattered across the Mediterranean, including the Balkans. These Sephardim brought with them their unique faith practiced over centuries in Iberia, which included their language of Judeo-Spanish, sometimes called Ladino, an Old Spanish dialect incorporating Hebrew vocabulary and syntax. West spends time with a colorful figure she calls the Bulbul (“nightingale” in Persian), a beautiful Ladino singer whom she met on her first visit the year before. Lingering on the Bulbul is worth some additional time, not least for the impression she made on West:
“The Bulbul was not as Western women. In her beauty she resembled the Persian ladies of the miniatures, whose lustre I had till then thought an artistic convention but could now recognize in her great shining eyes, her wet red lips, her black hair with its white reflections, her dazzling skin.”
The Bulbul is a real person, a Sephardic Jewish Sarajevan named Natalia Šalom Vučković, known as Nina. The Canadian ethnomusicologist Dr. Judith R. Cohen identified her almost by accident in 1984. A scholar of Sephardic music, Cohen met Nina while participating in a concert that included Flory Jagoda, another refugee Sarajevan Ladino singer who only died in January 2021 not far from where I live in Virginia. (You can hear her singing in the YouTube link below). Cohen had read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and after learning Nina’s story quickly put two and two together. “‘Nina,’ [Cohen] said quietly, ‘you must be the Bulbul!’ Tears filled her eyes.”
(Cohen asserts that West got a detail wrong about Nina, ascribing to her proficiency in the gusla, a traditional string instrument, instead of the guitar which she actually played.)
Nina was at that time living on the Kahnewake Mohawk reserve near Montreal, where her doctor husband was administering to the First Nations community. She fled the German occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II, first with Jagoda to Korčula in the Adriatic and then to the United Nations refugee camp at El Shatt in the Sinai, where she joined 20,000 displaced Yugoslavs. There, a Red Cross nurse introduced Nina to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Opening the book, she immediately identified herself in the pages.
This is a photograph of Nina in 1951 taken for her identification card issued by the International Refugee Organization (IRO) in Bremen, West Germany. The IRO was the precursor organization for what would become the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. To my knowledge this photograph is previously unpublished.
The Bulbul’s story is even more astonishing than that. A refugee narrative written by Mira Altarac in 2008 corroborates Cohen’s research to fill out Nina’s biography. Before the war Nina had been married to her own uncle, Isak “Braco” Poljokan (whom West names as Selim while missing the fact that he was Nina’s blood relation, describing him approvingly as “a god sculpted by a primitive people…”) before fleeing the Nazis. They were divorced in Zagreb before she fled Split. A separate refugee narrative by Dr. Jacob Altaras reports that Poljokan was part of an Emigration Committee set up by the Jewish community of Split to help refugees flee Nazi occupation and later died in partisan action in 1944.
In El Shatt, Nina met Dr. Vukasin Vučković, whose own wife had just committed suicide by throwing herself into the Suez Canal, leaving him with their two small children. They married and after a few years wandering Europe seeking asylum, the new family finally settled in Canada. Vukasin died in 1974 while Nina lived on the reserve and in Montreal for 30 years before her death in 1986.
West lingers in Sarajevo and visits Ilidža, Trebević, Travnik, Jajce, and Jezero. These smaller towns serve as backdrop for her dramatic retelling of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by Gavrilo Princip—the most consequential individual act of the 20th century.
The result of the chance encounter between a minor royal and a consumptive teenager drove Europe into the abattoir of the Great War that killed some 22 million people, not including an additional 100 million during the resulting Spanish Influenza, which spread after the war as tens of millions of men demobilized. It destroyed the Austrian and Turkish Empires, precipitated the Armenian massacre, gave rise to Communism in Russia, Nazism in Germany and their genocidal regimes leading to World War II, created the modern Middle East, established the United States as a great power, and formed the League of Nations. Every major geopolitical crisis in the last 100 years is the direct result of World War I and its accelerant: two shots fired by Gavrilo Princip.
Modern observers express horror at the cascade of poor political decisions and battlefield blunders that led to the slaughter. The outcome appears inevitable in retrospect, but the reality is war is a choice. It is not foreordained. European leaders chose poorly. It is possible to imagine a different course of human events if wiser, cooler, and smarter heads were involved. But likewise it is also impossible to imagine the war breaking out at all if it weren’t for the assassination. There were tensions and competitions, of course, but no underlying casus belli to spark a major conflagration. Gavrilo Princip was the match.
Rebecca West makes clear, if not explicit, that this almost random encounter in recent history was populated by characters least likely to star in a modern drama. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was an entirely representative noble of the age, the personification of the mediocrity and rot that populated the ruling class of Europe. He was a thoroughly disagreeable man with an extremely morbid pastime: he hunted, or rather, shot game virtually point-blank as they were flushed into range for his ease and pleasure. He killed hundreds of thousands of animals on four continents. West’s documentation of this baleful, unslakable thirst for animal carnage fills out an unnerving psychological portrait of the archduke. It also foreshadows his own death, as West concludes:
“Long ago he himself, and the blood which was in his veins, had placed at their posts the beaters who should drive him down through a narrowing world to the spot where Princip’s bullet would find him.”
Franz Ferdinand held no real power in the dual monarchy. The ostensible reason for his visit to this provincial capital was in his official capacity as Inspector General of the Army. He was restricted by the abstruse rules governing monarchies from siring an heir to the throne of the Austrian empire because he married a not-noble-enough Czech noble woman, Sophie Chotek. Their morganatic marriage was nonetheless a happy one and possibly the only good thing to say about Franz Ferdinand is that he genuinely loved his wife and three children.
Gavrilo Princip was also an entirely unremarkable young man who only took his place in history as a result of official incompetence and blind luck. West describes him as “physically fragile,” a poor boy of uncertain parentage from the mountains. He attempted to join the Serbian army but his constitution collapsed and he was discharged. He was 19 when arrested for the assassination, a minor for purposes of Austrian imperial justice.
What brought these two parties together at that fateful moment would be considered an absurd farce if it had not resulted in such calamity. Reports of plots and intelligence were ignored. The archduke’s ruler-straight motorcade route and lax security are a remedial course for bodyguards in how to get your principal killed (see below). The motorcade drove down the left bank of the Miljacka, which alone drastically limited escape routes as a right turn would end up in the river. A failed attempt by Nedeljko Čabrinović to explode a bomb under the motorcade did not alter the route in the slightest. It continued to the City Hall, where Franz Ferdinand held a brief, strange, and strained audience, complaining about his explosive reception in the city. Despite this, he boarded his open car, which returned the way it came, that is, straight back into the kill zone.
There was a crew of five would-be assassins who lined the motorcade route. Each failed in their initial attempt. Armed with a bomb and pistol, Muhamed Mehmedbašić (notably a Muslim member of this mostly Serbian conspiracy) and Vaso Čubrilović failed to act. Following Čabrinović’s bombing attempt, Gavrilo Princip, Cvjetko Popović, and Trifun Grabež all missed their opportunity as the motorcade sped past them to the City Hall.
Princip had given up on the plot when the motorcade appeared again on its return down the quay. It made a wrong turn trying to reach the hospital where the injured from the bombing attempt were being treated. This mistake brought the archduke’s car directly abreast of Princip where it stalled. Princip stepped forward and fired and fired again. He did not miss his targets.
(West makes an error of fact here, describing Princip’s murder weapon as a revolver. It was a FN 1910 semi-automatic pistol. The difference is important because a balky revolver in the hands of this bumbling conspirator – a bad shot who washed out of army basic training – could have easily allowed Franz Ferdinand to escape, again, and the world to avoid the mass slaughter to follow.)
While not captured by motion picture as King Alexander’s assassination was 20 years later, the incident in Sarajevo is the most comprehensively documented act of terrorism prior to Sept. 11, 2001. An official tribunal investigated the chain of events and released a detailed report of its findings. All 15 plotters survived and were arrested, tried, and sentenced—the adults to death, the minors, including Gavrilo Princip, to prison terms. Not that this early manifestation of tender mercy mattered. Tuberculosis killed Princip in prison three years later.
In Jajce, West unexpectedly meets Čabrinović’s sister Vukosava, herself a dentist and also an accomplished folk singer. Unusual among West’s unnamed characters, Vukosava Čabrinović is fairly well-documented. David James Smith in his book One Morning in Sarajevo details her sympathies, including a relationship with Princip and her correspondence with her brother, who like Princip also died in prison. She is portrayed by Vera Veljovic-Jovanovic in the 1990 film “Last Waltz in Sarajevo,” not incidentally the last film produced in Yugoslavia before its breakup.
It is important to consider one more thing. Princip was a Serb born and raised in Bosnia. The Young Bosnia organization he joined was pan-Slav in agenda and furnished weapons by the secret Serbian Black Hand organization. In 1914, the Kingdom of Serbia was sovereign while Austria-Hungary possessed the Central European Slavic states as well as Bosnia, Slovenia, and Croatia. For the catastrophe that followed it is easy to miss something extraordinary in the assessment of the assassination: that this least likely, most fated individual in fact achieved his political objective. In 1914, Princip espoused a union of south Slavs free of Austrian domination. By 1918 the Austro-Hungarian empire was destroyed and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the predecessor of Yugoslavia, was a free, unitary state.
West also documents the sad afterlife of Franz Ferdinand and his wife. It is hard not to be sympathetic despite the fact they were simply bodies in boxes that had to be repatriated to Vienna. Emperor Franz Josef felt their death had corrected the wrong of their morganatic marriage. The emperor’s chamberlain used his position to delay their arrival to the capital. There he placed Sophie’s coffin lower than the archduke to indicate her inferior rank. No public respects were paid. The coffins had been moved by train to Pochlarn, Austria, arriving without reception at one o’clock in the morning. There, a deluge forced the coffins and mourners into the train station terminal to ride out the storm. In the morning they were transferred to a river ferry, but the continuing storm terrified the horses, and Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were spared just barely from being pitched bodily into the Danube.
Postscript: This story was updated on Dec. 8, 2021, to include additional information furnished with the permission and assistance of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I would like to thank the Memorial and in particular Susan Evans, Ed.D., for their help.
Blogging ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’
“What is Kaimakshalan? A mountain in Macedonia, but where is Macedonia since the Peace Treaty? This part of it is called South Serbia. And where is that, in Czechoslovakia, or in Bulgaria? And what has happened there? The answer is too long, as long indeed, as this book, which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length. Here is the calamity of our modern life, we cannot know all the things which it is necessary for our survival that we should know.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
THIS YEAR MARKS the 80th anniversary of the publication of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Written over five years and totaling more than 1,100 pages, it was almost immediately and universally acclaimed as a masterwork of 20th Century English literature—luster dimmed slightly by aspersions cast during the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. After 2000, however, this extraordinary book fell not just from favor but from popular consciousness. So much so that nobody noticed when its 75th anniversary passed in 2016.
Nobody, it seems, but me. In 2017 I wrote about this collective oversight in the Los Angeles Review of Books and defended West against the ludicrous accusation that her 1930s wayfaring prosopography fed Western inaction during the violent, genocidal breakup of the former Yugoslavia. To my surprise, West’s literary estate flagged my article and ordered an 80th anniversary edition. That edition is now available from Canongate with an introduction by Geoff Dyer.
This moment presents an opportunity to revisit the book in detail and in depth. In the coming weeks and months I will write here about the book as I move through it, region by region. The book is rich and dense with observation and moment so there will be plenty of material for digressions and diversions. I have visited several of the locations covered in the book, including Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia in addition to Austria, Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria. My admiration of West and her work grew as I realized what she described in 1941 remained completely true to my own experiences.
I also believe reexamining this book will bring clarity to our own generational inflection point. As several commentators have noted, during her travels in the mid-1930s West saw and anticipated the crest of fascism preparing to crash across Europe. Black Lamb documented the damage of rank nationalism and the imperialism of centuries. West plainly saw the antecedents and historical analogies. “The difference between [Kosovo] in 1389 and England in 1939,” she wrote, “lay in time and place and not in the events experienced.”
Many thought 1989 was the last caesura with that legacy. But history has no end. The apex of post-Cold War democratic advance came in Tunis in 2011. Since then, more than a dozen countries have rallied to the cynical column led by Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran. Freedom House noted of 2020, “[D]emocracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.” Western democracies themselves have not been immune to this retrogression, as 2021’s capitol insurrection surely demonstrated.
West saw the same thing coming 85 years ago and warned us. We should listen.
I hope you’ll join me on this historiographical odyssey. Please feel free to comment below or e-mail me directly at the address listed under “About James Thomas Snyder”.
Do We Need A Cultural Foreign Policy?
This month in Bosnia-Herzegovina citizens protested government paralysis in every major city in the country, in some places leading to destruction of municipal government buildings. In Sarajevo, somebody took advantage of the chaos and burned the city archives – a terrible echo of the war of the 1990s, when the beautiful National and University Library was shelled by federal Yugoslav gunners and gutted, destroying the entire collection.
This event is particularly poignant given the recent release of “The Monuments Men,” the George Clooney film about an odd clutch of Allied soldiers tasked with saving art looted from across Europe by Adolph Hitler. Such an action may seem superfluous in the middle of the titanic struggle with fascism in Europe and nationalism in Asia, with literally millions of lives in the balance. Indeed, as the movie and the book by Robert Edsel make clear, the treasure hunt was seen by some as a distraction from Allied war aims. But Lt. George Stokes, Clooney’s character, understood the stakes all too well. “If you destroy a people’s history, it’s as if they never existed,” he says. “That’s what Hitler wants.”
Unfortunately, as events in Sarajevo demonstrate, the world’s cultural patrimony faces an array of threats less immediate but all the more dire and insidious for it. And we lack a coherent, coordinated ability to respond to threats to art and culture that measures up to the achievement of the monuments men.
Today the Sarajevo Haggadah – the oldest Hebrew codex in the Balkans – sits in the National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina which has been closed for a year, unprotected. The Bosnian national parliament cannot agree on its status as a federal institution and refused to fund it. The Balkan Wars, both world wars and the wars of the former Yugoslavia could not shut down the museum, which until last winter had remained open for 125 years. This is only part of the reason why Bosnians are protesting.
Without funding and support, professional curators and preservationists cannot ttend to their collections and artifacts. Climate goes uncontrolled. Collections are left unguarded and unmonitored. An entire nation’s patrimony is at risk. And Bosnia is not alone in Europe. Due to the financial crisis, the governments of Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania cut funding and closed many or parts of their national museums and galleries. Their collections, too, were threatened.
Direct threats remain as well. When the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, they ripped out a part of the Afghan nation. When Ansar Dine extremists destroyed the mausoleums of Sufi Muslim saints in Timbuktu, they assaulted an ancient center of Islamic history and Malian identity. It is difficult to justify intervention on behalf of works of art, but it is impossible to say we won’t help restore them the way the Stare Most was rebuilt after it was destroyed more than 20 years ago in Mostar, Bosnia.
But the United States today has no means, no unified institution and no philosophy – in short, no foreign cultural policy – to do what the monuments men did 70 years ago: to advocate on behalf of, preserve and, if necessary, rescue endangered art and culture around the world. What we have now in the United States is a hodge-podge of various agencies, bodies and private foundations – the Smithsonian Institution and National Gallery of Art, the State Department, USAID – each pursuing its own, limited projects without coordination, direction or support to match the need.
Some of these projects are important and noble. For example, the Smithsonian moved rapidly after the 2010 earthquake leveled Port-á-Prince to rescue Haitian art. The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation provides flexible funding to U.S. embassies to support museums and galleries. But programs like these are small-bore or one-off. The Ambassadors Fund amounts to little more than $5 million per year for the entire world and only a fraction goes to securing the art works themselves.
In my recent book, I proposed creating a public-private entity called the U.S. Arts Restoration Trust to coordinate government and private resources for the advocacy of art and culture around the world. USART would need to work with the State Department, because execution of these projects would by necessity be enabled through American embassies which have permanent personnel on the ground. And it would need to work with private foundations and galleries with the financial resources and technical know-how to help preserve and restore art in foreign countries.
USART would represent, too, an ideological argument in our particular American approach to promoting art and culture. Culture in the United States is not entirely cut loose in the free market, but it is far more so than the rest of the world. American galleries and museums depend on philanthropy, particularly in contrast to their European or Asian counterparts. While the Smithsonian receives some federal funding, most municipal galleries and museums rely on local foundations and corporate charities. More precisely, we have a far deeper and longer history of philanthropy to draw on. When the European arts community was hit by the financial crisis, it was largely a recession of state support, and they had nowhere else to look for funding. As a result, their collections and personnel suffered.
While traveling abroad I saw the Ma’il Qur’an at the British Library, one of the oldest copies of this sacred text in the world. The importance of a library for preserving a codex becomes clear when you hear what senior conservator David Jacobs told the Arab News about the Ma’il Qur’an. “The problem with that particular manuscript is pigments that are quite friable and flaky, so obviously it needs care and attention and constant monitoring of its condition.” That kind of monitoring is no longer available to the Sarajevo Haggadah and possibly countless other irreplaceable texts and art pieces around the world.
When viewing treasures saved by the monuments men or preserved in the British Library, it is impossible to imagine them not existing. But that is because they survived and are protected to this hour. Rescuing threatened art was a mission we assumed 70 years ago and it is a duty we should take even more seriously today.
Bosnian Culture is World Culture: March 4 is Global Museum Solidarity Day
Today more than 200 museums, galleries and libraries in nearly 40 countries on five continents symbolically closed exhibits in solidarity with seven closed and threatened cultural institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. More than 20 galleries and universities in North America, 50 in Croatia alone, two score across Western Europe, and more across the Middle East, Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and beyond are demonstrating their support this month for their brother and sister institutions that survived the war of the 1990s only to confront ruin by political neglect in the Bosnian federal parliament.
You can hear my friend Jasmin Mujanovic speaking to the CBC’s As It Happens about the crisis in Bosnia threatening the cultural institutions (in English). You can watch my friend Prof. Azra Aksamija speaking to Al Jazeera here (in Bosnian).
Pour nos amis francophones, voici un blog Le Monde. C’est un peu court, mais je travail dur pour le changer. Ecrivez Le Monde, France24 ou les autres medias pour nous aider!
Of course, please visit our CULTURESHUTDOWN site to join the conversation about how we can change the circumstances in Sarajevo.
Day of Solidarity with the Cultural Institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina: March 4
Imagine if Congress refused to fund the Smithsonian Institutions — the most visited museum complex in the world — not because of “sequestration” or spending cuts but because Democrats and Republicans in Congress could not agree on whether it should be supported as a federal body. That’s effectively what has happened to seven museums, galleries and libraries in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the past year. The fractured federal parliament in Sarajevo can’t agree to fund them, so one after another these institutions have been closed, shuttered and powered down, without staff to support or protect their collections.
The strange irony, of course, is that most of these cultural institutions — at the hands of their heroic curators and other devoted supporters — survived the war of the early 1990s and particularly the siege of Sarajevo. Now, the political dispute in the federal parliament deprives the institutions of the support they need to preserve some of the most important artifacts in the Balkans.
As I learned traveling and visiting not just some of Bosnia’s museums and galleries in 2010 but others as well, this is not just a matter of access, but of curation and preservation. Cultural institutions are not simply boxes in which paintings, ancient finds, and objets d’art are stored. The subjects of our cultural heritage require care and attention from professional staff properly equipped with tools of their trade. The failure of the Bosnian parliament to support its own national cultural institutions threatens their heritage with slow ruin after surviving centuries.
On March 4, cultural institutions around the world will symbolically “close” parts of their exhibits in a Day of Museum Solidarity with Bosnia to pressure the parliament to resolve this crisis. You can join them by visiting cultureshutdown.net to add your voice and take action.