Sead Alisic remembers when he made the decision to leave Bosnia with his wife and 4-year-old son.
It was 1994, and the surrounding Serbian armies had spent two years raining down destruction on Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. Hundreds of shells hit the city daily. Water, food and electricity were scarce or nonexistent.
In multiethnic Bosnia, Muslims like Alisic and his family — along with Catholic Croats, Jews and Orthodox Serbs — previously had lived together in relative harmony. But in 1992, after the collapse of communism and the fracturing of Yugoslavia, Bosnia turned into hell on Earth.
Even so, Alisic, an economist and owner of a clothing store with 10 employees, was reluctant to leave, thinking things would have to get better. “This is my land, this is my country,” he kept saying to himself.
“We were so naive in those days,” he says now.
One day, a friend in the Serbian army told him he needed to think of his son. “You don’t have the right to decide for this little guy,” the friend said. “Only God has that right.”
Alisic is one of five refugees from the Serbian-led ethnic cleansing in Bosnia who have found jobs on the facilities staff at the Osher Marin JCC.
In their honor, last month the JCC in San Rafael hosted the traveling exhibition “Survival in Sarajevo: Jews and Muslims, Serbs and Croats, Working Together During the Bosnian War, 1992–1995.”
On Saturday, Jan. 18, the exhibit will open at the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, in the Skylight Gallery on the sixth floor. An opening reception will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 22 in the library’s Koret Auditorium.
“Survival in Sarajevo” showcases images by photojournalist Edward Serotta, the director of Centropa, a Vienna-based institute dedicated to preserving 20th-century Jewish family stories from Central and Eastern Europe.
Serotta’s exhibit shows the efforts of a group of Holocaust survivors in Sarajevo, along with other Jews and people of other faiths, to create a haven in the midst of horror. In this European war, Jews were not the victims, but instead were helping to save Muslims and Christians.
Serotta, who produced three pieces for ABC’s “Nightline” between 1996 and 1999 and has published three books, spent extensive time in Bosnia documenting the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted longer than the siege of Leningrad, and killed more than 11,000 people. “Survival in Sarajevo” uses the powerful black-and-white photographs he took for Time magazine and several German publications that filled his 1994 book of the same name.
“There were three rules for getting through the siege,” Serotta said in a recent interview. “Where you see people walking, you walk. Where you see people running, you run. Where you don’t see anyone, you don’t go.”
Serotta documented the daily life of the Jewish community aid organization La Benevolencija (Ladino for “good will”) during the war. The 10-panel exhibit incorporates his photographs with archival images narrating the history of Jews in Bosnia, which began in the mid-16th century with descendants of Sephardim expelled from Spain in 1492.
La Benevolencija, run out of an Ashkenazi synagogue and adjacent Jewish community center in Sarajevo, became a hub of activity immediately after the first shells hit the city. In Serotta’s images, we see a surgeon tending patients, people gathering to accept medicines from one of La Benevolencija’s free pharmacies, and volunteers delivering mail and unloading supplies.
We also see people pulling carts of water from the city’s taps or scurrying through the streets past a sign saying “Pazi Snajper” (beware of sniper), elderly Jews in their homes burning furniture and books for heat and the gutted ruins of a university library.
The exhibit quotes Ljerka Danon, one of the leading forces at La Benevolencija. A Holocaust survivor who was hidden during World War II by her non-Jewish father, she said of the Bosnian war: “If we only had a little more food, it would be like the Second World War.”
Some of Serotta’s images show convoys organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee that operated in war-ravaged Sarajevo during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Other photographs capture the tears of a 13-year-old Muslim boy who had carried water for the Jewish community, and the hand of his father reaching up to say goodbye as he sends his son out of Sarajevo. After completing high school in Israel, Denis Karalic grew up to work at Vienna’s Holocaust restitution agency and remains a close friend of Serotta.
The exhibit, said Joanne Greene, director of the Marin JCC’s Center for Jewish Life, “exhibits the best of Jewish values” and was well-received in Marin, where it was part of the center’s “Salaam, Shalom” series, designed to increase dialogue and understanding between local faith communities. More than 100 people attended the opening (which included a short film about the exhibit, viewable at www.tinyurl.com/centropa-sf), and its original eight-day run was extended by another 10 days.
Sead Alisic and his family escaped to Croatia and then joined a brother in San Francisco with the help of the International Rescue Committee. He held a low-wage job until JCC facilities director Gary Reed hired him in 1996.
“He made the decision to give me a chance,” Alisic said. “Skills? Honestly, I had none. I couldn’t change a light bulb.”
Alisic went on to start his own maintenance business and recently bought a business for his son.
“From the first day I came [to the JCC], I have never seen a ‘different’ look” from anyone, said Alisic, and he and his Bosnian co-workers continue to feel the warmth of the community’s embrace.
“Survival in Sarajevo” opening reception at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 22 with Ed Serotta. Exhibit Jan. 18 through March 16.
San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St. www.tinyurl.com/sarajevo-sf or (415) 557-4277