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Memory Rupture: The Case of the Jewish Cemetery 

- by Mirna Pedalo












Jewish Cemetery, Sarajevo.

Photo: Mirna Pedalo

The relationship between memory and history in the Balkans has always been a contested one. The two have been closely intertwined in nationalist and state-building narratives, as well as in underpinning political discourses. The history of Bosnia-Herzegovina has been re-written so many times that it has become difficult to separate fact from fiction. History's incompleteness, as described by Pierre Nora, provides the perfect opportunity for the actors of each new political era to “fill in the gaps” with suitable narratives that might either subvert or annul both positive and negative aspects of whatever took place in the past.


By analysing the example of the Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo, in the period following the 1992-1995 war, the aim is to investigate how violent events act as transforming agents that cause interruptions in the creation of cultural and social constructs directly related to identity, in personal and collective memory alike. Due to its unfortunate, yet perfect strategic position, it was seized by the Bosnian Serbs' forces at the very beginning of the war and it would remain pretty much in the front line of fighting for the next three and a half years. The Serb forces used the cemetery as an important artillery position and due to a clear view of the city's streets it was to become known as a notorious sniper's nest from where hundreds of people in Sarajevo would get wounded or killed. This abrupt shift from a memorial ground to a place of extreme violence and aggression has caused a rupture, not only in the collective consciousness, but also in relation to the existing structures of power and specifically “official histories” generated by such structures. Of particular interest is the aftermath of these events and a gradual displacement of this highly complex and contested physical memorial space into a digital and cyber- space.


The history of Bosnian Jewry has also been told and written about numerous times. The strength of the narrative of the exiled people who have found their refuge from the Spanish Inquisition in the far out, unknown corner of the Ottoman Empire makes an attractive, if not a romantic tale. Often used to emphasise the multicultural and multi-ethnic character of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina it has become one of the stories that have been at the forefront of numerous political discourses paraded around the Western world, often to attract and secure funding. On the other hand, the country's Jewish populations is minuscule – we're talking several hundreds who mostly live in Sarajevo. Once a thriving community of around 16,000 people, only about 2,000 managed to survive the WWII. The community shrunk even further in the post-war period. In the last war, the Jewish population found themselves in a somewhat peculiar position. Being neither Serbs, Croats nor Bosniacs, they were viewed by all three sides at war as the neutral ones, which, for instance, allowed the Jewish Community in Sarajevo to provide food and medicine for the civilians, and organise convoys to take people out of the besieged city, when no other group was able to do so.

Jewish Cemetery, Sarajevo.

Photo: Mirna Pedalo

1st Interlude: The Place


“The Jewish cemetery in this city was opened in 1545. Seven aldermen who founded it rest here together, under the same tumulus, laid around the body of their great Rabbi Baruch.” (Inscription on one of the tombstones) (1)


According to this inscription, the Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo is believed to have been founded in 1545. However, there are no existing documents that would confirm the exact year. The main source of information would have been a so-called Book of the Dead. Unfortunately, along with many other valuable documents the book was lost in the looting and burning of the Great (Sephardi) Synagogue in Sarajevo, in 1941. Derived from the remaining Jewish community records, the oldest document where the cemetery's being mentioned dates back to 1630. It is known to be the oldest burial ground of any religious group in Sarajevo that is still kept intact. (2)


It is also the second largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, after the one in Prague (3) - a sepulcher complex of an outstanding value. Located in the south-western part of the city, only 20min walk from Sarajevo's downtown and overlooking the city, the cemetery has always been an integral part of the city's landscape and history.


Several centuries of its relatively peaceful existence ended abruptly with the beginning of the Second World War. Once thrust into turmoil, the place would become a backdrop to numerous turbulent events over the past 80 years. Its multiple identities have been created over time; some pushing others out, some existing side by side. Turned into an execution site during the WWII, the cemetery was officially closed for burial in 1963 and turned into a Jewish heritage site as well as a memorial site for the victims of fascism, only to be the subject to yet another brutal twist of faith in the early 1990s.


2nd Interlude: The War


The hairs of my flesh stood on end and my heart melted as I left my own being, and I was as though I was not. Were it not for remembering the poem, I would have been like all my townsfolk, who were lost, who had died at the hand of a despicable people, those who trampled my people until they were no longer a nation. But it was because of the power of the poem that my soul went out of me. And if my town has been wiped out of the world, it remains alive in the poem that the poet wrote as a sign for my city. And if I don't remember the words of the poem, for my soul left me because of its greatness, the poem sings itself in the heavens above, among the poems of the holy poets, the beloved of God. (4)


The war in Sarajevo started on the 6th April 1992, only a few streets down from the Jewish Cemetery. 


The accounts of the events that took place at the cemetery during that time are not easy to come by, and despite its prominence throughout history the cemetery hardly seem to feature in cultural pieces, be it visual or literary ones related to that particular period. Up until 1992, all the facts are in order. However, the war period becomes somewhat blurry in the official records. Perhaps the information has been obtained, but most of the records remain inaccessible. The official story line remains basic and straightforward. Here, history and memory certainly do not co-relate except on a very general level - the Jewish Cemetery was in the front line of the fighting and was one of the most notorious sniper's nest surrounding the city. The memory, based on what we hear from the witnesses and read from their accounts, is a lot more complex and contested. There are many “truths” and many angles and perspectives on what went on in that period. However, the official silence is also very telling.


Yet, there has been a surge in the number of war-related online forums and websites, featuring testimonies, or even just online musings of former combatants and soldiers, civilians who have survived the war, and sometimes even their children who were born after the war, who feel the need to understand what went on in the past. When Ruth Leys talks about trauma she stresses that “[t]he experience of trauma, fixed or frozen in time, refuses to be represented as past, but is perpetually re-experienced as painful, dissociated, traumatic present.” (5)


The fact that such forums are active 20 years since the end of the war, possibly now more than ever before, goes to show that those events are far from having been dealt with and forgotten and are very much alive and present in the minds of the survivors, as well as their descendants.


Occasionally, in the media, one would come across a testimony of a notorious war criminal such as a Serb, sniper-man, Dragan Sljivic, who used to shoot at the civilians from his position at the Jewish cemetery. During his trial he said: “When I hit the target, I'm glad. I'm glad because I don't like them anymore, there's no more living together. We've never massacred anyone; this is much more humane – to shoot someone with a rifle, rather than capture them.” (6)


On the other hand, one would read stories about some Serbian soldiers who used to warn the civilians from the other side of the frontline about the presence of the notorious sniper-man, or inform them about his absence so that they can use that time to move around the area freely.


All of these stories just show the complexity and absurdity of the war and destruction that engulfed the city in those years.

Jewish Cemetery, Sarajevo.

Photo: Mirna Pedalo

3rd Interlude: The People


During the war, I would occasionally sleep in a house, only a few hundred meters away from the Jewish Cemetery. One time, on a hot summer night, Anno Domini 1993, I was a witness to ‘verbal exchange’ between one of our soldiers and a Muslim soldier from the other side.


[B]oth 'interlocutors' used loudspeakers, so their voices echoed for kilometres away from the cemetery. The tone of the discussion was moderate, one could almost say academic (i.e. hardly any swearing, which was unusual for the frontline exchanges).


And so I stood in front of the house for a long time, gazing towards the place from which the voices of the two bitter enemies came from. Bitter enemies who conduct their war over the loudspeakers. Since they were both aware that hundreds of people were listening to them, they were on their best behaviour, so their interchange somewhat even resembled ‘The Audition’ (a Bosnian comedy show; translator's remark).

If the war could have some nice moments, well this would certainly have been one of them. (7)


In his argument about the difference between memory and history Nora says:


History is perpetually suspicious of memory and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it. [...] History's goal and ambition in not to exalt but to annihilate what has in reality taken place. A generalised critical history would no doubt preserve some museums, some medallions and monuments - that is to say, the materials necessary for its work - but it would empty them of what, to us, would make them lieux de memoire. In the end, a society living wholly under the sign of history could not, any more than could a traditional society, conceive such sites for anchoring its memory. (8)


This schism between memory and history becomes very potent in the case of post-1995 Jewish Cemetery, and it has resulted in a rather peculiar phenomenon. Its original role as a Jewish heritage site and a memorial complex for the victims of fascism is still very much a part of the political discourse on the state level as it fits the meta-narrative about Bosnia-Herzegovina being a multi-ethnic and multinational state. But this discourse is only valid in relation to the international community and fails to translate into an effective action on the local level. Yet the hard-line nationalists on both sides (Serbs and Bosniacs) have also failed to claim the Jewish Cemetery as “their own” even on the local level, for fear of ruffling international feathers, thus cutting off financial help. Therefore, their attention has been turned away from the cemetery onto the less contested, “clearer” examples that could better serve the purpose of national or religious glorification. Still, this doesn't mean that there has not been a shift in the perception of the place in both personal and collective memories of Sarajevo's populace. What seems to have happened was that the most recent layer of this palimpsest that the cemetery has become over the many centuries, has not been written over its existing layer, but has been “logged online”, so to speak.


In his book The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, James Young puts an emphasis on the dynamic character of the relationship between the state and its memorials that is hardly ever just one-sided. There is a tendency for memorials to take on lives of their-own, thus resisting the state's original intent. For Young, it is the new generations who are responsible for this shift as they “visit the memorials under new circumstances and invest them with new meanings.” (9) This results in “evolution in the memorial's significance, generated in the new times and company in which it finds itself.” (10)


It is, therefore, interesting to look at the Jewish Cemetery in the light of this argument and at the fact that more and more members and participants in these online discussions tend to be younger generations, some of them even children of fallen soldiers, who are trying to find out what had happened to their fathers. Although they might not have any prior knowledge or memories of the Jewish Cemetery their impressions and perception of the place are being shaped through these conversations and the information they absorb.


The use of the Internet as a public space where information can be shared, and opinions can be voiced, has started to become increasingly important in the practice of memorialisation. According to Margaret Wertheim cyber-space can be a spiritual space, even if it lacks physicality. (11) Its accessibility (it can be visited by anyone at any time) is one of its greatest advantages, just like its two-fold function of being both public and private at the same time. The lack of physicality and actual public space where the memorial would be situated allows for the processes of remembrance and memorialisation to happen in the private sphere (one's home, for instance) where it doesn't have to follow prescribed rules (a particular ritual, memorial days, opening times, etc.). Although providing privacy and freedom from interference, anything written or published online essentially goes public and can have a wide-ranging effect, garner attention and feedback which, according to Wertheim is also quite important in the process of dealing with trauma and grief. As social beings, we crave communal support, and although the therapy process is usually one man's journey Wertheim suggest that while working through their own issues “[...]many people seem to want a collective mental arena, a space they might share [and I suggest, also grieve,] with other minds”. (12)


Since the process of memorialisation of the recent events at the Jewish Cemetery lacks an official framework, it appears that people have taken to the Internet in order to process their memories and feelings related to such events and the site itself. Even if one cannot exactly refer to these forums as online memorials, as they were not purposefully set up as such, they serve a similar purpose. The fact that they can be accessed anonymously and by anybody is also of great significance. Although they might be set up by a particular religious or national group, they are often frequented by different people who have either lived or fought in the opposing sides during the war, which provides different insights and perspectives on the same event. However, the side-effect of this phenomenon is an abstraction of and disconnection from the actual physical heritage. The danger of such approach, beside the fact that it leads to the ignorance and neglect of the memorial complex, is that it will eventually result in the lack of understanding of the intricate and stratified character of this site. Taken out of context and abstracted, the recent memories will lose their anchor to the physical realm and the ones already lodged in the body of the cemetery will be forgotten by the people.




This article is based on a presentation given at the London Conference in Critical Thought (LCCT) on 26th June 2015

Mirna Pedalo

Mirna Pedalo is a London-based architect and a

researcher whose interests lie in a relationship between architecture and structures of power, as well as in the ways that architecture is being used as a political tool in post-conflict societies. Originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mirna graduated from the University of Westminster with MAs in Architecture and Visual Culture and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. degree at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths College.




( 1 )

See Snjezana Mutapcic, “Staro gradsko groblje u Kovacicicma” in Zbornik Radova Sefarad 92: Sarajevo, 11.09-14.09 (Sarajevo: Institut za istoriju i Jevrejska zajednica Bosne i Hercegovine, 1995) 89-95


( 2 )

Ibid, 89-95


( 3 )

Ibid, 89-95


( 4 )

S.Y.Agnon, “Sign” in The Book That Was Lost, Thirty Five Stories (Toby Edition, 2008), iBook Edition, 705


( 5 )

Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 ) 2


( 6 )

Dzenana Karabegovic, “U potrazi za snajpersitima koji su ubijali Sarajlije”, Radio Slobodna Evropa [online] August 12, 2012, accessed June 21, 2015,


( 7 )

Zeljko Tomic, July 5, 2013, “Prepucavanje na Jevrejskom Groblju”, accessed June 21, 2015,


( 8 )
Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire” in Representations 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory, (Spring, 1989): 9, accessed June 20, 2015,


( 9 )

James Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meanings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993) 3


( 10 )
Ibid, 3


( 11 )

See Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to Internet (Syndey: Doubleday, 1999)


( 12 )
Ibid, 233







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