Survivor Stories


Johannes Baptist Metz warned fellow theologians not to divorce talk about God from the realities of their times. Reflecting on the twentieth century, Metz wrote that the horrors of Auschwitz made all “situationless talk” about God empty. Is there “a God whom one can worship with back turned to Auschwitz?” he asked.

A minaret has recently gone up near my home in one of the traditionally Catholic neighborhoods of South St. Louis. The city and its surrounding metropolitan area are home to approximately fifty thousand Bosnian immigrants, many of them Muslim, the largest such group outside Bosnia itself. Most of these new arrivals fled Bosnia in the aftermath of the war and genocide of the 1990s.

In the fall of 2007, Fontbonne University, a small Catholic institution sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and nestled between Washington University and Concordia Lutheran Seminary, just west of St. Louis’s vast Forest Park, developed an upper-division undergraduate course, “The Bosnian Immigration: Narrative, Memory, and Identity.” It was designed by professors Benjamin Moore and Jack Luzkow to increase understanding of the local Bosnian community and to examine the effects of the Bosnian genocide. It in turn inspired the Bosnian Memory Project and a traveling museum exhibit. Resources for the initial course included scholarly books and articles, documentary and feature films, and trial transcripts and maps. But according to Moore, “It was the local community of survivors that quickly became our most important resource.”

Over several months, students interviewed survivors from Prijedor, a town of thirty-five thousand in northwestern Bosnia. Unlike Sarajevo or Srebrenica, Prijedor is not widely known in the United States. What took place there happened early in the war, during the spring and summer of 1992, before journalistic coverage of Bosnia had intensified and the term “ethnic cleansing” had come into widespread use. Yet Prijedor holds a seminal place in the history of the Bosnian genocide. As Moore notes, by 1993, 87 percent of the Muslim population (about 40 percent of the town) had been expelled or killed, while the Catholic population of sixty-three hundred had been reduced by half. Many of those killed were unarmed civilians fleeing Serb attacks. Thousands of others died in Nazi-style concentration camps under conditions not seen in Europe since the Second World War.

The exhibit that grew out of the course, “Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide,” has been on display at Fontbonne since last October. It includes a multimedia presentation that places the Prijedor genocide in the larger context of Bosnian history. During the Middle Ages, Bosnia was an independent monarchy, surrounded by powerful neighbors that included the Catholic Holy Roman Empire, Orthodox Serbia, and the Islamic Ottoman Empire. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, a significant number sought refuge in Ottoman Bosnia. There, religious and cultural diversity flourished for centuries. With the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires in 1918, Bosnia was integrated into a new state, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. This amalgam was later reconfigured into Communist Yugoslavia, but following the death of strongman Marshal Tito in 1980, divisive nationalist sentiments erupted and Yugoslavia disintegrated. In 1989, Slobodan Milosević was elected president of Serbia and began his quest for a Greater Serbia, laying claim to all areas where Serbs were then living. In 1992, multiethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence after two new independent states, Serbia and Croatia, sought to annex parts of its territory, including Prijedor.

From March to July 1992, thousands of Muslims were slaughtered in Prijedor after UN observers were forced to withdraw. Prijedor and the surrounding area experienced systematic looting, the destruction of its Muslim-style buildings, and mass executions. People were torched in the streets, their bodies piled to rot there.

A moving part of the Fontbonne exhibit, particularly in light of its university setting, is the memorial to “The Killing of Educated People.” In the aftermath of the Serb takeover, hundreds of educated non-Serbs were executed. The exhibit includes a UN statement that the objective was to eliminate the non-Serbian leadership: political, academic, religious, economic, and artistic. The memorial pays special tribute to Dr. Kemal Cerić, a Prijedor physician known for his work in immunization and disease prevention. After the Serb takeover in 1992, he was fired from his job and forced into exile. He was not able to return to Prijedor until 1995. That September, Dr. Cerić was evicted from his apartment and later abducted. In 2000, his sweater, shoes, and physical remains were discovered at the bottom of a well in a nearby village. The sweater and shoes are now part of the exhibit, along with family photographs. Some members of the doctor’s family now live in St. Louis.

Ranging through the exhibit, one gets a chilling glimpse of the systematic destruction of Bosnia. There are photographs of the concentration camps at Keraterm, Omarska, and Trnopolje, and of the war-crimes trials that eventually followed. There are exhibits that preserve and illustrate the stories of those displaced. Called “The Survivors,” this section includes photographs of the diversity of Bosnian immigrants in the St. Louis area: a husband and wife in front of their home in South St. Louis; a couple gardening in their backyard in St. Louis County; a father sporting a St. Louis Rams jersey with his sons at a soccer field in Sappington. The final quotation of the exhibit reads: “The survivors’ testimony has helped to preserve the memory of the lives and communities that were lost to genocide. It also speaks to the courage and perseverance of those who have since emmigrated to the United States and become an important part of the St. Louis community.”

So, for me, the sight of the new minaret in South St. Louis “interrupts,” to use Metz’s term, my complacency. It challenges me to consider and to integrate not only other theological styles and approaches, but also other people’s history and stories. In St. Louis and its surrounding area, thousands of such stories continue to haunt the lives of those who managed to escape Bosnia’s genocide.

The Bosnian Memory Project also raises challenging questions about the ambiguity, power, and redemptive possibilities of memory. In The End of Memory, theologian Miroslav Volf notes that while memory has the power to heal, it can also breed vengeance. He questions whether memories of wrongs experienced can be “saving”—that is, whether they can contribute to the well-being of the victims and their neighbors. In a specifically Christian framework, he wonders how memory leads to loving wrongdoers and overcoming evil with good. Volf thinks such love may require a kind of forgetting, but he also explores several ways memory itself might serve as a means to achieving this: through the acknowledgment of wrongdoings, through personal and social healing, through the creation of solidarity with victims, thus shielding others from further violence. The Fontbonne experience with the Bosnian Memory Project has shown that such exercises can engender a positive, lasting sense of solidarity with the victims of genocide. As Volf observes: “Remembering suffering awakens us from the slumber of indifference and goads us to fight against the suffering and oppression around us.”

The Bosnian Memory Project and the Prijedor exhibit raise questions for which there are no easy answers. Still, the endeavor has connected a Catholic university and other members of the local community—Catholics, Protestants, and Jews among them—with the predominantly Muslim population of St. Louis’s Bosnian refugees. The experience has been profound. As one student interviewer remarked about a survivor whose son was shot to death while imprisoned, “I expected to see anger in the people toward their aggressors, and I never once saw that.” For his part, Professor Moore says that he is haunted by the words of Sead Okic about the sexual assault he witnessed on women imprisoned in Omarska: “And I quote, ‘We heard; we saw; we knew.’ Sead’s words tell us what his face that day said even more eloquently: Whether one likes it or not, hearing, seeing, and knowing bring with them a burden. In the case of the students and faculty involved in this project, this burden takes the form of a responsibility to preserve and transmit what we have learned.”


Related: Santiago Ramos reviews Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project

Published in the 2009-04-10 issue: 

Randall S. Rosenberg is assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Fontbonne University in St. Louis. For more information on the Bosnian Memory Project, visit

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