The Power of Words and the Damage They Can Do


This morning I was privileged to learn an important lesson about the necessity of using proper terminology and language when discussing divisive issues. This was a painful lesson for those whose feelings were trampled by the poor use of language and I am grateful to them for sharing their pain to help all of us learn it.

This morning the Centropa Summer Academy visited the Tunel (sic) Museum or Tunnel of Life Museum. This is a family run museum at the end of the tunnel which was dug under the runway of the Sarajevo Airport in 1993. This tunnel was used to bring in gas, electricity, food, people, medical supplies and other necessities during the siege. It was completed on the 30th of June 1993 and was 800 meters long, a meter wide and 1.6 meters high. It was often filled with water, gas, electricity and artillery and it is amazing it didn’t blow up at some point. We were able to see the last 20 or so feet of the tunnel as the rest of it collapsed after the war.

When we arrived at the location, we were shown to a space to watch a video. Prior to the video a man spoke to introduce the video and speak about the tunnel. I did not know this at the time, but he is part of the family whose house was at the end of the tunnel and his family runs this museum. His father usually does the tours and is, as we were told, quite funny and not biased in his presentation. The son, however, clearly has much anger and hatred still about the war and his words were very hurtful and not carefully chosen. A little history to help understand why what he said –

The war in Bosnia was fought between Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Serbia is now its own country and there are Serbians and Bosnian Serbians. At our conference we have Serbians from Serbia and Serbians from the area of Bosnia Herzegovina known at Republika Srbskia. The tour guide spoke of “Serbs” who kills Bosnians and laid the guilt for the war at the feet of all Serbs rather than those Bosnian Serbs who gave into nationalism and decided to kill their former neighbors. As Ed Serrotta said “Those who woke up one morning and decided the Muslim Bosnian living next door was actually a Turk and an oppressor and occupier and needed to die.” That was not all Bosnian Serbs let alone all Serbs.

After we returned to our bus, the Serbians on our bus, who are here to work together and educate their children towards a better future for all peoples, felt awful and were moved to speak to those of us on the bus. They stressed that there were victims on all sides and “victims are victims”. The Israelis on the bus expressed that they know the feeling with the divide of “Jews and Arabs” in Israel and an assumption that all in each group are the same. We had another discussion with the whole group when we returned to the conference room and all of the participants from Serbian areas spoke quite powerfully about their feelings and experience of this presentation.

Before the Serbians spoke, Ed Serrotta – the director of Centropa, spoke passionately about the work that Centropa is doing and why they invited teachers to this seminar, in Sarajevo, from various Balkan nations, Ed said that this has not been done before, and they knew it would be hard for these teachers, but that Centropa is about working without borders. Ed said that for people from the former Yugoslavia, coming to Sarajevo is always difficult. He spoke about the need to face the past and how no one likes to do it and that really very few countries are good at it. He mentioned Nelson Mandela’s quote about no one being born hating and that hatred needs to be taught and, according to Mandela, that it is easier to teach love. Ed disagrees with the second part, and said that it is much easier to teach hate and that it is hard to teach love. Ed’s history reporting on wars might have something to do with this, what some would see as, cynical view. He also quote Vaclav Havel who, when the leader of Germany visited his country, spoke about not blaming a language for what is said in it. “Nazis identified their affairs with the affairs of Germany…a language cannot be blamed for the tyrant who speaks it…to hate a language (and he is implying all who speak it)…is to assign collective guilt and to do so is to weaken the individual guilt of those who actually committed the crimes.”

The first Serbian to speak is a soft spoken woman who works for the Ministry of Education – she had also spoken on our bus about victims of all nations. Next Marko spoke, he is a passionate young man who feels very strongly about what was said by the guide. He is working with teachers in Serbian areas to help them use Centropa’s materials and to help them work together for a better future for this area. He spoke of the “normal, honest people who did not want war but rather wanted to live in one country, go to the coast, buy a new car, travel with their red passport…that this was all they wanted and that politicians and crazy people made an awful situation.” He emphasized that now we are together and must work to make a better future – a normal future. That the way that we, as teachers teach our students will determine that future. When Marko and I were speaking on the bus this morning he said to me “We, teachers, we are the most powerful people in the world. What we teach our students determines the future.” I laughed and said, “Yes, but you wouldn’t know that from how we are paid.”

One of the most moving pieces from the Serbians was from a young woman who said that after hearing the tour guide she asked herself “Who am I?” She shared that her parents were originally from Serbia, but both came to Bosnia. They met in Bosnia and she was born here and lived here for 13 years. When war came, her family went back to Serbia.l She wondered if that made her a “Bosnian Serb” and was she responsible for the war? I spoke to her later in the afternoon and told her how powerful I found this and how much it meant to me that she had shared it.

This to me is the real issue with words. This woman, who was 13 in 1992, was made to wonder if she was responsible for genocide because of the careless use of language by another person. Tying her identity to Bosnian Serbs versus “normal” Serbs leaves her with a question of guilt. Perhaps we need to be sure to add “aggressors” or “perpetrators” after Bosnian Serb to make it clear that we know there were Bosnian Serbs who did not participate in the war. There were those who stayed in Sarajevo and died alongside their Muslim neighbors, or lovers. After the tunnel we went to the Sarajevo Public Cemetery where we visited the grave of the “Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo”. This young couple, a Muslim girl and Serbian boy, were shot by snipers trying to leave Sarajevo. They had been together 7 years. He stayed in the city with her and she was now leaving with him. They had been promised safe passage, but were shot. Their bodies lay in no-man’s land for days as it was too dangerous to retrieve them. Surely one cannot assign collective guilt when such things show that not all were guilty.

My final reflection on the day is about the cemetery. Here in a city and in a country that has been torn apart repeatedly along religious lines, I was shocked to find that the public cemetery contains graves of Muslims, Catholics and Serbian Orthodox – and a Jew or two according to our guide though I did not see any Jewish graves – all mixed together. Literally Muslim beside Catholic beside Orthodox. Our two lovers are buried in the same grave – Muslim and Orthodox. The symbolism provided by the hodgepodge of graves in this hodgepodge of a city – Hapsburg style buildings next to Ottoman markets and mosques – is quite striking and gives me hope that the living can learn to live together as well as the dead seem to be doing.

About nancesea

I live in Seattle with my husband Steve. I am an award winning Jewish educator, and primarily teach middle schoolers. My speciality is the Holocaust. My hobbies, when I have time, are reading, live music, and photography. I am passionate about teaching the lessons of the darkest periods history to help inspire my students to assure our future is brighter. Pre-Covid I used to travel yearly to Central and Eastern Europe to continue to learn about this history and make connections with educators there doing similar work. I hope you enjoy my writing on my travels, my learning and Jewish thought and practice. B'vrachot - with blessings - Nance

3 responses »

  1. Hi Nance,

    I love your writing. What an experience! I must say that Vienna has long been on my list of places I’d like to see, particularly because of the bizarre situation Jews in Vienna found themselves in at the turn of the century. I know that so very many Viennese Jews converted because of the horrific anti-Semitism of the place. Do you happen to know what percentage of Viennese Jews ultimately converted?

    This piece brings up two inchoate thoughts in me. I don’t feel that I can digest them, but I want to share them with you.


    Some years ago, I believe it was 25-30 years ago, I took a class from a woman, of whom I had heard, and I was grateful to get to know her a little. She was famous in San Diego Jewish circles in those days—she had been one of the leading Jewish educators in the city.

    Annette told me that she was born in a DP camp after the war. Her mother was a Polish Jew. I do not know who her father was—the subject simply did not come up. Her mother was a survivor. And her mother filled Annette with her pain and rage. She said that she felt as if she had lived her mother’s life, it was no “second hand smoke” for her; she identified with survivors, not with their children.

    Annette’s mother spoke Polish primarily, and Polish was Annette’s first language. Annette spoke fluent Polish, Yiddish, German, Hebrew, English (of course), and Greek. While she was raised here, I believe that she spent some years as a young adult in Europe. She told me that she started out hating Germans, but that apparently from conversations with young Germans and reading the news (e.g., the “nasty girl” episode of the mid-1970s, and its aftermath) she came to the conclusion that West Germany was very seriously trying to confront its history and deal honestly with the Holocaust. Annette said that when she heard German spoken around her, it did not bother her any longer, though if the speakers were “of a certain age”, she would stare at them and wonder what they had done during the war.

    But when she heard Polish spoken around her, she said that her blood froze. She hated Poles. She hated them because they had been the neighbors of Jews, and they had collaborated with the Germans when the issue was Jews, and fought the Germans otherwise. And, she felt, the Polish government and society had not honestly faced its WWII history at all. Any poles “of a certain age” were automatically written off in her mind, and she did not even want to talk to any young Poles—they were oblivious of the reality of their own recent history.

    Annette immersed herself in Jewish history. She taught Hebrew. She was the head of the San Diego Hebrew High, an after-school program for children who were not attending Jewish day-schools.

    And somewhere in there she, I think, burnt herself out. Last I heard, she ran off with her boyfriend, a non-Jewish Greek, to Greece. (I just looked her up on Google; she is now an executive motivational consultant in the Bay Area.)

    Native Americans

    I was struck by your story of the Bosnian Serbian woman who was 13 in 1992, and her angst over her identity. Is she a “Bosnian Serb”? Is she one of “those” Bosnian Serbs? Does she bear any culpability?

    The whole issue of ancestral guilt and redemption is so Gordian. I don’t know anything else about this woman and her current circumstances than what you’ve written, but it reminds me of the issue of our country. Our ancestors (or, at least, the ancestors of the founders of our nation) came to this country and took it from its inhabitants, leaving them destitute. Our predecessors, apparently inadvertently, wiped out an estimated 90% of the inhabitants before they even saw them by virtue of the Old World diseases they brought with them, and killed even more of the remainder whenever it suited them. (On my mother’s side I have an ancestor who arrived in 1634, so I suspect I’ve got some at-least-mildly bloody hands in my lineage.)

    We were not part of this. We did not take these actions. But we cannot pretend that we do not profit from those actions, that theft. We can no more give back what our civilization has taken from Native Americans than we can restore the Etruscans or the Philistines or the Sumerians to a viable presence in our world. Do we simply shrug and move on? (The good news is that there are no peoples claiming to be Etruscan or Philistine or Sumerian yammering on about injustices to their ancestors.)

    We face this question with two advantages, or perhaps disadvantages, over your Bosniak acquaintance. We are unquestionably more powerful and numerous than our victims, and we definitely have profited by the oppression perpetrated by our predecessors. “Bosnian Serbs”, if they are to be blamed for the horrors of the war, … have they profited? Are they in a better place than they would have been had they not fought that war? If they are as victimized by that war as the other Bosniaks, then what does that say about identity and debt?

    My. Demanding payment for unpayable debts seems to be a conundrum.

    I hope your learning continues. I’m sure you will return with more questions than answers. And that’s standard operating procedure for a Jew.

    מיט מזל און ברוכה

    Love, Bill

  2. Bill, thanks for your reply – speaking of words – Bosniaks are Muslim. The Serbs are actually happy to be called Serbs – but just don’t want to be lumped together with Bosnian Serbs who actively participated in the war/genocide in the 1990’s. Ed Serotta says America is the worst at facing our history because we don’t have to as the biggest/most powerful country in the world – no one can make us. Sadly true, I think.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s