Multiculturalism in Wartime Sarajevo


Justin Neumaier

by Emily Greble

In fall 1941, a few months after Nazi Germany dismembered Yugoslavia and established a satellite called the Independent State of Croatia, local police in Sarajevo, a major city in the new state, hunted down a Jewish man who had been deported to a concentration camp. The reason for the search: his housekeeper had requested her salary, and they felt uneasy taking his money without his permission, even though his property had been expropriated by the state. Following the paper trail across various Bosnian transit camps, they finally found him in Jasenovac, an infamous concentration camp founded by Croatia’s Ustasha regime. There, the Jewish man agreed to make the payment. The camp commandant signed and dated the form as witness.

Where do stories like this fit into the history of the Holocaust? The act of seeking permission from a concentration camp prisoner falls outside what most would characterize as resistance: a term used to describe decisions that helped Jews, deliberately or inadvertently. The investigating policemen did not seem to have much empathetic interest in the fate of the Jewish homeowner. Rather, they wanted to ensure they were following procedural norms and local codes of conduct, while fulfilling their duties. At a time when laws changed daily and citizenship was ambiguous and arbitrary, it makes sense that local officials did not know what to do in such situations. Yet, their peculiar insistence also acknowledged the injustice inherent in the new anti-Jewish laws: even some policemen were uncomfortable policing the regime’s racial agenda.

In Sarajevo, 1941-1945: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Hitler’s Europe, I have explored what such stories can tell us about the choices that people made amid world war and civil war, occupation, and genocide. Take another example: despite anti-Jewish laws and complaints filed against her with the local Ustasha police, Berta, a Jewish hairdresser, secretly serviced non-Jewish clients in her home. Her clients, too, chose to break the law in fraternizing with and patronizing their favorite hairdresser. Such small gestures, like getting one’s hair cut, are often relegated to the domain of anecdote, rather than a lens through which we can analyze society. And yet, in their own ways, stories like these reveal an instinct among Sarajevans to protect certain local relationships, and to maintain codes of civility that had governed the diverse town for so long. These local norms had allowed the town’s multicultural character to persist through wars, the collapse of empires, and the introduction and dissolution of new states. And this multiculturalism persisted in Sarajevo through the Second World War.

Given that the Jewish community of Sarajevo was annihilated during the Holocaust, though, what do we mean by saying “multiculturalism” survived?

Multiculturalism in Sarajevo did not merely reflect a statistical demographic, but an ethic and daily practice. Indeed the town’s social fabric transformed drastically during the war: Jews, Serbs, and Roma were removed, while tens of thousands of Muslim peasants sought refuge in the town from the guerrilla war consuming the countryside. Within the framework of police cruelty, humanitarian crises, and periodic bombings, Sarajevans eked out a multiculturalism that was grounded in neighborly respect. It was embodied in the policemen’s distaste of taking property without permission and civilians’ insistence on getting their hair cut by their regular girl, even when the front page of the newspaper warned that such acts could be compensated with jail time.


Scholarship on the Second World War is replete with ethical questions that give rise to polar answers. As the controversy surrounding Schindler’s List made clear (Was Oskar Schindler a righteous gentile or a tactical businessmen—and could he be both?), we hold certain assumptions close to heart and find grey areas unsettling. Nazis were bad. Collaborators were bad. Resistance was good. But simplifying complex historical narratives to their ethical absolutes poses a problem for historians because it prevents us from seeing and analyzing the nuances and contradictions inherent in wartime society. For example: How was it that the same group of Muslim men made public pleas against genocide and the lawlessness of Ustasha violence, while simultaneously petitioning the Nazis to form a Bosnian Muslim Waffen SS unit? How could the same Catholic leaders enthusiastically work for the Ustasha regime, yet defy the regime’s core agenda by helping hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews convert to Catholicism? How do we make sense of the fact that the Ustasha regime viewed Serbs as racially inferior and launched a notoriously brutal genocidal campaign against them, yet a Serb was appointed deputy major of Sarajevo, the state’s second largest city, mid-way through the war? Or, to return to Oskar Schindler, do economic gains lessen the righteousness of actions, when the end result is positive for some members of a victim group?

In searching for answers to such questions, I have found that ideological tropes and political narratives leave us wanting more. Analyzing society during war demands the excavation of human stories from the depths of archives to understand, as best we can, the everyday choices made by hairdressers, policemen, imams, priests, theater directors, curators, and others over when and whether to be complicit with the new ideological system, and at what cost. Such analysis can help us to peel back the skin of the fascist police state and examine the complexity and difficulty of actually living through the Holocaust, especially in an area with a history of multiculturalism and deep-seated cross-religious ties.

Of course the discovery of each new puzzle piece introduces new questions—about the fights between Islamists and secular Muslims over Muslim-Nazi collaboration; about the division between Catholic Franciscans and the Archdiocese; about the character of genocide in urban and rural settings. And these only open the list. Like any moral conundrum or circle of gossip, the questions only multiply and the answers will never be final.

In crafting a story of a city in crisis, I found that Sarajevans overwhelmingly responded to the challenges of the war—occupation, civil conflict, genocide, famine, Allied bombings—by clinging to their own local community structures. They fought to save their Jews, Serbs, and Roma, communities they defined and valued not according to the Nazi and Ustasha racial and national categories, but according to their own local categories and dynamics. For many Sarajevans, being Muslim or Catholic was a more salient cultural fact than being “racially” Roma or Jewish. City officials frequently distinguished between their poor and the newly arrived refugees in determining how to distribute food. And townsmen overwhelmingly preferred local networks of resistance over the official resistance armies that had formed in the region, viewing those armies—the Serb Chetniks and the Communist Partisans—as outsiders to their town, not unlike their view of Nazis and Ustashas as foreigners. Finally, as we might infer from Berta’s clients who refused to patronize her state-appointed replacement, many ordinary townsmen viewed those who worked with the new regime as also foreign; a foreignness sprung from their willingness to abandon Sarajevo’s traditional multicultural character.

Ultimately, Sarajevo’s leaders sought to protect certain values and norms associated with their particular way of life. Yet, simultaneously, they acquiesced to many of the political and ideological demands placed on them by the Nazis and Ustashas. In this way, elements of Sarajevo’s multicultural character survived the war even when many of its citizens did not.

About the Author:

Emily Greble is author of Sarajevo, 1941-1945: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Hitler’s Europe. She teaches history at the City College of New York.