Soundtrack for this article: Flory Jagoda, Memories of Sarajevo, 1989, spotify
I didn’t eat rice for almost 15 years.
After the war in Bosnia finished in 1995, I just didn’t eat it anymore. I didn’t actively hate it, I wasn’t protesting anything, I just couldn’t eat it anymore. For some reason, rice was the main commodity sent to Bosnia and Herzegovina as humanitarian aid. And so Bosnians got really good at preparing rice. From the typical side dish that it was before the war, it became a basis for rice bread, rice pie, rice soup, rice cakes… The highlight was when two good friends of mine, Branko and Ismet, home-brewed a rice brandy, inspired by Japanese “Sake”. I don’t think I was ever as close to losing my eyesight as on that day!
It took me almost fifteen years — and one great Thai restaurant close to my former company in Haanuer Landstraße in Frankfurt — to start eating rice again.
Rice was, and still is, my symbol for feeling helpless. When there was nothing, there was rice. When the town where I spent most of the war years was for over a year under a siege, and under a constant artillery fire, somehow, there was rice. Rice was that symbol of being helpless, not being able to leave, not even being able to eat what you want. Rice was the choice that someone else has made for you.
At the New Year’s “party” for new year 1994, the grenade shelling of our town started again, just 15 minutes before midnight. We counted over 150 grenade shells in less than an hour — fireworks a of a completely different nature. Then someone asked why they were doing it? Surely they had better ways to celebrate New Year’s Eve than bombing a town to death? Someone else answered that they take pleasure in killing us for names we didn’t choose and for the religion they thought we belonged to. We continued drinking. For that New Year’s Eve dinner, we had a traditional Bosnian dish Sarma — but made with rice, instead with minced meat.
All that feeling of helplessness came back to me, in a way I could physically feel, when I was reading Elly Gotz’s book “Flights of Spirit”, published in the autumn of 2018. Elly is a Jew, who grew up in Kaunas, Lithuania, at the outbreak of WW2. Rather, he was born in Kaunas — but, as we learn from the book, he grew up in Kaunas ghetto and, later, in the Nazi death camp at Dachau. Amazon had some issues with sending the book, so Ruven, Elly’s son and a very dear friend of mine, arranged for the publisher to send me the book directly, for which I am very thankful.
The book does not begin in the ghetto. Elly starts out by describing his life as a young child in Kaunas — a textbook childhood, with games, with boys being boys, with doing smart stuff and silly stuff. Well, with one small exception. “When walking home from school”, Elly writes, “I learned to be cautious. Some of the Lithuanian gentile [non-Jewish] youths were antisemitic, and I knew that some of these rougher kids might attack me for being a Jew, particularly if I was alone. I wasn’t a fighter, so to avoid them I would choose a route that I felt was safe. I accepted these problems as part of my life.” I read those sentences a few times, trying to grasp the level of hate that would motivate one kid to attack another — not for a toy, not for a girl, but for a name that he didn’t choose and for a religion they thought he belonged to… One day, when the shelling lasted for more than six or seven hours, a very dear friend of mine lost her sister. The shrapnel that killed her was smaller than a rice corn. She was twelve. For the name she didn’t choose. Religion? With twelve, you have none.
There is another thing that strikes me when reading about those times in Elly’s book: When the Germans marched into Lithuania, and started systematically harassing and killing the Jews, there was a proportion of the Lithuanian population which actively supported them, and a huge majority of people who either didn’t care, or were too afraid for their own well-being to speak out. This is how the Germans and their local puppets could go on, pretty much unhindered (with some noble exceptions), with killing Jews or deporting them to the ghetto. That’s another thing I observed in Bosnia, on all three “sides” of the war — there was, with one exception in Sarajevo, no real protest from the majority of the population against the atrocities on minorities. In the town where I grew up, my college geography teacher, a member of a “minority” in our town, was killed in 1992, together with his wife and two small kids. And even if the killers had been found, tried and sentenced, the vast majority of the population would have pretended that nothing had happened — nobody talked about it. And if they did mention it, it was always with the proviso “what do you want, they are shelling us every day!” Last year, a friend of mine built a memorial plaque for them. It is my firm belief that only when people start building memorials to the victims of the “other side” can a real healing process start. The only country I know that actually did that is Germany. The “Stolpersteine” (stumbling blocks) were purposely placed on the sidewalks of almost all major German cities, with the names of Jewish families that were living in the neighbouring houses before Shoah, to remind people every day of what happened there.
Back to the feeling of helplessness. That’s another thing that strikes me when reading the book. Elly’s family, as a whole, or some members of it, often (way too often!) survived only by chance, or by their gut instincts. Elly’s aunt wanted to save at least her daughter from the ghetto, and their Lithuanian friends, even though they themselves were in a very bad situation, agreed to “adopt” her for the time being. Some time later, all the kids in the ghetto were deported and killed. Living on the “wrong” side of the ghetto (which you couldn’t really chose or influence) would get you burned alive. Elly, noticing the Nazis taking away the wounded from the Dachau camp to kill them, saved his father’s life by warning him to hide away. And there are countless other examples throughout the book. That feeling that you don’t control your fate, that someone can and will decide upon your life based on their mood or some other irrational reason — it is probably the worst thing about the war. Except for death, that is.
And then, when after the war Elly’s father started telling stories from the ghetto and the Dachau death camp, his cousin warned him “Julius, don’t talk about it. You’ll only upset yourself.” Don’t. Talk. Never. Talk. At least not with those who have not shared your experiences. Because they don’t actually want to hear it. When you talk about it, it’s almost the same as if you are terminally ill — people will start to avoid you. That is the lesson I learned in 1996 from my aunt who was living abroad, when — after I honestly answered her question “how was it for you in the war?” — she gave me 100 German Marks. That was the point at which I started answering that question with “Good”.
But, if these thoughts make you think that this is a terrifying and difficult book to read, you would be wrong — very wrong! At all times, Elly’s fighting spirit and optimism managed to get him and his family through many difficulties. His entrepreneurial spirit is almost incredible, and definitely an inspiration for everyone. Elly writes “It was 1981, and I soon had an idea for another business… we designed a program for small businesses so that they would need only a telephone line and a screen with a keyboard and a printer to have access to a computer. We would give them a smart program for all their business needs, from inventory to payroll, for a small monthly fee.” I really hope Elly got at least some royalties from the Salesforce founders, and other cloud computing giants for this! “When we were ready to begin selling the program, the microcomputer by IBM arrived on the market. We were out of business.” C’est la vie.
Today, ninety-year-old Elly Gotz is travelling around the world, talking to young people about hate and about his experiences. In a world where hate is becoming sexy again, Elly’s story is more important than ever. Fighting hate is not easy, and Elly talks in detail in his book about his struggle not to hate Germans. It is very powerful, and maybe the most important part of the book. “Every time my thoughts returned to revenge, I turned them around and dreamt of my future.”
So, each time you feel anger, hate or prejudice against someone, just because of the name they didn’t choose, remember that there is probably somewhere a young boy or girl, choosing a safer route home, and accepting it as a part of her life.
Flights of Spirit