*Editors Note: This piece was originally posted by the UMN Human Rights Program. Click here to read the original post.

In Serbia, since the wars accompanying the breakup of Yugoslavia ended in 2001, another battle has been waged over representations of that violence. Competing interpretations are advanced by state and non-state groups over what happened and who is to blame. This battle can result in denial of genocide and other atrocities, which causes pain for survivors and victims and can enhance risk of future violence. While some research has been conducted on this process, gender has been under-researched as an important corresponding dimension. Women have unique experiences and memories of war and violence which may not be included in dominant narratives. In Serbia, women anti-war activists like Women in Black have been leading efforts for genocide acknowledgment and post-conflict reconciliation between opposing ethnic groups. In collaboration with Professor Joachim Savelsberg and thanks to the generous support of the Human Rights Initiative, we are exploring the role of women in the cultural processing of the Yugoslav wars in Serbia.

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The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the UMN School of Music had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Badema Pitic in March for a talk titled “Remembering Through Music: The Srebrenica Genocide in Bosnian izvorna Songs.” Watch a recording of the talk here. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Pitic about her research on music, transitional justice, and reconciliation in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Dr. Badema Pitic is a Head of Research Services at the USC Shoah Foundation – Institute for Visual History and Education. She earned her Ph.D. in ethnomusicology in 2017 from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the intersections of music, memory, and politics in the aftermath of war and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her research interests also include oral history and testimony, transitional justice, and perpetrators’ music.

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April 27th is Yom HaShoah, one of several Holocaust remembrance days observed around the world at various points in the year. It is also Genocide Awareness Month, which marks the anniversaries of the Armenian Genocide (which began on April 24th, 1915), the Holocaust (or, namely the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19th, 1943), the Cambodian Genocide (on April 19th, 1975), and the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda (on April 7th, 1944), As I mentioned in January, dates such as these mark a need for a collective memory, even as dates and temporal boundaries often fail to account for the long-term effects of genocide and mass violence. 

As a Jew, and at this particular moment during the ongoing war and mass violence in Ukraine, I struggle in 2022 (as in most years) to reconcile the official calls to remember with the more subjective, personalized constructions of memory that inevitably emerge from events such as these. I am reminded that public displays of memory, though central, can be brittle, and often serve contemporary state politics. Yom HaShoah is no exception, as a holiday directly tied to the State of Israel’s larger memory projects. The “complications” this date entails for both Jews and non-Jews alike, who are critical of Israeli domestic and foreign policies, also pertains to my specialized knowledge Yiddish history and culture that often gets left out of Zionist narratives. Days such as Yom HaShoah should in theory be encouraging a broader, more inclusive definition of collective memory, but we know that these calls often fail to reach beyond the limits of nationalism and geopolitics. 

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As far as I can think back, an odd-looking, faceless porcelain bunny has been part of the Easter decoration in my parents’ house in Remscheid, Germany. It has an artistic twist to it with a coat that shimmers in purple, blue and red. Originally it must have looked just like his fellow rabbits, but it no longer does. That’s because it got a second glaze in the early morning hours of July 31, 1943, when the house it lived in was burnt to the ground during an Allied air raid on my hometown. As my grandparents sifted through the rubble a couple of days later, that bunny was pretty much the only thing that emerged intact. 

“Der Angriff” (attack) and how my grandparents miraculously survived the fire under some wet blankets in the backyard became part of our family folklore. My mother who got the bunny as an Easter gift earlier in 1943 still has a hard time dealing with sirens after spending too many nights in bomb shelters as a child. During her first visit to Minneapolis, an unexpected tornado siren test sent her immediately looking for the basement—unfortunately without success since our house is one of the few in Minneapolis that doesn’t have one. That story is now also part of our family folklore.

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Visitors facing the entrance to Envisioning Evil: “The Nazi Drawings” by Mauricio Lasansky are offered only one glimpse of what they can expect if they choose to enter: a decorated Nazi officer raises his arm in a Hitler salute while blood-like drops fall from his wrist and smear the page. On his head is a terrifying bestial skull that appears both fixed and projected on the man’s scalp. A close look reveals smudges, partial erasures, hard pencil strokes, and tears to the paper. This work is steeped in rage.

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While Serbia does not share a direct border with Ukraine, it is close enough that when the fighting broke out I immediately called my Serbian relatives on Viber to ask what they had heard about the conflict and what was happening on the ground. In contrast to the overwhelmingly anti-Russian reactions shared on Western media, my Serbian relatives expressed a more lukewarm attitude towards the Russian side. They explained reasonably that Ukraine is growing closer to the West and Putin does not like that, so he is trying to persuade Ukraine to come back over to his side. My relatives repeated the Serbian government’s narrative that Serbia is a “neutral country” that does not want to take sides in the conflict, a position they view in a positive light. This narrative of neutrality is being used by the Serbian government to justify its refusal to impose sanctions and take a stronger anti-Russian stance. 

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When compiling resources for Women’s History Month, in a country where reproductive rights and gender justice initiatives are in grave peril, I found it necessary to highlight numerous strands of interrelated histories. The socialist origins of International Women’s Day, and the role of Jewish immigrants who later fell victim to state repression and genocide, are just two legacies informing contemporary feminist and gender-based activism. 

Crucially as a Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, we must also confront how gender always dictates the lived experience of victims and survivors of mass violence, both during the events in question and following. We are painfully aware of the ways individuals become targets in specific ways due to their gender. Furthermore, political decisions and humanitarian relief often fail to take gender into account, keeping women, genderqueer, and other non-male-identifying individuals away from negotiation tables and policy action. 

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“As I am sitting in the kitchen of complete strangers who have opened up their home to me, gave me food, shelter, and a brief feeling of safety, I am holding back my tears… We take a shot of alcohol in the name of the fallen. We take another shot in the name of our soldiers. We take another in the name of Ukraine. We whisper our little speeches. We share our gratitude. We share hope. And I realize we are… unbeatable. Because we do not lose our strength. We just can’t. We wouldn’t be Ukrainian if we did. As long as we whisper in unison “Слава Україні” (Glory to Ukraine), we are strong… I shed a tear when I say, “воля або смерть” (“freedom or death”). I am glad they don’t see in the dark. I think of all the people for whom this familiar phrase became too real.” – Alexandra Markova

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Like many of us, I have been heartbroken to see the news, images and footage coming out of Ukraine over the past week. Despite the foreboding news over the past weeks, I didn’t believe it would come to this; now that it has, it’s hard to imagine how we (Ukraine, Russia, the world) move forward from this. My heart goes out to the people of Ukraine and to the people of Russia, millions of whom are now stuck in the midst of a conflict that they did not want and certainly did not vote for. Families on both sides of the border will lose loved ones because of a conflict that no one, save for a very small group of people surrounding Putin, wanted. While I am very cognizant of my privilege of being able to write this from the comfort of my safe home in Duluth, Minnesota, the violence in Ukraine is particularly painful for me because of my personal connections to this country.

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“Our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought Nazism together. Starting a war to satisfy the geopolitical ambitions of the leaders of the Russian Federation, driven by fanciful and dubious historical considerations, is nothing but betraying their memory.”
Appeal By Russian Researchers And Scientists

A month ago, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, our colleague Catherine Guisan published on the CHGS blog a far-sighted article titled Why the Shutting Down of Russia’s Memorials Should Matter to Us. Prof. Guisan condemns the banning of two Russian NGOs in December 2021 that documented human rights abuses during the Soviet era, advocated for reparations to survivors, and defended human right victims in conflict zones, in and around modern Russia.

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