Phillip Weiner served in The Hague Court at the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal and prosecuted those responsible for the atrocities committed during the Bosnian War from 1992 through 1995. Now he’s trying to fight an invisible enemy – COVID-19 – which has claimed the lives of as many as 5 percent of Bosnia’s tiny Jewish community.
For Weiner, who grew up in the Malden Jewish community and now lives in Newton, the mission is personal. He lived in Sarajevo – now the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina – as an international war crimes judge for more than four years from 2006 to 2012. Having attended Shabbat services at the Jewish Community Synagogue during that time, he got to know many prominent members of the city’s Jewish community and now, he’s working back channels to get doses of the coronavirus vaccine into Bosnia. He has contacted the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Consul General of Israel to New England in Boston, and the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles and so far has no response.
“Many Jews are dying. It’s a horror show,” said Weiner. “David Kamhi, a prominent concert violinist and diplomat, died. Jakob Finci, the president of the Jewish Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina, is in serious condition,” and entire families have contracted the virus, Weiner said.
On April 6, The Associated Press reported that 1,000 people marched through Sarajevo to demand the resignation of the government over what they say is the country’s poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Authorities said 99 people have died of the virus in one day in a country of 3.3 million people. Bosnia has reported 7,000 deaths from the disease, and has among the highest fatality rates in Europe.
Because there has been no vaccine in the country, those who are able to travel have taken the six-hour trek to Belgrade, Serbia, for vaccinations, according to Igor Kozemjakin, the 41-year-old cantor and acting rabbi of Sarajevo’s Jewish Community Synagogue whose mother passed away in late March during a peak COVID surge. Traveling to a neighboring country is not possible for many elderly, including Bosnia’s 90 Holocaust survivors, said Kozemjakin. His father, Boris, age 73, had a mild case and is not yet vaccinated.
“The Prime Minister of Israel has indicated he would make sure that all Holocaust survivors throughout the world are vaccinated, and I would hope that Israel will now take action in Bosnia,” Weiner said. “Germany has announced the donation of $13.5 million to vaccinate Holocaust survivors worldwide. I hope they can implement that program very quickly.”
Kozemjakin learned from Elma Softic-Kaunitz, secretary general of the Jewish Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina, that 5 percent of the Jewish Community in Bosnia-Herzegovina has died of COVID. The European Jewish Congress estimates there are about 500 Jews living in the country.
“David Kamhi was a very important member of our community and in general society,” said Kozemjakin. “I succeeded him as cantor. The Jewish community is 85 percent Sephardic and Kamhi kept the traditions. He was the last living speaker of Judaic Español – Ladino – the language of Sephardic Jews. It was his mother tongue.”
Kamhi was active during and after the 1992-1995 war, was president of the Commission for Culture for the Jewish community in Sarajevo, and researched the culture and traditions of Bosnian Jews. Kamhi’s brother-in-law also died of the virus and his widow, Blanka, was very ill with it, but recovered.
Born in 1943 in an Italian concentration camp on the island of Rab (now in Croatia), Jakob Finci’s influential voice has always spoken on behalf of the Bosnian Jewish community. That voice is now silenced as he struggles against the disease. He is a former ambassador and former president of the Jewish Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 2009, he and Dervo Sejdic contested the provisions of a law that excluded Jews from running for elected office. They won at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (the Supreme Court of Europe), but Bosnia has not yet implemented the judgment.
Finci was treated for COVID in the military hospital in Sarajevo. In a phone interview with the Jewish Journal, the hospital’s director, Dr. Ismet Gavrankapetanovic, decried the country’s lack of vaccines to inoculate the population. Asked if he could expect the vaccine any time soon, an exasperated Gavrankapetanovic answered.
“We expect, we expect, but until now we have nothing. This is the worst place in Europe without the vaccination. How unjust everything is today. Four years in war.
Four years without electricity. Four years without medical supplies. Now, no vaccine,” he said.
An article in Politico Europe said COVID-19 is killing more civilians every day in Sarajevo than during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. In March, the virus claimed more than 18.5 lives per day, according to the Sarajevo public health agency, compared to an average of 3.8 civilians killed every day during the 1,425 days of the siege.
Many blame governmental inaction on the multi-tiered administration created at the end of the war in 1995. It is supposed to represent the Bosniak, Croat, and Serb ethnic groups whose political leaders are locked in a perpetual fight. In a crisis calling for immediate decision-making, the country is in a devastating deadlock, according to Politico.
When Weiner spoke with David Kamhi’s widow, Blanka, she said, “It feels like we’re back during the Bosnia War. The only difference is that bombs are not falling from the sky. Instead, people are sick and dying.”
This leaves Weiner and others who care deeply about the country and its fragile Jewish community wondering who will help Bosnia.