THE NEW YORK TIMES
April 9, 1999
Auschwitz Survivor in Belgrade Now Fears NATO
By STEVEN ERLANGER
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Aca Singer, who lost 65 members of
his family in the Holocaust, says he didn't survive Auschwitz to
die from an American bomb.
"When the Americans bombed the death camps at the end of World
War II, I was very happy," he said, sitting in the library of the
Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia, which he heads.
"Then I thought, 'Kill me if necessary, but kill the Nazis.' And a lot of
Jews died at the end from U.S. bombers, and we were not unhappy to
see the bombs."
But today, he said, as NATO bombs and missiles smash civilian and
official buildings in downtown Belgrade, "we do not have this feeling --
quite the reverse."
The Americans say President Slobodan Milosevic "is using
disproportionate force to repress the Kosovo Liberation Army, and
that is true," he said. "But now the Americans are being
disproportionate in their actions, in this criminal use of force, which is
indiscriminate. And this kind of abuse of power will come back to the
United States like a boomerang. They are killing political pluralism
here, and thus doing a great favor to this regime."
Singer, now 76, with a full head of white hair, says he had to move
from his comfortable apartment on Sarajevo Street, just behind the
bombed-out Interior Ministry, because he knew it would be a NATO
"I'm pretty angry because I've been moved to a little room and sleep
in a cot with my wife," he said genially. "But if I didn't get killed in
Auschwitz, I don't want to provide this pleasure to anyone else."
Singer, a retired banker and amateur historian, is one of the leaders
of Yugoslavia's 3,500 Jews, some 2,000 of whom live in Belgrade.
Even these figures include those whose mothers are not Jewish, so
long as they regard themselves as Jews, he said.
The first known reference to Jews living in Belgrade dates to 1337, he
said. In 1941, 82,240 Jews lived in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Singer
has written, but only 15,000 survived World War II. Many of those
emigrated to Israel or assimilated in Communist Yugoslavia.
Now, under the pressure of the bombs, he says, Jews are again
leaving Yugoslavia for shelter abroad. With help from Hungarians and
Americans, 250 Jews, mostly women with children, have already gone
to Hungary on buses, and another 80 are preparing to go. Most are
from Belgrade, Nis and Novi Sad; some, Singer says with sad
understanding, will go to relatives in Israel and elsewhere and never
He is reluctant to draw attention to this small flow of Jewish refugees
because it might seem somehow disloyal, and he stresses that no
Jewish male between 18 and 60 and subject to mobilization will violate
the wartime ban on travel abroad.
"Every Serb has a relative in the countryside where his family can
stay," Singer said. "But the Jews here are a city people. We have no
such places to send our children. Our families are in Israel or
elsewhere in the Diaspora."
Asked about the sharp increase in Serbian nationalism and
anti-Americanism because of the bombing, Singer admits that given
his past, he is trying to look hard into the future, as a custodian for
the tiny Jewish community. "I really do not sense anti-Semitism in the
general population here, as in other countries," he said. Since the war
started, there have been a few slogans scrawled on a synagogue
wall, but nothing more serious.
Still, he says, he has been accused by some (though not by the
government) of being insufficiently pro-Serb in public statements. And
like many here, he is concerned about the rise of the Radical Party
leader, the ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, who is a Serbian deputy
prime minister. Seselj has made no anti-Semitic remarks, Singer said,
but considers the French populist Jean-Marie Le Pen and the
operatic Russian Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky as his friends. Both have
made anti-Semitic remarks.
"We cannot know what will happen, and precisely because of your
American Jewish politicians who are speaking for the American
government," he said. It may seem ridiculous, he admits, but having
strong anti-Serb language coming from Defense Secretary William
Cohen; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; her spokesman, James
P. Rubin, and the national security adviser, Sandy Berger, has had
an impact here. Cohen and Ms. Albright, although they have Jewish
relatives, are not Jewish; but "here they see the Jewish name, and
they think everything is somehow connected," Singer said.
But what most infuriates the gentle Singer, he freely admits, is the use
of the word "genocide" by all parties -- the Serbs, the ethnic
Albanians and, he says, the Americans.
"There is a tendency to manipulate with the Jews," he said, to use the
unique experience of the Holocaust as propaganda or justification for
policy misjudgments. What was done in Bosnia, Croatia or Kosovo,
however horrible, he says, is not genocide.
"I don't at all agree that this is genocide," he said. "There was no
effort to exterminate an entire race -- men, women and children --
merely because of their religious or ethnic identity."
"Both the Serbs and the Albanians pressure us for sympathy and
comparison," he said wryly. "Both sides, it seems, want to be Jews. I
put myself on neither side."
President Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, by
comparing Serbian attacks in Kosovo to the mass murder of the
Nazis, "are also manipulating with the Jews," he said with disgust.
He stopped, then said softly: "Sixty-five members of my family were
killed in Auschwitz, and I know all their names, first name and
surname. The youngest was a baby and the oldest, my grandfather's
brother, was 92. Sixty-five people killed because they were Jewish
only. That is genocide."
He rubbed back his soft white hair and changed glasses again,
looking out the window to say: "I survived by accident, and no one
should ask why. I would have been number 66. That is genocide. I
give myself the right to think this way."
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