When Elie Wiesel had the concept for this museum, he conceived of it as a living memorial, stating that “a memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past.” As a living memorial, our vision is to encourage people all over the world to promote human dignity, confront hate and prevent genocide.
The Balkans is currently the only region where the Museum works both because of Holocaust-era history and because of contemporary threats of genocide.
We know from the study of genocide that atrocities tend to occur in places where there is a previous history of violence and where a distorted historical narrative becomes an ideology. The Balkans holds true to that insight. While the causes of the wars in the 1990s were complex, lack of accuracy and transparency about Holocaust-era history played a role in stoking tensions between groups, allowing fear to feed violence and genocide.
Beginning in 2000, the Museum preserved the collection of artifacts, photos, and documents that during these wars had been improperly removed from the Jasenovac concentration camp memorial in Croatia. We later returned them to the memorial where they are now part of a new exhibition that tells the story of the horrors that occurred there during World War II. (Information on these collections are also available on our website in Serbian and Croatian.)
As you know, Bosnia suffered the most during the wars. It is estimated that at least 100,000 were killed, and that 85% of the civilians killed were Bosnian Muslims. The systematic murder of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims following the fall of Srebrenica has become infamous as the single largest massacre in Europe since the Holocaust. As the law of genocide did not exist until 1948, Srebrenica is also the only case in Europe which has been deemed to constitute “genocide” by an international tribunal.
Srebrenica is a presented as one of three case studies in our interactive installation, From Memory to Action: Meeting the Challenge of Genocide and on our website.
The Museum has also educated the public about the wider conflict in Bosnia, helping our audiences understand that genocide continues to threaten entire civilian groups. When former Director for National Intelligence Dennis Blair fulfilled one of the recommendations of the Museum co-sponsored Genocide Prevention Task Force by testifying about threats of mass killing, he cited concerns about the entrenched nationalist agendas in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Our concerns for Bosnia have not disappeared.
Our work on genocide is also focused on prevention. We know that genocide is not inevitable; it is preventable. History also teaches us that with leadership; with a serious reckoning with history; and with a willingness to acknowledge the inherent dignity of all individuals, the future need not repeat the past.
One goal for this conference is to spotlight on-going challenges in Bosnia and the region that have been under the radar screen. Presented here at this institution devoted to Holocaust memory and on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica, it is a powerful reminder that meaningful action can contribute to prevention. We look forward to hearing from our various experts about how such engagement can be undertaken.