A syn­a­gogue in Safed, image cour­tesy of the author

1.

I am a visu­al learn­er. Images make the great­est impact on me. Some­times they remain in my sub­con­scious for decades, then float to the sur­face like black-and-white pho­tographs emerg­ing from a bath of psy­chic alchemy.

2.

First: the nick­el-plat­ed bracelet on my wrist. I’m thir­teen years old in 1972 and the Unit­ed States is near­ing the end of its twen­ty-year war in Viet­nam. A boy’s name and mil­i­tary rank are engraved on the bracelet, a sol­dier MIA. The boy is a stranger. The bracelet is heavy. I won’t know for a while yet the mean­ing of this weight, this sig­ni­fi­er of war.

That same year: my for­mal Hebrew school edu­ca­tion ends. Still, I’ll car­ry into adult­hood a palimpsest as haunt­ing as the melodies of prayers, many of which I can now read only in translit­er­a­tion, my fin­ger trac­ing the let­ters like braille.

3.

It’s 1984, and Sara­je­vo hosts the Win­ter Olympics: East Ger­man skater Kata­ri­na Witt glides, twirls, and leaps across the ice in the Zetra Olympic Hall. A glit­ter­ing tiara nev­er threat­ens to top­ple from her head. She smiles tri­umphant­ly, clutch­ing those two gold medals to her heart.

4.

It’s 1992, and a war has begun in the for­mer republics of Yugoslavia. In the streets of Sara­je­vo, bod­ies are stacked like cord wood. In an aer­i­al shot, chil­dren and old women run from snipers’ bul­lets. They scat­ter like fright­ened rats.

These images meld with those of the Holo­caust I’ve seen in Hebrew school: bod­ies piled in gap­ing pits. Skele­tal fig­ures packed tight in squalid bunks.

5.

In 2002, I begin research on a nov­el about the war in Bosnia. I won’t set­tle on its title—Nermina’s Chance—for anoth­er thir­teen years.

6.

In 1992, Zrin­ka Bralo is a Bosn­ian TV jour­nal­ist in Sara­je­vo. Along with her col­leagues, she is trapped inside the TV1/CNN stu­dios at the out­set of the longest siege of a cap­i­tal city since World War II. Snipers will ter­ror­ize Bosni­aks (Bosn­ian Mus­lims) and Croa­t­ian civil­ians for near­ly four years, but in 1993 Bralo escapes in a con­voy that winds its way through dark moun­tain roads, with no head­lights to guide the dri­vers. Their route leads to a UN tun­nel beneath the Sara­je­vo air­port. I will lat­er describe in my nov­el each detail that she shares. Zrinka’s expe­ri­ences will become Nermina’s. My pro­tag­o­nist will fea­ture Zrinka’s green­ish-blue eyes, her angu­lar cheek bones, the anguish of a sur­vivor, and the sin­gu­lar will to move beyond the prison of memory.

7.

It’s 2003. My com­put­er screen freezes as I Skype with a woman in a chunky sweater and jeans, chin-length brown hair, and eyes that hold me with their sin­cer­i­ty and urgency. I’m con­duct­ing an inter­view with Zrin­ka Bralo, now an activist for refugees. From her Lon­don flat, she answers my questions.

8.

In 2009, our daugh­ter is study­ing at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty for her junior year abroad, and my hus­band and I make our first trip to Israel. At Yad Vashem, I gaze up to the ceil­ing where a nar­row seam of light guides me beyond my fear.

9.

It’s 2012, the start of my MFA pro­gram, and I am fifty-four years old. I’m writ­ing a nov­el that begins in 1992 Bosnia, when the Bosn­ian Serb forces of the VRS deploy a cam­paign of sys­tem­at­ic rape and geno­cide that will ulti­mate­ly extin­guish the lives of 100,000 peo­ple — Bosni­aks and Croats. The true num­ber of women who are raped will nev­er be known, but esti­mates range from 10,000 to 60,000.[1] These hor­rors will haunt count­less oth­ers — sur­vivors and their descen­dants — forever.

10.

In 2017, for­eign affairs ana­lyst Nad­i­na Ronc is being inter­viewed by anoth­er TV jour­nal­ist for a seg­ment on TRT World. Com­posed and artic­u­late in a crisp red blaz­er, Ronc tells the sto­ry of her aunt and uncle — impris­oned and tor­tured in the Luka con­cen­tra­tion camp in Brčko in 1992. Her uncle was killed. Her aunt was raped repeat­ed­ly. She recounts these atroc­i­ties — two among mul­ti­tudes — and notes that her aunt’s tor­tur­er served only two thirds of his prison sentence.

My aunt died in Ger­many. She nev­er told oth­ers what hap­pened because she was afraid some­one would come and get her. After the rape, she had two strokes and some years lat­er she died.”

11.

In Jan­u­ary 2021, my Covid-shroud­ed world­view is bleak. These are the images I still remem­ber from Yad Vashem: a met­al bracelet with a five-dig­it pris­on­er num­ber engraved into it. A black-and-white pho­to of US mil­i­tary planes fly­ing over Dachau; the cap­tion states that their supe­ri­ors had ignored the pilots’ intel­li­gence iden­ti­fy­ing the site as a con­cen­tra­tion camp. And, vague­ly, an exhib­it that con­sists of a cylin­dri­cal cav­ern of dark­ness. I gaze down into this void from an obser­va­tion area. Images of children’s faces float in the dark. Flick­ers of light depict more than one mil­lion chil­dren who per­ished dur­ing the Holocaust.

12.

In May of 2021, Zrin­ka Bralo’s hair is gray, short, and styl­ish. This accen­tu­ates her vibrant expres­sion on the web page of Migrants Organ­ise, the Lon­don-based NGO she leads. As promised, she’s returned my man­u­script and the fore­word for Nermina’s Chance.

13.

July 2021: I inter­view a young Bosn­ian woman who remains anony­mous because her fam­i­ly for­bids dis­cus­sion of the war.

A pho­to­graph of Anony­mous, cour­tesy of the author

I was born in Pri­je­dor in 1991 … one of the cities that suf­fered the most. If you were a Mus­lim, you were either tak­en to a con­cen­tra­tion camp (and raped, tor­tured, and killed there) or they would sim­ply kill you in your own garden.”

A pho­to of anony­mous shows her as a five-year-old girl stand­ing in front of a gag­gle of pel­i­cans at a zoo in Ger­many. Bangs frame the child’s wide, brown eyes. She wears a den­im jumper, mauve tights, and Mary Janes. Her expres­sion is neu­tral, no hint of a smile. In the altered, black-and-white image that I post, this detail is dis­guised along with the others.

14.

August 2021: On my com­put­er screen, Nad­i­na Ronc sits in her Lon­don flat. Instead of a red blaz­er, she wears a camel-col­ored tur­tle-neck sweater. After many emails, I’m meet­ing” the strik­ing, intel­li­gent woman from the 2017 TV inter­view. She tells me about her family’s exo­dus from Bosnia to Ger­many, and then to the UK. I lis­ten again as she recounts her aunt’s story.

15.

On screen in Octo­ber 2021, just days before my nov­el will be released, my new friend smiles. Her glossy, brown hair brush­es her col­lar bones. Nad­i­na tells me how Bosnia’s tiny Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty saved so many of their Bosni­ak neigh­bors dur­ing the (1990s) siege of Sara­je­vo [2]. This coura­geous move­ment was led by Jakob Fin­ci, born in 1943, in a con­cen­tra­tion camp on the island of Rab (now Croatia).

In 1892 — just four­teen years after Bosnia was occu­pied by the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire — a new wave of well-edu­cat­ed Ashke­nazi Jews estab­lished La Benev­o­len­ci­ja to under­write high­er edu­ca­tion for a select group of Bosn­ian Jews. In 1992, under the aus­pices of La Benev­o­len­ci­ja, Fin­ci orga­nized con­voys to evac­u­ate peo­ple des­per­ate to escape yet anoth­er war.

16.

Look­ing at a pho­to of a syn­a­gogue that accom­pa­nies a 2017 news sto­ry about Fin­ci, I peer beyond the bimah, beyond the grace­ful, scal­loped arch and the mosa­ic tiles that adorn it. Final­ly, my eyes rest on the ark. Famil­iar, com­fort­ing. This syn­a­gogue, this sanc­tu­ary, merges with the ones I cap­tured with my cam­era in Safed and Haifa and Jerusalem.

17.

Decem­ber 12, 2021, Ha’aretz pub­lish­es an arti­cle by Esther Solomon that draws par­al­lels between deniers of the Holo­caust and the geno­cide in Bosnia. A 1993 pho­to accom­pa­nies this arti­cle. Women and chil­dren, evac­uees from the besieged Bosni­ak enclave of Sre­breni­ca, packed on a truck en route to the UN safe area’ of Tuzla on March 29, 1993. Their male rel­a­tives weren’t allowed to leave,” the cap­tion reads.

18.

In the pho­to, the women’s and children’s faces car­ry fear. Scarves, like the one my grand­moth­er wore each Fri­day night, cov­er the women’s heads. And even while this pic­ture haunts me, I see the glow of can­dles and fol­low the cir­cu­lar move­ment of my grandmother’s hands as she wel­comes in the Sab­bath and sings the bless­ings. I add my own prayers now, for those who have per­ished, for those who have suf­fered, and for those who suf­fer still.

[1] The U.N.’s Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive on Sex­u­al Vio­lence in Con­flict, Mar­got Wallström, esti­mates there to be 50,000 to 60,000 cases.

[2] Cur­rent­ly, it’s esti­mat­ed the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion in Bosnia is no greater than 500, 85% of Sephardic descent.

Nom­i­nat­ed for The Push­cart Prize, Best Small Fic­tions, and The Mil­lions, Dina Green­berg’s poet­ry, fic­tion, and cre­ative non­fic­tion have appeared wide­ly in such jour­nals as Belle­vue Lit­er­ary ReviewPem­broke Mag­a­zineSplit Rock ReviewTahoma Lit­er­ary ReviewBare­ly South, and Wilder­ness House Lit­er­ary Review. Dina earned an MFA in fic­tion from the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na Wilm­ing­ton, where she served as man­ag­ing edi­tor for the lit­er­ary jour­nal Chau­tauqua. She teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Cameron Art Muse­um and pro­vides one-on-one writ­ing coach­ing for vic­tims of trau­ma. Her work lead­ing cre­ative writ­ing work­shops for com­bat vet­er­ans result­ed in writ­ing Ner­mi­na’s Chance, her debut nov­el. Find her at dina​green​berg​.com and @dinagreenberg7.