Yechiel Bar Chaim

* 1945

  • “La Benevolencia was the humanitarian aid organization of the Jewish community in Sarajevo. They accepted as volunteers, or recruited as volunteers, let us say representatives of the old Yugoslavia, the people who couldn´t join in an ethnic war. The doctor was Serbian, the pharmacist was another nationality - Muslim, and they all cooperated in distributing humanitarian aid in the city. Whether it was water, whether it was home visits by doctors, food, anything and everything. This organization became very prominent in assuring supplies for Sarajevo under siege. The next time I see you, I should have a very interesting film that I helped finance, where the leaders of La Benevolencia today make a statement out of their personal experience to the people going through war in Ukraine. Very powerful film. (- Why was exactly this organization so successful at distributing aid?) Well, because if everyone else is at each other´s throat, and the Jews don´t have a side in this conflict, and the leaders had grown up in Sarajevo and were trusted there, it´s possible to arrange cooperation. That’s the official explanation. The other explanation is: we´re in the Balkans. So that means that when the truck from La Benevolencia comes in, or comes in at the head of several trucks, you make sure that the soldiers at the check-points get a carton of cigarettes, or a bottle of something, and without the ethnic tensions, this sort of currency works. So I have another story. At the time when the Serbs were fighting the Bosnians who were fighting the Croatians from Hercegovina, they were all fighting each other, this big white truck of La Benevolencia was leading a convoy of supplies. At the Kiseljak check-point, which is out of Sarajevo, at the border between the Croat area and the Bosnian Muslim area, everyone was held up. Not his convoy, all these other trucks with food, they were in the summer heat and everything was rotting, and the drivers were at the side of the road for days, and the La Benevolencia convoy drives up and is waved through. Vinko Birkić, who was the Croatian engineer running our operation out of Split where we had a warehouse, is telling me this story. I said ´You know, I don´t understand. There´s a lot of antisemitism in this area. Jews somehow get to the front of the line, get special privileges, have secret powers, whatever it is…and there! There´s the proof! The Jewish convoy goes right through! How did the other drivers – dirty, sweaty, with their cargos rotting – how did they react?´ And he said: ´They cheered.´ So that´s one of the stories I treasure from the war. But also this business of the Jews with their multi-ethnic humanitarian aid organizations, being recipients of trust, worked not only inside Sarajevo, also outside, where I was putting together this alliance of Czech Samaritans, Golf Cost Islamic charities, American Methodists. They were all funneling supplies into the La Benevolencia network, because they knew that it was as honest as it could be under the circumstances, and that in Sarajevo it would be distributed to everyone.”

  • "The JDC told the evacuees: ´Look, if you´re elderly, we assume your care for the duration. If you´re of working age, however, we give you a certain amount of time and we expect you to move on.´ There were also people who were not Jewish, who were friends of the community, who were given what were called ´Jewish papers´ at the beginning, so they could come out. And there were other people who were able to come out because in order to get the approval of the different Serb and Muslim and Croat authorities, you know, you had to put someone´s brother-in-law on the bus too. So those people came out promising they would take care of themselves. The Jews who were working age were told ´You know, you´ve got a few weeks and then you have to move on.´ But then we had these elderly living in a hotel in Makarska. There was one woman - Lenka Bilelatić - I don´t know if she was even fifty. I was telling her ´You know, you´re in the category to move on.´ She said ´Look, I have my son somewhere in Germany, but I have no place to go. I do handicrafts, I do artwork. Let me work with the elderly as an activities person, and let me stay.´ I had an entrepreneurial bent, and we had the elderly crocheting kipot - jarmulka - these skullcaps that male Jews wear during prayer. And we sold them. They were shipped to the US, or shipped to London, and the money from the sales went to these elderly people. And one of them said ´You know, you saved my life twice. Once coming out of Sarajevo, and secondly by letting me earn something in dignity.´"

  • The question was: do we attempt to evacuate by air the women and children and elderly of the Jewish community of Sarajevo? Because it wasn´t their war. You know? They weren´t on any side. At first, Ivica was saying ´No no no, we will be exposed to danger just like everyone else.´ But the bombing increased, and I believe it was on Wednesday morning, he said ´Get us out. Get the vulnerable among us out.´ We had reported to the New York headquarters the day before “No evacuation”. And so, not me, but my colleague and one of the local Jewish leaders in Zagreb arranged that a plane that was already at the airport in Sarajevo would take out the vulnerable Jews. But that plane fled on its own during the night. So there we were on Thursday… In short, through cooperation between this group in Zagreb, and the JDC, and the Federation in Belgrade, a sum of money was given to the Yugoslav air force to rent a plane from the same air force, or the same army, that was bombing Sarajevo, to take Jews out. And that happened on Friday. I was in Belgrade to receive them, with the community. However, it wasn´t as easy as that, because stuck in Sarajevo as well were the families of these officers of the Yugoslav army. Essentially Serbian officers. And those family members came to the airport and stormed the plane. Ivica made a big protest, because he had been busy organizing bringing the Jews to the airport. Which is not so simple, you just couldn´t gather everyone up and go to the airport, they had to come by different routes. He said ´This is our plane. We paid for it´ and found himself threatened by the co-pilot, who had a pistol. There was a man, a friend of mine, by the name of Guss Contures, who had been in Sarajevo and I think worked for the international rescue comity, he calmed things down. But in the meantime, vociferous efforts were made to get additional planes. Another two planes came in and we ended up evacuating between four and five hundred people, in the first evacuation from Sarajevo during the war. A part of the people on those planes were from the Jewish community, another part were their friends, and a third part were these families of the Serbian officers. (- Where were they evacuated?) The planes went to Belgrade, the first plane. The community in Belgrade had organized places in hotels, with the JDC and its partners in the Jewish world paying the bills. Later on, when more refugees came and hotel prices in Belgrade went far up, we shifted really a community of evacuees to Pancevo, to the hotel Tamis. There were another two air evacuations between the middle of April and early May, when the siege of Sarajevo began. From then on, there were another series of evacuations by bus, from Sarajevo to the Dalmatian cost. I should add that it wasn’t a matter of just finding some transport, loading people up and taking off. If I talk about the buses for example, there were 36 checkpoints between Sarajevo and the coast. You couldn´t evacuate people in the middle of a shooting war. So between the local Jewish community, and the JDC, and the leaders in Zagreb, a temporary cease-fire had to be arranged in the war in order for these Jewish buses to come out of Sarajevo. All the checkpoints had to be informed by their authorities - Muslim, Serb, Croat, that these people are authorized to go on through. This happened at a time when Croatia had closed the border. So how do you send a convoy into a country that has closed the border? Well, that meant a negotiation with the Croatian government, saying that the people we bring out will not be a burden on the Croatian state. We will take care of them.

  • “Under communist rule, people who attended the synagogues exposed themselves to risk – professionally, politically and so on. It was well known that the StB had informers, and even had its own representative planted in the synagogue every Friday night to see who was coming and who wasn´t. The JDC, over the decades, provided some funds to make it less risky - I mean they weren´t large amounts – so there wouldn´t be so much of a financial penalty for coming to services. Leo Pavlát told me this story, he said ´We all knew who was the StB representative on Fridays nights the synagogue. The agitation leading up to the Velvet Revolution was already in full swing. We were the first to know that the revolution had succeeded, because one Friday night, the StB agent wasn´t there.”

  • Full recordings
  • 1

    Praha , 29.08.2022

    duration: 02:13:32
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
  • 2

    Praha, 25.10.2022

    duration: 01:11:00
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
  • 3

    Praha, 12.01.2023

    duration: 01:52:13
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
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Son of Chaim

Yechiel Bar-Chaim, Prague 2023
Yechiel Bar-Chaim, Prague 2023
photo: natáčení

Yechiel Bar-Chaim was born as Frederick Joul Gruber in Washington D.C. on July 15th 1945, to largely secular parents of Jewish decent. In 1957 the family moved to a suburb of Chicago, where he attended high-school. After obtaining a degree from Harvard University in General studies, he enlisted to infantry officer candidate school in the US Army. Upon hearing of a public relations job at the NATO headquarters in Belgium, he applied and was accepted, serving the organization for two and a half years. In 1972 he left the army and moved to Paris, where he studied French language and literature at the Sorbonne in a program subsidized by the US government for army veterans. Feeling an outsider wherever he was, he decided to move to Israel in 1974 and change his name to Yechiel Bar-Chaim – son of Chaim. Here, he married and had two children, one of which was adopted, and started his work for The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). In 1989 he was offered a post in Vienna as director of operation, receiving Jews fleeing the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Vienna office of the JDC was shut down and the family moved to Paris. He kept his responsibilities of furthering democratic values in the Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia and was assigned the same tasks in Yugoslavia. However, with the war breaking out in 1990, his focus turned to evacuating Jews from the warzone, including from Sarajevo during the siege. In 1999, the JDC assigned him to oversee its efforts, especially in the field of providing social welfare, in Tunisia. He helped Jewish refugees flee the region during the Arab Spring, and care for the ones who remained in the region. In 2014, he decided to leave the JDC, but continued serving the philanthropic projects of Dr. Alfred Bader. Two years later, he permanently settled in Prague with his wife of Slovak decent, dedicating himself to social welfare projects for the Roma communities.