Zoran Mandlbaum passed away on 9 November 2015. Before his death, he told his story to the Post Conflict Research Centre for their documentary series “Ordinary Heroes”. Here, we share his powerful story.
“Many Jews came to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the arrival of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878. My great grandfather, Josef Mandlbaum, came to Foća. He settled in a little place called Jelah where his three children were born. In 1905, they moved to Mostar, where they built a large apartment building and opened the Hotel Neretva. I was born in 1946, my brother in 1948. During World War II, both my mother and father were Partisans. Before that they were detained in a concentration camp in Rab (off the coast of Croatia). Those images of my mother and father have remained with me my entire life.
My mother was from Sarajevo and her whole family were killed in the Holocaust.
1992 caught us all here in Mostar by surprise. The Yugoslav National Army was headquartered opposite where I live now. In April 1992, after the explosion of an oil tank, some people arrived in black uniforms. They were wearing fascist symbols with pictures of Pavelić and Artuković (fascist leaders from WW2 Croatia), men who committed terrible atrocities during World War II. As President of the Jewish Community, I didn’t know what was taking place. I didn’t know what would happen to the Jews.
The war first started in Croatia. It began as a civil war, when Croatia adopted the new constitution that declared it was a country for Catholic Croats and defined all other non-Catholic groups as minorities. When Orthodox people, predominantly Serb, were assigned minority status in the new constitution, war broke out.”
When the Bosnian war broke out in the spring of 1992, Serb controlled forces and paramilitaries held the town for two months. At first, Mostar was defended by an alliance of Croat and Muslim forces. Zoran explained how that alliance broke down, starting a war within a war between the former allies.
“On May 9, 1993, this crazy idea arrived, initiated by Tuđjman, the Croatian President. There were talks that this part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was majority Croat, was to become part of Croatia. Tuđjman realised his creation could not consist of a 50–50% Croat-Muslim population. That’s when the persecution of Muslims in Mostar began.”
The Croat army, the HVO, started driving Muslims out of their apartments and into East Mostar, where they were besieged by heavy shelling and gunfire.
Zoran refused to accept this state of affairs, and became a living bridge between East and West Mostar.
“There was a list of apartments where Muslims were living. I organised humanitarian convoys carrying packages, which were made by citizens on the west bank, for friends, relatives, and citizens living on the east side of town.
I would get up at 7.30 and go to the UNPROFOR base in Medugorje in my car. It was the road to salvation, because it was the only road that led out of Mostar to Croatia. The humanitarian work I did all started and ended there. I would arrive back in Mostar with a car carrying letters, food and medicine and would stay overnight on the other side.
I think I may have been one of the last people to cross the old bridge before it was destroyed.
I managed to get across the bridge that night. The bridge consisted of three arches—the first arch was destroyed, but the second and third were still standing. I got up at five in the morning and passed back over to the east bank, and went to the UNPROFOR base in Medugorje to fetch aid. When I got back to Mostar, I heard that the bridge was destroyed.”
Those humanitarian aid packages were a lifeline to the besieged and starving Muslims in Eastern Mostar. Janja Veljković was one of many people on the East Bank to whom Zoran brought desperately needed aid. She recalls: “One day, I walked out into my courtyard, and there was Zoran! It was as if God was watching over us. There was no one else I would have rather seen in that moment than Zoran. Up walks Zoran, carrying a half-loaf of bread wrapped in paper, and we were desperately hungry. I never thought I would see anyone else from the other side of town.
When Zoran showed up, my faith was restored.”
Not everyone appreciated Zoran’s willingness to help the desperate civilians of Eastern Mostar. In May 1994, Zoran realised how far the Croatian Army leadership was willing to go to stop his humanitarian efforts:
“It was May 30th, which marked Croatia’s Statehood Day, when they realised, especially the Croat commander Misic, that they couldn’t stop me because my will to help people was too strong. So they placed a bomb under my car. It exploded, damaging surrounding cars. My first thought was about how I would have died if I’d been inside that car.”
Even the attempt on his life didn’t stop Zoran from trying to help people. From bringing letters and aid packages to the Muslims imprisoned in the Heliodrom camp, to smuggling people of all ethnicities who were at risk of torture, rape and murder over the border into Croatia, Zoran did everything in his power to help his fellow human beings, explaining:
When I see an injustice being done to someone, I’m the kind of man who just wants to help that person overcome it and feel better. So, just an ordinary man, willing to help anyone he can help.”
Reconstruction of the old bridge in Mostar started in 2004, but bridges between people in the city are yet to be forged. A fitting monument to the moral courage of Zoran Mandlbaum is to act on his call to build bridges between the communities of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and to resist division: “We, the national minorities, are fighting for a unified Bosnia-Herzegovina. I fought for years against being labelled as a minority. I do not feel like one. I am a Herzegovinan citizen practising the Jewish religion. We all eat the same food and go to the same schools. We all socialise together and go to the same events. It bothers me that there is a law that categorises Jews as a national minority. History didn’t teach us anything. This system of division is distancing our children from the idea of a unified Bosnia-Herzegovina. We cannot move forward without the truth, and without the truth there is no reconciliation. Take this journey with me, face the things people do not wish to remember, so that our children will know what happened in this city.”
With special thanks to the Post-Conflict Research Centre for allowing us to publish this, from their ‘Ordinary Heroes’ collection of stories.