Smiles Amid the Sadness
by Alex Jay Berman
April 24, 2000
Note from the Editor: Alex Jay Berman is a writer from Philadelphia, PA, who's working on having his first novel published. Alma Hromic is the author of "Letters from the Fire," a story of two ordinary people swept up in the extraordinary events of NATO's war against Serbia.
Alma Hromic, whose piece, "Sadness in Novi Sad, Serbia," you may have read - and should if you have not - on this very site, is my friend. My life is much enriched by the simple act of knowing her.
That said, after reading the aforementioned article, I told her it was a very good piece; very well-written and very moving.
Also that it was very wrong.
Forgotten in the warp and weft of the tapestry she weaves about the impact on those she saw during her return to war-ravaged Serbia is the fact that among the bombed-out buildings and proud but hungry people is the fact that amid all the horrors unleashed upon her native country by the recent war lives something very important; Pandora's last gift: Hope.
Ms. Hromic even admits as much in her piece, though the despair she felt and feels over seeing the places of play from her childhood years ravaged tends to overshadow this.
I immediately pointed something out to her: That despair is transitory, while hope does, after all, spring eternal.
Naive? Perhaps. But I cannot help but believe that perseverance banishes pain; that survival, in time, displaces sorrow. A very large part of this belief likely comes from the fact that I am a Jew, and grew up hearing of the horrors visited over the centuries among my people. At the end of all these terrible stories, however, the teller would invariably straighten, look out over his or her audience, and note: But here we are; still surviving; still Jews. This proud punchline; this exultant epilogue-whether implicit or stated outright, was always enough to show that we as a people could not be diminished as long as we still endured; as long as we still WERE a people.
My childhood was an easy one, but was counterpointed by what I was taught: The stories in Hebrew school about the many exiles those who shared my ancestry and beliefs faced; the pogroms, the enslavements.
For all this, though, my very existence, the existence of a new generation of the Children of Abraham-and another after that, and after that, and after that-gave the lie to all the conquering tyrants' wishes, to all the Diasporas and Holocausts: Still we survive.
And so do the Serbian people.
Note that, please: The PEOPLE. Not the secret police, not the demonized villains put before us every night on the news. The PEOPLE. Those who wanted nothing but to live their lives and raise their children; those who now have to deal with a land cratered and the markets they patronized destroyed. The people who, like Alma, feel a catch in their throats and a tear in their eyes when they look upon bridges no longer standing or churches burned away.
But for all their tears, they still live. They still love. And they go on, bombed-out land or no. There will be a rebuilding. And, in time-if time hard to bear-there will be a healing of both land and people.
Interestingly, what cements this belief of mine is Alma herself.
In the space of months, I have seen her come from a woman torn by events happening a world away, worn ragged by anger and grief, back to the friend I love, and once more able to wear a smile.
Granted, I have never actually seen her smile. Alma and I met, like the main characters in her and R.A. Deckert's LETTERS FROM THE FIRE, online-no surprise there, as I am an East Coast American born and raised, and she is an expatriate Serbian whose travels have landed her in beautiful New Zealand, literally a world away.
Despite never meeting each other outside of electrons and transoceanic phone calls, our friendship has deepened and matured to the point where I consider her one of my two best friends in the world.
Because of this, I was privy to her deepest despairs during the war, as she worried over family still in Serbia and raged at her heritage and her childhood being, in her eyes, eradicated-all as she saw the very word "Serbian" made into a synonym for "villain".
Similarly, I have seen that despair melt away as she has seen people reach out to her in her time of trouble; as she sculpted, with Deck Deckert, a book which offered both catharsis and acclaim; as she finds herself giving talks about the war and its effect on her people to audiences willing to listen and open their minds to what she has to say.
Alma has found that even after all her tears, time has again made it possible for her to smile.
And so, I am sure, will the Serbian people back in the land she will almost certainly always think of as home.
Already they sing to push away their pain; even doing so, much like Londoners during the Blitz, as the bombs fell. Already they see the future in their children's eyes, no matter how the view of that future may now be clouded by ash.
Now, I'm no prancing Pollyanna; I've no illusions that a wand will be waved and all of Serbia will again be as it was, with harmony between the various ethnicities there and all the broken bridges and fallen steeples miraculously repaired. After all, Milosevic is still in power, and global sanctions still stand. The river in which she swam as a child, the river she has always seen as the heart of her home, is strewn with debris and the detritus of the bombs' wake.
It will take time, and it will be time not easily spent.
But, for all the tears Alma sees present in her sister's smile, she must remember-as must we all-that though a smile can fade as quickly as tears dry, there is one fundamental difference between the two.
Tears are the inheritance of the past.
Smiles are the legacy of the future.
It is not a sadness that Alma sees in the smiles of her countrymen; rather, she sees smiles among the sadness.
This Week's Other Article
Rosa Luxemburg, Woman as Revolutionary - by Margaret Wyles
Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath
Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath