Genocide survivor teaches lessons from the holocaust

Amila with family Bosnia

Photo: One of the few surviving photographs, Amila Becirbegovic with her family, Prijedor, Bosnia 1991

Dr. Amila Becirbegovic, assistant professor of German and ethnic humanities, is originally from Prijedor, Bosnia, a small city between the Sana River and the Kozara mountains. In 1992, during the Bosnia genocide, Becirbegovic and her family members were forced to flee to Germany. 

“As we finally crossed the border into Germany, the bus stopped. People got out and ran to a nearby grocery store to buy something to eat,” Becirbegovic said.  “We were starving but didn’t have any money left.” 

Her father, who had studied German in school, noticed a man sitting on a park bench near the store and cautiously approached him. 

“The man was eating his lunch, and my dad uttered in his broken German, asking the Bavarian man to spare some bread.” 

Graciously, the stranger shared his food. 

“While I ate the most delicious meal of my life, consisting simply of sour cream and a piece of bread, I realized the power of language, and it was this moment that motivated me to study German,” Becirbegovic said.

This summer, Becirbegovic is participating in a summer program by The Olga Lengyel Institute for high school teachers and educators on comparative genocides. “Cultivating Social Responsibility: Lessons from the Holocaust and the Rich Soil of the Central Valley of California” will be held July 25-29.

On Wednesday, July 27, Becirbegovic will talk and share sample teaching materials about propaganda and the Holocaust and contemporary Holocaust representations, from films and comics to comparative case studies. She will also discuss her experiences as a genocide survivor during Bosnia’s genocide in the 1990s and how her experiences relate to current case histories and antisemitic themes. 

Dr. Amila Becirbegovic
Dr. Amila Becirbegovic

For Becirbegovic, the subject of genocide hits close to home. Soon after her fourth birthday, Serbian paramilitary forces attacked their hometown, and neighbors, friends, and family began to disappear or were taken to nearby concentration camps. Her father and his friends rescued her uncle from one of the camps.

“I remember hiding in the house and watching as they carried this once tall, jovial man into the living room on a makeshift stretcher made out of one of my childhood blankets,” Becirbegovic said. “He seemed so small to me in that moment and was merely skin and bones, too weak to even walk.”

She recalls a particularly horrible night when inebriated enemy soldiers began firing their weapons on her street. They walked the entire block, randomly shooting at houses inhabited by Bosniaks. 

“Bullets shot through the glass, and my mother grabbed me in a panic and stuffed me into a laundry basket, covering me with clothes and blankets. There I sat in silence, wide awake the entire night, waiting for the gunfire to stop.” 

After a couple of years, they were able to get on a Red Cross rescue bus and headed to Germany, where her grandfather worked. 

Becirbegovic finds it empowering to witness other survivors working for justice and peace, and she believes she finds kinship in their efforts.

“I have learned a great deal from the Armenian community in the Central Valley,” Becirbegovic said. “Though every case and history is different, there is a shared experience and a sort of kinship.” 

As a German scholar with an emphasis in critical theory and human rights, Becirbegovic works at the intersection of literature, genocide studies and visual culture. Her personal experiences as a Bosnian refugee in Germany have informed her academic interests. As a survivor of genocide, she has a unique perspective on other genocide cases and can relate on a personal level to the hardships and crimes that others have endured.

Becirbegovic recently received the Provost’s Award for 2021-22 for her efforts on the President’s Task Force for renaming the Henry Madden Library. As the only German-language specialist on campus, she was naturally assigned the onerous chore of reading any paperwork in German; she also had the ability to read texts in the archive in Hungarian. Becirbegovic was nominated by Dr. Natalie Muñoz, Associate Professor of French and Chair of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures. 

“She is a true servant-leader who never shies away from difficult tasks,” Muñoz said. “She deserves this award not only for the scope of her service to the university but also for the attitude of humility and grace in which she performs each task.”

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