New York Times: Learning to Forgive After War

BELGRADE–In the spring of 2000, Simcha Applebaum, a retired Israeli colonel, was in the southern Serbian city of Kraljevo, working on a business deal with Maja Terzic’s father.

Ms. Terzic, now 35, was then a university student in Belgrade, acting as interpreter for the two men at dinner. When Mr. Applebaum reached for a glass, his sleeve went up and Ms. Terzic saw his tattoo from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland.

Ms. Terzic, whose family is Serbian Orthodox Christian, had long been fascinated by Jewish history. In 1999, she had planned to take a University of London distance-learning course on the subject, but her goal was interrupted when NATO began bombing Belgrade to halt Serbia’s actions aimed at ethnic Albanian rebels in the disputed region of Kosovo. She spent most of the evening talking with Mr. Applebaum about his two and half years in the camp and his eventual escape in 1945 during the Nazi death march.

Ms. Terzic said she was surprised that Mr. Applebaum had no hatred or ill will toward Germans; he told her that Nazis and Germans were different and must be separated.

That kind of understanding and forgiveness, she said, was something that she was struggling with a year after the bombings of her country. “When your country is involved in war, you ask yourself a lot of questions,” Ms. Terzic said, “because a lot of people hate you because of your nationality and you are in a position to very easily start hating a lot of people.

“And when I met Simcha, some things became clear in my head,” she continued. “That there is no nation that you can hate as a whole and that your nation can be good and bad in different situations.” They even talked of Ms. Terzic’s going to visit Israel, where Mr. Applebaum had settled after the war and helped found what later became the Netzer Sereni kibbutz, in the central part of the country.

Later in 2000, Mr. Applebaum returned to Kraljevo with a copy of the Old Testament that he bought for Ms. Terzic in Jerusalem. He told her to start with that book to learn about Jewish history, she recalled.

She then lost touch with Mr. Applebaum, whose first name means “gladness” in Hebrew. He still lives in Israel and, in 2011, was one of six torch lighters for the national opening ceremony of Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day. (He could not be reached for comment.)

But Ms. Terzic remembers him, and his message, through his gift. “I cherish this book,” she said, adding that she has always kept it with her as she has moved to different apartments in Belgrade.

It has been a reminder of a man who, she said, made a strong impression on her and gave her “that little push, that little lesson in humanity.”