I Cry for You, Serbia
Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, is the city where my grandfather once had a home and store. It is the city I came back to as an eight-year-old child after the Second World War and where I went through the first, second, and third grade of elementary school. I fell in love with playing the accordion in Belgrade. I know Yugoslav songs, I speak the language, and I love the food. I like to come back to the place where my grandfather lived, and I grew.
I’m here in Belgrade now, March 15, 2019, to receive my nineteenth honorary doctorate, this one from the University of Belgrade, a very old university with over a hundred thousand students. As I’m driving around the city, I notice the coffee shops are full. On the main streets of Belgrade, there is a coffee shop full of people every hundred meters or so. The people spend working hours in coffee shops smoking, drinking, and talking.
Every Saturday evening however, up to hundred thousand people, demonstrate against the government.
Not only that, but thousands of people are leaving the country. Anyone who can leave the country is leaving the country, especially those who are well-educated, capable, and young enough to dare to leave and start a new life. The brain drain is enormous.
What is happening in this country?
First, we must look at the history of Serbia. The Serbian people were occupied by the Ottoman Empire for five hundred years. Then, there was the First World War. Then, there was the Second World War. After the Second World War, there was a communist regime making it difficult—actually prohibiting—the accumulation of wealth. The government owned everything. Then, when the communist party lost its power, there was the breakdown of the Yugoslav Federation followed by a bloody war between Croats and Serbs, between the different religious and ethnic groups. Then, there was the NATO attack and bombarding of Serbia. Then, there were sanctions.
Think about it. Serbia has never had a prolonged peacetime. Whenever Serbians have built something, a crisis struck, a war broke out, or a political party that prohibits wealth took power. They lost everything they had built.
Think about it. For generations, the Serbs were unable to build ongoing wealth. I believe this country’s people subconsciously lost hope. History has taught Serbs, “Whatever you build, you will lose.”
When you lose hope, when you do not believe there is a future for your children, there are two things to do. First, if you can, you move to another country where you believe there is hope for your children. Or, if you do not believe that you can move out, you live in the present, eat, drink, smoke and just from time to time protest. There is no hope for anything else.
In contrast, I believe that what kept the Jewish nation alive for over two thousand years—in spite of the Inquisition, in spite of the Holocaust, in spite of the persecution, in spite of the moving from one country to another to survive and losing everything in between—was hope. Every Friday night, the Jewish people say the prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Every Jewish prayer says, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Every Jewish religious holiday, they repeat, “Next year in Jerusalem.” For two thousand years, there was always hope. The Jewish people never lost hope. They take a long-range view. They say to themselves, “We will survive no matter what. We will survive. Maybe I am just a laborer or day worker or seamstress, but my son or my daughter will go to school. They will be doctors, and my grandchildren will be big scientists, maybe Nobel Prize winners.” They always hope it will be better—if not for themselves, then for their children, somewhere in the world.
In contrast, in Serbia, I do not think that they have hope. People have sunk into apathy. If anyone has money, even a little bit of money, all they can do is spend it to enjoy the moment because it might disappear tomorrow. In a situation like this one, money has no value. In America, we say, “Time is money,” but it is not in Serbia. In America, if you use your time properly, you can make money and keep it. In Serbia, even if you make money, you might lose it. One of my cousins’ mothers was saving her dinars (the local currency) for years, putting it “under the mattress,” not even in a bank. She was saving her money so she could leave it to her daughters when she died, as a sort of inheritance. Then, in 1993, during Serbia’s Milosevic era, inflation skyrocketed. All that money that she had painfully accumulated over many, many, many years could not buy her daughters a cup of coffee. In 1993 people lost everything they had. When you lose hope, what do you do? You sink into apathy. That is what is happening in Serbia.
If President Vucic were to come to me and ask for my advice, I would say, “If you really want to change the Serbian culture, do whatever you can to give your country hope.”
Ichak Kalderon Adizes
Founder And CEO, Adizes Institute Worldwide