The Cellist of Sarajevo

June 2, 2008

I’m afraid that we’ve had so much war in recent years that we have forgotten that heroism comes in many guises.

Sometimes the greatest acts of heroism come not from the use of weapons and force, but rather in acts of beautiful defiance that are simply breathtaking.

Only recently I learned of Vedran Smailovic, the cellist of Sarajevo.

It was 4 p.m. on May 27, 1992, two months into the three-year war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a nasty war involving more than a half-dozen factions that changed objectives and allegiances several times during the conflict. In short, it was a dog-pile of a mess, and there were no winners. Not there ever really are.

Smailovic, then in his mid-30s and principal cellist with the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, was watching from his apartment window as an artillery shell landed amid a bread line in front of The National Library. The explosion killed 22 people, scattering stone, bone, blood and body parts.

The next day, Smailovic, dressed in his tuxedo as though preparing for a performance in one of Europe’s great halls, took his cello and an old stool and sat in the center of the shell crater and began to play. It was exactly 4 p.m.

He played Albinoni’s Adagio in G, music that can make you believe in angels.

He finished playing despite continued shelling and gunfire nearby. And then he left.

The next day, he was back, and played the same piece, paying no mind to the mayhem around him or to the risk.

And the next day. And the next. Until he had played 22 times, once for each of the 22 who had died before his eyes.

He played, not to cheering crowds in their finery, but to cratered streets, rubble, to bone fragments and terror and the smell of smoke and decay. He played for more, I think: To that in us that is better than our familiar role of angels of death, of harrowers of the innocent. He played, perhaps, for what is possible, for what Lincoln called “our better angels.”

A journalist at the time asked him if he thought he was crazy, playing on a battleground.

Smailovic reportedly replied: “You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?”

He was right, of course. By the end of the slaughter, more than 100,000 were dead, and nearly 2 million had been displaced.

Why is it so hard to see which of those two actions – the destruction of a city and the lives within it, or a sole man defiantly standing up to the insanity and horror – is the act of madmen.

If Vedran Smailovic is crazy, then I say God bless the lunatics, and give us more.


© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

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One Response to “The Cellist of Sarajevo”

  1. valwebb said

    Amen! God bless the lunatics, indeed.

    Terry, I wanted to let you know The Illustrated Garden has moved. Its new home:

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