Budapest, Hungary – I’m a journalist and a Jew, but it was only recently that I became a Jewish journalist.

Not by choice, mind you. It was thrust upon me. And larded with Jewish guilt, no less.

Curiously enough, it all began with Kosovo conflict.

This two-month war has spawned a number of large-type headlines: the first NATO attack on a sovereign state; the first mass exodus of refugees in Europe since the Holocaust; and the first post-Cold War standoff between Russia and America.

But far from front pages is a story that is perhaps only of interest to Jewish audiences – the possible demise of two more Jewish communities in the Balkans.

As bombs rain down on Yugoslavia, Serb forces continue to kill, loot and expel ethnic Albanians from their homes. The refugees pour over the border into Macedonia (among other places) and threaten to tip the country’s own delicate ethnic balance.

All the instability has Jews in both states considering flight to safer havens.

Sounds pretty straightforward, no? Who wouldn’t want to get the heck out – especially if you had the connections to do so?

Now here’s the rub. Despite traditionally friendly relations with their countrymen, these Jews fear their exodus may be denounced by their neighbors as a “betrayal” of the nation. That would unleash anti-Semitism, which would further discourage these Jews from ever returning home. In reporting on their fate for the NY-based Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), I have been torn by the following issue: present “the facts” and “the truth” of their plight, or assume a partisan role that feels, to me, like something bordering on complicity.

Is my first obligation to you, the reader, or to the safety of these small, nervous Jewish communities? For in this case, the two objectives are incompatible, even diametrically opposed.

My father, of course, had some wisdom to share. Quoting my deceased grandmother, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, he emailed me: “Do nothing that might harm a single hair on any Jew’s head.”

So, journalistic credos be damned!

But as a committed, career journalist, the choice isn’t so clear-cut. For five years I’ve been a freelancer based in Budapest, writing mostly for, among others, JTA and the Christian Science Monitor. (Quite a tandem, religiously speaking.)

But the events of March 24 shattered my illusion of neutral observation – environmental conditioning notwithstanding. On that day, NATO launched airstrikes against Yugoslavia. In turn, Serbs accelerated their ethnic cleansing of Albanians from the southern province of Kosovo.

And within hours, busloads of Yugoslav Jews were on the road to Budapest, 250 miles north. They’d been invited by the Hungarian Jewish community, a plan that was kept hush-hush. I only learned of it days later, after JTA, informed by other sources, ran a short bulletin on its newswire. Now JTA wanted me to follow up with a feature story.

On Monday morning, March 29, I walked to the local Jewish community center, a couple blocks away from my apartment in downtown Budapest. Overnight, the airy, newly renovated center had been transformed into a hostel. And instead of its normal quiet – until dozens of Holocaust survivors stroll in for their afternoon card games – the place was bustling with 150 or so Jewish youth and older women, speaking Serbo-Croatian.

The din didn’t last long.

When the crowd saw me approaching with pen and notepad, they became edgy and suspicious. I asked to be de-briefed by the local representative of the Joint Distribution Committee – which was offering assistance to the newcomers – and by the Yugoslav group’s appointed spokeswoman.

And soon, the stonewalling began.

After a few general details of the situation, the Joint rep, normally a media-friendly type, suggested we wait a few hours until “we” received clearance from headquarters in New York. Then I could go ahead with my story. I politely informed him that, regardless, I would be writing an article that day.

Next came the spokeswoman, who is also head of the Jewish women’s organization back in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital. From the outset, she insisted that her contingent not be referred to (and consequently stigmatized) as “refugees.” They were, she said, officially “tourists,” and wished to be described as such. (Later, a second Joint official suggested I refer to them with the awkward phrase “bombing escapees.”) I wondered aloud about the definition of refugee: one who seeks refuge, no? And this group certainly fit the bill – here they were, welcome and safe in serene Budapest; meanwhile, back home, family and friends were tormented each night by air-raid sirens and bone-rattling bombs.

I told the spokeswoman that frankly, I’d have trouble playing along with the “tourist” euphemism. But her reasoning was clear: Nationalists could easily twist and sensationalize the news of their departure, and portray them as “traitors.”

And that, of course, would make life more miserable for the 3,000 Jews remaining in Yugoslavia. This, after all, is a totalitarian state where media is so tightly controlled – and libel and slander are alien concepts. Once you’ve been branded a traitor, there’s little hope of defending yourself.

Still, I wondered if this woman wasn’t being just a bit overly paranoid. “They’ll read what we’re saying,” she said, through the Yugoslav Embassy in DC.

I scoffed: if it were in the New York Times or Washington Post, sure. But why would any Yugoslav read JTA?

Besides, I thought, who could blame someone for leaving? Any other Yugoslav citizen would do the same – especially if they had the cash or connections. (Indeed, tens of thousands of Serbs are camped out in Hungary’s hotels, and Serbo-Croatian can be heard throughout Budapest’s streets and cafes.) The real reason for the spokeswoman’s anxiety, then, is that Jews – especially those in Eastern Europe – know better than anyone that in a flash, anti-Semitism can rear its ugly head. Anytime, anywhere. Yugoslav and Macedonian Jewry, like so many of their European counterparts, were decimated by the Holocaust. (It must be noted, however, the deed was not carried out by homegrown fascists).

Then came four decades of repressive Communism: the public was conditioned to never challenge authority, or else pay a price – like unemployment, prison or even death.

That’s why the president of the Yugoslav Jewish community, himself a Holocaust survivor, instructed this spokeswoman not to utter a single politically oriented comment while abroad.

So the more I probed, the more nervous she became. She didn’t want her name used. Then she wanted to retract much of what she’d already told me. Soon, a crowd formed around us; from all sides I was being pressured not to write anything at all.

I tried to explain my predicament.

How could I act as if I had not seen these people? Their very reaction – their fear of exposure – convinced me this was even more of a “story.” How could I conceal the fact there were Jews in the world who felt endangered? Moreover – and from a practical, but purely competitive standpoint – I’d just learned from someone in the crowd that the Israeli and Hungarian media had also gotten whiff of their exodus.

Their story would get out one way or another, I told them.

Understandably, the Jews surrounding me were unsympathetic to my cause. After all, this was their life I was writing about. And here I was, upset about mere journalistic principles.

“As a Jew,” they pleaded, “you have certain responsibilities.”

They were right, of course. But I didn’t like it. Deflated, I managed a couple more half-hearted interviews (names and identities withheld, of course) and headed home.

I still had an article to write. My thoughts raced as I outlined how I’d word it. As soon as I got home, I fired off an elaborate email to my editors, describing the pickle I was in. (They would later tell me to proceed, but cautiously.)

And then I wrote. Among other points, I danced around the “refugee” vs. “tourist” distinction; touched on their anxiety about the loyalty issue; and went to great lengths to illustrate the Jewish community’s fondness for Yugoslavia and their desire to return home soon.

No lies, mind you. Just a case of emphasizing certain angles, downplaying others. It was an article I could live with.

The only slip up – in the eyes of the Yugoslav Jews and Joint officials who read it later – was to quote an unnamed young woman as saying “Milosevic is a jerk” among her comments.

Too political, I was told later. Too dangerous.

Over the next couple of weeks, I wondered how the Jews in Macedonia were holding up. I’d visited them a year and a half earlier, and was impressed with how actively this small, tight-knit community – officially 190 members – was in preserving its identity, history and traditions.

However, early on in the Kosovo crisis, JTA had reported that eight university-age men from the community had fled to neighboring Sofia, Bulgaria. (Not true, I was later told.) And I’d been reading in the papers how the influx of Kosovo Albanians was exacerbating relations between the Macedonian majority and its own large, restive population of ethnic Albanians.

When I finally met Macedonia’s Jews a few days later, in mid-April, it was deja vu all over again. I’ll spare you all the details, but it was more linguistic acrobatics. I was free to ask them anything, they said, but they wouldn’t tell me everything. Again, the truth was too risky – it might rile the neighbors.

My meeting with community leaders was two hours of cat and mouse: I chiseled away for nuggets of information; they responded diplomatically, with grand but bland statements like “Jews have always shared the fate of the Macedonians.” Later, someone finally stumbled and admitted that the Bulgarian Jews in Sofia – like the Hungarian Jews in Budapest – had offered some sort of escape route, just in case.

Today, it seems that offer may come in handy. Most people I spoke with during my week in Macedonia – Macedonians, Albanians, Jews and others – predicted that their country, too, was ripe for civil war. Tomorrow, perhaps, or in 10 years.

So that’s what I wrote for JTA.

What, then, are the lessons learned from these two experiences?

I still wrestle with the moral dimensions of the question: does publishing the truth serve the greater good? I think it does. Certainly, heeding grandma’s words, I don’t want to be the cause of harm to any hair on any head.

But in this case, writing that everything is honky-dory within Yugoslavia and Macedonia – for Jews or any other minority – only misleads the outside world. And sadly, it is the outside world that will be needed to resolve these conflict.

After living in Central Europe for six years, I’ve learned close-up about this Jewish tendency to avoid “making waves.” Yet it’s a hopeless Catch-22. A synagogue is vandalized, or a politician says something anti-Semitic. Rather than speak up — for fear of making it worse — they suffer in silence. Which means no one knows there’s a problem, so it happens again. I’d wager that if a reporter had asked the Hungarian Jews (my favorite example, for familial reasons), how they were doing in early 1944, I’d bet they would have responded — on the record — with an enthusiastic “Fine. No problem.”

Within a few months, of course, half a million were dead.

Today must be different.

Writing about the dilemma Yugoslav Jews face today – as of this writing, up to 500 have made their way to Budapest; some are considering aliya to Israel – has helped mobilize numerous international Jewish groups.

But more importantly, it illustrates the precarious situation confronting all minorities in the Balkans.

These conflicts are not simply about ethnic hatred between Serbs and Albanians, or Macedonians and Albanians. It is more the overall lack of respect for human rights, and a general lack of democratic tradition, culture and institutions.

Which is what spurred Western intervention in the first place – and will, hopefully, continue to do so in the future.

The author, a New Jersey native, can be emailed at , tel/fax (+36-1) 332-1640.