History of the Jews in Serbia
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The history of the Jews in Serbia goes back two thousand years. Jews first arrived in what is now Serbia in Roman times. The Jewish communities of the Balkans remained small until the late 15th century, when Jews fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions found refuge in Ottoman-ruled areas, including Serbia. Jewish communities flourished in the Balkans until the turmoil of World War I. The surviving communities, including that of Serbia, were almost completely destroyed in the Holocaust during World War II.
Jews first arrived in the region now known as Serbia in Roman times, although there is little documentation prior to the 10th century.
The Jewish communities of the Balkans were boosted in the 15th and 16th centuries by the arrival of Jewish refugees fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. Sultan Bayezid II of the Ottoman Empire welcomed the Jewish refugees into his Empire. Jews became involved in trade between the various provinces in the Ottoman Empire, becoming especially important in the salt trade.
Jews in Serbia proper
With generally good relations between the Jews and Serbs, the Jewish communities prospered, and by the 19th century Jewish merchants were largely responsible for the trade routes between the Ottoman Empire's northern and southern territories.
Beginning in 1804, the Serbs began to fight the Ottoman Turks for independence. Many Jews were involved in the struggle by supplying arms to the local Serbs, and the Jewish communities faced brutal reprisal attacks from the Ottoman Turks. The independence struggle lasted until 1830, when Serbia gained its independence.
The new Serbian government was friendly toward the Jewish community. Under rule of Miloš Obrenović, the Belgrade Jewish community had its own money issue. The situation of the Jews briefly improved under the rule of Prince Mihailo Obrenović (ruled 1839-1842). The Jews were a very respected minority in Serbia after the Obrenovic dynasty ended. The very first act of Serbian King Petar I was royal support for building a new synagogue in Belgrade.
With the reclamation of the Serbian throne by the Royal House of Obrenović under Miloš Obrenović in 1858, restrictions on Jewish merchants were again relaxed, but three years later, in 1861 Mihailo III inherited the throne and reinstated anti-Jewish restrictions. In 1877 a Jewish candidate was elected to the National Assembly for the first time after receiving the backing of all parties.
In 1879, the Baruh Brothers Choir was founded in Belgrade as a part of the Serbian-Jewish friendship, the oldest Jewish choir in the world, that still exists to today.
The waxing and waning of the fortunes of the Jewish community according to the ruler continued to the end of the 19th Century, when the Serbian parliament lifted all anti-Jewish restrictions in 1889.
By 1912, the Jewish community of Serbia stood at 5,000. Serbian-Jewish relations reached a high degree of cooperation during World War I, when Jews and Serbs fought side by side against the Central Powers.
In the aftermath of World War I, Montenegro, Banat, Bačka, Syrmia, and Baranja joined Serbia through popular vote in those regions, and this Greater Serbia then united with State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (from which Syrmia had seceded to join Serbia) to form the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which was soon renamed Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Serbia's relatively small Jewish community of 13,000 (including 500 in Kosovo), combined with the large Jewish communities of the other Yugoslav territories, numbering some 51,700. In the inter-war years (1919–1939), the Jewish communities of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia flourished.
Jews in Vojvodina
While the rest of Serbia was still ruled by the Ottoman Empire, Vojvodina, now an autonomous province within Serbia, was ruled by the Habsburg Monarchy from the end of the 17th century. Vojvodina too had previously been ruled by the Ottoman Empire, and it was under Ottoman rule that the first Jews settled in the region.
In 1782, Emperor Joseph II issued the Edict of Tolerance, giving Jews some measure of religious freedom. The Edict attracted Jews to many parts of the Habsburg Monarchy, including Vojvodina. The Jewish communities of Vojvodina flourished, and by the end of the 19th Century the region had nearly 40 Jewish communities.
The 1931 census counted 21,000 Jews in the province. The Jewish communities of Vojvodina, as in the rest of Serbia, were largely destroyed in the Holocaust, particularly in Banat, which was under direct German occupation, and in Bačka, which was under Hungarian occupation.
In 1942 raid, the Hungarian troops killed many Jewish and Serb civilians in Bačka. In 2006, Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center charged Dr. Sándor Képíró with participating in the massacre on the evidence of his conviction in the trials of 1944 and 1946. Képíró, however, stated that as a police officer, his participation was limited merely to arresting civilians, and he did not take part in the executions or any other illegal activity. War crimes charges were subsequently brought against Képíró in a federal court in Budapest, for murders of civilians committed under his command during the January 1942 raids. His trial on those charges commenced in May 2011. Képíró has twice previously been found guilty: once by the pre-Nazi Hungarian courts, and again after the war, in 1946. By then he allegedly had fled to Argentina, but returned to Budapest in 1996.
Presently, 329 Jews – almost half of Serbian Jewry – live in Vojvodina, most in Novi Sad, Subotica, Pančevo, Zrenjanin and Sombor.
World War II
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia attempted to maintain neutrality during the period preceding WWII. Milan Stojadinović, the prime minister, tried to actively woo Adolf Hitler while maintaining the alliance with former Entente Powers, UK and France. Nonwithstanding overtures to Germany, Yugoslav policy was not anti-Semitic: for instance, Yugoslavia opened its borders to Austrian Jews following the Anschluss. Under increasing pressure to yield to German demands for safe passage of its troops to Greece, Yugoslavia signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, like Bulgaria and Hungary. Unlike the other two, however, the signatory government of Maček and Cvetković was overthrown three days later in a British-supported coup of patriotic, anti-German generals. The new government immediately rescinded the Yugoslav signature on the Pact and called for strict neutrality. German response was swift and brutal: Belgrade was bombed without the declaration of war on 6 April 1941 and German, Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian troops invaded Yugoslavia.
Germany carved up Yugoslavia with most of it going to the fascist Independent State of Croatia, who established the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp to exterminate the Serbs, Roma and Jews of Yugoslavia. In Serbia government of Milan Nedić established concentration camps and extermination policies of its own.
The Nazi genocide against Yugoslav Jews began in April 1941. The state of Serbia was completely occupied by the Nazis. The main race laws in the State of Serbia were adopted on 30 April 1941: the Legal Decree on Racial Origins (Zakonska odredba o rasnoj pripadnosti).Jews from Syrmia were sent to Croatian camps, as were many Jews from other parts of Serbia. In rump Serbia, Germans proceeded to round up Jews of Banat and Belgrade, setting up a concentration camp across the river Sava, in the Syrmian part of Belgrade, then given to Independent State of Croatia. The camp, Sajmište, was established to process and eliminate the captured Jews and Serbs. As a result, Emanuel Schäfer, commander of the Security Police and Gestapo in Serbia, famously cabled Berlin after last Jews were killed in May 1942:
Similarly Harald Turner of the SS, stated in 1942 that:
- "Serbia is the only country in which the Jewish question and the Gypsy question has been solved."
By the time Serbia and Yugoslavia were liberated in 1944, most of the Serbian Jewry had been murdered. Of the 82,500 Jews of Yugoslavia alive in 1941, only 14,000 (17%) survived the Holocaust. Of the Serbian Jewish population of 16,000, Serbian Nazi puppet government of Milan Nedić, Ministry of Interior, police and secret services murdered approximately 14,500.
|“||Serbia was the only country outside Poland and the Soviet Union where all Jewish victims were killed on the spot without deportation, and was the first country after Estonia to be declared ‘Judenfrei’, a term used by the Nazis during the Holocaust to denote an area free of all Jews.||”|
Post World War II
The Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia was formed in the aftermath of World War II to coordinate the Jewish communities of post-war Yugoslavia and to lobby for the right of Jews to immigrate to Israel. The Federation was headquartered in Belgrade, the capital of the post-war Yugoslavia.
More than half of Yugoslav survivors chose to immigrate to Israel after World War II.
The Jewish community of Serbia, and indeed of all constituent republics in Yugoslavia, was maintained by the unifying power of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia. However, this power ended with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Yugoslav wars and current situation
The Jews of Serbia lived relatively peacefully in Yugoslavia between World War II and the 1990s. However, the end of the Cold War saw the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the ensuing civil wars.
During the Balkan Wars, and international sanctions many Jews chose to immigrate to Israel and the United States. During the Kosovo Conflict, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia relocated many of Belgrade's Jewish elderly, women and children to Budapest, Hungary for their safety; many of them emigrated permanently.
As nationalism replaced communism as the main ideology in Serbia in 1990s, there was a resurgence of antisemitic statements, as well as a simultaneous attempt on the part of the Serbian regime to instrumentalize the supposed influence of the Jewish community abroad.
Manifestations of antisemitism in Serbia are relatively rare and isolated. According to the US State Department Report on Human Rights practices in Serbia for 2006,
- "Jewish leaders in Serbia reported continued incidents of anti-Semitism, including anti-Semitic graffiti, vandalism, small circulation anti-Semitic books, and Internet postings",
and that anti-Semitic incidents have been on the rise in Serbia. In 2013, downtown Belgrade was covered by posters accusing Jews of being responsible for the 1999 bombing of FR Yugoslavia, signed by alleged Serbian branch of Blood & Honour.
The Serbian government recognizes Judaism as one of the seven "traditional" religious communities of Serbia.
Prior to the conflicts of the 1990s, approximately 2,500 Jews lived in Serbia, most in Belgrade.
In 2011 census 787 people declared themselves as Jewish.
According to the 2002 Serbian census, there were 1,185 Jews in Serbia. 40% of them live in Vojvodina, and 90% of the remaining live in Belgrade. The results of the 2002 census are displayed below:
|Rest of Serbia||239||5,646,314|
The only remaining functioning synagogue in Serbia is the Belgrade Synagogue. There are also small numbers of Jews in Zrenjanin and Sombor, with isolated families scattered throughout the rest of Serbia.
- Moša Pijade, politician, painter, art critic and publicist
- Oskar Davičo, poet
- Danilo Kiš, writer
- Aleksandar Tišma, writer
- David Albahari, writer
- Ivan Ivanji, writer
- Sonja Licht, political activist
- Erich Šlomović, art collector
- Filip David, playwright and columnist
- Predrag Ejdus, actor
- Vanja Ejdus, actress
- Izidor Papo, cardiac surgeon and general of JNA
- Jelena Đurović, writer, politician and journalist
- Tommy Lapid, former Israeli politician of Hungarian descent, born in Novi Sad
- Oskar Danon, composer
- American Jewish Year Book. "The Jewish Population of the World (2010)". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 23 July 2011.
- Virtual Jewish History Tour - Serbia and Montenegro
- "News in Brief", The Times, 22 February 1877
- "Servia", The Times, 22 February 1877
- Romano, Jasa. "Jews of Yugoslavia 1941–1945", Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia, 1980; pp. 573-590.
- Belgrade Synagogue
- Synagogues Without Jews-Croatia and Serbia
- "Nazi hunters identify convicted war criminal", Nicholas Wood, International Herald Tribune, 28 September 2006
- "97-year-old Hungarian Sandor Kepiro on trial for Nazi war crimes"
- "Kepiro war crimes trial continues in Budapest"
- Schneider, Getrude. "Exile and Destruction: The Fate of Austrian Jews, 1938-1945". p. 53 
- Ljubica Stefan (1995). "ANTI-SEMITISM IN SERBIA DURING THE WORLD WAR II". An International Symposium "SOUTHEASTERN EUROPE 1918-1995" (in Eng). Knjige HIC. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
- M.Mitrovic, A.Timofejev, J.Petakovic,Holocaust in Serbia 1941-1944
- Barry M. Lituchy (2006). Jasenovac and the Holocaust in Yugoslavia: analyses and survivor testimonies. Jasenovac Research Institute. p. xxxiii.
- Dwork, Debórah; Robert Jan Pelt, Robert Jan Van Pelt (2003), Holocaust: a history, New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, p. 184, ISBN 0-393-32524-5
- Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company New York 1990
- Ristović, Milan (2010), "Jews in Serbia during World War Two", Serbia. Righteous among Nations, Jewish Community of Zemun
- Ljubica Stefan (1993). "From Fairy tale to Holocaust". HIC (in Eng). Zagreb: Knjige HIC. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
- Browning, Christopher (29. May 2012.). "Serbia WWII Death Camp to 'Multicultural' Development?". Arutz Sheva - Israel National News. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
- Place where Kikinda Synagogue once was
- Jews of the Former Yugoslavia After the Holocaust
- Sekelj, Laslo (1997). "Antisemitism and Jewish Identity in Serbia After the 1991 Collapse of the Yugoslav State". Analysis of Current Trends in Antisemitism (The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) 12.
- Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Serbia, 2006
- Anti-Semitic posters in downtown Belgrade, B92/Tanjug, 30 March 2013
- International Religious Freedom Report 2005, Serbia and Montenegro (includes Kosovo) (released by US Department of State)
- Попис становништва, домаћинстава и станова 2011. у Републици Србији: Становништво према националној припадности - „Oстали“ етничке заједнице са мање од 2000 припадника и двојако изјашњени
- Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, 2002 Census Results, p12 (Serbian)
- "Jews of Yugoslavia 1941 - 1945 Victims of Genocide and Freedom Fighters", by Jasa Romano, from the English summary in the book Jevreji Jugoslavije 1941-1945. Žrtve Genocida i učesnici Narodnooslobodilačkog Rata, Belgrade: Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia, 1980; pp. 573–590.
- Jewish Virtual Library, Serbia and Montenegro
- Jews of the Former Yugoslavia After the Holocaust
- Synagogues Without Jews - Serbia and Croatia
- American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Serbia-Montenegro
- (Serbian) Official city of Belgrade site about Belgrade Jews
- (Serbian) (English) Jewish community of Belgrade
- (Serbian) (English) Jewish community of Zemun (a district in Belgrade)
- (Serbian) (English) Jewish Historical Museum in Belgrade
- (Serbian) (English) www.semlin.info Website about the Semlin/Sajmiste concentration camp and the Holocaust in Serbia
- (English) Voices on Antisemitism Interview with David Albahari from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum