History of the Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina
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The Jewish community of Bosnia and Herzegovina has a rich and varied history, surviving World War II and the Yugoslav Wars, after having been established as a result of the Spanish Inquisition, and having been almost destroyed by the Holocaust. Judaism and the Jewish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina has one of the oldest and most diverse histories in the former Yugoslav states, and is more than 500 years old, in terms of permanent settlement. Then a self-governing province of the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia was one of the few territories in Europe that welcomed Jews after their expulsion from Spain.
At its peak, the Jewish community of Bosnia numbered between 14,000 and 22,000 members in 1941. Of those, 12,000 to 14,000 lived in Sarajevo, comprising 20% of the city's population. The community today is home to between around 1,000 and 1,500 Bosnian Jews, with around 700 living in and around Sarajevo, with the rest in Banja Luka, Mostar, Tuzla, Doboj and Zenica.
History of the community
As tens of thousands of Jews fled the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, Sultan Bayezid II of the Ottoman Empire welcomed Jews who were able to reach his territories. Sephardi Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal were welcomed in – and found their way to – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Thrace and other areas of Europe under Ottoman control. Jews from the Ottoman Empire began arriving in numbers in the 16th century, settling mainly in Sarajevo. The first Ashkenazi Jews arrived from Hungary in 1686, when the Ottoman Turks were expelled from Hungary The Jewish community prospered in Bosnia, living side by side with their Bosnian Muslim neighbors, as one of the largest European centres for Sephardi Jewry outside of Spain.
Jews in the Ottoman Empire were generally well-treated and were recognized under the law as non-Muslims. Despite some restrictions, the Jewish communities of the Empire prospered. They were granted significant autonomy, with various rights including the right to buy real estate, to build synagogues and to conduct trade throughout the Ottoman Empire. Jews, along with the other non-Muslim subjects of the Empire, were granted full equality under Ottoman law by 1856.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire conquered Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878, and brought with them an injection of European capital, companies and methods. Many professional, educated Ashkenazi Jews arrived with the Austro-Hungarians. The Sephardi Jews continued to engage in their traditional areas, mainly foreign trade and crafts.
World War I saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after the war Bosnia and Herzegovina was incorporated into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In the census of 1921, Ladino was the mother language of 10,000 out of 70,000 inhabitants of Sarajevo. By 1926, there were 13,000 Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
With the invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941 by the Nazis and their Allies, Bosnia and Herzegovina came under the control of the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet-state. The Independent State of Croatia was headed by the notoriously anti-Semitic Ustaše, and they wasted little time in persecuting non-Croats such as Serbs, Jews and Gypsies.
Deportation and murder
On 22 July 1941, Mile Budak – a senior Minister in the Croatian government and one of the chief ideologists of the Ustaše movement – declared that the goal of the Ustaše was the extermination of "foreign elements" from the Independent State of Croatia. His message was simple: "The basis for the Ustasha movement is religion. For minorities such as Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies, we have three million bullets." In 1941, Ante Pavelić – leader of the Ustaše movement – declared that "the Jews will be liquidated in a very short time".
In September 1941 deportations of Jews began, with most Bosnian Jews being deported to Auschwitz or to concentration camps in Croatia. The Ustaše set up concentration camps at Kerestinac, Jadovna, Metajna and Slana. The most notorious, where cruelty of unimaginable proportions was perpetrated against Jewish and Serbian prisoners were at Pag and Jasenovac. At Jasenovac alone, hundreds of thousands of people were murdered (mostly Serbs), including 20,000 Jews.
By War's end, the Ustaše had murdered more than 500,000 Serbs, approximately 40,000 Roma (Gypsies) and 32,000 Jews. Among Bosnian Jews, 10,000 of the pre-War Jewish population of 14,000 had been murdered. Most of the 4,000 who had survived did so by fighting with the Yugoslav, Jewish or Soviet Partisans or by escaping to the Italian controlled zone (approximately 1,600 had escaped to the Italian controlled zone on the Dalmatian coast).
The Sarajevo Haggadah is a 14th-century illuminated manuscript which has survived many close calls with destruction. Historians believe that it was taken out of Spain by Spanish Jews who were expelled by the Inquisition in 1492. Notes in the margins of the Haggadah indicate that it surfaced in Italy in the 16th century. It was sold to the national museum in Sarajevo in 1894 by a man named Joseph Kohen.
During World War II, the manuscript was hidden from the Nazis by Dr. Jozo Petrovic, the director of the city museum and by Derviš Korkut, the chief librarian, who smuggled the Haggadah out to a Muslim cleric in a mountain village near Treskavica, where it was hidden in the mosque among Korans and other Islamic texts. During the Bosnian War of 1992–1995, when Sarajevo was under constant siege by Bosnian Serb forces, the manuscript survived in an underground bank vault.
Afterwards, the manuscript was restored through a special campaign financed by the United Nations and the Bosnian Jewish community in 2001, and went on permanent display at the museum in December 2002.
The Jewish Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina was reconstituted after the Holocaust, but most survivors chose to emigrate to Israel. The community came under the auspices of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, based in the capital, Belgrade.
In the early 1990s, before the Yugoslav Wars, the Jewish population of Bosnia and Herzegovina was over 2,000, and relations between Jews and their Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim neighbors were very good.
When the Yugoslav Wars broke out in 1991, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Mossad evacuated 15,000 Yugoslav (including Bosnian) Jews to Israel. Most chose to remain in Israel after the wars had ended, though some returned.
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Today, there are an estimated 1,000 Jews living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They enjoy excellent relations with their non-Jewish neighbors and with the Bosnian government, as it was throughout history. As a result of the ethnic balancing act involved in the UN-imposed Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jews and other minorities are forbidden in the Constitution of Bosnia from running for the position of president. Jakob Finci, a prominent Bosnian Jew and Bosnia's ambassador to Switzerland, and Dervo Sejdić, a prominent Bosnian Roma and member of the member of Bosnia's Roma Council, have launched an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that Bosnia's Constitution violates the European Convention on Human Rights. A finding is expected in September 2009.
Prominent Bosnian Jews
- Rav Moshe Danon, known as the Rabbi of Stolac
- Ivan Ceresnjes, architect-researcher, former president of the Jewish community of Bosnia and Herzegovina and vice-chairman of the Yugoslav Federation of Jewish Communities from 1992–1996
- Judah Alkalai, Rabbi, early member of the Zionist movement
- Ernest Grin, (1899–1976) Academician, professor, medical doctor, member of Bosnia and Herzegovina Academy of Sciences and Arts, laureate of AVNOJ award, WHO expert, founder of several medical establishments in the aftermath of WW2
- Sven Alkalaj, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2007 to 2011
- Kalmi Baruh, writer and philosopher
- Emerik Blum, businessman, founder of Energoinvest, former Mayor of Sarajevo
- Oskar Danon, composer and conductor
- Jakob Finci, current spiritual leader of the Bosnian Jewish community.
- Marina Toschich, world-renowned musician and master oud player.
- David Elazar, Israeli general and Chief of Staff of Israel Defense Forces
- Robert Rothbart, basketball player
- Isak Samokovlija, writer
- Flory Jagoda, American guitarist, composer and singer, known for her interpretations of Ladino songs, including her composition for Hanukkah, Ocho Kandelikas.
- Avraham Levi-Lazzaris (1905–2008), businessman, explorer of the first mines of diamonds in Rondônia, Brazil, Holocaust survivor.
- Moses Levi-Lazzaris (1944–1990), mechanical engineer, Trotskyist militant in Brazil, Holocaust survivor.
- Hilde Zaloscer (1903–1999) World-renowned art historian, Egyptologist and Coptologist.
- The Righteous Among the Nations – Bosnian Muslim Rescuers in Sarajevo: Mustafa and Zejneba Hardaga, Izet and Bachrija Hardaga, Ahmed Sadik
- The Righteous Among the Nations – Bosnian Rescuers: Roza Sober-Dragoje and Zekira Besrević
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- Excerpts from Jews in Yugoslavia – Part I
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- Bosnian Jewry: A Small Community Meets a Unique Challenge During the 1990s War – Interview with Ivica Ceresnjes (Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld)