History of the Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Bosnian Jews
Bosanski Jevreji
Босански Јевреји
יהודים בוסניים
Europe-Bosnia and Herzegovina.svg
The location of Bosnia and Herzegovina (green) in Europe
Total population
Bosnian, Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino

The history of Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina spans from the arrival of the first Bosnian Jews as a result of the Spanish Inquisition to the survival of the Bosnian Jews through the Holocaust and the Yugoslav Wars. 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 and Herzegovina 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.[2]

Today, there are 281 Jews living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, recognised as a national minority. They mostly have good relations with their non-Jewish neighbors.[3][4][5][6]

Sephardi Jewish couple from Sarajevo in traditional clothing. Photo taken in 1900.


Rabbi Judah Alkalai and his spouse Esther in Vienna in 1874

Ottoman rule[edit]

The first Jews arrived to Bosnia and Herzegovina in period from 1492 to 1497 from Spain and Portugal.[7] 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[8][9] Among them was Tzvi Ashkenazi, who remained in Sarajevo for three years as rabbi. 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.[3]

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.[10] Jews, along with the other non-Muslim subjects of the Empire, were granted full equality under Ottoman law by 1856.

In the late Ottoman time, the Sarajevo-based Sephardi rabbi Judah Alkalai played a prominent role as a precursor of modern Zionism by advocating in favor of the restoration of the Jews to the Land of Israel.

Habsburg rule[edit]

The Sarajevo Ashkenazi Synagogue in 1914 on the banks of the Miljacka

The Austro-Hungarian Empire occupied 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.[8]

Sephardic Jews have certainly had a stronger role in BiH, given that only in Sarajevo, Banja Luka and Tuzla separate Ashkenazi communities were active, whereas Tuzla was the only city in which the Ashkenazi were numerous (there Hilde Zaloscer was born). In this period Moshe ben Rafael Attias achieved prominence as scholar of the Islamic faith and of medieval Persian literature.

Kingdom of Yugoslavia[edit]

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.[11] By 1926, there were 13,000 Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina.[2]

The Bosnian Jewish community remained prominent after the unification of Yugoslavia. In the 1920s and 1930s Kalmi Baruh was a pioneer of Sephardic studies and Hispanic studies and an eminent leftist intellectual. Daniel Ozmo was active in Belgrade as a progressive painter and printmaker. Isak Samokovlija also started his literary career in the 1930s, which he continued after the war. Laura Papo Bohoreta was an active feminist and writer.

World War II[edit]

Interior of Sarajevo's Old Temple (before 1940)

In 1940, there were approximately 14,000 Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina,[8] with 10,000 in Sarajevo.

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 Romani people.

On 22 July 1941, Mile Budak – a senior Minister in the Croatian government and one of the chief ideologists of the Ustaše movement[12] – 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."[13] In 1941, Ante Pavelić – leader of the Ustaše movement – declared that "the Jews will be liquidated in a very short time".[13]

In September 1941 deportations of Jews began, with most Bosnian Jews being deported to Auschwitz (many first to Kruščica concentration camp) 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.[14]

By War's end, 10,000 of the pre-War Bosnian Jewish population of 14,000 had been murdered.[2] Most of the 4,000 who had survived did so by fighting with the Yugoslav, Jewish or Soviet Partisans[15] or by escaping to the Italian controlled zone[13] (approximately 1,600 had escaped to the Italian controlled zone on the Dalmatian coast[4] - among them Flory Jagoda, née Papo). Jewish members of the Yugoslav Army became German prisoners of war and survived the war. They returned to Sarajevo after the war.[13] Avraham Levi-Lazzaris, who emigrated to Brasil, became explorer of the first mines of diamonds in Rondônia, while Moses Levi-Lazzaris (1944–1990), mechanical engineer, became a Trotskyist militant.

Righteous among the Nations from Bosnia and Herzegovina[edit]

The people of Sarajevo helped many Jews to abscond and exfiltrate - among many, the story of the Hardaga and Kabilio families[16] as well as of the Sober-Dragoje and Besrević families[17] became particularly noteworthy after the war. The Righteous among the Nations from Bosnia and Herzegovina are those Bosnians who were honored by the Yad Vashem Memorial as Righteous Among the Nations, i.e. non-Jews who used their lives to save Jews from murder. Forty-two Bosnians have been awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.[18]

Socialist Yugoslavia[edit]

Oskar Danon during practice with the Maribor Symphony Orchestra in 1961

The Jewish Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina was reconstituted after the Holocaust, but most survivors chose to emigrate to Israel.[13] The community came under the auspices of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, based in the capital, Belgrade.

Jewish personalities remained prominent in Socialist Bosnia and Herzegovina. Cvjetko Rihtman was the first director of the Sarajevo Opera in 1946–1947; his son Ranko will later be part of the Sarajevo rock band Indexi. Oskar Danon also achieved fame as composer and conductor during Yugoslav times. Ernest Grin was one of the leading Yugoslav medical doctors and member of Bosnia and Herzegovina Academy of Sciences and Arts. Emerik Blum, founder of Energoinvest, was Sarajevo's mayor from 1981 to 1983 and member of the Organizational Committee of the 1984 Winter Olympics. Ivan Ceresnjes was active as an architect, supervising the restoration of Jewish buildings and sites, including the Ashkenazi Synagogue, the Kal Nuevo temple and the 16th-century Old Jewish Cemetery, Sarajevo, whose project he was slated to present 24h before the war broke out in March 1992.

In the early 1990s, before the Yugoslav Wars, the Jewish population of Bosnia and Herzegovina was over 2,000,[2] and relations between Jews and their Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim neighbors were very good.

War in Bosnia and Herzegovina[edit]

The Jewish community of Bosnia and Herzegovina was headed by Ivan Ceresnjes from 1992 until his emigration to Israel in 1996.[19][20][21][22] His tenure coincided with the Bosnian War of 1992–1995.[20][23] When the besieging Serb army occupied the Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo, from where they sniped on the city, Ceresnjes gave permission to the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina to target the cemetery.[24]

The Sarajevo Jewish humanitarian society, La Benevolencija, also provided aid to thousands of besieged Sarajevo residents, supplying food, medicine, and postal and radio communications.[25][26] Ceresnjes told a local paper that the nonsectarian relief effort was partly a gesture of gratitude to local Muslims who had hidden Jews during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia.[27] After the war started, La Benevolencija assisted the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the evacuation of 2,500 Sarajevo residents, only one-third of whom were Jewish. There were 11 evacuations in all, three by air early on in the war, and eight by bus convoy after the airport had been closed to civilian traffic.[25] While other convoys were stopped, the Ceresnjes convoys all got through, as field staff from the Joint negotiated cease fires to ensure safe transfer.[28]

In 1997, the Jewish population of Bosnia and Herzegovina was 600, about half of whom were living in Sarajevo.[29] Most Jews who had fled Sarajevo and Bosnia chose to remain in Israel after the wars had ended, though some returned[4] and others moved elsewhere, such as Robert Rothbart (born Boris Kajmaković).

Independent Bosnia and Herzegovina[edit]

Sven Alkalaj, Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2007 until 2012

The Jewish Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been led by Jakob Finci since 1995. The Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina reserves certain top political positions, including membership of the Presidency and of the House of Peoples to members of the three constitutive peoples (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs).[30] In 2009 the European Court of Human Rights established in the Sejdić and Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina ruling that the country's Constitution violates the European Convention on Human Rights. An agreement between political parties to amend the Constitution accordingly is still pending, notwithstanding international pressure.[31] This has not prevented Bosnian Jews from achieving prominent positions: among them, Sven Alkalaj was Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2007 to 2012.


Sarajevo Haggadah[edit]

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,[32] the director of the city museum[33] 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.[34] 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.[3]


Interior of Sarajevo's Ashkenazi Synagogue
Synagogue in Doboj

The oldest synagogues in Bosnia and Herzegovina were built by the Sephardi community in the 16th century. During the Austro-Hungarian period, the new Ashkenazi community also built their own temples, often adopting the Moorish Revival architectural style, as in the case of Sarajevo's Ashkenazi Synagogue. Most of them were destroyed during World War Two, including Sarajevo's Il Kal Grande.[35] Four synagogues remain in Sarajevo:

  • The Old Temple (Stari Hram/Kal Vježu, also known as Sijavuš-pašina daira or Velika Avlija): A Sephardi synagogue together with a large inn named the Great Courtyard is known to have been built in 1581 with the donation of Turkish Beylerbey Sijamush Pasha to help the poor members of the Jewish community in Sarajevo. It endured two fires in 1697 and 1768. The temple's current looks stems from restoration/renovations in 1821. It now serves as a Jewish museum.
  • The New Temple (Novi Hram/Kal Nuevo): Built alongside the Old Temple, today it serves as an art gallery owned by the Jewish community of Sarajevo.
  • The Bjelave Synagogue (Kal Di La Bilava): During WW2 the building was confiscated by the Ustaše and was used as a detention facility.
  • The Ashkenazi Synagogue: Designed by Karel Pařík and built in 1902 for the growing Ashkenazi community in the Moorish Revival architectural style.

In the rest of the country some synagogue buildings have been preserved and renovated (such as in Doboj) but they do not host services. The Jewish cultural center Arie Livne was opened in Banja Luka in 2015.


  • Old Jewish Cemetery, Sarajevo
  • Rogatica Jewish Cemetery: established in 1900, it hosts 16 tombstones plus 10 others probably older, stones sunk in the ground. Tumbs hold inscriptions in Hebrew, Ladino and Serbo-Croatian. There is also a memorial to the victims in the Second World War.[36]
  • Burial site of Rabbi Moshe Danon in Stolac (1832, The Sarajevo Megilla), restored by Ivan Ceresnjes in 1990-1991
Former rabbinic seminar in Sarajevo

Prominent Bosnian Jews[edit]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Konačni rezultati Popisa 2013 KNJIGA 2 – ETNIČKANACIONALNA PRIPADNOST,VJEROISPOVJEST, MATERNJI JEZIK/ NATIONALITY,RELIGION,LANGUAGE. Federalni zavod za statistiku. 13 April 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d "Bosnia-Herzegovina". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  3. ^ a b c Makovi, Michael (10 November 2009). "Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook". Jewcy. Archived from the original on 9 February 2010. Retrieved 30 May 2015.
  4. ^ a b c American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – Bosnia-Herzegovina Archived 2 May 2004 at archive.today
  5. ^ "Popis stanovništva, domaćinstava i stanova u Bosni i Hercegovini ETNIČKA/NACIONALNA PRIPADNOST, VJEROISPOVJEST I MATERNJI JEZIK" (PDF). Popis 2013. 2019. Archived (PDF) from the original on 25 July 2020. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  6. ^ ""יודן" וצלבי קרס על מבנים בבוסניה". ערוץ 7 (in Hebrew). 23 July 2018. Retrieved 16 January 2021.
  7. ^ "BOSNIA". JewishEncyclopedia.com. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  8. ^ a b c Excerpts from Jews in Yugoslavia – Part I Archived 16 July 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Buda
  10. ^ "Macedonia and the Jewish people", A. Assa, Skopje, 1992, p.36
  11. ^ El español en el mundo. Anuario 2004. El español en Bosnia-Herzegovina. Situación de los estudios de español fuera de la Universidad de Sarajevo, Sonia Torres Rubio.
  12. ^ Mile Budak
  13. ^ a b c d e "Jasenovac-Donja Gradina 1941–1945" Archived 13 January 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Jews of Yugoslavia 1941–1945 Victims of Genocide and Freedom Fighters, Jasa Romano, p7
  15. ^ "Remembering the Past – Jewish culture battling for survival in Macedonia, Zhidas Daskalovski". Ce-review.org. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  16. ^ a b http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/stories/hardaga.asp
  17. ^ a b http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/stories/besrevic.asp
  18. ^ http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/de/righteous/statistics.asp
  19. ^ "The Destruction of the Memory of Jewish Presence in Eastern Europe; a Case Study: Former Yugoslavia – Interview with Ivan Ceresnjes". Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. December 2008.
  20. ^ a b Serageldin, Ismail; Shluger, Ephi; Martin-Brown, Joan (January 2001). Historic Cities and Sacred Sites: Cultural roots for urban futures. World Bank Publications. p. 313. ISBN 0-8213-4904-X.
  21. ^ Schwartz, Stephen (2005). Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish notebook. Saqi. p. 70ff. ISBN 0-86356-592-1.
  22. ^ Davico, Leon (June 1993). "Passover in Sarajevo". UNESCO Courier.
  23. ^ Schwartz, Stephen (2 January 2004). "Historic Cemetery in Serbia Desecrated". The Forward.
  24. ^ Allen, Beverly (February 1996). Rape Warfare: The hidden genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. University of Minnesota Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-8166-2818-6.
  25. ^ a b Shanker, Thom (10 October 1994). "Do Unto Others: In the midst of Bosnia's ethnic bloodbath, innocents find a lifeline in the Jewish community". Chicago Tribune.
  26. ^ Polonovski, Max (2002). Le Patrimoine Juif Europeen Actes Du Colloque International Tenu a Paris, Au Musee D'Art Et D'Histoire Du Judaisme, Les 26, 27 Et 28 Janvier 1999: Actes Du Colloque International Tenu a Paris, Au Musee D'Art Et D'Histoire Du Judaisme, Les 26, 27 Et 28 Janvier 1999. Peeters. p. 44. ISBN 90-429-1177-8.
  27. ^ Gay, Lance (10 April 1993). "Jews Repay Bosnian Muslims". The Vindicator. Archived from the original on 12 August 2011.
  28. ^ London, Charles (2009). Far From Zion: In search of a global Jewish community. William Morrow and Company. p. 137. ISBN 978-0-06-156106-1.
  29. ^ "The Jewish Community of Sarajevo". The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot.
  30. ^ Jew challenges Bosnia presidency ban[permanent dead link], Yaniv Salama-Scheer, Jerusalem Post, 18 February 2007.
  31. ^ Bosnia Jew seeks to reverse ban on running for president, Haaretz, 5 June 2009
  32. ^ Vlajko Palavestra, PRIČANJA O SUDBINI SARAJEVSKE HAGGADE Archived 7 January 2007 at the Wayback MachineBosnia and Herzegovina
  33. ^ Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust at Catholic Online
  34. ^ Geraldine Brooks, Chronicles, "The Book of Exodus," The New Yorker, 3 December 2007, p. 74
  35. ^ Heritage & Heritage Sites - Bosnia and Herzegovina
  37. ^ http://www.benevolencija.eu.org/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=70
  38. ^ "Central and Eastern European Online Library – An Online Library where CEE articles, documents, journals, periodicals, books are available online for download". CEEOL. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  39. ^ "The Destruction of the Memory of Jewish Presence in Eastern Europe; a Case Study: Former Yugoslavia – Interview with Ivan Ceresnjes". Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. December 2008.
  40. ^ Voices of Yugoslav Jewry By Paul Benjamin Gordiejew, Pg 62
  41. ^ "David Elazar – Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Britannica.com. 14 April 1976.
  42. ^ "ספסל- הבית של הכדורסל הישראלי – אינפורמציה, סטטיסטיקה וחדשות יומיות על כל השחקנים, הקבוצות והליגות". Safsal.co.il. 24 February 2007. Archived from the original on 6 February 2012.
  43. ^ Palavestra, Predrag (2000). Translated by E.D. Goy and Jasna Levinger-Goy. "Jewish Writers in Serbian Literature: Isak Samokovlija" (PDF). Journal of the North American Society for Serbian Studies. Bloomington, IN, USA: Slavica Publishers. 14 (1): 65–68. ISSN 0742-3330. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 September 2007.

External links[edit]