Jews have been part of Sarajevo’s human tapestry since the 16th century, only to be “discovered’ by the rest of the world during the Bosnian War. This is their story.
With Jakob Finci* and Francine Friedman. Featuring music by Shira Utfila and Flory Jagoda.
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.
We talk a lot about Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs a lot on this show, slightly less about Slovenes, and a lot less about Kosovars, Macedonians, and Montenegrins. This is of course understandable: in 1981 former Yugoslavia’s constituent nations, with their three religions, comprised some 94 percent of Yugoslavia’s population. Yet minorities made and continue to make significant, if overlooked contributions to their country or countries. And Yugoslavia’s human tapestry was quite rich.
Since teen age I’ve been fascinated with Jews and their faith. There was even a point in that youthful phase where, thanks to my favorite band’s thematic focus, I was considering converting to Judaism and also writing surrealist poetry. Neither of the two things happened. Over a decade ago, back when I lived in Portland, Oregon, I worked for a Jewish elder care organization and wrote for the community’s monthly magazine. I’ve been tracking over the past couple of decades the emergence in my native Slovakia of memory of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and a rise of Jewish culture in public attention.
Jews in the former Yugoslavia were such a small group they barely registered in official statistics. In the 1971 census Jews comprised 0.02 percent of the country’s population, some 4,800 out of twenty-and-a-half million. Very roughly speaking, about one in ten Yugoslav Jews lived in Sarajevo. And it is here, to the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and now, during Passover on this episode’s release date, that I want to take you today.
But before we get to our story, I want to highlight another tiny minority making a significant contribution to this podcast—the listeners who put their money where their ears are and support Remembering Yugoslavia and me in making it with their generosity. Thank you Adrijana, Brandy, Dušica, Mara, Mark, and Sonja for your gifts. Your support makes this show go on.
And in addition to my eternal gratitude you also have access to this episode’s bonus add-on, a full interview with one of the guests (and of course to all other bonus episodes and extended episodes, all with early access and without ads or, rather, asks). Thank you.
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PETER KORCHNAK: To tell the story of Sarajevo Jews, we have to go beyond remembering Yugoslavia all the way to remembering the Rencoquista.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: In Bosnia in particular, there were two branches of Judaism, the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim. And the Sephardim came to Bosnia in the 15th, 16th centuries after the expulsion from Spain.
PETER KORCHNAK: Francine Friedman is Emerita Professor of Political Science at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Aside from writing numerous articles on ethnic relations in the Balkans, she is the author of The Bosnian Muslims: Denial of a Nation; Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Polity on the Brink; and, just last year, Like Salt for Bread: The Jews of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: [The Sephardim] came welcomed, so the story goes, welcomed by the Ottoman Sultan, who made a place for them in his empire. There were already Jews, of course, in the Ottoman Empire, but this wave of Jews that came from Spain and Portugal, were particularly valuable to the Empire and were encouraged to go not to the capital city of Constantinople, Istanbul, but we’re encouraged to go into the interior and make livings there and indeed, that’s what they did. And that’s where we got some of the people who came to Sarajevo, to Tuzla, to surrounding communities.
We got the Ashkenazim, mostly when the Austro-Hungarian empire occupied and then annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in the late 19th century.
Up until right before World War Two, these two groups, the Ashkenazim and Sephardim, had, shall we say, tolerant relations. They mingled somewhat, but not a lot.
The Jews of Sarajevo in World War Two
PETER KORCHNAK: Before World War Two, one in five of 60,000 Sarajevo residents was Jewish. World War Two brought catastrophe on all Jews, and those in Bosnia were no exception.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: In the Holocaust, the Bosnian Jews suffered tremendously: out of something like 14,000 Jews before World War Two, perhaps 1,500 made it through the Holocaust in various ways. Some of them hid, some of them escaped. Most of those who, who survived the Holocaust, did so by joining the Partisans, the communist-led partisans, who took to the woods, and were one of the groups that resisted the fascists.
Now, when I say the fascists, you know, we’re talking about the Germans and the local fascists. Bosnia and Herzegovina had been swallowed whole by Croatia, which was ruled by the Ustasha, which were the local fascists, local regional fascists. They had a significantly anti-Serbian bent but they also had an anti-Jewish bent or antisemitic bent. And they were the ones, along with the Germans, but they were the ones that killed most of the Bosnian Jews. And most of the Bosnian Jews were killed in Jasenovac, which was a system of extermination camps.
Now, I mentioned that some of the Jews were able to escape to the partisans, not a whole heck of a lot because the Germans and the fascists swooped in very quickly, and decimated the Bosnian Jewish community.
The Partisan situation is very interesting. Even though there were very few Jews, there were several Jews who distinguished themselves during World War Two to the point where they were considered heroes of the war.
PETER KORCHNAK: The most famous Partisan, later politician and party official, of Jewish origin, Moša Pijade, was from the Jewish community in Serbia. In Bosnia—
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: The most well known was a man named Slaviša Weiner. He was born in Croatia, but spent a lot of time and education in Sarajevo as an engineer. And he was one of the major commanders in what’s called the Romanija region. He had songs written about him. He was larger than life. Unfortunately, he was murdered in 1942 in an ambush. But he was considered a heroic Partisan.
PETER KORCHNAK: Several other Jews distinguished themselves during the People’s Liberation War. Roza Papo, a doctor and officer in Tito’s Partisan army reached in the 70s the rank of major general in the Yugoslav People’s Army (the story went that at that time the country had more generals than Israel).
Oskar Danon later became a well-respected orchestra conductor. Nisim Albahari held a number of high-level party and government positions, including minister of labor.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: And I should mention, there was a camp called Rab, R-A-B,, on the Italian side, or held by the Italians. And any Jews who could escape to the Italian occupied area of Croatia, most of them lived. And those who escaped there were eventually rounded up and sent to this camp called Rab, where they were able to maintain some— it wasn’t wonderful, I mean, it was still a camp, but they had some capability of leading a decent life. They lived through the Holocaust. And when Italy surrendered, there was even a for about 20 days, a Jewish Brigade, that formed to liberate themselves from the Italians, and then they were taken into the Croatian Partisan units.
PETER KORCHNAK: One Sarajevan born on the island of Rab, in 1943, was Jakob Finci, the president of the Jewish Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Otherwise a lifelong Sarajevan, Finci was the first of his family in 350 years to be born outside of Sarajevo.
JAKOB FINCI: 1945 all of Europe was destroyed. America was far away, it was closed. The State of Israel didn’t exist. And not because of [the] famous saying that nostalgia is typical Jews disease, but all survivors came back to Sarajevo because that was [the] only place where they can go, they can back home here.
PETER KORCHNAK: I spoke with Jakob Finci last May in Sarajevo, at his office in the Jewish Community Center, the focal point of Jewish life in Bosnia’s Capital.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: One other group of people who made it through the war and was former Yugoslav army captives or POWs who— reluctantly the Germans kept some of them alive during World War Two according to the conventions of war. They and the Partisans, the active Partisans after World War Two, along with of course, all of the other people who had served honorably during World War Two, did have a special place in socialist Yugoslavia. Some of them were actually a dyed in the wool communists, they believed in the communist ideology. Some of them saw no other way, if they weren’t totally wedded to communism, they at least went along with the Titoist way of reestablishing Yugoslavia. And so those people who had actively participated in the war for liberation as part of the Partisans did have a privileged situation after World War Two, they got apartments, they got jobs, etcetera.
Sarajevo Jews During Socialism
JAKOB FINCI: And then in 1948, almost half of the community decides to move to Israel.
1948 was very difficult here for Yugoslavia, because Yugoslavia split with the Soviet Union, and we are expecting on daily basis attack from the east. And then, especially Jews who survived once, said, I’m not ready to try again. I will go to Israel.
My family said, “We just came back, let’s stay here for a while and Israel will stay and can wait for us.” And they never went to Israel except as a tourist.
PETER KORCHNAK: A full interview with Finci is in the bonus episode available to Patreon and other supporters. Go to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate to get access.
One adage went that only Tito and the Jews were the only true Yugoslavs.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN:The situation of the Jews in Yugoslavia was that if they wanted to practice their religion, they could—modestly.
The very tight communism of the first several years after World War Two did not smile very benevolently on active practice of any religion because during World War Two the various churches were very actively involved against the communists, particularly, of course, the Catholic Church. But also the Orthodox Church up in the Serbian areas was somewhat complicit. And some of the institutional Muslims, those who were, who were favored by the ruling powers during World War Two were complicit. So after the war, these various religious institutions were actively not only hated by the population in general and the communists in particular, but they were not permitted to do much, actively, religiously.
PETER KORCHNAK: According to ethnographic research he did in the late 1980s, Paul Benjamin Gordiejew found that with religious activity allowed but curbed, it was Holocaust commemoration that became the “symbolic foundation…for a Jewish life in Yugoslavia.”
After the war, the Jews of Yugoslavia rebuilt their communities within the bounds of the socialist state. Leading the process were veterans of the People’s Liberation Struggle and POWs; having suffered for Yugoslavia, they stayed in Yugoslavia to rebuild.
The first order of business was relief, because the surviving Jews were decimated economically as well. During the reconstruction period the Yugoslav Jews accepted the help of American Jewish humanitarian organizations while framing that assistance as a contribution to the Yugoslav project.
Conforming with the ideology of Brotherhood and Unity, two groups of people killed in the war were commemorated in socialist Yugoslavia: Partisan fighters who died in combat and civilians killed by enemies domestic and foreign (they were typically referred to as “victims of fascism”). Neither of the groups were identified by ethnicity or religion. Both encompassed all citizens who qualified. That is, they were assumed to be and rarely explicitly identified as multiethnic and multifaith even though a majority were killed on ethnic grounds. The Communist Party played down the ethnic element in its push to promote the founding ideology of brotherhood and unity. All peoples of Yugoslavia suffered equally during the war and all emerged victorious under Tito’s leadership and Party’s banner. Jews were no exception.
A number of small, impromptu memorials to murdered Jews were erected in the early years after the war, in some Vojvodina towns. Then in 1952, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia launched a campaign to build five monuments to the Jewish victims of fascism and Jewish fallen fighters. The monuments were built at Jewish cemeteries in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Zagreb, Đakovo, and Sarajevo. Though cemeteries were important for the Jews themselves, public spaces like squares and parks and sites of battles were reserved for official monuments.
At the same time, their unveiling was widely publicized, as the events presented an opportunity for the Communist Party to demonstrate the country’s uniqueness and international success. The dedication events both inserted the story of Jewish suffering into the new socialist country’s larger founding myth and elevated it into a central element of what it meant to be Jewish in Yugoslavia in the post-Holocaust period.
“The monuments,” writes Emil Kerenji in his dissertation on the subject, “were as much about narrating the story of Jewish victimhood to the wider Yugoslav community—and, through its commemoration, legitimating a way of being Yugoslav in a “Jewish” way—as they were about demarcating a specifically “Jewish” history that was considered necessary for the reformulation of post-Holocaust Jewishness in Yugoslavia. As much as the monuments were conceived as physical embodiments of history of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, they were also meant to tell the story about belonging to the new Yugoslav state project.” End quote.
Thusly the Jews in Yugoslavia, Sarajevo included, could both maintain a sense of Jewishness and, by participating in its founding myth, display loyalty to socialist Yugoslavia.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: The Jewish institutions were totally decimated during World War Two. Most of the synagogues were either totally destroyed or used for horrible purposes, such the synagogue that is currently the only active synagogue in Sarajevo was used as a stable for horses.
PETER KORCHNAK: The destruction of the community’s physical and institutional infrastructure proved difficult to overcome. There was only one rabbi in the entire country between 1948 and 1968 and then between 1973 and 1992, in Sarajevo (the latter rabbi of Yugoslavia, Cadik Danon was a decorated Partisan).
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: So if, as a Jew, a Muslim, a Croat, or a Serb, etcetera, you wish to pursue your religion, after World War Two, it had to be quietly, no major parades or of public symbols of religion.
If you did pursue your religion, the likelihood that you would get a good job, particularly within the state institutions, which was a large employer at that time, that was very unlikely.
So the situation for the Jews during socialism was more or less the same as others. Except I did hear some anecdotes that there was some kind of underground antisemitism. It wasn’t manifested in such a way that it was totally open. There were incidents that happened to individuals, but it wasn’t a state policy.
PETER KORCHNAK: Several days after its unveiling, the Jewish monument in Zagreb was vandalized. Requesting to initiate a criminal investigation, Jewish leaders described the attack as a reactionary and subversive offence against the essential Yugoslav values of brotherhood and unity. Perpetrators or their motives were never found.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: Rather than a lot of religious activity, there was more of a cultural and social focus within the Jewish institutions.
PETER KORCHNAK: Gordiejew found that, as elsewhere, particularly the second-generation of post-Holocaust Jews in Yugoslavia became more secular than religious and identified with Jewishness more ethnically than religiously.
While Jews were able to live according to their traditions and practice their religion, many chose to shed their identity and instead identify as Yugoslav. One adage went that only Tito and the Jews were the only true Yugoslavs.
The main religious ritual of Yugoslav Jews in the socialist period was burials. “In socialist Yugoslavia,” writes Gordiejew about the Yugoslav Jews, “the dead may have lived as Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Yugoslavs, or as Communists, but they were buried as Jews.”
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: As the grip of communism tended to lighten, so did the ability of people to express themselves in different ways grew [sic]. And Yugoslavs, unlike Czechoslovaks, I assume, were allowed to travel outside the country. They were allowed to go maybe even to Czechoslovakia, but more likely to Germany to be Gastarbeiters. In doing so, they began to meet people, maybe of their own religion, and to interact with the West more than I think the countries that were more tightly bound to the Soviet Union.
Tito during that time followed the his own path to socialism. And that included, as the years went by into the 50s and 60s and even 70s, reforms that allowed people to express themselves, maybe even a little bit more religiously than previously in the immediate post-World War Two era.
The situation of the post-World War Two era also led to something else that was very interesting and that was a good deal of intermarriage. It’s not surprising because most of the Jews perished during World War Two and young people wanted to get married, and they, they were thrown together not on a religious basis, but on a, you know, citizen or civic basis, and they fell in love and they married.
PETER KORCHNAK: With older generations dying out and subsequent ones intermarrying outside their group, Yugoslav Jews were much less interested in religious life than their parents or grandparents. The Yugoslav Jews shifted from an ethnoreligious to a humanistic-cultural community, supportive of both Israel and the Yugoslav project. They performed what Gordiejew termed “an experiment in secular Jewishness,” which was “submerged within the statewide Yugoslav experiment.”
In a 1985 survey conducted by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia, over 50 percent of Yugoslav Jews aged over 50 declared themselves as atheists; 80 percent of those between 20 and 50 years of age were atheists. The Jews of Sarajevo were on average around 80 percent atheist across the board; the process of secularization there had started already in the interwar period.
So the 80s come, and increasingly throughout the 80s, particularly in the second half of the 80s, nationalist rhetoric kind of grips the former Yugoslavia, from especially the Serbian and Croatian side. How did the Jewish community partake or not in that whole situation? And how did they feel about all these forces kind of tearing apart the country where they had been safe and sound for so long?
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: I have never been in a place, except Jerusalem, where the people loved their city so much. All of the people that I spoke with considered Sarajevo, in particular, but other cities in Bosnia, and maybe Bosnia as a whole, considered it to be almost a living thing that they just loved.
The reason I bring this up is because as people talked about what was happening in the late 80s, as you rightly mentioned it was very nationalistic and there was a lot of heated rhetoric, they were mostly left out. The Jews were more or less left out of the conversation. They knew what was going on but they didn’t have a voice.
They were one of the greatest victims of what happened because they had no role that they could play in mitigating the nationalist rhetoric. They weren’t Serbs. They weren’t Croats. They weren’t Muslims. They were an ethno religious minority that really didn’t count for much when it came to that basic question of what the future of their country would be. And that’s simply tragic. So what I heard from the people that I interviewed was a feeling of helplessness, hopelessness, and of absolute, I can’t think of a word right now that expresses the terrible feeling of loss of something that they loved so much.
I mean, the common people loved Yugoslavia—still love Yugoslavia. And to not have any input into the future of what their beloved country would be must have been so painful. And some people that I spoke with expressed the pain and the distress and the horror of watching everything that they loved, totally destroyed right before their eyes for—I have to say and this is my own editorial opinion—for nothing.
[SOUNDBITE – “El Dio Alto” by Shira Utfila]
PETER KORCHNAK: That was “El Dio Alto” by the Balkan Sephardic music band, Shira Utfila, who kindly gave me their permission to play it for you. Find them at their website shira-utfila.com, on Facebook and Instagram, on the major music streaming and video platforms—and buy their music at Apple Music. All the links are at RememberingYugoslavia.com/podcast.
The Jews of Sarajevo in the Bosnian War
The Bosnian War found the Sarajevo Jews in a unique position.
JAKOB FINCI: In Bosnia, especially after this last war—I hope that it was the last one but you never know, especially in this part of the world—we have been on all three sides so to say. Because you can find Jews serving in the Bosnian Army, in the Serbian army, as well as the HVO, that means Croatian army troops.
We devised on some way that communities which are in the Croatian part of the country, our brothers in Zagreb will take care about them. For this part, which is on the Serbian part of territory, people from Belgrade take care about themselves. And here we take care about ourselves and about the other citizens of Sarajevo.
Before [the] war in Sarajevo started, it was a relatively short war in Croatia. At that time, the coastal city of Dubrovnik, there is a small Jewish community (not more than 40 people) and during the siege of Dubrovnik which lasted comparing with Sarajevo just 90 days, the main problem for this aging community was to provide medicines. And we use some Jewish connections and we succeed to smuggle half medicines to them and so on.
And then we sit around the table and said, this can happen also to us, what we should do. And we called all our doctors and pharmacists asking them, please prepare a list for 1,500 people to survive three months under the condition of the siege. And they made [a] very huge and extensive list of medicines and we succeed to buy all these medicines. Some of them which [were missing] on the Yugoslav market we got from the States.
And that’s how we find that war is not something which we didn’t expect. For the rest of the money that still stay in the pocket, we bought some food, mainly rice, beans, flour, sugar, oil, salt, just to be able to survive. And we said, if everything is okay, we’ll deliver this as a humanitarian help for the people in need. If not, then we’ll use it.
And then the war started in Bosnia and after [the] first seven days of the war, the Siege of Sarajevo started. Sarajevo was absolutely closed from all sides. And it was impossible to bring anything in or take out.
We sent a letter to all the members of the community asking them to extend their passports and to put the exit visa for Israel just in case.
Usually, yearly 30-40 people is using to go to Israel to visit relatives, friends, or just for the tourism. And then suddenly, in a short period of time, 400 applications for the exit visa.
PETER KORCHNAK: Others left the city by plane or with one of the convoys to the Croatian coast, Makarska or Split, organized by the Jewish community.
JAKOB FINCI: Then we said, they’re bombing Sarajevo, we should save our children. This is the most important. And we organized [an] evacuation. We arranged this with a Yugoslav army. We rented the plane from them to transfer our people from Sarajevo to Belgrade because Belgrade was the only open airport in former Yugoslavia.
In the meantime, we got invitation[s] from different parts of the world: If you would like to save yourself please. First offer came from Bulgaria. Bulgaria is the first country who recognized Bosnia-Herzegovina as an independent state and they said if you need shelters please we have summer camps and so on, everything is on your disposal. We pay these transport—I have somewhere [a] receipt—I doubt that this money entered the budget of the army, it finished in the pockets of some of the colonels with whom we discussed. But we organized three evacuations by planes. And after that, eight more by busses. We sent out more than 3,000 people: 1,000 Jews, and 2,000 best friends of the Jews—Croats, Muslims, Serbs equally.
Everything passed pretty well, naturally plane was [the] safest way but after that, with the war in Bosnia, we use the road from here to the coast, to the coastal city of Split, and from Split everyone was free to go wherever they wish. And it was really pretty safe to travel on [the] so called Jewish Convoy because nobody attacked us.
Naturally it was difficult to cross all these checkpoints, because between Sarajevo and Split it’s a little bit more than 300 kilometres. Usually these days, you can pass this in four hours. For us, it took 24 hours, because it was 36 checkpoints on this road. Four controlled by four armies, three national plus UN army, UN troops. Then six militias, and who knows who was on the other checkpoint. On some of the checkpoints, it was a flag, and it’s clear to whom they belong but sometimes, it was just group of five, six young people with rifles and other armaments and when they stop, you don’t know what to say and how to approach them, and then I usually said, Look lovely day to day. And they said yes, but these bloody Muslims are shooting at us. That at least you know that they are not Muslims, all this bloody Croats, or these bloody Serbs, whoever.
And I was several times leading these convoys. I feel a little bit like James Bond at the time, you know, traveling with four set[s] of documents. All permission from the Bosnian government, all permission from the Serbian government, all permission from the Croatian government, and all international documents, which can be useful. And then in front of each of these checkpoints, you can find you should find the right paper, otherwise, you can be shot on the spot. But everything finished well. Nobody was ever removed from the convoy or, God forbid, wounded or killed. And this was a huge success.
PETER KORCHNAK: Some 500 Jews remained in Sarajevo during the Siege.
JAKOB FINCI: I should admit that Sarajevo was looted from inside. Around first of May 1992, everything, each and every stop with horses, including pharmacies, everything except bookshops, which is strange, nobody was running for the books at a time. A few months after that when we lost electricity, gas, any source of energy, the bookshops have been also looted. Because with three or four books of Marx or Engels, you can prepare your lunch.
So [a] friend who was with me at elementary school a long time ago, he’s running a shop just in front of the community. He came here and said, I saw that you are distributing medicines. If you would like to have a pharmacy, please use my shop because I’m closing anyway. So we opened the first Benevolencia pharmacy. La Benevolencia is the name of our humanitarian organization, which means goodwill on old Spanish. For the Bosnians is not so easy to pronounce correctly, La Benevolencia, and they gave it the nickname, Jewish Pharmacy.
And then after two, three months, people started to complain. You know, for us, it’s very difficult to reach your pharmacy because it’s necessary to cross the bridges over Miljacka and each of these bridge was excellent target for the sniper fire from the hill. So it’s very dangerous. So we opened the second pharmacy in front of the National Theatre and it was [a] very good place because even today it’s commercial pharmacy on the same place.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: Let me just quote, one woman, Jewish woman who was married to a Serb who served in the pharmacy. And you have to remember that the siege was a horrific thing. Horrific. But what she said to me was, “That was one of the best times of my life, because we were all working together.”
My understanding is that 40 percent of the medicines that came in to Sarajevo came through Jewish means, and they were helping each other. They helped their Serb, Croat, and Muslim friends. And what’s really interesting about that is, a city under siege for more than a 1,000 days, and there was no typhus, there was no cholera. How does that happen? Well, part of the reason was that they worked together.
PETER KORCHNAK: La Benevolencia soon opened another pharmacy, near the airport. The Jewish community also operated a ham radio and other communication lines and smuggled mail out of Sarajevo with volunteer couriers.
Finci recounts all of these activities in much detail in the Bonus Episode of Remembering Yugoslavia. The bonus episode, as well as all other bonus and extended episodes, are available to all Patreon and other supporters. Go to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate to get access.
PETER KORCHNAK: If the fact that Jewish-organized convoys, transporting people, medicines, and other goods in both directions, were able to pass through multitudes of checkpoints and warzones without problems, consider that for one, the Sarajevo Jewish community’s partner was the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a New York-based Jewish relief organization. And—
JAKOB FINCI: I discussed this with the Roger Cohen, who was a correspondent for New York Times here. He said, All these three groups [are] afraid of international public opinion. And if the headlines read that Serbs stopped the Croatian convoys or Croats didn’t allow the Serbs to bring in this or that, it doesn’t mean anything for the American readers. But if the headlines is they stopped the Jewish convoy, they took three Jews from the convoy, it will be very bad for the image of this group. And that’s the reason why they are treated so well. Maybe yes, maybe not. But unfortunately, I think that it is right. They are a little bit afraid it will be bad PR with the Jews.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: The Jews while small—a lot of the women and children were sent out but more and more people came every day to help, discovering a Jewish ancestor or just the will to help. This was a magnificent contribution to a city, to a country that they loved. I don’t know that the Jewish contribution to helping mitigate the Siege is all that well recognized anymore, it’s probably pretty unpopular. But the Jewish community made a significant and pretty unselfish contribution to the well being of their city under horrific circumstances.
[SOUNDBITE – “Una Noče al Lunar” by Flory Jagoda]
PETER KORCHNAK: That was Flory Jagoda with “Una Noče al Lunar” (One Moonlit Night) from the album Memories of Sarajevo.
Born in Sarajevo as Flora Papo, she was 16 when Germany invaded Yugoslavia. She escaped from Sarajevo by train via Split. In the U.S., Jagoda, which was her married name and which means strawberry in Bosnian, sang Sephardic, sevdalinka, and Ladino songs. She died in 2021.
Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, is essentially medieval Spanish that Sephardic Jews retained after their explusion from Spain; it is a minority language in Bosnia and Herzegovina and at risk of extinction as such. Jakob Finci is one of the two last surviving speakers of Ladino in Sarajevo.
The Jews of Sarajevo after the Siege
After the Bosnian War, after the Siege of Sarajevo—
JAKOB FINCI: —a lot of Jews came back. A lot of Jews means 40 percent, which is much bigger percentage than the return of the Serbs, Croats, or even Muslims. So, we change the demographical picture of Sarajevo. Sarajevo was really mixed with around 50 percent Muslims, 30 percent Serbs, 15 percent Croats, and 5 percent everything else. Now we have more than 90 percent Muslims, less than 10 percent Serbs, Croats, and others altogether.
PETER KORCHNAK: Finci has been the leader of the Sarajevo Jewish community since 1996. And since 1997, he has also participated in interfaith efforts toward postwar reconciliation with the Inter-religious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
JAKOB FINCI: Sarajevo and Bosnia are almost absolutely free of antisemitism. Which is a little bit strange, especially speaking about the period of beginning of twenty-first century, when the rise of [anti]semitism is visible, not only in traditional places where antisemitism always exists, but even the United States and some countries that have been free. Here, we don’t have anti semitism.
And I was always very proud to explain that we are living together with Muslims, Christians of both, both denominations, and that we are going pretty well with them.
And then one of our American friends told me, don’t be so lucky. It doesn’t mean that they like you. But these three ethnic groups are so busy hating each other, they don’t have time to hate the Jews. And we are so small a small group, we’re not endangering them, we are not in any competition with them for businesses, political life, or whatever else. They can tolerate you without any problem.
And probably this is true. But nevertheless, the life for the Jews in Sarajevo, in Bosnia, it’s pretty comfortable. You hardly can find any of the graffiti on the walls against the Jews. We have several synagogues, museum, very old cemetery, nothing is attacked, no overturn[ing] of the tombstones on the graveyards. The last incident happened, so to say 12 years ago and the police find that he children have been playing and playing this they overturn the monument of three tombs, but who knows, maybe they are very strong children.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: I noticed, personally, a slow but steady rise in antisemitic incidents through the years since the Bosnian war, and this is simply astounding. Now they’re used to it, which is not a good thing, but when it first started happening, it was somewhat astounding. I personally discovered a swastika on a building when I used to walk around the city and I saw it and I drew the attention of the people at the Jewish community to that. And there have been several incidents of vandalism of the cemetery—one of the oldest cemetery Jewish cemeteries in Europe is in Sarajevo and there have been incidents of vandalism there. And other places that have a notoriety of being somehow connected to Jews.
So while on the one hand there is an attempt to maintain a vibrant Jewish community, to the best of their ability, on the other hand, it seems like as throughout the rest of the world, the storm clouds are gathering for the Jews also in Bosnia and it boggles the mind.
PETER KORCHNAK: I can only speculate about the divergence of views here. One explanation might be what I experience when I travel around the former Yugoslavia. I find signs of the former country’s past and present because I seek them out or perhaps because they simply stand out to my Yugoslav-primed perception. To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail, like. People who live here may not notice these things because they’re part of their life’s fabric.
Under the Dayton Peace Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina has a tripartite presidency, with each member representing the country’s main groups. A Serb from Republika Srpska, a Croat from the Croatian part of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a Bosniak from the Bosnian one. This means, all other groups are excluded from even running for these and other federal posts.
JAKOB FINCI: According to the existing law Serbs living in the Federation cannot compete, and Croats and Bosniaks living in Republika Srpska. Altogether it’s almost 400,000 people who doesn’t have a right to be allowed to be candidates for this. This is more than 15 percent of the total population. And this is a huge problem.
And I sent [an] application to the Central Electoral Commission saying, I am Jewish, living in the Federation, I would like to compete for the next election of the presidency, to be as candidate for the members of the presidency. And I got answer, you’re not allowed to do this, because according to the Constitution and electoral law, it’s a place open only for the Bosniaks and Croats from the Federation, so you cannot compete.
PETER KORCHNAK: In 2006, Finci and Dervo Sejdić, member of Bosnia’s Roma community, sued their country’s government at the European Court of Human Rights in Strassbourg to contest their exclusion.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: They are, by the Dayton Peace Accords and by the will of the current rulers, if you will, of Bosnia, they are considered Other. The reason why I mentioned at the very beginning that the Jews came into Ottoman Bosnia and Serbia, etcetera back in the 15th-16th centuries, is that they have been, especially the Sephardim have been a constituent people for a very long time, for centuries. And yet, their official position is Other, which is not one of the real people, the constituent people.
So, you know, Jakob Finci might have been a reasonable candidate, he’s well known all over Bosnia. They’re not allowed to do that, they’re not allowed to do certain things, because of their status of Other.
PETER KORCHNAK: In 2009, while Finci was Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ambassador to Switzerland, the Court ruled that the plaintiffs’ ineligibility to stand for election to parliament and the presidency violates the European Convention on Human Rights. The decision still awaits implementation.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: Not only that, but post war restitution. One of the problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina is that there has been no restitution program, not only for the Jews, but for others but for Jews in particular it’s terribly painful. When we think about the fact that during World War Two, all Jewish properties were seized by Ustasha, by the fascists, and either given to friendly people or taken for themselves and not only property but furniture and clothing and jewelry and paintings and everything. Those Jews who came back from the Holocaust, who lived through the Holocaust, really didn’t get much compensation for what they lost. They may have gotten an apartment or they may have gotten back to their old apartment that they had to share with two or three other families or something like that, but the the full restitution or even partial restitution was not forthcoming. So that was one problem. And they had to swallow that during the socialist era.
Then comes the Bosnian war, and again things were seized and destroyed. And not only that, but a lot of Jews left Bosnia during the war because it wasn’t their fight. A good number of them stayed, but the women and the children and the elderly were sent to Israel, to the United States, to Germany, etcetera, etcetera. And some of their property was taken by the current government after the war and given to refugees from from the Bosnian war. So again, they have not ever been able to reclaim property that was legally theirs, since the 1900s, late 1800s even.
PETER KORCHNAK: Jewish life in Bosnia and Herzegovina is centered in Sarajevo, where in, turn it is centered on cultural activities.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: Post Bosnian War, Jewish life is constrained by demographics. They did have a wedding, they did have a couple of births, they did have even a bar mitzvah, but the numbers are very small.
And as I said, the intermarriage situation is such that the Jewish community is a little bit diluted in terms of what the rest of the Jewish world considers to be Jewish.
Nevertheless, they have a very active social life, which I was privileged to participate in for more than 20 years. They have very active religious, social, and cultural life, and they also participate in the inter religious council, and they still share greetings and communication with the other religions.
JAKOB FINCI: We have a lot of cultural activities here. La Benevolencia is the oldest organization of such kind in the region. We started 1892. And then during socialism, all these activities have been closed. We reopen again in just before the war, in 1991. The main goal of activities of La Benevolencia was to show the richness of Jewish culture that Jews brought with them to this country, as well as the culture that they produce here in last 500 years. And this was pretty successful in the beginning and then the war stopped this. During the war, we concentrated on humanitarian activities, but also working on cultural activities.
Now we have in one of our synagogues, we open the gallery, art gallery, which is called New Temple—New Temple is 250 years old, but it’s new compared with the old one. And we have regular exhibitions. We have Radio La Benevolencia, which is on the air once a week for two hours. Then we have a newspaper, Jewish Voice, which is published four times a year, and we have a[n] informative bulletin which are printing each 15 days just to inform members of the Jewish community as well as other members of the society what Jews are doing, what have been our activities and so on.
Then we are running a program called 19 at 19. Each 19th in the month at seven o’clock in the evening, we have here a concert, or some promotion of some new books, some discussions, or seeing the movies and discussing these movies.
And all these programs are financed by the Jewish community and by donation. We have some donations even from the city council and some state institution. So we are working pretty well.
This synagogue, which is the only Ashkenazi synagogue in town, the other five are Sephardic synagogues, was built in 1903. And in 1965, we refurbished the synagogue, we are cutting it in half, so a balcony where usually are the womens [sic] became the whole synagogue, and down, we have community hall, which is very acoustic in which we are organizing these events and concerts and so on.
So I think that Jewish cultural life is visible here. And it’s very easy to find what the Jews are doing, what they are supporting, what kind of exhibitions they are organizing, and we are always working, in close cooperation with the other national societies or with the other religious communities.
Just last year, we held a conference about the life of Jews and Muslims together of in last 500 years in Bosnia, which is very nice book (unfortunately, it’s not yet translated in English).
PETER KORCHNAK: The more famous book that is rightly the pride of Sarajevo Jews, is the Hagaddah.
JAKOB FINCI: Hagaddah is really the most valuable artefact that we have in our national museum.
PETER KORCHNAK: The 14th century book, which incidentally has never been owned by Bosnian Jews contains the illuminated text of the Passover Hagaddah, a text read at the Passover Seder feast. It is included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register and is on display in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Check the limited viewing hours before you go.
JAKOB FINCI: And how it survived, it’s a really strange, because it’s survived expulsion from Spain. After that it survived Inquisition in Europe. After that it survived the First World War, the Second World War, the last war in Sarajevo—always survive[d]. And it became some kind of symbol of Sarajevo. Like a phoenix, like a bird that survives everything and always appear again. Each and every time when it was saved, it was saved by non-Jews, by Muslims by Christians. And it survived.
PETER KORCHNAK: Like the Sarajevo Jews themselves. There are some 500 Jews in Sarajevo and a further 400 or so in the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: The future of the Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina is somewhat mixed in my perspective. Younger people are filtering back occasionally from the post-Bosnian War exile that they went into and when they come back, they don’t come back to any property or anything that used to belong to their families. So a lot of people just don’t come back.
PETER KORCHNAK: Times of Israel has reported that the community is assembling an archive of their artefacts, documents, photographs, and so on for a museum of Bosnian Jewish history.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: The future of the Bosnian Jews, I hope for a glorious future, I dread that there may not be a glorious future for a continuing enlarging community. I have hope in my heart that I’m not so optimistic as I would like to be.
PETER KORCHNAK: I am much more optimistic about the future of this podcast. Thanks to the generosity of my listeners—you—I am able to continue this work hopefully for many more episodes to come. Please consider supporting the show—and me in making it—today. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/donate to make a contribution toward keeping Yugoslavia’s memory alive. Toda.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia.
DIJANA JELAČA: There is a lot to know about women in Yugoslavia cinema. Women most typically or most frequently appear in front of the camera. But the story is always a bit more complicated than that.
PETER KORCHNAK: Let’s go to the movies! Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav cinema is a rich, if underappreciated source of cultural insight. On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, we’ll talk films, films, and also films from the former Yugoslavia and its successors.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts, follow to make sure you don’t miss out, and subscribe to support us.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, sources, embeds, links, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
While you’re there and before you go, take a moment to back the show and join the growing community of podcast supporters by making a gift today.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.
Additional music courtesy of Shira Utfila. Follow them on social media and buy their music! “Una Noče al Lunar” by Flory Jagoda used for educational purposes under the Fair Use doctrine. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the owner of copyright, if any, for the song is undetermined; I haven’t been able to track it down either.
I am Peter Korchňak.
FRANCINE FRIEDMAN: I encourage your listeners, if they want to go to a city that will speak to you, that the stones will speak to you, I would go to Sarajevo, the Jerusalem of the Balkans.
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- Kerenji, Emil. Jewish Citizens of Socialist Yugoslavia: Politics of Jewish Identity in a Socialist State, 1944-1974. PhD Dissertation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2008
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- By Ginger Hofman, Shofar, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Spring 2000), pp. 178-180
- By: Sascha L. Goluboff, American Ethnologist, Vol. 27, No. 3 (August 2000), pp. 773-774