Visiting the Jewish Community in Sarajevo

Visiting the Jewish Community in Sarajevo

On a pleasant early autumn Tuesday morning, we [four scholars from Germany, Montenegro and Serbia] came to the Jewish Community in Sarajevo situated in 59, Hamdije Kreševljakovića Street, by the Miljacka river. The Jewish Community inherits a long tradition that dates back to the mid-16th century, when the first Sephardic Jews came to Ottoman Sarajevo. The Jewish population of Sarajevo at that time spoke Judeo-Spanish. With the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Sarajevo in 1878, a significant number of Ashkenazi Jews came to Bosnia and Herzegovina from different parts of the Empire. They brought different traditions and languages with them. By then, the two Jewish groups – the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim –  were separate communities until the period after World War II, although they were united by the Zionist ideology. In the post-1945 Communist era, the former Ashkenazi synagogue in Hamdije Kreševljakovića Street became the social, but also religious epicenter of all remaining Jews in Sarajevo. This synagogue continues to be the hub of Jewish culture and belonging in Sarajevo until present day. For this the reason, the Community members that we met on this particular day in September 2018 were of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi origin.

We started off our conversation with addressing their thoughts regarding anti-Semitism. Among the Community members was the secretary general of the Community, Elma Softić-Kaunitz, who shared with us her generally positive views on this matter and spoke of significant tolerance towards Jews. At the same time, she admitted that the predominantly Muslim population in Sarajevo usually have anti-Israeli political attitudes.

A young woman, who did not wish to be named or photographed, told us that: “No one here would tell you something [anti-Jewish] face-to-face but the comments online are really, really bad.” She adds that she often finds the word čifut in the comments, which comes from Turkish and is pejorative for a Jew in Serbo-Croat.

29-year old Vladimir Andrle had a more optimistic perception of anti-Semitism in Sarajevo. He reflects upon the situation like this:

Today, we’re the only Jewish Community in Europe with no security [guards and installations]! Consider the fact that nobody ever attacked the synagogue and the Jewish Community. We don’t have the same degree of anti-Semitism as in other European countries. Most of it takes place on the Internet where people insult the Jewish people, but it doesn’t occur in ‘real life.’ Not in Sarajevo.

49-year old Yehuda Kolonomos could not come to the Community to meet us, but he came to our hotel the following day. He told us that all Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina are seen as Israelis and thus held responsible for the politics of Israel. He explains:

People don’t make a difference between Jews from Israel and Jews from anywhere else. It’s the same to them, and therefore a complicated situation for those Sarajevan Jews coming from mixed Jewish-Muslim families. They don’t dare say that they are Jews because then they will be blamed by the Bosnian Muslims for the politics in Israel. On a personal level I have had bad experiences as well: Muslim kids approached my daughter in school, asking her, why she’s killing their people [Muslim Palestinians in Israel]. Even though I insist on wearing my kippah [a cap worn by Jewish religious men] while walking the streets of Sarajevo; not hiding the fact that I’m Jewish, I’m also much more careful than I was a year ago. I think other Jews in Sarajevo are even more afraid than me to show or say openly that they are Jews.

Summing up the reflections on anti-Semitism in Sarajevo, according to Vladimir, Sarajevo has a better record regarding anti-Semitism than other places in Europe, which are more anti-Semitic. At the same time, the experience that the young woman shared with us shows that anti-Semitism is vital, at least in the cyber space. Moreover, Yehuda said that anti-Israelism causes anti-Semitism to such extent that there is anti-Semitic bullying at his children’s school. Jews in Sarajevo are, according to him, even afraid to show openly that they are Jewish.

We were also curious to know how the once prosperous Jewish community in Sarajevo deals with preservation of Jewish customs and identity today. If they keep their old traditions and languages. Elma explained to us that the Community of today has much less members than before the Second World War and that they are struggling hard to maintain the Sarajevo Jewish culture. In Sarajevo, just like in other former Yugoslav cities, the cultivation of Judaism has a cultural and social character rather than a religious one. This corresponds with the atheist ideology and attitudes of the communist society in Yugoslavia. Even the synagogue was and still is divided in two halves. The upper part of the building is a synagogue (as we can see on the photo below), while the lower part is a place where people meet and have social gatherings.

In Yugoslav times, the young and old were engaged actively in Jewish communal work through different clubs and cultural activities. Still today, there is a Sunday school taking place every week that is introducing concepts of Judaism to the children. Moreover the Community runs a student club, a women club called Bohoreta and there is a religious section of the Community but no residential rabbi. There is also a ‘social section’ of the Community organization which, together with the Jewish NGO Benevolencija, take care of the members that are in a need of material support.

The Hebrew language courses in the Community ceased to exist owing to the decrease in interest of its members. There is a significant number of young adults who speak the language because they lived in Israel during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. Only a few elderly members still have some knowledge of Judeo-Spanish. There is a positive attitude towards modern Spanish today however, as some of the Community members are interested in the opportunity to take the Spanish Sephardic citizenship, and therefore, will have to learn modern Spanish.