The Jewish Traveler: Sarajevo
The cycle of war seems broken at last in the capital of one of Europe’s youngest republics, a city once again charming visitors with its Eastern and Western influences.
There’s no escaping the muezzin’s call to prayer in Sarajevo. Mosques are everywhere. And yet this city—with its mix of Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Jews, and its recent history of devastating ethnic strife—feels perfectly comfortable to a Jewish traveler. a The narrow flagstone streets of Bascarcja, the old bazaar, have a distinctly Eastern look, recalling the centuries of Ottoman rule. The domed sebil (fountain), the symbol of the city, greets visitors who wander through streets lined by tile-roofed souvenir shops offering hammered copper pitchers and colorful rugs.
Yet Ferhadija, the city’s main pedestrian mall, is flanked by ornate Baroque buildings, reminders that Sarajevo, today the capital of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was also once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Set in a narrow river valley and surrounded by wooded hills, the same hills from which Serbs bombarded the city between 1992 and 1995, Sarajevo presents a serene face to those seeking her delights.
Among the first Jews who came to Sarajevo, as early as 1541, were Spanish refugees who arrived via Salonika. Mostly artisans, merchants, pharmacists and doctors, they developed good relations with local Muslims. With permission granted by the pasha Siavush in 1577, Jews built their own quarter, El Cortijo (the courtyard), and a synagogue, enjoying religious freedom but subject to discriminatory taxes. In the 17th century, they were joined by Ashkenazic Jews fleeing persecution in Europe. The Sefardic and Ashkenazic communities functioned separately until the Holocaust.
In 1697, the Austrians occupied and burned Sarajevo, including the Jewish quarter and its synagogue, but in 1739 were forced to return the city to the Ottomans, who granted official recognition to the Jewish community. By 1856, Jews had equality before the law.
The city, situated at an important crossroads, became a major Jewish center in the Balkans, known as Little Jerusalem. By the middle of the 19th century, all doctors in Bosnia were Jews.
After Austria annexed Sarajevo in 1878, educated Ashkenazim arrived and Jews started attending public schools.
The highly developed communal life included the humanitarian society La Benevolencija; Lyra, a co-ed Ladino choir; active Zionist organizations; and women’s organizations. The first Ladino newspaper, La Alborada, was a scientific and literary weekly.
After World War I, when Bosnia became part of Yugoslavia, Jews continued to enjoy religious freedom. They also owned many properties. Sarajevo had prominent rabbis and even a rabbinic dynasty (unusual among Yugoslav Jewry), and, in 1928, a theological seminary opened.
The city had between 8,000 and 12,000 Jews in 1941, before deportations began to concentration camps run by Croatian fascists (Ustashe), especially Jasenovac and Stara Gradiska. About 85 percent of the community perished. Of the survivors, many left for Israel in 1948 and 1949.
When war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, Bohoreta, the women’s section of La Benevolencija, extended aid on a nonsectarian basis to those in need. Many community members sent their children to safety in Israel or moved there themselves.
Danilo Nikolic, president of the community, remembers the Sefardic dishes he ate as a child: halva on Hanukka, ros de leche (rice with milk) on Shavuot and sungat—a pie of leeks and ground beef—for Passover. But Sarajevo’s 700 Jews, in a city of 400,000, are not religious and have no rabbi. Nevertheless, they hold Friday night services and celebrate festivals with brio. A rabbi comes from Israel when needed. Another 400 Jews live in Banja Luka, Mostar, Zenica, Tuzla and Doboj. Some still speak Ladino.
Some of the Jews who fled to Israel during the Bosnian War have returned, forming a tight-knit group with shared experiences, a command of Hebrew and a close connection to Israel.
Women run many of the programs, including Perspektiva, a job-training and job-seeking project. Bohoreta offers social activities, celebration of festivals and aid to the needy. A Sunday school teaches about Jewish holidays and customs. The community also runs a nonsectarian club for youngsters as well as a summer camp.
When volunteer Raina Kabiljo visits Hasija Catic, who is ill and nearly deaf and blind, they share a laugh over cups of Turkish coffee; they also buy groceries, make doctor visits or go for walks. The visits are part of the community’s home care program, which began on a voluntary basis during the last war primarily to help Holocaust survivors, then grew to encompass 600 needy elderly. A crucial source of jobs for the community’s women, the program had to be cut back in 2006 because of a drop in funding.
The willingness to help both Jews and non-Jews has long characterized the community and Sarajevo as a whole, where members of all faiths became close and often intermarried. Some of the most active Jews are of mixed parentage. Ethnic strife, including anti-Semitism, is fomented by political leaders seeking power and is not characteristic of the people themselves, Jewish leaders say.
A partial survey of Jewish properties throughout the country was carried out in advance of a promised restitution law. Creation of a genealogical database awaits equipment for scanning old documents. Nearly all programs are funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
A quarterly, Jevrejski Glas (Jewish Voice), reports news of Jewish interest. The Jewish Community Center should be able to answer questions related to Jewish sights and institutions (011-387-33-663-472).
El Cortijo lies near Bascarcja and is bounded by four streets: Ferhadija, Mustafa Mula Beseskije, Gazi Husrev Begova and Jelice.
Begin at the Old Synagogue, now the Jewish Museum (on Velika Avlija; 387-33-535-688). It is sandwiched with another synagogue between the Gazi Husrev Bey Mosque and the Catholic cathedral.
The synagogue’s three-story stone structure has a curved apse and unadorned stone interior. The oldest synagogue in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it was built in 1581 and has burned down and been rebuilt twice, in 1679 and 1778; a third story was added later. In 1966, it became part of the Sarajevo Museum and is dedicated to the history of the Jews.
During the Bosnian War, the Old Synagogue provided sanctuary to objects from the city’s museums. The Jewish Museum reopened in 2004, and the synagogue was reconsecrated. Tours are available in English and Hebrew.
Among the exhibits is a tombstone with the unusual “crouching lion” shape characteristic of Jewish burials in Sarajevo and a re-creation of an attar (herbal remedy) shop. The middle floor is dedicated to the Jews’ fight against Fascism and the destruction of their communities and cultural heritage during World War II.
Next door, the plain white stucco synagogue called Novi Hram (New Synagogue) houses an art gallery owned by the Jewish community (38 Mula Mustafe Kresevljakovica; 387-33-233-280).
Continue west on Ferhadija, turning left on Muhameda Kantardzica and then right to reach 24 Branilaca Sarajeva, where a sign says “Bosnian Cultural Center.”
The Soviet-style façade hides a huge oval structure, the Sefardic synagogue called Il Kal Grande. Built in 1931, it was the largest and most lavish synagogue in the Balkans. Nazis destroyed the interior in 1941, and after the war the Jewish community gave the building to the city.
On a large stone menora in the entrance, dedicated in April 1965, an inscription reads: “In memory of the arrival [of the Jews] 400 years ago and their contribution to the development of the city and their cooperation in fighting the Fascists in the anti-Fascist war and their many casualties in World War II; erected by the residents of Sarajevo [in exchange] for the donation of the synagogue.”
To see at least part of the original oval building, walk back on Branilaca Sarajeva to Gimnasizka, turn right and after a few yards turn right again, then walk about 50 yards to a blue metal gate that leads into a schoolyard.
Continue south on Gimnasizka, cross the Miljacka River and turn left at Hamdije Kresevljakovica to reach the Ashkenazi Synagogue and Jewish Community Center (59 Hamdije Kresevljakovica; 387-33-663-472), the focus of Jewish life in Sarajevo today. The stately salmon-colored Moorish-style building, completed in 1902, has four onion-domed towers. In the 1960s, the interior was divided horizontally, so that the prayer hall is now where the women’s section used to be. Still apparent is the grandeur of the original interior, with its ornate ceiling and huge horseshoe arch surrounding the Ark. The lower level serves as a hall for community gatherings. Services are held on Friday nights and on the High Holidays.
In 1927, a building was added for administration and other communal services. Now the JCC, it has a constant flow of both seniors and young people, who stop by for coffee or a meal and consider it their home away from home.
A fifth, Sefardic, synagogue can be seen about half a mile northeast of the Old Synagogue, at the corner of Sepetarevac and Ivana Cankara, in Mejtas, just below Bjelave, where Jews once lived. The only identifying marks on the dilapidated gray stucco building are medallions with Stars of David and menoras.
The 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah is the city’s most famous Jewish treasure. In one of its 34 brilliantly colored, full-page illustrations, Potiphar’s wife grasps Joseph’s red cloak as she attempts to seduce him. Created in Spain, it is perhaps the most valuable illuminated Jewish manuscript. It was rediscovered in 1894 when a destitute child brought it to school to sell. It passed into the possession of the Sarajevo Museum, where it was hidden from the Nazis during World War II and then hidden again during the Bosnian War. It may be viewed along with other manuscripts by advance arrangement at The Land Museum (as the museum is called today; 3 Zmaja od Bosne; 387-33-668-026; www.zemaljskimuzej.ba).
Tourists come to the hillside Jewish cemetery in Kovacici for the magnificent view; from here the Serbs bombarded the city in the Bosnian War. Many tombstones were damaged, as was a stone-faced chapel, which was recently rebuilt. The mines were cleared only in 1998.
Visitors enter through a triple arch and ascend a path to the right of which are old crouching lion tombs with Hebrew and Ladino inscriptions. Though established by Sefardic Jews in 1630, in 1950 the cemetery became the burial site for remains from two Ashkenazic cemeteries that were exhumed. The cemetery has two Holocaust memorials, a Sefardic one erected in 1952 and an Ashkenazic one built in 1962.
Not far from the cemetery, on the slopes of Mount Trebevic (where Dervisa Numica meets Voivode Radomira Putrika), a fortress built by the Austro-Hungarians was the site of mass executions during World War II. A commemorative park for the victims of the Fascists was erected there. Of the 9,091 names inscribed, 7,092 were of Jews. From here, too, Serbs shelled Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.
Gavrilo Princip, a young Serb, sparked World War I by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife on June 28, 1914. The bridge at the site is named for Princip. A little museum (387-33-533-288) where the bridge meets Zelinih Beretki has pictures of Bosnian soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its contents were kept safe in the Jewish Museum during the Bosnian War.
Vijecnica, the enormous, Moorish-style riverfront building at the corner of Obala Kulin Bana and Telali, was City Hall before it became the National Library. Its interior and treasures were destroyed by bombs during the Bosnian War. While under restoration, it is the site of art exhibitions.
The family of well-known Israeli singer Yehoram Gaon is from Sarajevo.
Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai, born in Sarajevo, was a Sefardic forerunner of Zionism whose ideas were adopted by Theodor Herzl. Laura Papo-Bohoreta was a poet, dramatist, teacher of French literature and researcher, producing a study in Ladino of the Sefardic woman of Bosnia at the end of the 19th century. She collected and set in writing Ladino romances, proverbs and folklore. She died in a concentration camp.
Books, Film, Music
When Elma Softic gave birth during the Bosnian War, the city had no running water. Softic’s Sarajevo Days, Sarajevo Nights (Ruminator Books), describing life under siege, has also been adapted for the stage.
With understatement and wry humor, poet and journalist Miljenko Jergovic depicts the hell of the Bosnian War in the short-story collection Sarajevo Marlboro (Penguin).
In her first feature film, Grbavica, Bosnian writer-director Jasmila Zbanic explores the war’s effect on the lives of a mother and daughter in Grbavica, the site of a notorious internment camp.
Sarajevo-born writer Isak Papo is the main contributor to A Collection of Sephardim Stories from Sarajevo (Logos), a treasury of daily life and lore, in Ladino and English.
“If the State of Israel did not exist, I don’t know how the Jewish people could survive,” Papo wrote during the Bosnian War. Judy Frankel set his poem “Sarajevo de Oro” (Sarajevo of Gold) to music; it’s one of two Sarajevo songs on her Sefardic album, Silver & Gold (Harmony Ridge Music).
Sarajevo-born musician Flory Jagoda has a CD titled Memories of Sarajevo–Judeo-Spanish Songs from Bosnia (Global Village).
For general visitor information, consult the Bosnia-Herzegovina tourist center at 22a Zelinih Beretki (387-33-220-721;www.sarajevo-tourism.com).
Step out of the Hotel Villa Orient at 6 Oprkanj (www.hotel-villa-orient. com) and you’re in historic Bascarcija, just a 20-minute walk from the Ashkenazi Synagogue.
For an inexpensive lunch, try pita, a pastry filled with cheese, spinach or potatoes, accompanied by yogurt. Ustipci, fried popovers, are served with cheese or clotted cream called kajmak and go well with grilled mushrooms stuffed with kajmak. Taste them in a rustic setting with an excellent view of the city at Biban (387-33-232-026), in the Hrid neighborhood.
As the sun strikes the red roofs and bathes the green hills, it seems as though there has been a response to the Ladino prayer voiced by Sarajevan Jews in times of woe: Patron gli mundo peada (Patron of the world, be our benefactor).