2006-12-15 Gabriel Stille
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The history and presence of jewish comunity in Sarajevo

Before WWII there were five public synagogues. Today only one serves it's original purposeBefore WWII there were five public synagogues. Today only one serves it's original purpose
In Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Hercegovina, there is a small but active Jewish community.  Both its history, which dates back to the 16th century and the days of the exodus of the Ladino-speaking Spanish Jews, and its present situation in post-war Bosnia, sets it apart from the Jewish communities of other European capitals.

There is a saying about Bosnia and Hercegovina today: One state, two entities, three constituent peoples, four traditional religions and thousands of problems. Beside Muslims, Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox Christians, Jews are among Sarajevo's native citizens. The first Sephardic Jews arrived in the 16th century, expelled from Spain, and were granted certain rights within the Ottoman Empire. The Jews of Sarajevo lived among other inhabitants, as traders and craftsmen. Throughout the centuries, the Sephardic Jews maintained their traditions - as well as their language, Ladino, still understood by older community members today.

Newspaper printed in "Ladino"Newspaper printed in "Ladino"
Jakob Finci, President of the Jewish communities of Bosnia and Hercegovina: "It is very similar to modern Spanish. Here we used to have a Spanish battalion, as peace keepers, they were astonished, because it is the way Spanish were spoken four hundred years ago, in the time of Cervantes. Ladino was a really familiar language, a language from my kitchen, so to say, but don't ask me about democratization and globalisation in Ladino..."

Once, the Jews of Sarajevo constituted one fifth of the population. Before WWII there were five public synagogues. Today the community in Sarajevo is counting 700 members, out of a total of around 1100 in all of the country.

Elma Softic-Kaunitz, secretary general of the community: "Things are... OK, we are trying to do our best to organize community life, which means to organize different social activities but also religious activities. We have La Benevolencija, which is a Jewish cultural, educational and humanitarian organization."

La Benevolencija not only promotes the Sephardic heritage of Sarajevo, it also played an important role during the siege of Sarajevo 1992-1995. Evacuation convoys and mail services were negotiated, and food and medical help were distributed throughout the war to those in need, not only community members. Today, a decade after the peace treaty, La Benevolencija visits the elderly, organizes education and micro-loans to help start small businesses, and gather cross-ethnic women's and children's groups. Making the young take part in community life is also of great importance.

Jakob Finci: The Jewish problem here is that we are an ageing community. In the last three years there were over forty funerals, but only one new born baby. That's our problem.

the old Jewish cemetary in Sarajevo - scarred by the warthe old Jewish cemetary in Sarajevo - scarred by the war
Many Jews, as other Bosnians, have left the country since the outbreak of the war, and the remaining Jews in Bosnia and Hercegovina share the same problems as other citizens, most notably the massive unemployment and the unstable political situation, with parties still formed along ethnical lines.

Beside the problems, Jakob Finci stresses the good relations to the other religious groups, and the fact that there is no problem with antisemitism. The Sarajevo Synagogue, housing the community center, is greeting its visitors with an open door.

"We think it is the best way to preserve this normality, because otherwise, as soon as you put two policemen, surveillance, checkups and so on, everyone will be suspicious. No we are not afraid, we are living with open doors, with our neighbours. That's the best way to defend ourselves, we think now. Let's hope that we are not wrong."

So, well incorporated but not assimilated, the Jewish Community in Sarajevo takes part in the efforts to make their capital, and their country, develop, for those who have stayed - and for those who may come back.

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