Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sarajevo -- Bob Cohen (and me) on Jewish Sarajevo

Ashkenazic synagogue interior, Sarajevo. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Bob Cohen is back in Budapest after a trip to Sarajevo, and he has posted a colorful account of Jewish life and history in the Bosnian capital on his Dumneazu blog.

Today, the Ashkenazic Synagogue is the center of Sarajevo Jewish life, although the majority of the congragation is of Sephardi origin. The Jews of Sarajevo - as in most of former Yugoslavia - lived in a culturally tolerant world almost devoid of the antisemitic atmosphere that prevailed in pre-WWII Europe, and it all the more tragic that they were almost entuirely destroyed during the Holocaust. Local Muslims and Christians, however, were active in saving the lives of many Jews, and Jews were prominent in the Yugoslav Partisan movement, such as Moshe Pijade, Tito's right hand man. There is a photo in the Jewish museum of a Jewish Woman - wearing a Jewish star armband - walking along the main street of Nazi-occupied Sarajevo arm in arm with her Muslim friend, a woman maintaining the tradition of a complete face veil.

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I haven't been to Sarajevo for several years. But my last visit there coincided with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, when the 16th-century Old Synagogue, turned into a Jewish museum after World War II, was reconsecrated as a house of worship.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

As I wrote in an article at the time:

A mezuzah was nailed to the door of the austere stone building, from whose windows the slim minarets of neighboring mosques in Sarajevo’s Old Town are clearly visible. Services were held and the traditional melodies of the Sephardic Jewish liturgy were sung there for the first time in more than 60 years. “To be honest, all my life I’ve lived in Sarajevo, and this was the first occasion to have a service in the Sephardic synagogue,” said Jakob Finci, the head of the Bosnian Jewish Community. “This was the first time to have it on the right place on the right way. That means really a lot. Let’s hope that it becomes a tradition and not only for the High Holy Days but also for some regular Shabbats.” Originally built in 1581, the Old Synagogue was one of 15 that functioned in the city before the Holocaust, when Sarajevo was a major Balkan center of Sephardi culture and the city’s 12,000 Jews made up nearly 20 percent of the local population. Eighty-five percent of Sarajevo’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust. In 1965, during ceremonies marking 400 years of Jewish presence in Bosnia, the Old Synagogue, though still owned by the remnant Jewish community, was converted into a city-run Jewish museum. Jewish communal activities were shifted to an Ashkenazi synagogue, a grand, Moorish style temple built a century ago, which was converted to include offices and function rooms as well as a sanctuary. When the Bosnian War broke out in 1992, the Jewish Museum was closed and became a storage place for collections from other museums in the city. It remained closed until this summer, when it was reopened as a museum, under new management that includes Jewish-community as well as city representatives.
I was told at the time of the plans to update and convert the synagogue into a facility that would serve as a cultural and educational center for the Jewish and non-Jewish public, as well as a museum. The ground floor was to remain a consecrated synagogue where services would be held on special occasions, with an exhibition of ritual objects and Jewish religious traditions. The two upper floors, consisting of arched stone balconies surrounding the sanctuary area, were to house historical exhibits. Part of the museum was to show the richness of pre-Holocaust Jewish life. But for the first time, there would be a “huge” section on the Holocaust — as well as a section detailing the operation of the Jewish community during the Bosnian War.

Bob visited the completed new museum and reports on some of the exhibitions.

It is interesting to note that when the post-war conversion of the Ashkenazic synagogue took place, the lofty sanctuary was cut in half horizontally -- offices and function rooms are on the ground floor, and the synagogue sanctuary is on the upper floor. But, as you can see by the photo at the top of this post, all that remains is the upper horseshoe part of the arch over the Ark. It looks a little weird, with strange proportions, but it's functional -- and still ornate.

When I was in Sarajevo, Jakob Finci reminisced about the experience of the Jewish community during the Bosnian War, when -- as Ed Serotta has written in his book, Survival in Sarajevo -- the Jewish community came to the aid of their city.
During the war, the tiny local Jewish community and its social welfare arm, La Benevolencija, won international renown as a key conduit of nonsectarian humanitarian aid to all ethnic groups involved in the conflict. They ran a soup kitchen, medical and communication services, and organized exit convoys for refugees from besieged Sarajevo. “We have just 700 members, among them 180 survivors of the Holocaust, so we are an aging community,” Finci said. “At the same time, during the war we succeeded in helping at least 10,000 people.” Finci and other Jewish leaders transformed themselves from middle-aged, white-collar professionals into daring coordinators who juggled identification papers and navigated checkpoints, often risking death in the process. “It was really like a James Bond movie,” Finci recalled. “But if you ask me now if I would be ready to repeat it, the answer would be no. Because it’s only now that I realize how dangerous it was. At the time, it was a strange feeling of responsibility."

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Last year, Finci was named Bosnia's Ambassador to Switzerland.

ADD ON -- P.S.

In his blog, Sam Gruber reminds me I forgot to mention Sarajevo's most famous Jewish relic -- the Sarajevo Hagaddah, long a symbol of Jewish presence and survival in the Balkans! Handwritten and illuminated in 14th-century Spain, the lavishly illustrated 109-page manuscript was brought to Sarajevo after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and remained intact through years of conflict and upheaval. It served countless family seders over the centuries, and wine stains mar some of the pages. Owned by the Bosnian National Museum since 1894, it escaped the Holocaust, hidden away in a remote mountain village. It also survived the brutal Bosnian War of the 1990s, either locked in a bank vault or stashed away in private custody. In December 2002, the book went on display at the museum in a special room (although the copy on display now is, I believe, a facsimile -- a fullscale facisimile of the book was produced a couple of years ago and is currently on sale).

The original Sarajevo Haggadah, shown before its restoration, in the underground bank vault where it was kept for years. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)
Sarajevo Hagaddah. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Hagaddah and its story figured in the recent award-winning novel by Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book. Ed Serotta detailed the history of the Haggadah in a Nightline program.

To see a more complete account of Jewish heritage in Sarajevo and Bosnia, which I wrote (with Sam Gruber and the help of Ivan Ceresnjes) click HERE.

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