Bosnia and Herzegovina

According to the estimates of Sergio DellaPergola’s “World Jewish Population, 2015,” between 500 and 1,000 Jews live in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Largely Sephardic, the Bosnian and Herzegovinian Jewish community enjoys peaceful relations with other religious communities, taking an active part in mediating among the different faiths in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Moreover, the Bosnian Jewish community is experiencing somewhat of a revival, notable seen with the recent “baby boom” in the community. The Jewish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina is represented by La Benevolencija (The Jewish Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina) – the Bosnian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.

WJC Affiliate

La Benevolencija

Telephone: +387 33 229 666
Fax: +387 33 229 667
Email: la_bene@open.net.ba


President: Amb. Jakob Finci

 



History

The first Jewish community in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina arrived in 1492, fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. Though they were treated as second-class citizens (like other non-Muslims under Ottoman rule), these early Jewish settlers were afforded significant rights and autonomy, and enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence.


However, the following century saw a spike in anti-Semitic sentiments and behaviors, forcing many Jews to move from their original quarter in Sarajevo. This became an unfortunate trend for Bosnian Jewry and successive centuries saw gradual (and sometimes explosive) increases in anti-Semitism in the region. Tensions began to subside in the 19th century, and in 1839, new civil rights laws dramatically improved the living situation for Jews in the area. This was furthered in 1856 when non-Muslims subjects in the Ottoman Empire were granted full equality. In 1876, Bosnian Jews were elected to the Ottoman Parliament in Istanbul.
The Austro-Hungarian empire took over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878, resulting in an influx of Ashkenazi Jews. Such a development saw a mixing of Ashkenazi and Sephardi cultures, as the already established Sephardic community was greatly influenced by the new Ashkenazi communities settling in the area. By the end of the century, the Bosnian Jewish population had greatly increased to about 10,000 people.


World War I saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the incorporation of Bosnia and Herzegovina into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The inter-war years saw the Jewish population continue to gradually increase, and the community thrived. It built a Sephardi synagogue that was considered the largest in the Balkans, hosted a number of different Jewish-related activities, and even established a seminary.


The Holocaust devastated the Bosnian Jewish community, with almost three quarters of the pre-war population murdered by the Nazis, Bosnian collaborators, and the fascist Croatian Ustashe. A small Jewish community was re-established following World War II, but many survivors emigrated to Israel. Jewish life and identity were repressed during the post-WWII communist era.


Bosnian Jews found themselves thrown into the middle of the turmoil as Yugoslavia violently split apart in 1991. Violence in Bosnia was exacerbated by the breakout of civil war, as a number of ethnic factions began fighting one another – though Jews were not targets of such violence. In fact, the Bosnian Jewish community was largely outside of the conflict, and with that in mind, aimed at providing sanctuary and assistance to all Bosnians. La Benevolencija, the Bosnian Jewish community’s humanitarian organization, helped distribute supplies and medical care to those in need, regardless of ethnic or religious identity.
During the siege of Sarajevo by the forces of Republika Srpska, a self-proclaimed Serbian secessionist movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Sarajevan Jewish community helped assist the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the evacuation of thousands of Sarajevan residents – Jews and non-Jews alike. In the aftermath of the war, many Bosnian Jews who had left chose not to return.


Today, the Jewish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina enjoys peaceful relations with the broader Bosnian society and is able to freely practice its religion without issue. It also enjoys a relatively open role in Bosnian society and political life, with Sven Alkalaj serving as the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2007 to 2012.

The years of the Holocaust

In 1941, Bosnia was incorporated into the Nazi-puppet Independent State of Croatia, and in that same year, the Germans occupied Sarajevo. The Independent State of Croatia was grounded in notions of racial and ethnic “purity,” and it was the expressive aim of the state to exterminate “outsiders” – such as Jews or Serbians. Numerous anti-Jewish decrees, including the adoption of the Nuremberg laws and the incarceration of Jews, were prominent and publicly espoused by the regime. When the Germans arrived, such sentiments were increased. One of the first acts of the occupying Nazis was to burn the famed Sephardi synagogue, which was done with the help of local Muslims.


The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, was especially active in Bosnia during this time. An ardent anti-Semite and supporter of Hitler, Al-Husseini sought to enlist recruits to a Bosnian Muslim SS unit and encouraged the deportation and extermination of Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Concentration camps were set up throughout the independent Croat state – in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. Between 1941 and 1943, almost 5,500 Bosnian Jews were deported to camps in Sarajevo, Zagreb, and Loborgrad. From there, over 1,150 Jews were then transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The majority of Bosnian Jews were sent to the Kruscica camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 3,000 people were murdered there.


About 10,000 Bosnian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust – about 71% of its pre-war population.

Demography

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that as of 2001, Bosnia and Herzegovina was home to between 500 and 1,000 Jews, out of a total population of 3,856,181 – that is, 0.012% of the population. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a religiously diverse community with about 1,955,083 Muslims – 50.7% of the population; 1,183,847 Eastern Orthodox Christians – 30.7% of the population; and 586,139 Catholics – 15.2% of the population.


The majority of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Jews live in Sarajevo, though there are small communities in other cities such as Banja Luka, Mostar, Tuzla, Doboj, and Zenica.  

Community Life

Jewish life in Bosnia and Herzegovina is almost entirely centered around La Benevolencija, the community’s religious representative body.  There is a community center in Sarajevo that has an active synagogue and offers a number of Jewish activities for all ages, including a choir that sings traditional Jewish songs. It also puts on cultural events and exhibitions that are open to all Bosnians.


There is a Jewish human rights group in Sarajevo that supporters impoverished Bosnians – Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

Religious and Cultural life

Jewish religious identification in Bosnia and Herzegovina is largely culturally based, rather than religious. That being said, there is only one regularly functioning synagogue in the country that operates out of Sarajevo through the auspices of La Benevolencija. Worship largely follows Sephardic traditions in an Ashkenazi synagogue.

Youth

The Jewish community center in Sarajevo offers some youth and student groups. Younger members of the community are active in Jewish summer camps and other events organized through regional Jewish bodies, such as the Jewish Youth of Formal Yugoslavia.

Jewish Media

There is a Jewish newspaper run through La Benevolencija that prints 4-5 issues a year.

Information for visitors

The deep-standing and historical Jewish presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina is reflected in the Jewish sites throughout the country. The capital city of Sarajevo has a number of notable Jewish sites, including the Old Sephardic Cemetery, the Old Synagogue (which now operates as a Jewish museum), and various monuments dedicated to the Holocaust. The famous Sarajevo Haggadah, which dates back to the 14th century, is a particularly notable display of historical Jewish life in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


There is a Jewish cemetery in Rogatica, Visoko, Travnik and Stolac, with the cemetery in Stolac containing the grave of the famed Rabbi Moshe Danon (listed as a national monument in 2003). In Travnik, there is a collection of Jewish ritual objects in the city’s museum.


The site of the Kruscica concentration camp has a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust and was recently declared a national monument in 2014.   

Israel

Israel currently doesn’t have an Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, though relations between the two countries are steadily improving. In December 2017, Alexander Nikolic was appointed the Honorary Counsel of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Israel.

updated

 

August 2018

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