Jews in Sarajevo enduring war again Sephardic remnants clinging to history

September 01, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Only two mortar rounds have dropped on the roof of the synagogue, no Jew has been killed during the artillery siege of Sarajevo, and few have been wounded.

And no Jews are being rounded up against their will -- which is a far cry from what happened to them here during the last war.

Ivan Ceresnjes, the president of the Jewish community in Sarajevo, walks nonchalantly through the devastation around his synagogue in Sarajevo's Old Town, chatting with friends, stopping to promote a little help for the community, ignoring the thunder of shells from the hills.

He quotes from Hebrew scripture: "God is awake and the protector of Israel."

Which is a very good thing, because in the intense and escalating bombardment of this city all people need as much protection as they can get.

Mr. Ceresnjes' complaint is that the Jews of Sarajevo are getting precious little help from anyone outside of the city.

This very old and very proud Jewish community faces the very real danger of vanishing. A few hundred remain in Sarajevo today. Mr. Ceresnjes is sharply critical of the lack of help from outside Jewish organizations.

"Why is the Jewish world so silent about our problems in Sarajevo?" he demands. "We get a lot of sympathy. Sympathy we cannot eat."

The community received 12 tons of food and medical aid from a Jewish organization early in the siege, but that was exhausted in a month.

"For five months," Mr. Ceresnjes says, "we've used all our financial resources to feed and care for our people and all other inhabitants of our town. We feel an obligation to help everyone as far as possible.

"Now our resources are gone. Our storehouses are empty. And we are facing autumn and winter."

He wants food, medicine, fuel and most of all a satellite telephone.

The Jews that remain in Sarajevo are the remnant of a remnant.

They are almost all descendants of the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 during the Inquisition, the dark side of the monarchy of Ferdinand and Isabella that sent Columbus to the New World.

Ninety percent are Sephardic, says Jakob Finci, a vice president of the synagogue in charge of cultural affairs. He's a sort of repository of the community's history.

"My family has been here three and a half centuries," he says. "Two hundred and fifty years ago, one of my family was chief rabbi of Bosnia."

But Mr. Ceresnjes, in a mingling typical of Sarajevo, is Ashkenazi, a German Jew born in Erfurt.

He was born just after his mother reached Sarajevo at the end of World War II. He describes their odyssey of survival: Erfurt to Galicia to Romania to Hungary to Croatia to Italy to Bosnia.

"A typical Jewish family," he says. He has a tough sense of humor.

Most Sarajevo Jews are survivors or children or grandchildren of survivors of the Nazi era.

Twelve or thirteen thousand Jews lived in Sarajevo at the start of World War II. None remained at the end of the war. Eight thousand died in concentration camps, most at Jasinovac in Croatia. About 2,000 came back.

"I was the first child from after the concentration camp," said Mr. Finci. His parents had been in an Italian camp. "I waited until the camp was free before I came."

There were eight synagogues in Sarajevo before World War II. Only one survived, the Moorish-style temple that is now the community's house of worship. Ironically, it was built by Ashkenazi Jews who came to Sarajevo from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century. No Sephardic synagogue survived.

There is no rabbi here. Only one rabbi served the Jewish communities of the former Yugoslavia, about 6,000 Jews in all. But he lives in Belgrade and is unable to come to Sarajevo.

Services are led by a learned elder, when they are held, which is when shelling permits.

"In time of danger, God forgives," Mr. Ceresnjes says.

In a war compounded of ironies, one of the greatest is that the 382-year-old Jewish cemetery has been turned into a gun and sniper position by the Serbian forces. More than 200 people are estimated to have been killed in attacks from the old burial ground upon the city below.

In 1948, about a thousand World War II survivors went to Israel from here.

At the start of this war, 1,300 Jews were officially counted in the community. About 600 women and children have been sent to Israel.

Mr. Ceresnjes' wife and three sons are in Israel, as well as Mr. Finci's two sons.

"It would be hard to find a Jewish child in Sarajevo today," Mr. Ceresnjes says.

But somewhat oddly, more than 300 Jews have joined the community. Being Jewish has a certain advantage now.

"All parties to this conflict want to show they are friendly to Jews," Mr. Finci says. "They want to make an image in the world of being friendly to Jews."

The history of the former republics of Yugoslavia is not only a history of partisan resistance to the Nazis but also a history of considerable collaboration and sometimes enthusiastic anti-Semitism.

The community now feels subtle pressures from international Jewish organizations to abandon Sarajevo and move to Israel.

"We don't want to be Israelis," Mr. Ceresnjes says. "We want to be Bosnian Jews as we were for centuries."

Mr. Finci says, "We are Jews, but we are not Zionists. We don't think all Jews should live in Israel.

"We have been living in this country for half a millennium," he says. "We're part of the country, and it is part of us."

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