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Finci: Jewish Community of Sarajevo
Photo by Geroge Baumgarten

Haggadah: RABIC d.o.o
Photo by George Baumgarten


George Baumgarten

Head of Sarajevo Jewish Community Describes Growing Up With Muslim Neighbors, Sharing the Privations of War

George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent,May 11, 2012

Sarajevo is a city that has become almost synonymous with successive calamities. Notorious as the venue of the event that sparked World War I—the assassination in 1914 of Austrian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand von Habsburg and his wife Sophie, it would serve near the century’s end as the venue and victim of its longest siege. Proud host city in Yugoslavia to the 1984 Winter Olympics, its name would be linked—barely a decade later—with fratricidal bloodshed, as newly-independent Bosnia’s capital.
 Jakob Finci is the President of the “Benevolencija” (i.e., Jewish Community Council, a Spanish word transformed by a Balkanized spelling), and thus the leader of the Jewish community of Sarajevo. Descended from Iberian Sephardic ancestors who arrived in Bosnia centuries ago from Spain, he was actually born not in Sarajevo, but rather on the island of Rab in the Adriatic (now part of Croatia), as his parents were returning from internment in a concentration camp in Italy.
Finci’s community is an old, storied and historic one. Founded in the early 16th Century by refugees from Catholic Spain, they found a refuge in what became a far-flung corner of the Ottoman Empire. They brought with them one object that has become both a priceless work of art, and a national treasure: the Sarajevo Haggadah. Produced in Spain before the expulsion, it belongs to that era of elaborate, hand-colored illuminated manuscripts which were the artistic glory of the Middle Ages, and whose not seen again until the height of the Italian Renaissance. By now long considered a part of Bosnia’s national patrimony, it is kept in Sarajevo’s National Museum, and was locked away in a bank vault, during the siege of the 1990’s. In any event—as Finci proudly says—Jews are in Bosnia for over 500 years.
The Community was “officially” established in 1565, and the first synagogue built in 1581. Designed on the Sephardic pattern (benches along the side walls, facing a central bimah), the building still stands, and is now the Jewish museum. It is also used for worship on Rosh Hashanah, “just to remind…that it is still a synagogue”.
Under the Ottoman Empire, “Jewish life in Bosnia”, Finci says, “was quite normal”. Jews were well-treated, as were all non-Muslims. There was never a ’Sarajevo Ghetto”, nor any pogroms or prosecutions. In 1878, Bosnia & Herzegovina was given to the Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) Empire for administrative purposes. When some Austrian Ashkenazi Jews began to arrive, the “native” Sarajevo [Sephardic] Jews were quite astonished that the newcomers could not speak Ladino (also known as “Judeo-Espanol”), which the natives regarded as “their” Jewish language. The Ashkenazim, of course, spoke Yiddish, which was quite alien to the Sephardim. The two communities combined, however, and the Sephardim were said to be the “best friends” of the newcomers.
I asked Finci if there was any outbreak of Anti-Semitism in World War I, after Archduke Franz-Ferdinand was assassinated. He assured me that “…we never had a huge rate of Anti-Semitism in Bosnia”. He added that the U.S. State Department Report on World Anti-Semitism had noted that there was very little Anti-Semitism there. This, he said, made him proud, but “felt a little bit strange”. “After 500 years”, Finci says, “we are very well incorporated into the Bosnian society”. This, he explained, was because the three major ethnic groups (“Bosniac” Muslims, Serbs, Croats) are so busy hating each other, that they “don’t have time to hate the Jews”.
World War II, however, was something else again. Bosnia has a substantial border with Croatia, which was ruled in the early 1940’s by the pro-Nazi “Ustasha” government. Many Bosnian Jews were taken away to concentration camps, although only to ones in Italy, not to any of the death camps in Poland. This also explains (as mentioned above) how Finci himself was born on the island of Rab, off the North Croatian coast. Some 85% of Sarajevo’s 12,000 Jews (out of a total pre-war population of only 60,000) disappeared. In 1948, about half of the Community moved to Israel, when the State was established.
The Sarajevo community is regarded as a Sephardic one, and that determines their ritual and style of prayer. But most of the congregants are actually now Ashkenazim, although they tolerate the Sephardi nusach, and even a few prayers in Ladino. They have a Rabbi, Eliezer Papo, who resides in Jerusalem, but comes to Sarajevo for certain holidays. Papo, a Bosnian native, was sent to Rabbinical School in Israel just before the War, in 1991.
Finci was one of the founders of Sarajevo’s Inter-Religious Council, formed after the War, in 1997, as was asked to serve as its first President. The Council has a rotating Presidency (as does the Bosnian government), and Finci has since served as President two more times.
During the War of the 1990’s, Finci says that the nation’s leaders were not prepared for war, but the Jewish community was. The arranged for the delivery of some medications, and eventually, the Jewish community of Sarajevo became the “conduit”: for most medicines and pharmaceuticals entering the country. Often, the Jews and the three other communities worked remarkably well with each other, despite their tremendous differences, in the face of the common siege. They even managed to smuggle some medicines to the much smaller community (about 30) in Dubrovnik, Croatia. They also had a “logistical center” in the Croation coastal city of Split. Finci often traveled during this period “like James Bond”, carrying four separate sets of papers (i.e., safe-conducts), to cross the 36 checkpoints(!), between Split and Sarajevo.
The “Benevolencija” also had some non-Jewish employees from the various other communities. Members of the Community were advised to get “exit visa” to go to Israel. When the local paper ran a story saying “When the Jews are leaving, it’s a bad time for Sarajevo”, it was explained that they wanted to go to Jerusalem, where some events were celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the expulsion from Spain(!).
The community, of course, is an aging one. Last year, they had some 30 funerals, and only three newborn babies. Most young adults move to Israel, but some have been coming back to go to university, since the cost is far lower than in Israel.
Why did everyone help the Jews, and/or cooperate with them, Perhaps, Finci says, it was because everyone knew they had suffered the Holocaust. Or perhaps, because of world public opinion. But, mostly, he said, it was people relating to their neighbors, in neighborly fashion.
I asked Finci what future there was for Jews in the former Yugoslavia, and Bosnia in particular. He feels it depends on the economic situation. Slovenia has already joined the European Community, and Croatia will join next year. Bosnia would dearly love to join, too. “Perhaps”, he says, “we will all find an umbrella to live under the European Community”. He would also like to see Bosnia join NATO. But regardless, the community of Bosnia and Sarajevo will command the attention of the Jewish world.
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