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Without Jews and their unique traditions, cultural heritage, language and customs, Serbia would be much poorer.

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The restored synagogue in Subotica seats 1600 and hosts events such as the the Jewish Autumn Festival (Photo: @shirautfila)

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It is impossible to present a picture of contemporary Jewish life in Serbia, if we do not go back to the history of this community in the area. Traces of Jewish settlement in today’s Serbia date back to the reign of Alexander the Great, i.e. the 4th century BC.

Archaeological finds indicating the presence of Jews are fragments of bricks and graves with Jewish symbols and words in Hebrew. In the following centuries, many Jews from other countries came to the Balkan Peninsula, mainly from Spain and Portugal (in the 14th century), but also from the areas of today’s Poland, Lithuania, Russia (11th-13th centuries), etc. It is also said that the influx of the Sephardim, after their expulsion from the countries of the Iberian Peninsula, is the largest migration of Jews since the destruction of the Second Temple.

Jews settled mainly in the northern part of Serbia, such as Vojvodina, hence most of the active municipalities and historical monuments are located in these areas. The second major center of Jewish life was, of course, Belgrade, which for centuries had been the cultural and commercial center of the region.

Formally, until 1918, the area of ​​today’s Serbia was part of two separate countries. The northern territories, today’s Vojvodina in general, belonged to the Habsburg state, while the southern territories belonged to the Ottoman Turks. This division, of course, had a significant impact on the situation of Jews. For example, in the Ottoman State, Jews had a certain autonomy regarding the profession of faith and social life. However, they could only perform certain professions and settle in areas designated for them, hence they lived in the so-called mahalach, or separate city districts.

The French Revolution of 1789 was to bring many freedoms with it, also for Serbian Jews. Thanks to the changes, being both direct and indirect consequences of the revolution and the Spring of Nations, in 1867 in Vojvodina, Jews were granted freedom of religion, which enabled them to participate in cultural and political life. From the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, many Jews also began enrolling their children in state schools, which was a relatively recent phenomenon. Jewish-related magazines and books in Serbian and Hungarian are also being published more and more frequently. 

The nineteenth century is also a time when a sense of identity and national belonging was born in the citizens of the Jewish faith. This is evidenced by the inscriptions on the tombstones, found, for example, in the Sephardic cemetery in Belgrade, which proclaim a Serb of the Jewish faith. This type of identification with the state was not uncommon, we can observe similar declarations, for example, among Jews in Germany or Austria.

As evidence of the greater participation of Jews in public life, I would like to mention the fact that from 1900 Avram Ozerović and Bencion Buli were members of the Serbian parliament, called in Serbian Skupština.

Here you can see the influence of new social trends that cause the progressive assimilation of Jews with the rest of society and their active participation in the life of the state. In 1919, under the influence of young students from Vienna, the Union of Zionists of Yugoslavia (Serb. Savez cionista Jugoslavije) is established. The interwar period was also a flourishing period of culture, art and literature. Numerous magazines are created then; for example, the bilingual Serbo-German ‘’Jevrei letter ‘’(‘’Jewish newspaper’’) issued in Novi Sad from 1935 until 1941, when it was forbidden by the Nazis.

The outbreak of World War II is a censorship in the history of European Jews. As in other countries, Jews in the territories of modern Serbia suffered persecution from the Nazi occupier and their allies.

Synagogues were demolished, cemeteries were destroyed, property was taken.

Jews were imprisoned in camps and murdered. Before 1941, 33,800 Jews lived in Serbia, 83% of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. For example, both Jewish communities Orthodox and Reformed in Sombor; in 1940, the population was 1,620 people, 2/3 of whom were victims of the Holocaust.

After the war, many of the Jewish survivors emigrated to the USA, Canada or Israel. Every year, in January, the International Holocaust Remembrance Day is also celebrated with the participation of the authorities and the Israeli ambassador. 

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According to the 2011 census, there are currently 578 declared citizens of the Jewish faith in the Republic of Serbia. Compared to 1950, when 1,089 people declared their affiliation to this religion, the number of Serb Jews decreased by more than half. However, when browsing the website of one of the municipalities, we can read that it has over 2,200 members, which confirms our belief that it is not worth relying on official state sources in research on the population of Jews in modern Serbia.

It is much better to penetrate the Jewish community itself, very open to contacts with the outside world, to talk to members of the communities, and browse their websites and numerous publications, (however, mostly available only in Serbian). The image that emerges from the field research, but also from the content analysis and secondary statistical analysis, surprised me with the multitude of places where the Jewish faith and the traditions associated with it are still alive and cultivated today.

The actual current Jewish population in Serbia is estimated at around 3,300 people of Ashkenazi and Sephardic origin. Jewish communities officially exist in the following cities: 1. Belgrade 2. Novi Sad 3. Subotica 4. Zemun 5. Niš 6. Pančevo 7. Zrenjanin 8. Sombor 9. Kikinda 10. Priština (within Kosovo). They are all affiliated to one central organization called the Union of Serbian Jewish Communities (Serb. Savez jevrejskih opština Srbije).

My preliminary research shows that there are currently 5 synagogues in Serbia, each in good or very good condition. Synagogues can be found in Belgrade (Sukat Šalom), Novi Sad, Subotica, Niš and Zemun. It is worth noting that only 3 fulfill their original function today. The synagogues in Belgrade, Subotica and Novi Sad are places of prayer. Additionally, next to the Sukat Šalom synagogue in Belgrade, there is the only kosher restaurant in the whole of Serbia. The synagogue in Niš, called the “Temple of Culture” is the property of the National Museum and a venue for concerts and exhibitions, while the synagogue in Zemun now houses a language school and a restaurant. At each of the municipalities, with the exception of Kosovo Priština for which I have no data, we can also find a Jewish cemetery.

Exterior of the magnificent Subotica Synagogue. (Photo: Justyna Michniuk)

The cemeteries date back to the 18th and 19th centuries and are open to visitors without restrictions, or upon prior notification to the commune, or, as in the case of the cemetery in Niš, to the organization that looks after the monuments in this city.

The largest community in the past and today was the community of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, where there are additionally not only two wonderfully preserved and almost undamaged Jewish cemeteries (Ashkenazi and Sephardic), but also the Union of Serbian Jewish Communities has its seat and the Museum of the History of Jews has been operating since 1948 (Serb. Jevrejski istorijski muzej).

As we can read on one of the government websites, minorities in the Republic of Serbia are specially protected according to the highest international standards and enjoy all the rights they have. However, many independent non-governmental organizations claim that Serbia is the only country in the former Yugoslavia where basic human rights, such as the right to choose one’s religion, are not respected.

My preliminary research shows that antisemitism is not particularly strong in Serbia, as evidenced by the lack of frequent antisemitic acts recorded by the police and the fact that, for example, the Sephardic cemeteries in Belgrade and Novi Sad are open to all visitors during the day. I was told there had been no acts of tombstones devastation, theft, or the use of cemeteries to consume alcoholic beverages, etc., for a long time. Dr. Ruben Fuks, the then chairman of the Union of Serbian Jewish Communities in an interview from April 2016:

(…) anti-Semitism also takes place where there have never been Jews (…) Anti-Semitism in Serbia is not a common phenomenon and rarely occurs. Rather, anti-Semitism is a marginal phenomenon, most often disguised as ambiguous allusions, and is even more often expressed anonymously. The most aggressive anti-Semitism can be observed online (…).”

In Serbia, Jewish cemeteries such as this one in Belgrade are open to visitors without fear of antisemitic vandalism. (Photo: Justyna Michniuk)

This does not mean, however, that Serbia is a country completely free from anti-Semitism. In recent years, the Constitutional Tribunal of the Republic of Serbia has banned the activities of several neo-Nazi and nationalist organizations directed against Jews and other national minorities. One of the most recent cases of antisemitic vandalism reported in the press was the destruction of the Pančev cemetery in December 2017. At night, hooligans invaded the Jewish cemetery and completely smashed 47 matzevot, mostly from the 18th century.

Of course, in the past, Jewish communities in Serbia also existed in other cities. An example is the town of Bor, located about 250 km south-east of Belgrade, with the ruins of a forgotten Jewish cemetery.

During World War II, the Nazis built a labor camp in this city, where about 6,000 Jews and prisoners of other religions from Romania and Hungary were imprisoned and forced to work. Many small Jewish communities also once existed in the north of Serbia, around Novi Sad, Sombor and Kikinda, where today we find neglected little cemeteries that nobody cares about. Here you can recall the small town of Šid, situated on the present Serbo-Croatian border. Before World War II, it was inhabited by 90 Jews, 67 of whom were murdered in Auschwitz. Those who managed to survive never returned to their destroyed homes, but emigrated. In 2014, thanks to the efforts of the Union of Jewish Communities in Serbia and financial aid from a private organization of Israeli farmers, Hitahdut HaIkarim, a monument commemorating its Jewish inhabitants was unveiled in Šid.

There are an estimated 150 Jewish cemeteries in Serbia today, of which only a few are as good as the cemeteries in the cities where Jews still live. This is, of course, related to both the lack of material resources and the shortage of human capital necessary for renovation works.

It is also worth mentioning a Jewish magazine in Serbia called “Jevrejski pregled”, meaning “Jewish Review”. It is a bimonthly magazine published by the Union of Serbian Jewish Communities with the support of the Serbian Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Faith and is also available in an electronic version, which facilitates its distribution among all Serbian Jews interested in everyday life. 

Chabad Srbija is very active bringing Jewish culture and educational activities to Serbia. (Image: Chabad.org)

I would also like to briefly describe the Chabad Lubavich movement – a branch of Hasidism – operating all over the world, and since 2008 also in Serbia, under the name of Chabad Srbija.

Chabad Srbija’s activities include promotion of Jewish culture and educational activities, as well as providing help for people of the Jewish faith living in Serbia or visiting Serbia. The Chabad-run center, opened in 2016 in Belgrade, houses both a synagogue and a yeshiva.

In addition, lectures on Jewish culture and religion, Jewish holidays, etc. are organized for a wider audience. There is also a mikveh for women in the center of Chabad, looked after by the co-founder of Chabad in Serbia, Rabbi Miri Kaminetzky. Another non-governmental organization important to Jewish life is Haver Srbija. It deals with the fight against unfair stereotypes about Jews, antisemitism, discrimination and xenophobia.

The organization focuses on educating young people and adults, which is why it wants to build dialogue between cultures, mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence. Haver Srbija works with high schools, students, teachers, activists of non-governmental organizations, governmental organizations and private individuals. The organization’s educational offer is very wide and tailored to the needs of the above-mentioned groups.

During the calendar year, various cities in Serbia also host cultural events, lectures, film screenings and concerts organized by the Jewish community. A good example is the European Day of Jewish Culture in Novi Sad (Serb. Evropski dan Jevrejske culture u Novom Sadu) or the Autumn Festival of Jewish Culture in Subotica (Serb. Jesenji festival Jevrejske kulture).

Although the number of Jews in modern Serbia is small compared to the pre-war period, they are, through their activity, inherent in this great mix of nationalities, the cauldron to which the Balkan Peninsula has been compared for hundreds of years. Without Jews and their unique traditions, cultural heritage, language and customs specific to the region, Serbia would be much poorer.

It is worth taking a trip not only to the proud capital of Serbia, Belgrade, whose name some sources translate as a white city, analogous to Tel Aviv, but also to smaller towns and cities that hide the richness of Jewish culture and traditions of Jewish settlement dating back to the late Middle Ages. The openness of Jewish Communities, their rich educational and cultural offer, and unique monuments of Jewish architecture are just some of the surprises that await scientists and tourists in Serbia – a country that is always balancing between the Orient and the Occident.

Justyna Michniuk is an experienced journalist, originally from Poland. She was previously published in the Polish Jewish magazine MIDRASZ, and is now writing for the German/Israeli Website hagalil.com and for anyone asking for ‘Jewish topics’.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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