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Map of Bosnia and Croatia, please click!Devastation wreaked by the Holocaust and the recent civil war has left fewer than 5,700 Jews in former Yugoslavia. The Jewish community, like the entire country, was once defined by its unique combination of eastern and western traditions. Populations of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews peacefully co-existed in cities like Sarajevo, alongside their Christian and Muslim neighbors.

To date, this unique Jewish culture has never been systematically studied and its remnants are disappearing rapidly. Without the presence of a concerned population, many synagogues have been destroyed and sacred objects looted or sold. The Center for Jewish Art has set documentation of the remaining Jewish national treasures and landmarks as a priority.

Documentation Expedition 1998

Two expedition teams were sent to survey and document synagogues and cemeteries in Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia/Herzegovina and Dubrovnik and Split in Croatia. Three significant sixteenth century synagogues were documented. The Old Temple in Sarajevo was originally built in 1581 to serve the growing numbers of Jews coming from other parts of the Ottoman Empire. While the building was allocated by the City Museum as a Jewish Museum, it is used today as a storeroom.

Old Temple Synagogue in Sarajevo

Located in the historic site of the Jewish Quarter of Sarajevo, Velika Avlija, the Old Temple Synagogue was damaged by fire in 1697 and again in 1788. In 1965, when the building was transformed into the Jewish Museum, the walls were stripped of their decorations.
Four other synagogues were documented in Sarajevo, including the Ashkenazi Synagogue, the only functioning synagogue in Sarajevo today. Constructed in 1902 on the south bank of the river Miljacka, its highly decorated neo-Moorish or Mudejar style was very popular in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1966 the synagogue was divided horizontally into two levels. Ashkenazi Synagogue in Sarajevo, 1902

Ashkenazi Synagogue in Sarajevo

One can still imagine the grandeur of the original synagogue with its high, ornate ceiling, highlighted by a ten-pointed star, its enormous arches and richly painted decorations, and its women's galleries supported by columns. Today the synagogue is in the women's galleries on the upper floor. At the entrance to the synagogue, a stone menorah commemorates the 400-year anniversary of the Jews in Bosnia.

The Great Synagogue, consecrated in 1930, was once one of the largest synagogues in all the Balkans. In 1966, after decades of abandonment following partial destruction in World War II, it was offered to the city of Sarajevo as a cultural center. In renovations most of the exterior and interior decorations were discarded, leaving only the dome and a few windows in the interior courtyard from the original design.

Researchers also documented cemeteries and cemetery chapels in Sarajevo, Dubrovnik and Split. Located on a hill above the city of Sarajevo, the Old Sephardi Cemetery was established in 1630 on land originally rented from the Moslem Waqf. During the Austro-Hungarian era, a railroad was constructed through the middle of the cemetery, and today only the upper half remains, with about 3,800 graves. When the old Ashkenazi cemetery was closed in 1959, the remnants of 900 buried there were exhumed and transferred to this cemetery, under a common monument.

Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo The shape of the tombstones in the Sarajevo cemetery is unusual. The monolithic rounded forms recall to some extent gravestones of the Bogumils, a Nestorian Christian schismatic sect, who lived in the region between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea until the arrival of the Ottomans. Most of the stones are inscribed both in Hebrew and Judeo-Spanish, with epigraphs written in poetic form. Directly on the line between Serbs and Bosnians, the entire cemetery endured great damage during the last civil war. Fortunately, due to previous
documentation by the City Institute for Protection, Preservation, Restoration and Conservation of the Cultural and Historic Heritage, the contents and appearance of the cemetery were carefully recorded.
The Center's researchers documented the present cemetery chapel in Sarajevo (left), a two story octagonal structure built in 1926. Recent heavy artillery damage and water seepage have caused rapid deterioration of the building. The Cemetry Chapel in Sarajevo
What distinguishes the ornate Dubrovnik Synagogue is its dynamic interaction with its history. Originally built circa 1537 on the second floor of a building owned by the Tolentino family, it enabled congregants to attend evening services in spite of night curfews in the ghetto through a network of passages to adjacent houses constructed in 1652.
Synagogue in Dubrovnik, interior, late 17th c. Its present Italian baroque appearance dates to the second half of the seventeenth century, following restorations made after an earthquake in 1667. The Torah ark, with its Corinthian columns, is probably from the early nineteenth century. During World War II, Emilio Tolentino hid the ark by sawing it into several
sections. Pieced together after the war, its divisions are imperceptible. During the recent civil war, while the heavily damaged building was under repair, sacred and ceremonial objects from the synagogue were sent to New York for display, and finally returned home in 1998.
The Split synagogue, dating back to the beginning of the sixteenth century, is still in use today. Situated at the entrance to the former ghetto, within the walls of the northwestern part of Diocletian's palace, the building had been a church before it was rented and later sold to the Jews. Synagogue in Split, interior, 1728

Repeatedly damaged by fire and earthquakes, its present appearance dates to 1728, when baroque elements, such as the small oval windows, were incorporated into the structure.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, even before their synagogue was founded, the Jews of Dubrovnik rented a small plot outside the city walls and established a cemetery that existed until 1911. A second one was established in the suburb of Boninovo at the beginning of the nineteenth century and is still in use.

One of the oldest cemeteries in this part of Europe overlooks the city of Split, on the eastern slope of Mount Marjan. Founded in 1573, it has been in use for four centuries. All of its 650 tombstones are marked with Hebrew texts. Today its chapel, built in 1892, is used as a restaurant.

Documentation Expedition 1999

The Center for Jewish Art's 1999 expedition team returned to Bosnia/Herzegovina and Croatia to further explore the former home of almost one-third of post-World War II Yugoslav Jewry. Unhappily, with few exceptions, the researchers found little cause for rejoicing. In view of the desperate state of Jewish sites, their mission was all the more urgent.

Synagogues, nationalized or confiscated by the previous regime, are collapsing from decades of neglect and recent warfare or have been converted to secular use. Not one of the synagogues documented during this expedition functions according to its original intention. Some have been unrecognizably altered into apartment buildings, a dry cleaning shop, and a Red Cross station; only those used for cultural purposes have been maintained. Some have been converted to churches, such as the converted synagogue in Osijek, today a Pentacostal church, which still bears a resemblance to the original structure, both in its interior and exterior.

The fate of Jewish cemeteries is equally distressing. One which researchers located is being used as the local garbage dump. In larger Slavonian cities though, where cemeteries of various faiths are situated side by side, Jewish cemeteries are sometimes preserved.

In the city museums of Zenica and Travnik and within the Jewish community in Osijek, the Center's researchers documented three small collections of ritual objects. The collection in Zenica included silver Torah finials dated 1896, Hanukah lamps, and Torah staves with mother-of-pearl inlays. In the Travnik museum, researchers found silver artifacts, including Esther Scroll cases and a silver prayer book cover. They are thought to be from one of the city's oldest Jewish families. This cache was recently discovered while digging the foundations of a new house in 1989. The few remaining ritual objects of the Osijek Jewish community included a red velvet Torah mantle, dated 1902, a silver Torah pointer and a pair of silver Torah finials.


Ten synagogues, primarily in Bosnia-Herzegovina were documented. They are in a woeful state of disrepair.

Synagogue in Zenica, 1906

Zenica Synagogue (left): Zenica is a town boasting a Jewish community of forty-five members. The neo-Moorish synagogue, built in 1906, is today a city museum.

Rogatica Synagogue (right): Built and consecrated in 1928, this small synagogue has been out of use since 1941, when almost all the Jews of the town (54 prior to World War II) were killed.

Synagogue in Rogatica, 1928

Travnik Synagogue: Built in 1860, it has functioned since World War II as a metal workshop.

Visegrad Synagogue: Built in 1905 and confiscated after World War II, the simple building with its plain facade serves today as headquarters of the local Red Cross.

Zvornik Synagogue: This mixed Sephardi and Ashkenazi community built a synagogue in 1902, which is today a private dwelling. Although there are no recognizable signs of its origins from the building's exterior, the wooden painted ceiling, visible in the attic has been retained.

Tuzla Synagogue: Once the location of two Jewish communities with separate synagogues, today only the small Sephardi prayer room remains. Confiscated in 1950, this poorly maintained structure now houses a dry cleaning shop owned by a Palestinian refugee of 1948. Tuzla's community of 112 has no place to pray.

Derventa Synagogue: Built in 1911 in the neo-Moorish style, it has been altered into a private house. Across the street is a spring called "Temple," which possibly served as the mikveh (ritual bath). No Jews remain in Derventa.

Sisak synagogue: Built in 1880 and confiscated in 1949, the synagogue is currently used as a music school.

Entering Croatia, researchers documented a synagogue in Osijek. Prior to World War II the population of the Jewish community numbered more than 3,000. The city had been the center of the Zionist movement in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The destruction of the Jewish community in 1941, failed to extinguish all Jewish life. Currently, there are 120 members who have a community center and prayer hall where religious services are held for the holidays.

The lower Osijek synagogue, built in 1903, was converted in 1970 into a Pentecostal church. Although crosses decorate the main facade, there are also Tablets of the Law over the entrance. The building, combining neo-Romanesque with neo-Moorish elements, has two side towers with separate entrances and staircases which once led to the women's galleries. Its Torah ark crowned by Tablets of the Law, remains in place, as well as the Stars of David in the round windows of the women's gallery. Synagogue in Osijek, 1903
Synagogue in Daruvar (1860), present view The synagogue complex in Daruvar, including the Rabbi's house and "heder," date to 1860. The synagogue, confiscated in 1948, was radically reconstructed in 1951 and converted into a theater; all Jewish symbols were removed. The synagogue is presently undergoing renovation by a Pentecostal church. The research team was able to document the synagogue as well as the adjoining Rabbi's house, which is currently empty. The accompanying archival photograph shows the original appearance of the synagogue.
Archival photograph of the synagogue in Daruvar

Cemetery Chapels

The expedition team documented five cemetery chapels, all in Croatia, in Slavonski Brod, Dakovo, Vukovar and Osijek. These structures remain, in many places, the only witness to the once thriving Jewish communities.

The chapel of a cemetery in Slavonski Brod established in 1880 by a predominantly Ashkenazi community is seriously neglected. In Djakovo, the cemetery chapel and its accompanying 700 tombstones are all that remain of the Jewish community. A memorial to the victims of the nearby concentration camp is located in the center of its neo-Romanesque chapel.

The cemetery in Vukovar, established in 1850, is well kept. The chapel, an impressive structure, was damaged in the last war, following a long period of neglect. The modest chapel in the lower town of Osijek, established in 1860, has been repaired after damages in the last war, however no decoration survives.

Cemetery Chapel in Osijek, 1850

The neo-classic cemetery chapel of upper Osijek emerged relatively unscathed from recent warfare. It is situated amongst 500-600 monuments in a cemetery dating back to 1850.

In addition, a total of nineteen cemeteries were surveyed, most dating from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century: Zenica, Travnik, Jajce, Rogatica, Visegrad, Vlasenica, Zvornik, Tuzla, Gracanica, Doboj and Derventa in Bosnia/Herzegovina and Slavonski Brod, Dakovo, Vinkovci, Vukovar, Osijek, Nasice, Daruvar and Sisak in Croatia. For the most part, tombstones are unadorned and the cemeteries are neglected. In rare cases, as in Jajce and Rogatica, the cemeteries are well tended by caretakers, who believe their work important and "good for the soul."

The news of the upcoming visit by an Israeli research team spurred a frenzied clean-up of the city garbage dump in Vlasenica, which covered the tombstones. And as they did at all cemeteries, the team recited Kaddish, the mourner's prayer, in Visegrad for the husband of Mrs. Romano, the town's sole Jewish survivor.

In every city visited, Center researchers established warm relations with local authorities who, in turn, provided access to all sites of interest. They also made contact with local archivists and private persons, through whom they obtained archival photographs and documents concerning the sites they were documenting as well as synagogues no longer in existence. The team also obtained valuable video footage concerning Jewish heritage in Croatia from Croatian television.

The havoc and uncertainty of the recent civil war, has forced Jews to reconsider their future in the Balkans. Those who have decided to stay lack the financial strength to protect or maintain the heritage of the once rich and numerous Jewish communities. Without energetic measures on the part of the world Jewish community, the fate of priceless examples of Jewish art will be sealed.

This expedition was made possible with the generous support of Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation in cooperation with the Project Judaica Foundation of Washington, D.C., Mark Talisman, President, and UNESCO. The project 'Documenting Jewish Art in Former Yugoslavia' was supported by a grant from The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Inc.  





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