Saving Sarajevo: Synagogue offers radio lifeline: An ancient Jewish community is struggling to prevent its heritage from being extinguished

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN A BACK room of Sarajevo's synagogue, Dejan Stojnic fiddled with the ham radio. His goal was to find the frequency of the synagogue in Zagreb. 'Hello Zagreb this is Sarajevo, over,' he shouted. From Croatia the answer shot back. 'Biljana in Zagreb here. Any messages?'

For thousands of Muslims, Serbs and Croats, as well as Jews, Sarajevo's synagogue radio is the only link with relatives outside the besieged city. 'A typical message is we have no food, no water, no power, but are well,' laughed Dejan.

The red-ochre synagogue in the centre of Sarajevo's old quarter, built in 1902, only yards from Serbian and Croat cathedrals and the needle-like minaret of a 16th-century mosque, has not been so busy in years.

While Dejan runs the radio link with Zagreb and Belgrade upstairs, in the hall downstairs a hungry crowd waits for the soup kitchen which feeds 320 people daily. In the office of Ivica Ceresnjes, the Jewish community president, petitioners seek medicine, food and help with sending messages to wives and children outside the city. Over the road, customers crowd the Jewish pharmacy - the best stocked in Sarajevo - from morning to night.

But the synagogue is dusty and neglected. 'The flame of belief is just a little candle now,' said the caretaker, Misel Danon. 'The customs died out years ago. Only old people keep them alive.' There has been no rabbi since 1966, when the last one died.

The bustle of the radio room, the soup kitchen and the chemist conceal the slow death of Sarajevo's ancient Jewish community. 'For the first time since the 17th century there are fewer than 1,000 Jews in Bosnia,' lamented Jakob Finci, head of Bosnia's Jewish charity, La Benevolencija. Of 1,400 Jews in Sarajevo before the war, only 700 remain. More than 600 went to Israel last year, including most youngsters. 'More than half will never come back,' sighed Jakob. 'They will find a new apartment and a good job. Both my two sons are in Israel.'

It is a sad twilight to a community with deep roots in Bosnia. Jews first came to Sarajevo in 1531, after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and years of wandering in the Ottoman Empire. Before they were persecuted by the Nazis, eight synagogues dotted Sarajevo's skyline. Half the Holocaust survivors left for Israel in 1948. Although war was already raging last year, the community celebrated the 500th anniversary of expulsion from Spain last year with dinners and concerts. 'We talked a lot about our ancestors in 13th-century Spain,' said Mr Ceresnjes. 'That was a golden time when Jews and Muslims lived in peace.'

Bosnian Jews cherish their Spanish heritage. Jakob Finci speaks Ladino, the tongue which Jews brought from medieval Spain. They treasure a 14th- century Hagadah, an illuminated holy book from Spain, and one of three left in the world. When the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, Germans came looking for the Hagadah. The Croatian manager of the museum smuggled the book to a Muslim professor, who took it to Mount Bijelasnica, near Sarajevo, where Serbs hid it for four years. It is a tale of the tolerant Bosnia of the past. Now the Sarajevo Hagadah is hidden again.

The fighting has divided Bosnian Jews. Jews in central Sarajevo can speak to friends in Zagreb and Belgrade, but not to 25 Jewish families a few hundred yards away in the Serb-controlled suburb of Grbavica. Jakob cannot even visit his parents' grave - the old Jewish cemetery lies on the Serb frontline. One consolation is that none of the factions in Bosnia's brutal war blame the Jews. 'For the first time in a long cruel history the Jews are not guilty,' Jakob said.

The community use their position as relative outsiders in Bosnia's conflict to bring aid to Sarajevo. Alongside the kitchen and the radio room, La Benevolencija supplies 40 per cent of all medicines used in Sarajevo. The latest project is to bring in 130 wheelchairs. None will be given to Jews. Most will be for Muslims, a fact of which Jakob is proud. 'Many Muslims in Sarajevo sheltered Jews from the Nazis in the war. I cannot forget this fact.'

Outside Sarajevo, shattered communities hang on in Croat-held Mostar, Serb-held Doboj and Muslim-controlled Tuzla. But they face a bleak future if Bosnia is split into three confessionally based ethnic states. 'People of different religions have lived in Bosnia for 500 years and now the politicians want to drive borders through people's bedrooms,' Jakob complained. Few as they are, he fears the departure of the Jews will destroy a vital part of Bosnia's identity. 'Bosnia is a loaf of bread in which Serbs, Muslims and Croats are like wheat, flour and yeast. We are the salt of Sarajevo, and we still give a special smell to this town.'