Behind the Headlines the Jews of Yugoslavia
Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines the Jews of Yugoslavia

Download PDF for this date

Inhabitants of a land with a unique complex of six republics and two autonomous provinces, the Jews of Yugoslavia lead the good life — a life of relative ease, security and almost total non-discrimination. Together with their co-religionists, Moslem, Catholic and Orthodox, they co-exist in harmony and tranquility in a state where no one faith dominates to the detriment of any other.

They are also fortunate in their environment. The land they inhabit is magnificent and replete with scenic contrasts; dazzling panoramic mountains, lakes, rivers, and on the Adriatic, a riviera which puts those of Italy, France and Spain to shame.

Tightly organized within the framework of the Federation of Jewish Communities, some 6,000 Jews may seem a trifling number in a nation of 22 million, but they play a disproportionately large role in the communal life of the country.

The saga of the Jews of Yugoslavia during the shattering period of World War II is one of tragedy and triumph. Numbering 82,000 before the Holocaust, they were reduced to 15,000 by war’s end. But in an era when the Nazis practiced genocide on an unprecedented and incalculable scale, Yugoslavian Jews fought back.


Beginning in 1941, Jews in large numbers joined the partisans in the War of National Liberation. Jewish youth as well, were members of action groups responsible for many acts of sabotage against their Nazi oppressors throughout the country. There were combat units with only Jewish membership.

Their valor in battle was legendary and to this day, honored and remembered. The medical staff of the partisans was almost totally Jewish. Fairly reliable figures indicate that some 4,500 Jews joined in partisan military activities and in the Movement of National Liberation, and that about one-third perished in the battle against fascist forces.

Fifteen of those designated as National Heroes at the end of the war were Jewish and two are still living, and 150 survivors were awarded the Partisan Star 1941. In the Yugoslav Peoples’ Army, 14 Jews reached the rank of general, two of them lieutenant general, two major general and 10 brigadier.

The outstanding Jewish fighter was Moshe Piade, a very close friend and comrade-in-arms of Marshal Tito, and a member of the Supreme Staff of the Army of Liberation. Streets in Belgrade and other cities bear his name, and statues everywhere commemorate this heroic figure who died in the 1960’s while he was President of the National Parliament, ranking almost next to Tito. He helped make it possible for 8,000 Jews to migrate with all their possessions to Israel after 1948.


There are all kinds of relations with Israel except diplomatic. Close commercial ties exist, nonrestrictive tourism between the two nations flourishes. Yugoslav Jews who settled in Israel are constantly returning to visit relatives and friends and the traffic flows both ways. Belgrade and Zagreb Jews are often sent as delegates to congresses and major sports events in Israel.

With the approval of the authorities, the Jewish community in 1985 sent teams to participate in the 12th Maccabia in Israel, and Yugoslavia was the only country in the Eastern and Balkan blocs to do so. Tel Aviv and Zagreb are initiating a twin-city relationship.

Dragan Wollner, president of the Zagreb Jewish community, voiced the hope that diplomatic relations between the two nations would be announced within the next year or two as a for mal expression of the de facto recognition that presently seems to exist.


Although Yugoslavia is a leader of the non-aligned countries and the PLO has an office in Belgrade, the government exerts strict control of the Arab students in the University of Belgrade. There are no anti-Semitic manifestations, nor would they be tolerated were they to occur.

Jewish officials in Belgrade point out that in 1984, when a writer incorporated the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” into a book he was publishing, the Jewish Federation protested to the Supreme Court of Serbia, which promptly prohibited distribution of the volume. The attitude of the press toward Israel is somewhat mixed and varies from one republic to another, but it is on the whole quite favorable. The sentiment of the man on the street is almost universally pro, according to Jewish leaders.

In a theoretically classless society, there are classes and degrees of wealth, according to Andreas Preger, director of youth and education for the federated Jewish communities. He noted that Jews are in the middle and upper range of the economic scale: doctors, dentists, professors, engineers, administrators and businessmen.

Many also serve in high government positions. They play leading roles in the cultural, artistic and intellectual life of the nation. There is a voracious demand, he said, for the works of foreign authors, and the books of I.B. Singer, for example, are sold out as soon as they appear.


A tour of the communities — Belgrade, with 1,500 Jews; Zagreb, 1,400; Sarajevo, 1,200 and Split, about 300 — revealed that the Federation officials in each city are waging a battle for Jewish survival. The number of Jews is shrinking, very slowly but steadily. There is more stability in the large centers, but the smaller communities are diminishing rapidly. Zagreb leaders reported that a census of the Jewish population is now under way and will be shortly completed by the Federation.

In Dubrovnik the “jewel of the Adriatic,” where there had been 350 Jews in the 18th century, only eight are left and not even one family remains intact. Mixed marriages are the rule, not only here, but everywhere. The bitter heritage of World War II was the scarcity of Jewish women as mates for returning Jewish prisoners of war. The sole vestige of Jewish life in Dubrovnik is the exquisite but little-used 14th century synagogue on “Jewish Street.”

Mixed marriages and the secular state are major reasons for the total lack of Orthodox Jews. Most Jews, according to Preger, are non-believers and do not attend synagogue. It was far different before the war, when there were strong Sephardic and Ashkenazic groups with firm religious convictions. Today, there is only one rabbi (Sephardic) in all Yugoslavia. He is based in Belgrade but travels to the various communities to hold services. A significant aspect of Federation activity is its summer camp program. The camp, which is located on the lovely Adriatic coast at Pirovac, north of Split, operates from June to September, and receives some 400 community members ranging in age from 6 to 80, in groups of 80 at a time. In June and September, the elderly take over, but the summer months are reserved for youngsters from 6 to 10, and from 10 to 15.

What is of special interest, is that the Federation also invites youth from such Eastern European countries as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary. The latter country poses a problem in this regard, local Jewish leaders indicated, because the Hungarian authorities fear that their youth will receive Zionist indoctrination at the camp. Still, some young Hungarians attend and their visits are arranged through private channels.


A touching moment during this Balkan odyssey was the visit to the only Jewish old-age home in the country, located in Zagreb. Set in a private park, the handsome building contains well-furnished studio apartments and rooms, spacious lounges, a hospital library, and an elegant, flower-bedecked dining room worthy of a four-star hotel.

The 80 occupants ranging into the upper 90’s are well-dressed, poised and remarkably alert. The respect and devotion accorded them, and the all-pervasive serenity and comfort, might well serve as a model for similar establishments in the United States, where relatively few old-age homes approach the level encountered in Zagreb.

In October of this year, the community is planning a three-day celebration of its 180th anniversary, on the same date when, in 1941, unknown vandals began the destruction of the synagogue, and the Jews of Zagreb were led by the German occupiers to the concentration camps.


Slavko Zvezdic, 79, a resident of the charming coastal city of Split, and the vigorous president of its Jewish community now numbering only 40 families, states: “There were Jews living in my city, together with Greeks and Romans 2,000 years ago at the time when Phoenician traders and sailors flourished here, and before even the Slavs came six centuries later. We’re doing all we can with Jewish activities, seminars, summer camps, little Maccabiads. Perhaps some day we will be only a museum and not a Jewish center at all, but if this happens, it won’t be because we didn’t try. We’re doing all we can to keep the flame of Jewishness alive.”

Still, one leaves this fascinating country strongly impressed by a sturdy, attractive people, with a hard core of Jews in its regional centers, fighting hard to maintain their identity as Jews. The shining example of their indomitable forebears in World War II should stand them in very good stead.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund