MADRID (May. 31)
The Spanish government has given temporary refuge to 52 Jews from the war-torn former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Twenty-one of them arrived here last Friday in an operation arranged by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, which had received a request from the Belgrade Jewish community. The rest were due Monday.
The group that arrived Friday had left the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in April with some 300 other evacuees and remained in the Serbian capital of Belgrade until they flew to Spain.
About half of the 1,500 Jews who lived in Sarajevo before the war broke out have left. Before the war, between 5,000 and 6,000 Jews lived throughout Yugoslavia.
Those who have fled are among an estimated 1.5 million former Yugoslav citizens who have left or been forced out of their homes in what is being called Europe’s worst refugee emergency since World War II.
Rosita Iles, who worked at the Jewish Community Center in Sarajevo, led the group and faced reporters at Madrid’s Barajas airport after a weary flight from Yugoslavia.
"You all know what we have gone through," she said. "You have seen it every day in the news. We are very grateful to the Spanish government for their help, for giving us this opportunity to start over."
Flora Iles, Rosita’s mother, said a few words in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language, and ended her comments with "Viva Espana."
A PRECEDENT FOR SPAIN
Upon arrival, the group was greeted by Samuel Toledano, secretary of the Jewish federation, and representatives of several Spanish ministries responsible for taking care of the refugees.
Toledano said the time lapse between the day the federation requested the Spanish government’s aid and the day the first group arrived was just two weeks.
When asked why the Belgrade community requested the Spanish Jewish community’s help, Toledano said, "I suppose being Sephardim it is logical that they come to Spain. They have very strong ties to the country."
According to the Spanish Foreign Ministry, the refugees will remain in Spain from three to six months, or until the situation in Yugoslavia and the breakaway republics settles down. They will be taken in by several of Spain’s autonomous communities.
There were some 75,000 Jews in Yugoslavia before World War II. Eighty percent of them were killed, including 20,000 who perished in Jasenovac, the only death camp in Europe installed outside of areas directly controlled by the Nazis.
The Ustashi — pro-Nazi Croat forces–were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Serbs and Gypsies.
Though in the past Spain has helped Jewish refugees — especially during World War II, when it admitted those with Spanish nationalities–this may be the first time it has taken in refugees solely on the basis of their being Sephardim.
The Spanish constitution allows for Jews of Spanish origin to become citizens after two years.