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Sarajevo Jews Hold Seder During Shaky Cease-fire

Sniper fire punctuated the Hebrew prayers and Ladino songs, as the Sarajevo Jewish community center hosted a seder Tuesday for 200 people, among them the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, religious leaders of the Moslem, Catholic and Orthodox communities and representatives of American Jewry.

The seder was held on the afternoon of the first day of Passover, because a shaky cease-fire provided no protection for those who would venture out into the Bosnian night.

No children asked the four questions or searched for the afikomen; all Jewish children were evacuated months ago.

Seven hundred adults remain in the 500-year-old Jewish community in the Bosnian capital, a year after the fighting broke out in what had been one of Yugoslavia’s most beautiful cities.

They have become accustomed, after a fashion, to the plagues of blood, fire and pillars of smoke mentioned in the Haggadah, as well as to the absence of electricity, water and shortages of food and medicine.

Last year, two days before Passover, when the battle had just begun, the tide of war parted to let out the first group of Jews to be evacuated.

Arrangements were in place this week for another exodus.

But like the children of Jacob, who traveled to Egypt to escape a famine and remained two centuries, the remaining descendants of the Spanish exiles who found refuge in Sarajevo are in no hurry to depart.

The leaders of the Jewish community organization, the Benevolencia, turned down the offer by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to depart their besieged hometown.

“Partly, they feel they’ve been there for 500 years and want the community to continue,” JDC Executive Vice President Michael Schneider explained in a telephone interview from Sarajevo.

“Partly, they feel they are playing such a critical role in rendering aid, particularly medical aid, to the general population,” he added.

NON-SECTARIAN AID PROVIDED

It was the JDC that brought in matzah, wine and 1,000 eggs for the seder.

All governments in the region helped out in the JDC’s effort to bring Passover to Sarajevo.

Beyond its aid to the Jewish community, the JDC has been supplying aid on a non-sectarian basis to the general population: 200 tons of medicine in recent weeks.

The aid is distributed through the Jewish community center. As if protected by the mezuzah on its doorpost, it has become a neutral zone, set off from the forces fracturing the rest of the country into Moslem, Catholic and Orthodox components. All three groups were represented at the seder.

Present was Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic; the chief Moslem clergyman, Rais-ul-Ulama Hagi Yakub Efendi Felimoski; Catholic Archbishop Monsy Vinko Pulijc; Orthodox Cardinal Kristan Biyelac; as well as the heads of the Jewish community, Ivica Ceresnjes and Jacob Finci.

“We are not here as politicians or managers or bureaucrats,” Schneider said at the beginning of the seder, “but as Moslems and Christians and Jews who join with the Jewish community of Sarajevo to celebrate the Passover, which is the symbol of freedom for all mankind.”

The night before, through radio and telephone hookup, the leaders of the Sarajevo Jewish community spoke with lay leaders of the JDC and the United Jewish Appeal gathered at their seders in Ohio, Connecticut, Michigan and elsewhere.

When Schneider asked his hosts in Sarajevo how the situation was on the first day of Passover, he was told, “It was a good day. Only five killed, only 31 wounded.”

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