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Behind the Headlines: in Ethnically Mixed Serbian Town, a Community Recalls Wwii Deportations

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In the gloriously ornate, tragically abandoned synagogue in this ethnically mixed town in Serbia’s Vojvodina province, a Roman Catholic choir sings “Shalom Aleichem” to an audience of Hungarians, Serbs, Croats and Jews.

The song was part of a unique ecumenical service that joined Yugoslavia’s only rabbi, Cadik Danon, with local Catholic, Protestant and Serbian Orthodox clergy in prayers and scriptural readings.

The service was one of the key elements in commemorations held earlier this month to mark the deportation of Subotica’s Jews during World War II.

The commemorations, organized by Subotica city officials and the city’s 250-member Jewish community, honored the memory of 4,000 Subotica Jews deported to Auschwitz and killed 50 years ago.

Held against the background of war and ethnic tension in the former Yugoslavia, the commemoration also stressed the need for tolerance among all religious and ethnic groups.

“It is very important that in an abandoned synagogue there should be prayer again,” said Mirko Vajcenfeld, president of the Subotica Jewish community. “(We hope) this will be a link that brings together the various communities.”

David Albahari, president of the Federation of Yugoslav Jewish Communities, said, “The commemoration gave us the chance to remind others of the importance of memory.

“Memory was really the thing that actually made the existence of the Jewish people possible over all these centuries — the memory of good and bad things without any insistence on revenge if the memories were bad,” he said.

Subotica, located on the border with Hungary, was part of Hungary until World War I and was occupied by Hungary again during World War II.

CITY IS AN ETHNIC MIX

Its more than 5,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz in 1944, along with the Jews of the rest of Hungary. Some 4,000 perished, and most of the survivors emigrated to Israel or elsewhere after the war.

Similar commemorations of the deportations have taken place this year in many Hungarian towns.

Subotica’s 120,000 population is an ethnic mix of Hungarians, Croats, Serbs and others, and the city prides itself on its history of tolerance among ethnic groups — a tolerance that has managed to persist despite the ethnic conflict and polarization in most of the rest of former Yugoslavia.

Today Subotica is one of the few cities in Serbia that is governed by parties opposed to the policies of the central government of Slobodan Milosevic.

Led by Mayor Jozsef Kasza, the city has hosted many peace workshops and promoted efforts to foster tolerance.

The commemoration of the Jewish deportation and a project to restore the synagogue — a glorious example of Hungarian art nouveau architecture built in 1902 — were part of this local commitment to maintain the multiculturalism.

And though the commemorations were partly funded with money from the Serbian government, Serbian and Yugoslav federal officials did not respond to invitations to attend.

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