Behind the Headlines: Four Years After War Begins, Jews of Belgrade Feel Cut off
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Behind the Headlines: Four Years After War Begins, Jews of Belgrade Feel Cut off

Nearly four years after war broke out among the republics of the former Yugoslavia, the Jews of Belgrade feel cut off from the world.

Since the start of the war in 1991, triggered by the secession of the former republics of Solvenia and Croatia, Belgrade’s bustling and proud Jewish community of 1,800 Jews has had to cope with the same grim realities affecting the rest of the country’s population.

Soon after the war broke out, international trade sanctions were imposed upon Serbia and Montenegro, the two republics comprising what remains of Yugoslavia. The sanctions created shortages of food, medicine and other necessities.

But the Jews of Belgrade, while trying to stem the ruinous effects of trade sanctions and rampant inflation on their own community, have also managed to help others.

Working in conjunction with SAVEZ, the Federation of Yugoslav Jewish Communities, the Belgrade Jewish community has helped nearly 1,000 refuges from the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.

Despite their efforts, most media attention has focused on the Jewish community of Sarajevo, which took on the role of a humanitarian relief agency helping residents of the war-torn city, regardless of their religious or political affiliation.

The Sarajevo Jewish community also garnered headlines after they helped arrange convoys that transported Jews and non-Jews alike far from harm’s way.

In contrast, the Jews of Belgrade, continuing their own non-political humanitarian efforts, found themselves far from the spotlight of the world’s attention.

Jews here also found themselves in a particularly difficult position because Serbia has been portrayed by the international media as the main aggressor in the brutal war in Bosnia, which erupted in 1992.

During a visit late last month by delegations from the American Jewish Joint. Distribution Committee and the Central British Fund for World Jewish Relief, the president of Belgrade’s Jewish community spoke proudly of how Belgrade’s Jew had opened their community center and homes to Bosnian Jewish refugees.

Working with funds as well as guidance from JDC and the British Fund, the community has “received 980 Bosnian Jews over the past three years, and 200 chose to remain with us in Belgrade and Novi Sad,” said the president, Brane Popovic.

“We leave our politics outside the door of this community center,” he said, “and we come here, just as we always did, to be together as Jews.”

The community here has felt particularly isolated since the recent death of the longtime president of SAVEZ, Dr. Ladoslav Kadelburg. His replacement, David Albahari, one of Serbia’s best-known short-story writers, subsequently left for a teaching sabbatical in Canada.

Feeling cut off from the world, the Belgrade community and SAVEZ warmly welcomed the recent visit by JDC and the British Fund.

Both organizations have been supporting all the Jewish communities in the former Yugoslavia during the war.

Their visit to Belgrade was intended to show their support for the ongoing communal efforts, according to representatives of the organizations.

JDC’s relations with Yugoslavia date back to 1933, when it began financially assisting German Jews who arrived here fleeing persecution at home.

Most of Yugoslavia’s Jews were deported or killed during the Holocaust.

Only 6,500 Jews were registered in Yugoslavia after the war-down from a total of some 78,000 prior to 1941. The largest concentration of Jews-with communities of 1,500 each-were in Zagreb, now the capital of Croatia; Sarajevo, the current capital of Bosnia; and Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

Though few in numbers, the Yugoslav Jewish community became one of the most vital small Jewish communities in Europe, with its operations coordinated by SAVEZ’s Belgrade office.

With JDC support, the Yugoslav Jewish community established a summer camp, an old age home and myriad youth and social welfare programs, which became the glue that held the community together in the postwar years.

During its daylong visit to Belgrade in late January, the JDC/British Fund delegation visited most of the programs they support. The JDC was represented by its financial chairman, Jonathan Kolker, and by Norman Tiles, Chairman of the JDC International Committee.

The delegation was hosted by Asa Singer, current president of SAVEZ, and by Popovic.

Popovic, a longtime community member, is typical of the people in their 40s to 50s who have taken over the reins of the community and have been working vigorously to keep local programs operating.

“When sanctions first hit Serbia and Montenegro in 1991 and inflation soared, our efforts were channeled toward cash supplements and later on getting food shipments into Belgrade,” Kolker said as he toured a fully stocked food warehouse located in the basement of a local synagogue.

“But since last year, currency reforms have cut back on inflation, and with a more stable currency, we’ve gone from a high of 500 requests for food packages to less than 300,” he said, referring to the number of needy recipients.

According to Tiles, JDC had arranged food and medical shipments even before the war began, as a precautionary measure.

He said JDC not only sent in goods and cash, but a social worker to help implement the programs.

Singer and Popovic took the delegation through the community’s pharmacy, which was established when drugs became difficult to obtain in local shops.

As part of their efforts, JDC and the British Fund had trucked in requested medicines, along with books on pharmacology.

Nearly half the community’s 1,800 members are older than 50, and many depend on medicines.

The pharmacy, whose shipments are brought in as humanitarian aid under U.N. supervision, also supplied medicines to three small Jewish communities in Banja Luka, Doboj and Grbavica, located over the borer in Serbian-held Bosnia.

All together, the pharmacy fills some 1,500 prescriptions each month, officials here said.

Singer said the community also shares a portion of its medicines with the local population in Belgrade. He said they also see to it that the city’s Gypsy population receives food parcels as well.

Singer said the local Jewish and Gypsy communities had shared warm relations ever since the occupying Nazis killed Jews in a Gypsy neighborhood in Belgrade in 1941. Until today, the Gypsy community commemorates the date with a memorial service held in conjunction with Belgrade’s Jews.

As he hosted the tour, Popovic emphasized the need for children’s welfare programs.

“This is where we must invest,” he said. “Of course, we must care for our elderly, but 20 percent of this community is comprised of children. That means we need to have a summer camp and more activities for our youngsters.”

The former Yugoslav summer camp is located in Croatia, no longer reachable by members of the Belgrade community. As a result, JDC has supplied scholarships for Serbian Jewish youths to attend Jewish summer camps in Bulgaria and Hungary.

During its visit, the delegations toured a new children’s center located inside a synagogue building, where a warren of rooms are now devoted to drawings classes, arts and crafts and a lounge.

Six separate clubs now serve up to 150 children each week.

At another stop, the delegation met with six psychologists who work at a non- sectarian psychological institute.

JDC had provided the psychologists with fellowship that took them to Israel, where they took courses in learning how to deal with stress, war and the hardships of refugees.

During the evening, about 100 local Jews attended a special program for the visitors.

Jovan Shatric, a 16-year-old who spoke both English and hebrew fluently, described how he and his friends were busy rebuilding their teen club.

Nearby sat psychologist Tamara Steiner-Popovic, who is involved in nearly all the local children’s programs.

“During the worst part of the sanctions and the inflation, we learned how to do everything with literally nothing,” she said, nothing that even the simplest things, such as crayons and paper “were out of reach-especially when inflation reduced a person’s monthly salary to $1.50”

Then she smiled. “Those days, it appears, are now behind us and we can begin building our programs again.” she said.

The international community eased its sanctions against Serbia a few months ago, when Serb officials promised to stop aiding the Bosnian Serbs. Among other things, the easing of the sanctions opened up lines of communication and supplies.

Despite the difficulties created by the war, the sanctions and Serbia’s negative image in the international media, the majority of Belgrade’s Jews say they plan to remain.

Dejan Petrovic, a 27-year-old veterinary student who works with the community’s social programs, summed up an attitude prevalent among many here:

“My family has been in Serbia for 700 years,” he said. “They have stuck through everything. I simply won’t be the first to leave.

“Beside, my finance and I are planning a Jewish wedding this spring,” he said, adding that a good friend of his is completing his rabbinic training in Israel and plans to return soon.

(Yugoslavia’s only rabbi, Cadik Danon, is retired.)

Petrovic said of his friend: “He’s coming back soon, and we’re waiting for him. We hope our wedding will be his very first duty.”

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