Jews of Yugoslavia Avoid Stance on Bosnia

As fighting continues to rage in Bosnia, the Jews of neighboring Yugoslavia are doing their best to avoid taking sides in the conflict.

“Of course, we are against the war,” Aca Singer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, said in a recent interview. “But we do not want to support one side or another.”

There are 8,000 Jews in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which includes the republics of Serbia and Montenegro. The two republics had formed part of the larger Yugoslavia that broke apart in 1991.

At that time, the former Yugoslav Republics of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia declared their independence.

Prior to World War II, some 82,000 Jews had lived in the unified Yugoslavia. About 67,000 — some 82 percent of the community — perished in the Holocaust, leaving only 15,000 survivors.

In Serbia and Montenegro alone, 29,0000 of the 40,000-strong community were killed.

In Croatia, where followers of a nationalist puppet regime actively fought alongside the Nazis in an effort to destroy Jews and Serbs alike in neighboring Serbia, some 20,000 Jews perished in the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp.

Long-simmering memories of the Croatian atrocities committed during the war have created a bond between Jews and Serbs.

The bond remains strong — despite the fact that most of the world community perceives Serbs as having committed the worst human rights abuses during the fighting in Bosnia.

But Yugoslavia’s Jews, playing a delicate game of political acrobatics, avoid pointing fingers at either the Serbs or Muslims.

“There are no good guys or bad guys. It is hard to tell who is more to blame for the present tragedy. They are all guilty,” said Singer, 71, a survivor of both the Auschwitz concentration camp and the Communist prisons of the late leader of Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito.

The fall of communism in Yugoslavia has done much to revive the Jewish community.

Many Jews who had concealed their religion the Tito era have come out of hiding.

Jews are openly joining the community because it provides them with a sense of belonging and because they receive financial assistance. That is a strong inducement for some in the current economic situation, made more difficult by the international economic sanctions levied against Belgrade because of its support for the rebel Serbs in Bosnia.

“Every day we admit new members into the community,” said Rabbi Yitzhak Assiel, a 31-year-old convert who recently returned to Belgrade after more than six years of rabbinicial studies in Israel. “The community has come back of life.”

Some 7,000 Yugolsav Jews have made aliyah in recent years. Those who remain are mostly elderly Jews.

Another task facing the Yugoslav Jewish community is preserving the memory of the past.

Almost an entire floor in the Jewish community building is occupied by the Jewish Museum, which has an extensive exhibit of Jewish history in Yugoslavia dating back to the 13th century.

In a building adjacent to the museum, two women sit across from each other at a table and compare notes from a seemingly endless pile of documents.

Each document contains the personal data of a Holocaust victim. The documents are being gathered together to be sent to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.

It is but another effort to preserve the past in a community that is confronting some grim present-day realities.

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