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Behind the Headlines: Yugoslav Jews Fly to Israel to Check out New Way of Life

After the Holocaust wiped out 85 percent of their community, some said it was over for Yugoslavia’s Jews. Yet, somehow, they rebounded.

But can they survive another cataclysm?

With NATO air strikes pounding away at their homeland for a third week, the future of Yugoslav Jewry is embarking for Israel.

On Tuesday, 40 young Jews, aged 18 to 35, flew from Budapest for a 12-day getting-to-know-Israel type of trip, courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

It is the first stage of what the agency hopes will become a large-scale aliyah. A second group of 20 was to leave wednesday, with another 90 — mostly families — to follow in a week or two.

Clearly, the immediate priority is for Yugoslav Jews to be out of harm’s way. But if they like Israel, and stay, the future looks bleak for the community back home.

“I’m not a prophet,” said Aca Singer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, who was in Budapest on Tuesday. “But if we continue like this, the Yugoslav Jewish community may not exist much longer.”

Singer, 76, knows the pains of rebuilding.

Among the 67,000 or so Yugoslav Jews killed during the Holocaust were 65 of his relatives. Most of the 15,000 Jews who survived either emigrated or assimilated.

Today — after a decade that has seen the dissolution of the old Yugoslavia, four wars, international sanctions and political repression — the Jewish community claims only 3,000 members.

Singer’s own daughter and two grandchildren made aliyah six years ago.

But with the NATO assault that began March 24, Yugoslav Jewry once again faces an existential threat.

About 250 mostly young Jews have so far fled north for refuge in Budapest, the Hungarian capital. Of those who remain, many are torn over whether to pack it in. The 1,000 or so elderly will likely stay. And all men aged 18 to 60 must now stay, in case the army needs them.

While many Jews feel solidarity with their Yugoslav countrymen, many more will surely rush for the border if NATO sends in ground troops.

As he spoke with JTA, Singer got word via his cellular phone that an anticipated busload of 60 more Yugoslav Jews — scheduled to arrive Wednesday in Budapest — would be bringing 40 Jews, or maybe even fewer.

Such indecisiveness is a classic symptom of wartime duress, said Yechiel Bar- Chaim, the Yugoslavia country director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Bar-Chaim experienced it firsthand during the evacuation of Bosnian Jews from Sarajevo in 1992.

“They’re reluctant to give up their jobs, their homes, and to leave behind what they know,” Bar-Chaim said. “It’s difficult to accept that events are beyond your control and that you will have to become dependent on the good will of strangers in a strange land.”

“It’s a leap from the known to the unknown,” he continued, “and sometimes the devil you know is preferable.”

Indeed, many in the Israel-bound group say they would rather return home than make a permanent life in Israel.

Few are gung-ho about aliyah; if they do it, they say, it may be more out of necessity than desire.

One young man headed for Israel said he’d likely stay for six months of intensive Hebrew studies, than reassess the situation. The fact that his parents remain in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, holds him back.

Returning home “is no longer a question of war; the country is pretty much devastated as it is;” said the man, 19, who like most interviewed asked that his name not be used.

“But I wouldn’t want to make aliyah without my parents. You need support when you go to a new country. However, I think now they’re just as anxious to get out as I was. Nobody wants to look at those fireworks every night.”

Others have real concerns about life in Israel itself.

One woman in Budapest with her son, 13, and daughter, 11, plans to visit later this month with the other families. Although the woman is not Jewish, the children’s father is.

So settling in the Jewish state does not have overriding appeal, she said. More relevant is the fear of Israel becoming entangled in another Middle East war and the lingering image of Russian academics unable to find work other than sweeping streets.

“Every country has its disadvantages, and I’m not expecting to be treated like a princess,” said the woman, 37. “But all I want is to find my place under the sun, where I can work and feel safe and for my children to have opportunities in life.”

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