Around the Jewish World: Yugoslav Jews Welcome Peace, Face Daunting Job of Reconstruction
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Around the Jewish World: Yugoslav Jews Welcome Peace, Face Daunting Job of Reconstruction

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When Yechiel Bar Chaim, the Paris-based Yugoslavia program director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, checked his e-mail last week he found an emotionladen message from a Yugoslav correspondent.

“PEAAACCCE!” the message said. The Yugoslav “Parliament accepted!!!!!!! I AM SOOOOO HAPPPYYY THAT IT IS PEACE!”

The prospect of a halt to NATO’s air war against Serbia came as welcome news to Yugoslavia’s 3,500 Jews, who throughout the NATO campaign have shared the same fears, hardships and concerns as their Serbian neighbors.

“I am desperate, hopeless, and very, very tired,” Belgrade Jewish community activist Misa David told the 600 delegates to the General Assembly of the European Council of Jewish Communities, held in Nice at the end of last month, just days before the Yugoslav Parliament accepted NATO’s terms.

David, and Aca Singer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, were given special permission by Yugoslav military authorities to attend the meeting, where they issued an appeal for an end to the bombing.

“The people in Yugoslavia, including 3,500 Jews, suffer twice — from [President Slobodan] Milosevic’s regime and from the NATO bombing,” David told the gathering.

With peace finally near, Jews now share fears for the future in a country whose infrastructure has been pulverized, whose economy has been shattered, and whose social and political order is in turmoil.

“As a Jewish community, we are trying to prepare a program for the future,” David said in an interview. “But we will need help from all Jewish organizations.

“After the war, there will be an economic catastrophe,” he said. “Factories have been destroyed. We need social help for the elderly and for young people. And for middle-aged people, finding jobs will be a priority.”

Yugoslavia “is a country that is totally disorganized and in ruins,” another Belgrade Jewish community member told JTA by e-mail.

Bar Chaim said the JDC is already planning what action to take if and when peace is finally established.

The scope of what is needed is enormous, he said, and it was not yet clear if economic sanctions would be lifted.

“We are already engaged in raising funds for rehabilitating the Jewish communities in Yugoslavia,” he said.

A first priority, Bar Chaim added, would be to help the Yugoslav Jews currently being hosted in Budapest to return home.

Thanks to a contingency agreement between Yugoslav and Hungarian Jewish leaders, made months before the bombing began, as many as 500 Jews, most of them elderly people, women and children, were able to leave Yugoslavia for neighboring Hungary. About 200 of these people went on to Israel.

Other JDC priorities include:

emergency cash relief for the elderly, who include as many as 800 destitute Holocaust survivors;

new shipments of medicine to replenish the pharmacy in Belgrade, which was set up long before the conflict and was maintained with the help of World Jewish Relief;

refurbishment of the kitchen in the Belgrade community and the possible opening of soup kitchens in the Belgrade and Novi Sad communities; and

expanded non-sectarian medical aid, to supplement medicines already provided for the sick and wounded in the Pristina Hospital and for autistic children in Belgrade.

“Also to be looked at in the days ahead,” Bar Chaim said, “is the resumption of peacetime Jewish life.”

Throughout the NATO campaign, Yugoslav Jewry’s strong central organization helped sustain a semblance of normality for Jews in Belgrade, which is home to two-thirds of the country’s Jews.

Electric power and water were cut, bombs and missiles destroyed buildings, roads and bridges, ear-splitting air raid sirens sent people scurrying terrified for shelters, and food and other consumer goods were either rationed or in short supply.

But Jews kept up a proud facade of business as usual.

This was partly the result of contingency measures adopted months before the air strikes began.

Besides arranging for hundreds of Jews to travel to Hungary, these measures included assembling stockpiles of medicine and other essentials, and making provisions for temporary housing for people afraid or unable to stay in their homes.

“We stopped most communal activities for about a month after the bombing started,” David said, “but then we started up again. All community activities were moved to daylight hours, though, because of the danger of bombing.

“The Maccabi sports club began operating again, the choir went ahead with its rehearsals,” he said. “We even kept publishing the community newsletter.”

Indeed, the April edition of the newsletter reached Rome by normal mail. Its front page was devoted to a March 28 appeal by the Jewish community for an end to the bombing.

Community leaders in Belgrade, David said, maintained daily phone contact with the eight smaller communities in the provinces — including the tiny Jewish community in Pristina, the embattled capital of Kosovo — and provided emergency aid if needed.

Yugoslavia’s Jews, though not strong supporters of Milosevic, tended to share the basic Serbian political position on the war.

As such, they felt isolated from much of the Jewish world. They complained about “one-sided” support by foreign Jews and Jewish organizations for the Kosovar refugees and the NATO bombing campaign.

Some Belgrade Jews also expressed disappointment that the Israeli ambassador to Belgrade closed the embassy and left Yugoslavia shortly after the beginning of the air strikes.

“One week before the bombing began, he said he would be the last ambassador to leave,” said one Belgrade Jew.

“It is difficult for me to understand what the West intended to do with this type of campaign,” one community member, who did not want to be quoted by name, told JTA before the peace accord was reached.

“The NATO attack essentially killed any opposition. It gave Milosevic the excuse to abolish normal civil rights, to impose martial law, tough restrictions on everyone,” the community member added.

“I hate Milosevic, but I hate the bombing — you cannot maintain a pro-Western position when you are under such attack, and I don’t think all this bombing helped the Albanians, either.

“I am very sorry about what happened in Kosovo,” he said, “but NATO is partly responsible. And I don’t see why NATO had to punish all the people in Yugoslavia for Milosevic’s politics.”

He admitted, however, that Yugoslavs, Jewish or not, were largely in the dark about what had happened in Kosovo.

“I know what the Western news reports say, but I cannot believe it. Rationally, I cannot believe what they say has happened,” he said. “Or, probably, we don’t like to believe it.”

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