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Behind the Headlines: Yugoslav Jews Living in Budapest Worry over Whether to Return Home

As NATO officials attempt to get their Yugoslav counterparts to agree to their terms for a cease-fire, the Yugoslav Jews who sought haven here are beginning to contemplate what life will be like if they return home.

For many of them, there is the looming concern of how they will be received in Yugoslavia.

Shortly upon their arrival here after the NATO strikes began in late March, they feared that the exodus of 500 of Yugoslavia’s 3,500 Jews would spur resentment among their neighbors.

But now that fear may not materialize, given the fact that some 200,000 Serbs have reportedly fled the bombardment as well.

Instead, there are now rumors here that some people in the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade are alluding to the Jewish origin of several American policymakers involved with the air strikes — including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.

“Serbs have never had any particularly strong anti-Semitism — except from some hooligans and a bit during the war” in Bosnia, said one elderly man.

“But now we have to be careful, because many of the Americans involved are Jewish somehow. We hear that some extreme Serbs are saying that this is a war of Jews against Serbs.”

This man, like others here, is cautious about the future.

After the air strikes come to an end, he plans to wait a week or two to see how events unfold.

He fears, for example, a power struggle that will erupt into civil war between supporters and opponents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Analysts, meanwhile, warn about two other scenarios: a coup in Montenegro, the tiny republic that, along with Serbia, now makes up Yugoslavia; and ethnic conflict in Vojvodina, a province in northern Serbia that borders Hungary and has a large Hungarian minority.

Nevertheless, once the dust settles in the current conflict, many of the older Jewish refugees in Budapest will eagerly return home.

Not so for the younger generation, most of whom are already considering life after Yugoslavia.

Earlier they had been skeptical about emigrating to Israel. But the steady destruction of their country — on top of a decade’s worth of war, sanctions and oppression under the thumb of Milosevic — has clinched their decision to move on.

Up to 250 Yugoslav Jews are already in Israel, while 50 to 100 are with family around the globe.

Still, Israel seems the best bet for the younger Jews here.

Anna, a 21-year-old geography student from Belgrade, is among those contemplating aliyah.

Her father, an architect, emigrated to Beersheba in 1991. Her older brother later joined him. Anna’s mother, on the other hand, has stayed in Belgrade throughout the NATO bombardment.

She urged Anna to flee to Budapest a month ago, and now wants her to join her father in Israel.

Complicating matters though, is that Anna’s boyfriend of six years is not Jewish. So they’ve decided to marry and give Israel a try together.

“There was a little bit of romance to it,” said Anna, “but it was more like, `Well, now we have to get married.'”

Leaving behind her mother and friends will be difficult, Anna said. But she is also conflicted about abandoning her homeland on the eve of a grueling reconstruction process.

“I have only one life to live, so I want to try to live it as good as I can,” she said. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m selfish. I’m not sure. Maybe if I knew I have a second life, or third or fourth — but there’s no proof of that. So I need to take care of this one.”

Meanwhile, as the Yugoslav Jews here contemplating their options, news reports about the lack of progress in the cease-fire talks have turned their lives into an emotional roller coaster.

Last week, as word spread that peace was finally at hand, many of the 130 Jews at the no-frills Park Hotel rushed to pack their bags for the bus trip home. They even planned to celebrate with wine and beer.

But the joy was fleeting.

Talks broke down over the weekend as NATO officials blamed the Yugoslav side – – already notorious for its broken promises — for failing to hold up its end of the bargain.

On Monday, in the Park’s dimly lit lobby, a crowd of mostly older women sat on the burgundy, faux-leather couches, somberly speculating about the future.

One middle-aged woman, emerging from a beginners Hebrew class held in the dining room, summed up their gloom.

“Today is the worst day since the bombing began, in terms of wishes and hopes and optimism,” said the woman, a lawyer whose 17-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter are now safely in Israel.

“A Hungarian friend told me ‘Mazel Tov! There’s peace!’ But we see that was premature. We thought we’d finally seen the light at the end of the tunnel, but now we realize the light may be further away than we thought.”

To these refugees, the issue is no longer the status of Kosovo and who is responsible for triggering the flight of up to 1 million Kosovar refugees.

Instead, like many of their compatriots back home, they simply hope that the bombings will soon stop.

“Just give NATO whatever it wants, even if we have to surrender completely,” said a 61-year-old man at the Park Hotel.

“What can we do? We can’t fight against the whole world. It’s like a small boxer against Mike Tyson — it’s better to not even get in the ring.”

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