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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Yugoslav Jews decide whether it’s safe to go home, fear backlash

BUDAPEST, June 21 (JTA) — With peace coming to Yugoslavia, now comes the tough part for many of the roughly 500 Yugoslav Jews who fled the country during the three-month conflict over Kosovo: Return home or settle abroad? For some of the 130 refugees in Budapest, the decision was a no-brainer. Once it became apparent that peace would indeed stick, 40 headed back to Yugoslavia last Friday — most aboard a rented bus; others on their own. They were desperate to check in on their families, their property — and to return to their normal routines. Their decisions came despite concerns about the country’s tense political climate and dire economic situation — or how they would be received after leaving their homeland in its darkest hour. “We wanted to see if peace had really been established, or whether it was for one day and would change overnight,” said one woman from Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital. “After all we’ve been through, we wanted to feel some sparkle of certainty. No one’s talking about politics. We’re just emotionally tied up with going back to our homes.” As for the remaining Yugoslav Jews still in Budapest, both the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee are urging them to go home by the end of the week. The JDC has covered most of their costs in Budapest, including accommodations at the $37-per-night Park Hotel. “The Joint’s basic position is that the bombing has stopped, and unless there is a very good reason for staying, they shouldn’t,” said Yechiel Bar-Chaim, the Paris-based JDC representative for Yugoslavia. Of the remaining 90 here, another busload of 40 was slated to leave for Belgrade in the coming days. Thirty-five more are scheduled to fly this week to Tel Aviv, where they will begin new lives. Meanwhile, 35 to 40 Yugoslav Jews already in Israel have decided against aliyah. They will fly back to Budapest this week, then go on to Belgrade. Israel had taken in up to 250 Jewish refugees during the crisis. Only a handful of those now in Budapest have asked the JDC to stay on longer, mostly to arrange for visas. The JDC’s priority now, said Bar-Chaim, is relief for the 3,000-plus Jews in Yugoslavia. The JDC plans to provide cash grants for the elderly, maintain the community pharmacy, operate soup kitchens and possibly create a small-business development project. The JDC will also pay for 100 Yugoslav Jewish children to attend the Szarvas summer camp in Hungary, giving preference to those who endured the 78 days of NATO airstrikes. Then there’s the coming winter, and the likelihood — for Serbs, Albanians and Jews alike — of confronting harsh conditions with insufficient heating, electricity and water. However, among all the uncertainties facing Yugoslavs, one is specific to the Jewish community: whether there will be a backlash of domestic anti-Semitism for the role in the U.S.-led airstrikes played by American policymakers of Jewish origin, such as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, whose father is Jewish, although he is not. Jews in Yugoslavia and Macedonia — another country profoundly affected by the conflict — fear there will be a backlash. This makes last Friday’s arson attacks on three synagogues in Sacramento, Calif., even more ominous. Leaflets left by those responsible blamed the “International Jew World Order” and the “International Jewsmedia” for triggering the NATO attack against “Slavs” and “Serbian Christians.” While Yugoslav Jews report no official anti-Semitism, they note a tendency to blame all Americans, or all Britons, for the air campaign spearheaded by their governments. So it would be logical, they say, that all Jews would be blamed for the actions of Albright and her colleagues. “It’s possible that Serbs and others would make that connection because everyone knows they’re Jewish,” said one Yugoslav Jewish woman, who arrived in Budapest only earlier this month. “It’s something my parents and I have talked about a lot, though my mother may be a bit paranoid about it because she was in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.” “People in Yugoslavia are angry, they want to blame someone,” added the woman, a primary school teacher. “A colleague of mine said, ‘Why are you wearing Levi’s and those Nikes? They’re American.’ ” Still, if this 35-year-old woman decides to emigrate, it will have been economics that weighed more heavily than anti-Semitism in her decision. Right now, she’s leaning toward Israel. And considering her finances, it’s clear why. As a teacher, she earns the equivalent of only $60 a month. Half goes for utilities for the apartment she owns, such as heating, water and electricity. The rest is for food, which forces her to rely on the financial support of her parents and boyfriend. “The economic situation was already terrible before the war, especially for teachers,” said the woman, who has an older sister already in Israel. “Now we’re at the very bottom. If it can get worse than now, I cannot imagine.” Other Yugoslavs are already saying their last goodbyes. A young Jewish woman and her Serbian husband at the Park Hotel are awaiting word on their visa applications for Australia. The husband has a cousin there. The woman will soon head to Belgrade to pick up the visas, and on the way back bid farewell to her parents. She said it may be at least a couple of years before they see each other again. “There’s no future for us in our country,” said the woman, 25, a cosmetician. “Financially, my parents cannot help us, and we cannot help them. They know we won’t meet again for a long time, but we can’t do anything about that. They know it’s the only solution. “If we don’t go now, we may never go. I only wish we’d left sooner.” Indeed, many parents — Jewish and non-Jewish — are urging their children to seek better opportunities outside Yugoslavia. Among them is Ljiljana Kararo, 52, a Serbian woman who rents an apartment in Budapest but often visits the Park Hotel to chat with her Jewish friends from Belgrade. Kararo’s daughter, a 28-year-old lawyer, recently emigrated to Israel with her Yugoslav Jewish husband, and is in the process of converting to Judaism. Meanwhile, her son, 22, is with her husband in his hometown of Dubrovnik, Croatia. Kararo herself plans to stay in Budapest indefinitely — as long, she says, as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic maintains his destructive grip on power. “This situation is very, very difficult, and every day I cry in my room,” said Kararo, an economist and local political activist. “But never mind emotions, because rationally, I’m thinking about what’s best for my children. And I’m very happy that they are living in safety and will be working for a regular salary.”