Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines: Yugoslavia’s Jews Celebrate, but Warn Recovery Will Be Hard

The reaction of Yugoslav Jews to last week’s dramatic downfall of Slobodan Milosevic could be read in the jubilant titles of e mails they sent to friends.

“Victory,” said one, after opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica was inaugurated Saturday as president. “We are free,” said another.

But as Yugoslavia s 3,000 Jews looked forward to an end of Serbia’s isolation and economic hardship, they stressed that the fate of their community was closely linked to the fate of Yugoslavia as a whole. They — and outside Jewish observers — warned that the depth of Yugoslavia’s crisis meant that recovery would be a long, hard process.

“I am not sure everything is behind us,” said Mira Poljakovic, of the Jewish community in Subotica, in northern Serbia.

Still, she added in an e-mail Sunday, “This Yom Kippur, after 10 long years, we can devote ourselves to prayer and fasting without wondering and fearing what dreadful things are awaiting us and how many more children will leave our community in search of democracy and work.”

At a Jewish community function this weekend, she said, “all the faces were smiling and full of hope that all will turn to the better — and that means it will be better for the Jewish community, too.”

Brane Popovic, a former president of the Belgrade Jewish community and a longtime opponent of the Milosevic regime, agreed.

“There will be a definite improvement of life for Jews, but in the same way and along the way as it will happen to the others,” he said in an e-mail.

“We all hope that democracy (meaning `no oppression’) has come.”

He noted that while Kostunica is known as a Serbian nationalist, he has broadened his language to be more inclusive when speaking about the people of Serbia.

“He is mentioning everybody now, talking about `all the nationalities'; and we (Jews) are, I suppose, included in that definition,” said Popovic.

He and others predicted that Kostunica would treat Jews equally as other citizens and noted that one of Kostunica’s leading aides, Zarko Korac, is from a Jewish family.

Popovic took active part in the demonstrations last week that culminated in Kostunica’s inauguration.

“I was in the streets,” he said. “Of course I was, how could I miss the finale when for years I trod the streets with thousands of others, all the time hoping that this day will come.”

“We are really free, for the first time in the life of most of us,” said Popovic, who is 53.

“Trying to describe the feeling, `disbelief’ and `emptiness’ are probably the closest words I can use,” he said. “It will still take some time for the feeling to sink completely in on us.”

From the beginning of the Yugoslav crisis more than a decade ago, Yugoslav Jews were caught somewhere in the middle.

The close knit Jewish community in the former Yugoslav Federation was divided when Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Macedonia broke away and became independent during a series of bloody wars.

Fearing manipulation, the Jewish Federation in rump Yugoslavia took a deliberate position not to rock the boat — it refrained from official political positions.

Popovic, in fact, came under fire from others in the community when he attempted to take an open Jewish position against Milosevic almost four years ago, when student-led demonstrations swept across Belgrade.

In the wake of the ouster of Milosevic, several Jewish leaders have sharply criticized the official Jewish position. One Jewish leader described it as “falsely neutral.”

In Subotica, long a center of the opposition, Mira Poljakovic said that Jews went from the synagogue to demonstrate in favor of Kostunica after Rosh Hashana services.

“Now the whole town knows that Subotica Jews are not cowards and that they, too, want to overthrow this regime and have democracy introduced in our country,” Poljakovic told the London Jewish Chronicle before Milosevic’s ouster.

“The Yugoslav wars first physically divided what was a small but close community, then they challenged their sense of identity and loyalty, with those in Croatia and those in Belgrade being pressed to support the actions — and ethnic feelings — of the respective nationalist forces,” Rabbi Andrew Baker, European affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, told JTA.

Baker noted that democratic changes came swiftly in Croatia after the death last year of President Franjo Tudjman.

“We have already seen a remarkable change in Zagreb since the death of Tudjman and the new government there, and we can hope for the same now in Belgrade,” he said. “It will certainly be easier for these former Yugoslav Jewish communities to come together again.

“Their own future has been difficult to predict, since the communities themselves were already small, but the economic boycotts, physical isolation and the departure of young people were making a viable Jewish community life even more difficult,” Baker said.

The economic hardships, in fact, are sure to continue as winter sets in — and this will be a major challenge.

“Even with the change of government and the prospective lifting of sanctions, the situation will not change any time soon,” said Yechiel Bar-Chaim, the director for Yugoslavia of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

About 1,500 Yugoslav Jews live in Belgrade. The others live in seven much smaller scattered communities.

At the beginning of October, the JDC opened soup kitchens in all but one of the communities. They were targeted to serve a total of some 750 hot meals a day, five days a week.

Also, next week two experts from Israel will conduct in Belgrade a three week seminar in entrepreneurship and small business development.

Jewish communities in neighboring countries — like the governments in those countries — are closely watching developments in Yugoslavia.

“I think that now the circle is closed,” said Jakob Finci, a leader of the Jewish community in Sarajevo. “It was he who started everything in Belgrade, and now the war in the Balkans is finally over.

“In Bosnia, we are hoping that in Serbia not only faces, but also policy, will change,” he added. “Even the Serbian opposition did not blame Milosevic for starting the wars but only for losing them. It will take some time to `denazify’ Serbia, and it is time to start now. Cooperation with the international community and the tribunal in The Hague is essential.”

Brane Popovic hopes Milosevic gets tried for crimes against humanity in The Hague — but wants to see him tried and punished in Yugoslavia itself, first.

“He is ours and he did immense harm to this people, too,” he said.

Id

NEXT STORY