Around the Jewish World: Tiny Yugoslav Jewish Community Has Influence Beyond Its Numbers

When tens of thousands of Yugoslav citizens took to the streets last month in a popular revolt that spelled the downfall of strongman President Slobodan Milosevic, Jews in Subotica were among them.

“We couldn’t bear it any more,” recalled community member Judita Skenderovic three weeks later. “We were all whistling, and fighting and having a revolution.”

She and other Subotica Jews went in a group directly from the Jewish center to join their fellow citizens on the streets of this town 120 miles north of Belgrade.

In doing so, they consciously broke the policy of official political neutrality maintained throughout the Milosevic regime by the Federation of Jewish Communities, the umbrella Jewish organization embracing all of Yugoslavia’s 3,000 Jews.

The federation imposed this ban to prevent political manipulation or exploitation, and also to stress its identity as a nonpolitical organization.

Some Jews, however, including community leaders in Subotica, chafed at the prohibition, fearing that neutrality in the face of Milosevic actually could be viewed as de facto acquiescence.

“From the beginning of the Milosevic regime, most members of the Subotica community were in the opposition, but due to the federation’s policy we were not able to show our feelings publicly,” said Mira Poljakovic, the vice president of the Subotica community.

With about 200 members, the Subotica community is the third largest among Yugoslavia’s eight Jewish communities. Only Belgrade – with more than 1,800 – and Novi Sad, with 600, are bigger.

The city itself, a graceful collection of art nouveau buildings on the Hungarian border, has a large ethnic Hungarian population, and its municipal administration has also been led by political forces in opposition to Milosevic.

The Subotica Jewish community attempted to carry out opposition activity by stretching the envelope of the Federation’s ban on political involvement.

They did this in part by concentrating on social welfare action, establishing two years ago a nonsectarian humanitarian organization called La Benevolencija.

This body was modeled on the organization by the same name run by the Jewish community in Sarajevo, which became one of the most honored and effective nonsectarian aid organizations during the Bosnian war.

“Through La Benevolencija we carried out projects that manifested our disagreement with the Milosevic regime,” said Poljakovic, a lawyer.

Among the most important of these projects was work with refugees in camps in Montenegro, the junior partner republic in the Yugoslav Federation, whose leadership was at odds with Milosevic for several years.

“We first adopted a Roma [Gypsy] refugee camp in northern Montenegro, and later two other camps,” Poljakovic said. “We paid for bread and half a liter of milk a day for each refugee. But the project had to be halted when we ran out of money.”

Recently, she said, the group started working closer to home, providing aid and support to a small camp of refugees from Croatia located near Subotica, as well as to a big local orphanage and to a geriatric center.

The group also ran courses in the English language, helped support an ambulance and drew up a project for including Holocaust education in local middle schools.

“We hope this can be implemented, but so far there is no money,” Poljakovic said.

Money in fact comes from outside contributions. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provides some funding, but most funding for La Benevolencija, as well as some aid packages, comes from citizens groups and women’s groups in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Great Britain.

Jewish women in Subotica in particular have forged strong links with other Jewish women through the International Council of Jewish Women, and they operate a local ICJW chapter.

ICJW president June Jacobs and other international representatives have visited Subotica several times and Subotica women have collaborated in the organization of conferences such as a women’s interfaith meeting held in September in Sarajevo.

Locally, the community is also active. Every day, its soup kitchen, funded by the JDC and Britain’s World Jewish Relief, serves hot meals to about 200 people, including about 60 non-Jews.

The community also sponsors cultural events to which local citizenry at large are invited. Recent events have included promotion of a book on the Ladino language, and an autobiographical work by a well-known author about her Sephardi roots.

“The community is very, very, open,” said local TV reporter Smiljan Njagul. “With their cooperation, we have broadcast reports, for example, on Jewish holidays, or on a Jewish wedding, and we have run interviews with visiting Jewish personalities, like June Jacobs.”

The community, though tiny, did not feel isolated, said member Gustav Blumic.

“If a small community wants to be loved or honored, it has to play some kind of role in the life of the town – in the cultural sphere, in business or in religion,” he said. “We have these contacts, but it’s not enough.”

Economic strife and political turmoil indeed have taken their toll and call into question the very survival of Jewish life in the town.

Many community members are without jobs or exist on tiny pensions – the national average pension is only about 30 dollars a month.

Most young people from the community have left, and even the official president of the community now lives in Budapest. About eight to 10 children attend a Jewish religious elementary school, but all are from mixed marriages. And real religious services are held in the community’s cozy prayer room only on the High Holidays.

“Even if there are be changes for the better with the new political system, I don’t think our young people will return,” said Mira Poljakovic.

Still, she said, this Yom Kippur, “After 10 long years we could devote ourselves to prayer and fasting without wondering and fearing what dreadful things were awaiting us and how many more children will leave our community in search of democracy and work.”

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