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Around the Jewish World: in Ruins of Former Yugoslavia, Jews Build Links Across Borders

Amid the still-smoldering wreckage of the former Yugoslavia, a group of committed young Jews is clinging to the dream of a Jewish identity that transcends old conflicts and new national borders. They know their dream could succumb to troubled circumstances, brain-drain emigration or new social and political divisions.

Nonetheless, through the past decade of war, bloodshed and postwar economic disaster, they have kept in touch and — whenever possible — met.

“We still feel as if we are Yugoslav Jews,” said Olga, a 22-year-old student from Belgrade, referring to the days before the breakup of Yugoslavia. “Younger kids don’t feel this; it’s not the same for them. That’s why for years we have been insisting on meeting together.”

Olga was one of a dozen young Jews from Belgrade who came to Zagreb late last month for the group’s latest encounter — a youth seminar that drew nearly three dozen young Jews from Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Bosnia.

For four days, the group met for study sessions, cultural events and social occasions ranging from late-night parties to synagogue services and a community Shabbat dinner led by Zagreb’s 34-year-old rabbi, Kotel Dadon.

They also joined Holocaust survivors at recent ceremonies commemorating the World War II victims of the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp, where Croatian fascists killed 17,000 Jews and scores of thousands of Serbs, Gypsies and others.

“I really felt something at Jasenovac,” Olga said. “We came as a group — and we were the only young people there.”

Arranging Jewish youth meetings has not always been easy, or even possible.

The wars over the past decade at times forced the group to hold their get-togethers on neutral territory — in Hungary, for example, or Vienna.

“Two years ago, it would have been almost impossible for anyone from Belgrade to join us here in Croatia,” said Sasha, a 26-year-old political science student in Zagreb.

In addition to attending seminars and other meetings, the group also maintains an Internet chat list.

The young people’s previous meeting took place in early March at the Jewish community summer camp facility at Pirovac on Croatia’s Adriatic Coast.

Most of the people at the Zagreb seminar forged close links as children during the 1980s — before the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia — when they attended the camp at Pirovac summer after summer.

“We practically grew up together there,” Sasha said.

At the time, Pirovac was operated by the Federation of Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization that served the approximately 6,000 Jews in all parts of the former Yugoslavia.

A vacation at Pirovac was an annual event for many Jewish families. Many of the middle-aged Jews now leading the communities in independent Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Serbia also developed close links during Pirovac holidays.

“I always felt safe at Pirovac,” said Ina, 22, from Ljubljana, Slovenia. “All the adults around were either relatives or friends.”

Said Olga: “When you would spend five days at Pirovac with someone, you know him better than if you go out with someone for two years in Belgrade.”

During the war in Croatia in the early 1990s, the Pirovac facility was confiscated by the new Croatian state. The Croatian Jewish community recently regained title to the camp, and the community and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee have allocated money to refurbish it.

The camp did not encourage religious Jewish practice, but it did instill a sense of Jewish identity and peoplehood among Yugoslavia’s Jews, most of whom were highly secular and assimilated.

Most Yugoslav Jews intermarried, and most younger community members have only one Jewish parent or grandparent.

“My mother is a Muslim and my father is Jewish,” said Gorijan, 17, from Sarajevo. “I was raised with tolerance, and I believe in love. I have two very contradictory religions within me, and I’ll defend both.

“But I feel Jewish — I find myself in Judaism. I had a choice, and I chose.”

Members of the youth seminar said they feel like survivors battling to maintain — and pass on — an identity whose shape is not always clear, under circumstances that conspire against them.

Conflict and economic collapse have prompted hundreds of Jews to leave. Today’s young people say they, too, see little future at home.

“In the past 10 years, we have lost our most qualified young people, our base,” Sasha said. “They left the country, went to Israel or the United States.”

Others dropped out or turned their back on the Jewish community.

One former leader of the Zagreb Jewish youth group married the woman he loved — and converted to Christianity.

Another former Zagreb Jewish youth leader married an Orthodox Jewish woman and became observant — but his bride was American and he moved to the United States.

Many participants at the Zagreb meeting said they want to find Jewish spouses and raise Jewish families.

“The only person I could see spending time with would be a Jew,” Olga said. “I don’t want my children to go through what I did as a child of a mixed marriage — to have to choose. Jewish things mean so much to me that I don’t know if someone not Jewish could share it.”

Ironically, though their group is the most Jewishly connected pool of young Jews in the former Yugoslav states, few think they will find a husband or wife within the group — because of their closeness.

“We all just feel like brothers and sisters,” said Zoran, from Zagreb.

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