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Croatian town has proud Jewish history

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ZAGREB, Croatia, Sept. 6 (JTA) — Little over a century ago, the Jewish community of Osijek was the largest in Croatia, bigger even than Zagreb’s.

Now it can barely muster a minyan of 10 young people involved in the community.

Still, that didn’t stop Osijek’s Jews from participating the annual European Day of Jewish Culture last weekend, for the second time in two years.

Community facilities were opened to the general public and valuable paintings and sculptures were exhibited.

Among them was the head of a young girl sculpted around 1930 by Osijek native Oscar Nemon, best known for a huge marble bust of Churchill in London, as well as a sculpture of Sigmund Freud.

With hardly 100 Jews left in a city of 100,000 near the Hungarian border, Osijek’s Jewish community is only a shadow of its former self. In 1880, the community had 1,585 members, and in 1910, when the area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Osijek’s Jews represented nearly 9 percent of the town’s population.

The Jews’ social ascent occurred in less than a century. Grandparents who had been modest manufacturers raised sons who became affluent industrialists. Their children, in turn, became doctors, lawyers, bankers, newspaper editors and artists.

The Jewish community then was wealthy and influential. Many members belonged to the elite social class, living in Osijek’s most beautiful avenue, which today is called European Avenue.

In 1941, the community numbered 3,500. Most were deported to Auschwitz in July and August 1942.

Yet a small remnant of the community survived. Darko Fischer, 63, a professor at the Osijek Electrotechnical Faculty who is president of the Jewish community, survived in Hungary, together with his mother and his sister. His father, an attorney named Alfred Fischer, was killed.

“What I wish is to show the world that the Jews in Osijek still exist and that they are conscious of their heritage,” Fischer said. “I am not so sure whether there is a future for us here in Osijek, because the ambitious young people — including my own son who now lives in Germany — go away in search of better lives and to pursue their own careers.”

Despite the dearth of young Jews in the community, “those Jews that still live in Osijek are doing their best to preserve the tradition,” Fischer said. “All of our grandchildren have been born in mixed marriages, and it will be up to them to decide which religion to choose — and we shall be more than happy if half of them choose to stay Jewish.”

Two years ago Osijek’s Jewish community celebrated 150 years, but it’s uncertain how far into the 21st century it can continue to exist.

Still, the continent-wide initiative for a Jewish cultural day has “encouraged us all to think of our own Jewish identity and to be proud of it,” Fischer said. “Thanks to it, we who still live here in this small Jewish enclave feel a part of the big European community.”

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