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Croatia census reflects Jewish realities

ZAGREB, Croatia, July 14 (JTA) — Croatia’s recently issued census for 2001 appeared to indicate that some of the nation’s Jews are unwilling to admit their background. The census indicated that 576 people described themselves as Jews “by ethnicity,” but only 475 described their religion as Judaism. Given that there are 2,000 registered members of Croatia’s nine organized Jewish communities, the results showed there were many people who sought another self-description. The issue of how many Jews there are among Croatia’s population of 4,437,460 is more than academic. As an official minority group, Jews are eligible for aid from the state, including money for a kindergarten, retirement home, newspaper and a variety of Jewish cultural projects. Jewish leaders have long been worried that their status with the government could be lost as fewer declare themselves as Jews. Before the census was held, Ognjen Kraus, president of the Zagreb Jewish community, wrote a letter appealing to Jews to mark “Jewish” on their census questionnaires. Just the same, he was not surprised by the results. “One should take into account that more than 90 percent of the members of the Jewish community have been born in mixed marriages and have married a non-Jew,” two factors that would lead them to define themselves non-Jewishly. Since 1945, most Jews in Croatia declared themselves as Yugoslavs. But after Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia, they preferred to remain ethnically uncommitted rather than officially declare themselves as Jews. In the country’s 1991 census — like this time around — only about 600 people defined themselves as Jews. Kraus considered this a hopeful development, noting that since at least 200 or 300 aged members of the community died between the two censuses, “it means that young people are now declaring themselves as Jews.” During the 1950s and 1960s, many Jews who were in the Communist Party, in the army or had high social positions never declared themselves as Jews. Now, many of their children and grandchildren are doing so, Kraus said. According to unofficial estimates, there may be as many as 10,000 people in Croatia who have Jewish roots, but who describe themselves as Croats or Catholics. Whether young people decided to declare themselves as Jews on the census form depended for the most part on their upbringing. Jewish self-identification increases if their parents sent them for religious training or if they spent their holidays in Jewish summer camps, according to Croatian Jewish leaders. The absence of religious training in some cases might account for the fact that some people identified themselves as Jewish “by ethnicity” but did not describe their religion as Judaism, they said.

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