ZAGREB, Croatia (Sep. 17)
Following the violent civil war of the 1990s, Jews in the former Yugoslavia have had to struggle to maintain their common bonds.
The war severed the ties among Yugoslavia’s Jewish communities and, in societies where ethnic identification became bound up with war, forced Jews to reconsider their own identity.
“It’s difficult to say that we are Croatian or Serb; I myself feel primarily Jewish,” said Vlado Salamon of the Zagreb Jewish community.
“I was born in Montenegro, I went to school in Sarajevo and now I live in Zagreb,” he said. “When the war in Yugoslavia started in 1991, I could not imagine that all my contacts with friends in other parts of our former mutual country would stop.”
For the past four years, Salamon, a Zagreb physician, has been the driving force behind an annual get-together aimed at keeping these contacts alive.
Called “Beyachad” — “together” in Hebrew — the event is a weeklong encounter held each Sukkot since 1999 on an island off Croatia’s Adriatic coast.
“The islands are beautiful, but security is also easier on an island,” Salamon told JTA in an interview at his office in the Zagreb Jewish community headquarters.
The event draws Jews from all parts of the former Yugoslavia — and also Yugoslav Jews who immigrated to Europe, North America, Israel and New Zealand.
It is primarily aimed at “middle-generation” Jewish adults in their 40s and 50s, but it also draws student-age and senior participants.
Some 250 participants registered for this year’s Beyachad.
“Our first goal is to connect Jews from the former Yugoslavia,” Salamon said. “But we also aim to strengthen Jewish culture and combat assimilation.”
In the former Yugoslavia, the country’s 6,000 Jews made up a tiny minority in an overall population of 22 million.
Jewish communities in the six Yugoslav republics were united under the umbrella of the Federation of Yugoslav Jewish Communities, based in Belgrade.
They maintained close contacts, including spending family holidays at a Jewish community summer camp on the Croatian coast. Most Yugoslav Jews were highly integrated into mainstream life. Many were in mixed marriages or children of mixed marriages, and few were religious.
Beyachad grew out of the sporadic contacts that the Jews of the former Yugoslavia managed to keep up during the wars of the 1990s, when communications between Zagreb, Sarajevo and Belgrade were difficult or cut altogether.
Jews from the various Yugoslav successor states were able to hold group meetings several times between 1994 and 1997 — but they had to travel abroad to Hungary or the Czech Republic to do so.
“We wanted to stay in touch, to discuss our mutual problems,” Salamon said. “Finally, in 1998, we were able to hold a meeting for the first time in the former Yugoslavia — at Bled, in Slovenia. It was then that I got the idea to organize Beyachad.”
The first Beyachad, in 1999, drew 126 people to the Adriatic island of Murter. By the next year, the number of participants had almost doubled, and interest has remained high.
Local artists designed a special Beyachad logo and posters, and a top Croatia songwriter penned a special Beyachad anthem that became a hit among participants.
Croatian television broadcasts reports on Beyachad activities, and Salamon found more than two dozen sponsors, most of them corporate or other non-Jewish organizations.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said. “It demonstrates the respect accorded the Jewish community in Croatia.”
From the start, Salamon structured the Beyachad encounters as cultural programs featuring concerts, dancing, performances, literary events and lectures as well as excursions, sports and time on the beach.
Each year, too, guests are invited from an “outside” Jewish community to provide an introduction to Jewish intellectual and cultural activities in another country.
Last year, there were events promoted by the Jewish communities of Vienna and Salonika, Greece.
This year, the Jewish community of Berlin is the special guest.
Writer David Albahari, a former president of the Yugoslav Jewish community who emigrated from Belgrade to Canada in the early 1990s, said that meeting so many old friends at Beyachad both eased and exacerbated the pain of exile.
“It’s somewhere between rubbing salt in a wound and being a balm,” he said. “Sometimes it hurts and sometimes it’s pleasant, but it’s more pleasant than painful.
“The fact that I have been able to be present at the encounters is somehow dear to me, because I experience them as some sort of contact with familiar or fairly familiar members of the Jewish communities from all over the former Yugoslavia.”