ZAGREB, Croatia (Apr. 29)
An empty lot thick with weeds sits atop a hill overlooking the right bank of the Danube River in Vukovar, Croatia, on the border with Serbia.
Once the site of the great Vukovar Synagogue, the peaceful plot in this city torn apart by the Balkan wars of 1991- 1995 could give way to a new turf battle pitting a group of Jews and their supporters against local officials.
A group of local Jews and others are hoping to secure ownership of the disputed site to build a new synagogue and center for multiethnic peace.
“There are still 23 nationalities living in the region, and the people must learn how to live together again and in peace,” says Charles Tauber, one of the main architects of the plan.
Tauber, 50, a physician, also is head of the mission to the former Yugoslavia of the Coalition for Work With Psychotrauma and Peace, a non-governmental organization formed by Dutch medical professionals dedicated to treating war trauma victims and rehabilitating postwar Balkan communities.
Tauber and some 60 Jews from the region celebrated the Passover festival of freedom in this city — which was nearly destroyed during the war and remains emblematic of ethnic strife — by working on plans for the Vukovar Synagogue Center Project.
“We want to rebuild the former Vukovar Synagogue as a strong symbol and make it the center for post-conflict studies and interreligious dialogue,” Tauber says.
The plan has stitched together Jews from opposing sides in the war. Some came from Novi Sad, Subotica and Sombor in the Serbian province of Vojvodina, which borders Hungary. Others came from Osijek, Vinkovci and Vukovar, in eastern Croatia.
That’s something, considering that deep divisions remain nearly a decade after the war.
For example, Croats and Serbs in this city send their children to separate schools, and Vukovar remains on a U.S. list of travel advisories.
Spearheading the project are Tauber and Darko Fischer, 65, a scientist and president of the Osijek Jewish community.
The pair remain confident that the synagogue and center can help heal local tensions and even revive Jewish life, which once thrived here.
Before 1918 the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Jews flocked from Galicia, Hungary and Slovakia to this agriculturally fertile region. Czechs, Germans, Rumanians and Ukrainians also settled here.
Before World War II some 45,000 people, including 500 Jews, lived in Vukovar, while Osijek was home to 3,500 Jews.
Only a handful of Jews remained in Vukovar after the Holocaust. Only 100 survived in Osijek.
Between 1889 and 1958 the Vukovar Synagogue dominated the town’s skyline, and it remains among the most valuable pieces of local real estate.
The synagogue was desecrated in World War II but it survived — only to be demolished during Communist rule in 1958.
That’s when the Federation of the Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia in Belgrade decided to dismantle the building and sell the building material, because the hill itself was eroding, some say.
Fischer maintains that the land legally belongs to the Osijek Jews, and he is hopeful he’ll find the paperwork to prove it.
“The Jewish community of Osijek is the legal heir to all the former possessions of the Jewish community of Vukovar, and we are now doing our best to find the documents required to prove that the site belonged to” Vukovar’s Jews, he said.
But the local land registry told him that no document exists showing that Vukovar’s Jews once owned that land, Fischer said.
A year ago, a new private home was built adjacent to the site, across from the abandoned home of Vukovar’s onetime rabbi, Israel Scheer.
But “the Jews of Vukovar must have bought the land on which they built their synagogue, and there must be a written trace to it,” Fischer says. “This site was never sold to anybody.”
After the end of World War II and the onset of communism, the government nationalized the land, he said.
He hopes documents might exist in Vienna to prove the claim.
“The Croatian government should now give the land back to us,” Fischer said.
The group sought a meeting with local authorities on the issue this Passover, but didn’t get one.
Tauber says the Croat government, among others, has lent its “moral support,” but did not send an emissary to the holiday gathering, despite being invited.
Croatian President Stipe Mesic has said he backs the plan, and sent a representative to the meeting. The local Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches also say they support the project, though they didn’t attend the meeting, Tauber said.
The Austrian, Dutch and Serbian envoys did attend a meeting with the group, as did an official of the Hungarian Embassy.
“We may need help from outside,” Fischer said.