A year after NATO bombing, Balkan Jews unite


SKOPJE, Macedonia, March 20 (JTA) — One year after NATO began its bombardment of Yugoslavia, Jews in the Balkans are building links among their communities — even as they wait for the next shoe to drop in Europe’s most jittery region.

“In Yugoslavia it’s like a time bomb,” said Lidija Petrovic, president of the 100-member Jewish community in Zrenjanin, which is located in northern Serbia. “On the surface things are calm, but underneath things are still boiling. We feel insecure; we don’t know what will happen and from where.”

To better confront the future, Jews from half a dozen Balkan states this month discussed forming a regional umbrella group, the Union of Jewish Communities of Southeastern Europe.

They seek to buttress their tiny communities, share burdens and facilities, and work collectively in order to ensure Jewish survival amid the region’s continuing economic, political and social uncertainty.

“There are very few Jews in the Balkans,” said Viktor Mizrachi, the president of the 200-member Jewish community of Macedonia.

“We should work together as a fist, and not as individual fingers,” he said. “Each can love his own country, but we have to form a fist or we will disappear.”

A consensus to form the union came at a meeting in Skopje of Jews from Bulgaria, Greece and almost all parts of the former Yugoslavia — independent Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia, as well as the current Yugoslavia’s Serbia and Kosovo.

The inauguration of a new synagogue in Skopje and the energetic efforts at Jewish revival in Macedonia served as the catalyst for the meeting, which was coordinated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“I really think that this year something important and tremendous has happened in Macedonia,” Yechiel Bar Chaim, the JDC representative for the former Yugoslavia, told the meeting. “One couldn’t have dreamt of such success.”

Massive fallout from last year’s conflict in the Balkans is still being felt throughout the region.

Most of the 800,000 ethnic Albanians who fled Kosovo in the wake of Serbian terror have returned home, but revenge attacks and ongoing ethnic strife have forced tens of thousands of Serbs and Gypsies to flee in turn.

Crime and violence are rife in Kosovo, and there are fears that despite the presence of some 30,000 NATO-led peacekeepers, serious conflict may erupt in Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro or even Macedonia, which has a large ethnic Albanian minority.

Moreover, the economic consequences of the conflict remain daunting.

Homes, businesses and much of Yugoslavia’s economic infrastructure were destroyed. Bombed-out bridges, roads and rail lines cut regional trade routes, aggravating local economic crises in neighboring countries as well as in Yugoslavia. In parts of Kosovo and Serbia, electricity, water and heating are sporadic — and jobs, consumer goods and cash are scarce.

“We don’t have anything — clothes, medicines, food, money,” said Petrovic. “The average salary is the equivalent of $25 a month, so we use barter arrangements for some goods and services.

“If we could see the light somewhere, that would be something, but the uncertainty is killing,” she said. “My mother survived Auschwitz by hoping. I can’t, of course, compare our present situation with Auschwitz, but we have little hope that it will improve.”

What Jews in the region do have is each other.

In the countries of the former Yugoslavia in particular, personal links are tight. Before the breakup of Yugoslavia a decade ago, its Jewish communities came under one umbrella organization and lived in one country.

“We all grew up knowing each other, meeting each other, going to summer camp with each other,” said Zdravko Sami of Macedonia.

Said Gorge Hajzler of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, “This cooperation exceeds the framework imposed by the crisis. It is a cooperation based on long- term links from the past — family ties, culture, history.”

The crisis over the past year tested Jewish solidarity. It also bolstered Jewish communal identity.

NATO bombers did not directly target the city of Zrenjanin. Still, said Petrovic, “during those months we would gather in the tiny Jewish community office. We felt a togetherness. When we went home, we felt better.”

Now, she said, community members want to learn about their Judaism and expand. This month, with help from the JDC, they are taking possession of larger premises to serve as their community center.

Thanks to contingency plans taken months before the bombing began, some 600 of Yugoslavia’s 3,000 Jews were able to find shelter in Hungary during the conflict.

“No Jew lost his life during the conflict,” said Aca Singer, president of Yugoslavia’s Federation of Jewish Communities. “This would not have happened without general Jewish solidarity and moral and financial aid from Jewish organizations and individuals.”

He paid special tribute to the efforts of community leader Mizrachi and fellow Macedonian Jews, who were spurred into action by the crisis, and presented the Macedonian community with an award honoring its help.

Mizrachi communicated daily with Jews in Belgrade throughout the bombing campaign, and the community also aided large-scale refugee relief efforts carried out by Israeli and other Jewish groups.

Last June, shortly after the end of the bombing, Mizrachi helped other Jewish officials evacuate the head of the Jewish community of Pristina, who, as a Serbian speaker, was classified as a Serb and threatened by ethnic Albanians.

Soon after, Macedonian Jews formed Dobre Volje, or Good Will, an organization aimed at funneling non-sectarian humanitarian aid to Albanian, Roma and Serbian refugees, which was modeled on Sarajevo’s La Benevolencija organization, which earned international acclaim during the Bosnian war.

The Jews of the Balkans recognize the difficulties facing their new union, and it remains to be seen whether the initiative takes off.

Numbers are small, finances are short, visas and other travel arrangements can be difficult and political relations among Balkan states range from hostile to tense.

“We need to establish a modus operandi of working together that will free us from the prejudices of the countries in the region,” said Solomon Bally of Sofia, Bulgaria. “We should make it a point not to get involved with local politics.”

Still, several key areas of common interest were identified.

One was fighting assimilation, another was gaining access to resources through restitution and compensation, another was promoting cultural and religious education among Jews who are mostly secular.

Still another pressing issue raised by Jews from all countries was that of increasing access to conversion — a vital problem in communities whose members are overwhelmingly children or partners of mixed marriages.

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