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After 60 Years, Prayer Returns to Historic Sarajevo Synagogue

September 28, 2004
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Nine years after the Dayton Agreement put an end to the brutal war in Bosnia, burnt-out buildings, plaques commemorating the dead and other scars from the devastating, nearly four-year siege still mar Sarajevo’s graceful urban landscape. But there is ample evidence of reconstruction as the city and its people struggle to rebuild and recover. And Sarajevo is still the only major city in Europe where you can find a synagogue, a mosque and Catholic and Orthodox churches virtually on the same street.

This year at the High Holidays, Sarajevo’s 700-member Jewish community marked a milestone in the reconstruction process.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, the 16th-century Old Synagogue, turned into a Jewish museum after World War II, was reconsecrated as a house of worship.

A mezuzah was nailed to the door of the austere stone building, from whose windows the slim minarets of neighboring mosques in Sarajevo’s Old Town are clearly visible.

Services were held and the traditional melodies of the Sephardic Jewish liturgy were sung there for the first time in more than 60 years.

“To be honest, all my life I’ve lived in Sarajevo, and this was the first occasion to have a service in the Sephardic synagogue,” said Jakob Finci, the head of the Bosnian Jewish Community.

“This was the first time to have it on the right place on the right way. That means really a lot. Let’s hope that it becomes a tradition and not only for the High Holy Days but also for some regular Shabbats.”

Originally built in 1581, the Old Synagogue was one of 15 that functioned in the city before the Holocaust, when Sarajevo was a major Balkan center of Sephardi culture and the city’s 12,000 Jews made up nearly 20 percent of the local population.

Eighty-five percent of Sarajevo’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust. In 1965, during ceremonies marking 400 years of Jewish presence in Bosnia, the Old Synagogue, though still owned by the remnant Jewish community, was converted into a city-run Jewish museum.

Jewish communal activities were shifted to an Ashkenazi synagogue, a grand, Moorish style temple built a century ago, which was converted to include offices and function rooms as well as a sanctuary.

When the Bosnian War broke out in 1992, the Jewish Museum was closed and became a storage place for collections from other museums in the city. It remained closed until this summer, when it was reopened as a museum, under new management that includes Jewish-community as well as city representatives.

Finci said the community now has plans to update and convert it into a facility that will serve as a cultural and educational center for the Jewish and non-Jewish public.

The ground floor will remain a consecrated synagogue where services will be held on special occasions, he said. There will also be an exhibition of ritual objects and Jewish religious traditions.

The two upper floors, consisting of arched stone balconies surrounding the sanctuary area, will house historical exhibits.

Part of the museum will show the richness of pre-Holocaust Jewish life. But Finci said it was especially important that for the first time, there will be a “huge” section on the Holocaust — as well as a section detailing the operation of the Jewish community during the Bosnian War.

During that war, the community’s social welfare organization, La Benevolencija, won international renown as a key conduit for nonsectarian humanitarian aid for the entire city.

Working closely with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other international support groups, it ran a medical service, a soup kitchen, a communications center and other aid operations and also organized convoys to bring refugees out of the besieged city.

Finci said that given the scope and brutality of the ethnic conflict in Bosnia, the Holocaust section of the revamped museum will be particularly important.

More than 250,000 people were killed in the Bosnian war. More than 2 million people were displaced. Mosques, churches and entire urban areas were destroyed, and massacres included the Serbian slaughter of at least 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica.

“In Bosnia after Srebrenica, after this genocide, it’s not easy to understand — and some people are not willing to understand — that this has happened to other people also,” Finci told JTA. The Holocaust took place “a long time ago, and it was even worse than Srebrenica, but naturally, Srebrenica is the peak of their world.”

What the community would like to do, he said, “is to draw the line and to put the Holocaust in the right place, to be able to compare the genocide in Bosnia, this in the last war, with some of the effects of the Holocaust.”

Besides helping people understand history, he said, it could also help in the slow process of healing wounds that are still very raw.

“In some Jewish institutions they are working now even with the third and fourth generation” after the Holocaust, he said. “In Bosnia and Sarajevo we have still the survivors who really suffered a lot and are not aware of this trauma, this war trauma, this post-war trauma.”

There is no resident rabbi now in Sarajevo. But Eliezer Papo, who directs a center for Sephardi studies at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, came back home, as he does at least twice a year, to officiate at the High Holidays.

Sephardi Jews, he told JTA, are intensely attached to the liturgical melodies of their native communities.

Papo began learning the local Sarajevo religious melodies as a teenager from elderly members of the Jewish community. He then studied with a rabbi in Belgrade before eventually moving to Israel.

During the service in the Old Synagogue, he chanted liturgical poems, or piyuttim, using the “hypnotic and hypnotizing” melodies particular to the Sarajevo Jewish tradition.

It was, he said, an extraordinary moment, charged with emotion and significance.

“Instead of converting a living Jewish community into a museum, we are converting a museum into a living and functioning synagogue,” he said.

He characterized returning the building to its proper function after so many years and so much tragic history as part of the process known in Hebrew as tikkun.

“Tikkun could be translated into English as rectification, returning something to its proper function,” Papo said. “In other words, there were people, they built that building to serve as a synagogue and now, after so many years, their will will be done, or redone, again.”

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