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Around the Jewish World (part 2): Croatian Jewish Community Faces Challenges to Survival

December 17, 1996
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Croatia’s Jews observed Chanukah this year by celebrating the 190th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish community here in the Croatian capital.

The Festival of Lights is a perfect example of the “ever- renewed miracle of the survival of the Jewish people, their resilience, optimism and courage,” Paris-based historian Diana Pinto wrote in a letter to the Zagreb community on the occasion.

“If even the smallest quantity of oil could last eight days, so even the smallest of Jewish communities has within itself, provided it wants to, the power to endure,” she wrote.

Decimated by the Holocaust, constrained during the Communist era and buffeted by the war in the former Yugoslavia, the 2,000-member Croatian Jewish community is struggling to endure.

Like almost all Jewish communities in former Communist Europe, it has undergone a revival in the past decade as people have attempted to rediscover their Jewish roots.

“We are very small in number,” said Igor Francetic, the Zagreb community’s vice president, “and thus have trouble finding Jewish marriage partners. We have not had a rabbi for the last 50 years. And then there is the question of identity. Still, we are trying to preserve Jewish culture and Jewish traditions.”

These three issues — demographics, identity and the lack of a rabbi — as well as a lack of financial resources, are key to the community’s continuity and loom foremost in local Jewish policy.

Although the chief challenges for the Croatian community are internal, the country’s Jewish revival is taking place amid social and political conditions that also have an impact on the community’s development.

The bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia destroyed the Yugoslav Jewish federation and cut long-standing links between Jewish communities in Croatia and Serbia.

A wave of Jewish, as well as non-Jewish, refugees from the war in Bosnia came to both Croatia and Serbia. The war also prompted many younger Jews to emigrate as part of what one community member called a “very intensive” brain drain.

In addition, the nationalism of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman has raised concern about apparent efforts to rehabilitate the World War II Ustashe regime, the homegrown Croatian fascists who ruled wartime Croatia as a Nazi puppet state.

The issue remains problematic, despite efforts by the government to demonstrate support for Jewish causes.

Nonetheless, said historian Ivo Goldstein, “there is little open anti-Semitism in Croatia.”

Some, particularly older, community members are skeptical of the chances of survival. Other members and observers are more optimistic.

“There is a community here which is aware of its roots, aware of how much damage has been done to those roots and, though it doesn’t have all the answers, has some pretty good idea of how to repair some of that damage,” said British Rabbi Walter Rothschild, who traveled to Zagreb to take part in the anniversary celebrations.

“It has invested a lot in recent years in communal infrastructure and in developing some very competent lay leadership, one that is honest enough to admit the gaps,” he said.

Croatia had 25,000 Jews before World War II, most of them prosperous and largely assimilated. Some 20,000 were killed by the Nazis or the Ustashe regime.

Postwar Communist Yugoslavia was not a member of the Soviet bloc, and local Jews were not persecuted or isolated, as were Jews in other Communist states.

But they further assimilated into society and lost contact with religious life.

Of the community’s 2,000 members today, about half are older than 60, and many are poor and alone.

Some 80 percent of community members are believed to be children of or partners in mixed marriages.

“What is happening today was unexpected and unforeseeable,” said Dunja Sprajc, secretary general of the Zagreb Jewish community.

“The descendants of mixed families in the first, second, and even the third generation are coming to the Jewish community, with which they feel an inexplicable bond, and are working persistently to affirm their identity.”

Although aware that some members may not be accepted as Jews elsewhere, Croatian community leaders took a definite decision to open its doors to people in this situation.

“The Jewish world must understand that the Jewish community here will not survive if they have no mixed marriages,” said Melita Svob, who has done in- depth research on the Croatian Jewish community.

“If we don’t have mixed marriages, we don’t have a community. It is not a question of whether they are Jewish or not [according to Jewish law], but if their children wish to be Jewish — that’s the important part.”

Historian Goldstein epitomizes the dilemma.

The son of a former community president, Goldstein himself is not Jewish, according to Jewish law.

“My young daughter is only one-quarter Jewish,” he said, “but she still attends the Jewish kindergarten and other activities. When I was 6 or 7, I knew nothing of Jewish traditions. My daughter knows a lot.”

Some 1,400 of Croatia’s Jews live in Zagreb, with the rest scattered in eight other small communities.

The community center in the heart of the city includes a small prayer room, a bar, a clubroom, an auditorium and an exhibition gallery. There is also a library, a Jewish kindergarten and a computer center sponsored by ORT.

With support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other sources, the community publishes a bulletin, arranges cultural programs and runs an 80-bed home for the elderly.

But Zagreb is virtually the only Jewish community of its size in former Communist Central Europe that does not have a rabbi, and community leaders and members feel this lack acutely.

Currently, an Israeli teacher funded by the JDC who conducts Hebrew and other classes also leads services Friday nights and holidays.

“We need a rabbi to give us a real Jewish life, because of the young people,” said one community member. “But there is a problem of language and of money – – and of what kind of rabbi.

“If we bring in an Orthodox rabbi, the people will run away. They’ll feel guilty that they don’t know anything. The generation that was raised in atheism will not be able to adapt themselves to a strict rule. We must rebuild step by step.”

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