Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sarajevo's Jewish cemetery

Sarajevo Jewish Cemetery, c1900

Sarajevo's long and important Jewish history is addressed in this article in the online Balkan Insight.

The story concerns the war in Bosnia and the Jewish community, but for this blog, the important focus is the information on the famous Sarajevo cemetery.

The author, Denis Dzidic, quotes USHMM researcher Aleksandra Cholewa who is working on a project in Bosnia documenting crimes against Jews during WWII. The Commission for Preservation of National Monuments in Bosnia and Herzegovina reported that five of the eight most significant Jewish monuments were damaged during the three-year seige, 1992-1995.

The Sarajevo cemetery on Mount Trebevic in Kovacici is a very famous Sephardic burial site, and was established in 1630 when the land was rented by Rabbi Samuel Baruch. His gravestone existed until the fighting in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the site took direct hits during the fighting. The unusually shaped tombstones (see below) are inscribed in Hebrew and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish).

The chief glory of the cemetery was the gravestones, erected in a style found nowhere else expect Spain – the land from which many Bosnian Jews's ancestors came, after being expelled by the ultra-Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.

The Commission for Preservation of National Monuments in Bosnia estimates that “about 95 per cent of the stones” were damaged in the war. The Cemetery was also mined, and was not cleared until 1998.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was home to some 14,000 Jews before WWII and most of them lived in Sarajevo. Only 4,000 survived and half of them moved to Israel.

Today, Sarajevo has about 800 Jewish residents, with smaller numbers in Tuzla, Mostar and Zenica. In the Serbian republic (Republika Srpska), there are some 200 Jews, half in Doboj, the rest in Banja Luka.

Since November 2005, Cholewa has collected the oral histories of some 200 Jews in former Yugoslavia. The article also interviewed former residents and detailed their history and escape from the city, how international organizations organized convoys and where the Jewish refugees went.

Here's the link to more detailed information about the cemetery from the 2003 report made by the International Survey of Jewish Monuments.

For more information on former Yugoslav Jewish cemeteries, see JewishGen's International Cemetery Project here. Click here for more on the Jewish history of Sarajevo.

The history of the Jews in Sarajevo can be traced back over 400 years ago when the first Jews arrived in Sarajevo as early as 1541 via Salonika. They were mostly artisans, merchants, pharmacists, and doctors. They built their own quarter, dubbed El Cortijo (the courtyard), in 1577 with permission from the pasha Siavush. The community built a synagogue in El Cortijo in 1580 with the help of a Turkish benefactor, in a building called Velika Avlija. By the end of the 16th century, the building where Velika Avlija stood became known as old Jewish Cathedral, Sarajevo’s first synagogue.

Click here for an excellent newsletter article and photos from Hebrew University's Center of Jewish Art's newsletter on former Yugoslav Jewish cemeteries and synagogues titled "Bosnia/Herzegovina and Croatia: Documenting Jewish Art and Architecture."

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