Big Or Small A Phenix Is Always A Miracle

Big or small, a phenix is always a miracle – Eliezer Papo

The Sephardic Jews of Bosnia are a happy and optimistic people whose history, unfortunately, is marked by two traumatic events: from one side by the 1492 Expulsion and from another by the Holocaust. In April 1942 some 14.500 Jews lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 10.500 of them in Sarajevo, the capital. Only 1.600 survived the Croatian occupation of the country and the persecutions led by the Ustashas, Croatian and Bosnian-Muslim fascists. More then half of the survivers left for Israel in 1948 when an independent Jewish State was proclaimed. Bosnian Jews who stayed to live in the New Communist Yugoslavia were concentrated primarily in Sarajevo, but there were still some families who stayed in the provincial cities. Not knowing how to be anything but Jews they have recreated their community as a center of selfhelp and nostalgia. At the same time, the majority of the refounders of the Community wanted their children and grandchildren to be raised first of all as good Yugoslavians. The conscious acquisition of Yugoslavian super-nationality was quite a convenient solution for the problematic modern Jewish identity – because not only it did not even remotely resemble any kind of conversion to any other religion (as Yugoslavain nationality, unlike the different ethnic identities in Yugoslavia, was not identified with any religious tradition) – but it also had an egalitarian aura. Not only the Jews – but, rather, any Yugoslavian ethnic group: Serbs, Croats, Bosnian-Muslims, Slovenians or Macedonians, if they wanted to declare themselves as Yugoslavians have had to suppress their own ethnic identities in order to acquire one super-ethnic and more universal identity. All the time the community was run by the first generation of survivers, it had a pale image, as it lived in the constant shade of the Holocaust and the lost glory of the Small Jerusalem (before the Second World War, due to the richness of its Jewish life, in Ladino Sarajevo was referred to as Chiko Yerushalayim – Small Jerusalem). Any kind of enthusiasm, from the part of the second or the third generation, was met with the apathetic attitude of the elders. Why try anything when anyways we can never attain what we have used to be before the Holocaust. What kind of good could bring renewing the interest in Judaism? Few years before the last civil war (1992 – 1996) for the first time the second-generation leaders were elected to lead the Community. The things started to change gradually – but it was only during the war that the Community rediscovered its vitality and its energy, surprising everyone - firstly itself. With deep scars from the Holocaust and firm will not to let anything similar happen to it ever again, the Community achieved agreements with all the warring parts in order to secure the Exodus of the children and elderly people. In only two-three weeks the majority of the kids were sent to Israel, while most of the elderly were accommodated in the sister-communities in Serbia and Croatia. The "middle generation", most of whom stayed in Bosnia, established (or reinforced) the contacts with the Joint and through it with other Jewish humanitarian organizations also, receiving from them material help and distributing it in the community and amongst the citizens of Sarajevo regardless their ethnic or religious background. Obviously, the most energetic activities were undertaken by the most numerous Sarajevo Community (1090 registered members at the dawn of the civil war). The Community ran an ambulance that worked 24 hours a day with the best supplied pharmacy in the city. Both worked on non sectarian base, distributing the help to anyone in need. As the city of Sarajevo was under a siege – the food had to be rationed. The Community managed to bring into the city a certain quantity of basic nutriments and distribute them amongst its members and the friends of the Community. Besides the food, the Community was also distributing garments and footwear. With the time, it also established a humanitarian kitchen which offered a lunch to the members and the friends of the Community on a daily base. In the mentioned Jewish convoys (which left the city at the beginning of the War and at few occasions even later) there were always at least 50 % of youngsters or elderly people from other ethno-religious communities. Logically, most of the help was coming from the outside world – but the contacts, the organization and the distribution were all done from within, by the small Jewish Community of Sarajevo. The auto-organization and the self-help of the Community reached such a level that many people starting looking for their eventual Jewish roots in order to be eligible to the full rights of the members. All of the sudden, anyone with one Jewish parent, grandparent or even great-grandparent reclaimed the membership. Some, lacking the real documents, even produced their own. It is this process (so opposite to the WWII experience, when the Jews were trying desperately to prove their arian origin) together with the new active image of the Community that helped the Bosnian Jews to dismiss definitively the Holocaust complex and to embrace their newly founded vitality. The civil war ended in 1996. Since than, most of the youngsters who left for Israel returned to Bosnia. Many of them after completing their secondary studies and some after completing the military service in Israel. Today, there are some 1000 Jews in Bosnia. 700 of them in Sarajevo. The overwhelming majority of the young Bosnian Jews speak fluent Hebrew and many have a strong Jewish and even Israeli identity. Once awaken from its long lethargy the Community arose as a phenix, showing the capacities that noone believed it had. One should hope that the "spiritual muscles" developed in the last war will help this Community survive in the peace that everyone in Bosnia needs and deserves.

Eliezer Papo

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