During the time of the Ottoman occupation, Sarajevo was home to Muslims, Catholics, Jews and Eastern Orthodox. Due to centuries of religious diversity and peace between the different religions, Sarajevo is often called the Jerusalem of Europe and many of its religious monuments have survived the city’s past.
Anja’s last stop on the all-too-brief tour ended in front of the Sephardic Synagogue from 1581 in the Austro-Hungarian section of Sarajevo. It reopened for worship in 2004 but only services on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) are held inside.
Jews came to the Balkans via Istanbul during the Spanish/Portuguese expulsion in 1492. The first Jews arrived in Sarajevo as early as 1541 via Salonika/Thessaloniki. Coincidentally, my daughter-in-law’s father was born in Salonika when it was still Turkish and was just one of the city’s 56,000 Jews sent to concentration camps where most were killed in the gas chamber. Leon Mazliak survived but not one other member of his family did.
The first Jews built their own quarter in 1577 with permission from the pasha. A synagogue followed in 1580 helped by a Turkish benefactor. Sarajevo was peaceful during Ottoman times where all religions coexisted in harmony. It was one of the few places in Europe where Jews were not locked in a Ghetto at night. Ottoman rulers said that everyone was equal and shouldn’t be locked up like cattle.
Jews of Ashkenazi descent began arriving in the 17th century, fleeing persecution in Europe. The Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities remained separate until World War II. Before the Holocaust, Sarajevo had 12,000 Jews (20% of the population), 15 synagogues, and was a major Balkan center of Sephardi culture. Eight-five percent of Sarajevo’s Jews perished during the Holocaust.
The interior had a Jewish Museum, a small admission fee and chronicled the history of the Jewish community in Sarajevo. Two upper floors consisted of arched stone balconies that surrounded the sanctuary area. Those floors housed historical exhibits dedicated to the history of the Jews. The main floor had a valuable collection of Ladino and other Jewish books printed 200-300 years ago. Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, was the spoken and written Hispanic language of Jews of Spanish origin.
The majority of what we saw is in the video. Two exhibits were especially gut-wrenching:
- A large red book swung from a chain containing the names of 12,000 Jews killed by the Nazis; and
- Names of the “Righteous Among The Nations” along with photographs of these people on a wall. If you don’t know what “Righteous Among The Nations” means, Yad Vashem recognizes ordinary people who rescued Jews. Whether they gave food, sheltered a child or family, provided false identity papers, smuggled Jews in danger – whatever, they did – these people exhibited freedom of choice and the courage to become a rescuer. It is beyond pitiful that among the millions of people who could have done something, only 23,788 people from 45 countries have been recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
“Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe”…