The 16th century Jewish Synagogue was indicated as number 16 on the walking map within the west side of the Palace Walls. Thanks to this map, it was easy to find Zidovski Prolaz (“Jewish Passage”) with a sign outside that had just been defaced with anti-semitic comments. The synagogue is open M-F, 10:00a-2:00p for tours. We rang the bell, and a woman came to the door but explained she only had 30 minutes to show us around, more than enough time for us.
The Jewish community of Croatia dates back to at least the 3rd century A.D. Archaeological excavation in Salona showed Jewish graves from that time. (Artifacts can be seen in Split’s Archaeological Museum.) Jews came to Diocletian’s Palace in the 7th century welcomed by Emperor Diocletian who had a good relationship with them. His feelings towards early Christians wasn’t the same and many were fed to the lions. Sometimes you win…sometimes you lose. It all depended on the ruler of the period.
Split Synagogue was built during the early 16th century by combining the second floors of two houses in this one-time Jewish Ghetto. It is the second oldest continuously used Sephardic Synagogue in the world and shared by both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. The number of Jewish people still remaining in Split is perhaps 100 out of the 300 before World War II from the never large community. The entire Croatian Jewish community of over 20,000 was almost completely destroyed in the Holocaust. An estimated 2,500 people of Jewish descent now live in Croatia. This is only an estimate because many Jews were born into mixed marriages or are married to non-Jews.
Inside the small synagogue were names on the wall of 90 people who died in concentration camps. Jewish prayer books and a Menorah stood on the small bimah (the person reading aloud from the Torah, conducting the service stands here)…
…facing the most sacred place during worship, the Aron Hakodesh made of black and white marble. Aron Hakodesh is the Hebrew name for the Ark of the Covenant stored in the Temple in Jerusalem. There is no permanent Rabbi in Split; one comes a few times a year to conduct High Holiday services. The remaining community leads their own prayers in the Synagogue. The woman who led us around is not Jewish, but has led the Synagogue tour for 21 years and called herself a “professional Jew.”
Profuse thanks to her for taking time out of her busy schedule to show us around this, our third Synagogue in the Balkans; Dubrovnik, Sarajevo and now Split were all different, and all interesting. Neither of us even knew there had been a long, Jewish history in the Balkans before this trip!