Jewish refugees from Spain settled in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 16th century, and Ladino (or Judaeo-Spanish) became the local Jewish language. The region was then under Ottoman domination. Jews maintained generally good relations with the majority Christian and Muslim communities. They prospered as merchants, artisans, physicians and pharmacists – at one point in the 19th century, all the doctors in Sarajevo were reported to be Jewish.
Following the occupation of much of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878, Ashkenazi Jews settled in Sarajevo and founded their own congregation. Sarajevo became one of the most important Jewish centers in the region, remaining so when the territory became part of Yugoslavia in 1918. About 12,000 out of Bosnia’s 14,000 Jews lived in Sarajevo on the eve of World War II. Approximately 8,000 were killed in the Holocaust. Much of the killing of Bosnian Jews was carried out by the Ustase [Ustaše], the Croatian nationalist far-right movement which ruled part of Yugoslavia under Nazi protection.
Post-World War II communist Yugoslavia was a loose federation of six republics – Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro – ruled by former Partisan hero Marshal Josip Broz Tito, who died in 1980. Bosnia-Herzegovina was the third largest Yugoslav republic, its population comprising Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Throughout this period, Sarajevo remained one of the main Jewish centers in Yugoslavia. Much smaller Jewish communities existed in such towns as Mostar and Banja Luka.
In the postwar period, Yugoslav Jews belonged to local communities linked in autonomous republic-wide organisations, which in turn were members of a nationwide Federation of Jewish Communities based in Belgrade. Legally, Jews – consisting of about 6,000 people throughout the former Yugoslavia – were recognized as both an ethnic and a religious community. Communist Yugoslavia was not a part of the Soviet bloc, and local Jews were not persecuted or isolated as were those of other communist states. But they generally assimilated into society and lost contact with religious life: they were ‘Yugoslavs’ first and ‘Jews’ second. There was only one rabbi in the country.
The Federation of Yugoslav Jewish Communities was responsible for caring for Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and other infrastructure in towns where no communities existed any more. Some of these cemeteries were moved elsewhere, while others were maintained at considerable expense. The Jewish community also erected close to 30 memorials around Yugoslavia to commemorate Jews who had lost their lives during the war.
The dissolution of Yugoslavia began with the secession of Slovenia, and then of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1991. This touched off the series of Balkan wars that left an estimated two hundred and fifty thousand people dead and destroyed thousands of historic monuments before coming to an end in 1995. During the siege of Sarajevo, 1992-1995, Jews in the city provided an important conduit for non-sectarian humanitarian aid.
The collapse of Yugoslavia into smaller independent countries made the continuation of Jewish institutions particularly difficult, even without the trauma of war and the Jewish emigration that resulted. The small Jewish communities of the former Yugoslavia, including that of Bosnia-Herzegovina, have recreated themselves as more locally based organizations, rebuilt earlier connections, and expanded their association with Jewish communities and institutions in Israel and Europe alike. About 700-1,000 Jews now live in B & H.
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