Jewish Heritage Europe

Presentation by Ivan Ceresjes

Cultural diversity and cultural heritage (case example: Serbia)

 Collection, research and identification of Jewish historical, cultural and religious heritage in Serbia, as a basis for proposing system’s protection 

By Architect Ivan Ceresnjes, MA

Center for Jewish Art, Jerusalem


1. Rationale

Cultural diversity can be understood as a product of different geo-political and economic conditions and general cultural developments creating interpretations of different impulses, interconnection of interests and a diversity of causes. It is also a product of actions by actors, individuals and groups, including minorities, which directly or indirectly jointly create the culture of a specific moment in time. Perceived through the dimension of time, they create tangible and intangible values which, due to quality, importance or simply by its existence, are transformed into values with certain features of common heritage of a specific area. 2. Principle  The presence of minorities that actively participate in the creation of a culture at a specific time should be perceived as a factor contributing to a more objective insight into the actual state of relationships in specific periods.  Taking note of their activity in the society should contribute to the creation or even just to the modification of an adequate approach to the study of their influence on the society. Communities that are characterized by ethnic, religious or cultural diversity, and within which minority heritage does not as yet have a recognizable space should enact protection measures that would enable the values of their minorities to be represented appropriately.  Such an approach would allow a more objective picture of that country. 3. Goals The key goals of such research include:
  • — to facilitate the active participation of minorities and their surrounding communities in creating cultural diversity as the identity of a specific area;
  • — to assess the quality of their values as common features of joint heritage;
  • — based on the results of research focusing on the identification of Jewish heritage, to generate methodologies for the establishment of a system of protection and preservation of such values as the basis for initiatives for creation a much needed legislation.
The above goals are based not only on current legislation and practice, but also on certain international recommendations and documents, especially the ICOMOS documents, specifically the Venice Charter and the Nara document. 4. Proposal: Contribution to the multi-culturalism of an area In comparison with some other states in the EU and Eastern Europe, Serbia is only at the beginning in research, building inventories, assessment, and protection of preserved manifestations of its Jewish cultural heritage. Historical summary: I will not here elaborate on the Jewish history of Serbia; it should be the introductory part of the document that I will offer for discussion. Nevertheless, it is surprising that the first serious scientific studies of Jewish history in the territory of Serbia date back only a few decades, followed by social, ethnological, architectural and other studies. However, most of the studies until now were limited to regional and local centers of settlement. There has not been yet a single publication presenting a comprehensive and complete interdisciplinary study of Jewish history in the current territory of Serbia. This is surprising primarily in view of the fact that the Jewish influence on the social, economic, artistic, scientific and other domains by far exceeded the size of the Jewish ethnic and religious community relative to the rest of the population. Due to the indifference the Jewish component, which should be unavoidable in any realistic assessment of Serbian culture and due to the lack of knowledge about historical priorities, many significant Jewish sacral sites and monuments of movable and immovable heritage were destroyed or damaged. In order to prevent further damage, the second half of the preceding century saw some beginnings of collection of evidence and documents regarding the Jewish culture in Serbia. Such attempts were not realized fully, primarily due to the position of the Jewish community under the circumstances prevailing in former Yugoslavia. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the position of  the Serbian Jewish community gradually improved. The main driver of the community’s activities, from its establishment, was the Jewish Historical Museum in Belgrade.  However, due to the lack of funds and its space limitations, it was seriously hampered in further expansion, educational work, as well as a more serious research work in the field. Plan for the research of Jewish heritage (as a methodological sample, applicable to other communities)   The past attempts were only an introduction to a broad area of research which needs to be undertaken in an inter-disciplinary and systematic manner. However, this would be possible only if a methodology is developed that would lead to objective assessment of the past periods and would, at the same time, develop a model that could be used to identify the heritage of other communities in the Serbian area. As a positive example, I would like to say a couple of words about the first step towards providing a documentary base of the preserved, primarily immovable, Jewish cultural heritage in surrounding countries.  The US expert study for protection of the American heritage abroad for Slovenia (US Commission for the preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad: Jewish Monuments in Slovenia, (Jewish Heritage Report, Vol. E, 1-2 / 1998) , undertaken in cooperation with the Government of Slovenia, by Ruth Ellen Gruber and Samuel D. Gruber, provides a model for the research I propose. This research was further pursued through the Slovenian – Israeli project “Research and Documentation on Synagogues, Jewish Cemetery Chapels and Cemeteries in Slovenia”, project SLO-IZR-2001/2002 implemented by the Department for History of Art of the Faculty of Ljubljana and the Center for Jewish Art of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (Dr. Janez Premk and Arch. Ivan Ceresnjes, MA). This could serve as a model for the same activities in Serbia (and any given country), all the more so because the Center for Jewish Art already has conducted an initial research on the territory of Serbia (as well as in 45 more countries), and, in many cases, created first temporary lists of Jewish objects and monuments. Presently, the first comprehensive database of Jewish material heritage is under construction in the CJA and, within foreseeable future, will be accessible to any interested professional or lay person. A sample initial list (for Serbia):     Synagogues:                                                         93 (1941) Still existing – 24 Destroyed – 69 Cemeteries:                                                            131 Cemetery chapels:                                                     9 Family mausoleums on cemeteries:                          12 Archeological sites:                                                      1 Holocaust – monuments and memorials:                   97 Monuments of Jews who were participants of other wars related to the history of Serbia:         3; Unmarked sites related to Holocaust:                         11; Mikveh (ritual baths):                                                      1 (possibly two); Ritual slaughterhouses:                                                  1; Various communal buildings (schools, rabbinates, hospitals, orphanages, etc):       22; Jewish Museum:                                                              1; Collections of Judaica outside the Jewish Museum:     Unknown (research needed) Illuminated manuscripts:                                                 Unknown (research needed) Jewish modern art:                                                         Unknown (research needed) Ghettos, streets and squares with Jewish names, Jewish toponyms:                                                           12; (Everything mentioned above can be found in 148 cities and villages in Serbia.) 5. Program of future research:  The priority of current and / or future research can be summarized as follows:
  • — collection of known documents regarding the movable and immovable objects of Jewish heritage in Serbia;
  • — research of additional sources that have not been taken into consideration in previous studies or that were unknown until now; respecting the genius loci also in the case of greater urban development;
  • — centralization and protection of dislocated sources; integrating more recent conclusions and discoveries;
  • — digitalization of Jewish documents, historical and cultural sources and sources of universal importance to the wider Serbian public; collection of historical, cultural-historical, anthropological and sociological materials;
  • — establishing of inventories and archives of Jewish tangible and non-tangible heritage (for ex., written sources, archived in Serbian libraries and archives);
  • — integration of the part of heritage and sources (national and international) that, due to external reasons (such as looting and/or destruction of sources), are not necessarily part of the artistic, historical and/or other testimony of the existence of Jewish heritage (for ex., archives on synagogues in Vojvodina preserved in Hungarian archives, lists of  Holocaust victims, etc.).
6. Proposing a system of protection Further, I would suggest that, based on the results of research the Government of Serbia (or any given country), should be requested to pass a regulation with legal binding for a term of 2-3 years to prevent trafficking and destruction of buildings, sites and objects from the presented list (especially of those that are in the process of restitution). The next step should be the forming of a committee of experts that should, within that period, decide which buildings, sites or objects should be put under legal protection, and what should be the destiny of the remaining units. And, in cases specific for countries of former Yugoslavia, a way should be found to press the authorities to restart the implementation of a Law from 1988 (before the dissolution of Yugoslavia) that was not erased from the legislation of successor states, regulating the maintenance of confessional cemeteries, even if they are abandoned due to disappearance of religious communities that were their founders and users. The protection of Jewish monuments would thus be the basis and the conditio sine qua non of the first comprehensive review of the Jewish cultural-historical heritage within the borders of the Republic of Serbia, which goes beyond the narrow ethnic scope as it represents a part of the cultural identity of the Serbian and the broader Balkan / European area.