Serbia (including the autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo) was the former Yugoslavia’s largest republic. It was an independent kingdom until conquered by the Turks in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. After this, like other Balkan states, it was frequently caught up in events associated with its location on the fault-line of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires. Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina, for example, was from the late 18th century until 1918 mostly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During that period, as part of Hungary, Vojvodina became an important center of Jewish life and culture, following the same lines of religious and cultural development as the rest of Hungary.
The Jewish population in what is now Serbia increased greatly following the expulsions of Jews from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s. Sephardi Jews made their way east and settled in areas that were part of the Ottoman empire, where they were welcomed. Jews prospered during the ensuing centuries, working as merchants and traders in an atmosphere relatively free from violent persecution or governmental interference.
When the new state of Yugoslavia was created following the First World War, Serbian Jews found themselves in a federation of previously separate states or entities, each with its own Jewish populations, organizations, history and customs.
About 14,500 out of a pre-war population of 16,000 Serbian Jews were killed in World War II. Post-Second World War communist Yugoslavia was a federation of six republics – Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro – ruled by former partisan hero Marshal Josip Broz Tito.
There were Jewish communities throughout Serbia before the Holocaust, with an especially high number of settlements in Vojvodina. The ravages of the Holocaust destroyed most of those communities. Survivors returned to Belgrade and a few other major towns, but most Jewish communities were never revived. Many Jews moved to Belgrade or emigrated, often to Israel. Many assimilated, losing their Jewish identity.
After the war, thus, there were abandoned, ruined or neglected Jewish sites in many Serbian towns and villages. Former synagogues were gradually either demolished or put to new uses. Many cemeteries were abandoned; some were pillaged and their gravestones used for construction. Others became overgrown and almost forgotten until researchers began to identify them in the 1990s.
About 20 synagogues, and many other Jewish sites, survive in one form or another. By far the majority of these are in Vojvodina, where cemeteries and/or synagogues existed in as many as 80 locations before the Second World War. Today, most synagogue buildings that remain – such as the grand structures at Novi Sad and Subotica – are protected monuments. Many are being (slowly) restored or adapted to new uses, and nowadays this is usually done in ways that incorporate visible reminders of their Jewish origins. Dozens of Jewish cemeteries still exist in Serbia, but most are in poor condition.
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