Ivan Ceresnjes of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem, the former president of the Jewish Community in Sarajevo and the foremost researcher on Jewish heritage and heritage sites in the former Yugoslavia, has identified 44 cemeteries or places of Jewish burials in Bosnia and Herzegovina, of which 26 still exist. Some of these sites have only a few stones or are extremely overgrown or hard to reach:
in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Bihač, Bijeljina, Bosanski Brod, Bosanski Šamac, Brčko, Bugojno, Derventa, Doboj, Gračanica, Jajce, Mostar, Podromanija, Rogatica, Sanski Most, Misinci, Srebrenica, Stolac, Travnik, Tuzla, Visegrad, Visoko, Vlasenica, Zenica, and Zvornic.
In addition, there are believed to be five former synagogue buildings or prayer rooms outside Sarajevo in various states of use or (dis)repair: in Mostar, Stolac (prayer room), Tuzla, Višegrad, Zeneca, and Zvornic. (A ruined synagogue in Rogatica was razed in 2004 and one in Travnik was demolished in 2008.)
Downloadable PDF file of the comprehensive survey of Jewish cultural heritage sites in Bosnia & Herzegovina, carried out on behalf of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and published in 2011.
Extensive web site dedicated to Jews, Jewish history, and Jewish heritage in the former Yugoslavia, maintained by Jasna Cirić, a researcher who is president of the Jewish community of Niš, Serbia. There are links to photo galleries and much other material.
Information on 27 Jewish cemeteries in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as a list of source material.
Spanish speaking Jews settled in Sarajevo in the 16th century, following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492; the ruling vizier had built a Jewish quarter known as El Cortijo (or El Cortio) for them by the end of the century, including a synagogue and housing for the poor. This was not a ghetto, as Jews had freedom of movement and lived in other parts of the city, but the congregation of Jews into one quarter was in keeping with the historic pattern in Spain, as well as the custom of segregating the “nationalities” who inhabited the cities of the Byzantine and (later) Ottoman empires. El Cortijo burned down in 1879.
When the Nazis marched into Sarajevo in April 1941, between 8,000 and 12,000 Jews lived in the city. The Nazis and their Ustaše allies sacked the eight synagogues of the city, and destroyed or stole most Jewish treasures and archives. Most of the community were deported to the concentration camps of Jasenovac and Stara Gradiska (both now in Croatia). About 85% of the Sarajevo community perished during the war. Of those who survived, many emigrated to Israel. Today, the city is home to a small but vibrant Jewish population of about 700 people. During the siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, the Jewish community and its welfare organization la Benevolencija were an important conduit for non-sectarian aid to the city.
Jewish heritage sites in the city include the Old Sephardic Cemetery, the Ashkenazic synagogue (currently in use by the Jewish community), the Old Synagogue/Jewish Museum; the New Synagogue; the sites of two other synagogues, and various Holocaust and other memorials. The municipal cemetery has a Jewish section currently used by the local community.
The Israel “Journey into Jewish Heritage” project documented Jewish heritage sites in Sarajevo and in 2010 posted a multi-part series of brief videos about the architecture and history.
Click here to see the full series (we have embedded some of the videos below)
Old (Sephardic) Jewish Cemetery
The oldest intact burial ground of any religious group in Sarajevo, the cemetery was founded in 1630 by Rabbi Samuel Baruch, who rented the land on Mount Trebevic from the Muslim community; the rabbi’s gravestone is among those standing on the steeply-sloping site. During the Austro-Hungarian era, a railroad was constructed through the middle of the cemetery, and only the upper half of the site has survived. Even this is still large: about three and a half hectares, containing about 3,800 graves.
The cemetery is surrounded by a massive stone wall, surmounted in places by a metal fence. There are five gates made of hammered iron from the village of Kreshevo. The wall and gates were erected between 1926 and 1930 when the cemetery was expanded, especially to the north, where the grand north gate, the cemetery’s main entrance, has a triple-arched gateway. Near to this gate was erected the cemetery’s main architectural attraction, a large Ceremonial Hall, designed by Franz Scheiding and erected between 1926 and 1930.
A flight of steps leads up the hill from the main gate towards a Holocaust monument (designed by Jahiel Finci and built in 1952). To the left of the path is an area set aside for gravestones from the Ashkenazi cemetery, which was closed in 1959. The remains themselves – comprising some 900 individuals – were placed in a common grave under a single monument. There are also memorials to Jews who were killed in the First World War and further Holocaust monuments, including one to a group of Serbs and Jews killed there by the Nazis in 1941.
The oldest stones in the cemetery are in the sections furthest from the enclosing walls. Their form is unique in Europe: large, rounded in shape and lying horizontally, often set into the hillside. The stone for these monuments were quarried nearby. They are almost identical in size and form, giving the hillside a patterned appearance. Only the gravestones of prominent rabbis and scholars were made larger or more lavish. The older stones are only inscribed in Hebrew; later ones have inscriptions in both Hebrew and Ladino, which include poetic epigraphs. Most of the monuments erected after 1878 are modelled on the funerary monuments of other religions. The cemetery was vandalized a number of times before and after 1966, when all the city’s religious cemeteries were closed and a municipal cemetery opened, with sections for each religion.
During the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo, the Old Sephardi cemetery was in the front line of fighting; indeed it was the site of one of the Bosnian Serbs’ main artillery positions. (Today, clusters of abandoned homes flank the site, many ruined during the siege.) Considerable damage occurred as a result of returned fire from the city below. The Ceremonial Hall was shelled and burned in 1994, and the Bosnian Serbs extensively mined the cemetery before their withdrawal.
After the end of hostilities, an international effort was made to restore the cemetery. The first phase consisted of the de-mining of the site, completed in 1998. The second phase was the full restoration of the Ceremonial Hall, funded in large part by contributions from the United States Government and matched by grants from the city and region of Sarajevo.
The Ceremonial Hall is a cruciform two-story stone building, with its main door to the east and an apse to the west, more than 13 meters wide and topped by a low dome 10.2 meters high. The main door gives access to the upper storey. It is flanked by pilasters decorated with shallow reliefs. A pointed pediment above contains a Magen David and has a Decalogue at its apex. Acroteria on the corners bear carvings of acanthus leaves and mask the building’s gutters. A separate western gate provides burial society officials with access to the lower floor, now an apartment for the cemetery caretaker. The third entrance, on the south side, was used to bring the deceased to an area devoted to its preparation for burial. Here was a table made of artificial stone where the body would be washed. From here, the coffin would be carried directly into the apse of the octagonal main hall, six meters high, where it lay during the funeral service. From this hall, short arms emerge on four sides; that to the west, where the coffin lay, has a deep, high apse under a half-dome; the main entrance is opposite. The northern and southern arms are rectangular and have barrel vaults. The central dome is made of oak which has been plastered and painted white. The pendentives which support this dome bear painted medallions, today carrying the [Hebrew] inscription ‘Righteous and upright is He’ (Deuteronomy 32:4).
The restoration begun in 1998 under architects Sakib Okivic, Berislav Kutni and Krvavac Zijo made some alterations to the building’s design. The basement level has been converted into a caretaker’s apartment; the zinc roof covering replaced with copper; lost details, such as the small chimneys that occupy two corners of the roof were identified in historic photographs and reinstated. The inscriptions beneath the dome were repainted, and the interior of the dome itself, once decorated, has been painted white.
Il Kal Vjezu
Velika avlija bb
Tel: +387 033 535 688
Located in Velika Avlija, the former Jewish quarter of the city, the Old Synagogue (known locally as Il Kal Vjezu) was built in 1581, and damaged by fires of 1697 and 1788. This three-storey stone building is one of the most architecturally impressive pre-modern synagogues in the world. The narrow, three-bay long main space of the central prayer hall has thick walls which support a series of interior domes, echoing the arrangement of many Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques, but contrasting with both: more emphatically axial than a mosque, but without the crossing that would be normal in a church. The main space is surrounded on three sides by galleries on two levels. At one end there is an apsidal space for an Aron Kodesh.
The synagogue was once richly decorated, and presumably the stone walls were once covered with plaster and painted. The synagogue was abandoned following World War II; a Jewish Museum was established in the building in 1966, and most of the synagogue’s ornamentation was removed. An agreement with the Sarajevo City Museum to operate the museum remained in effect until 1992. However, the museum closed during the war of the 1990s and used the synagogue as an office and a warehouse for its holdings.
The synagogue was rededicated in 2004 and is now both a place of worship and a museum, cultural and educational center. A new Ark has been installed in the apsidal space designed for this use, and on special occasions the ground floor is used for services. The two upper floors, which consist of arched stone balconies surrounding the sanctuary area, house historical exhibits. These displays make clear the richness of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Sarajevo and give an outline of the history of the Holocaust in Bosnia.
Il Kal Nuevu
Mula Mustafe Baseškije 38
Next door to the old synagogue is a newer one, founded in 1746 and now used as an art gallery (New Temple Gallery – Galerija Novi Hram). The now-nondescript building is still owned by the Jewish community, which maintains the gallery and holds exhibitions of Judaica there. The Jewish Museum is expanding its permanent collection by claiming a single work from every exhibition held in the space. An apartment upstairs was the home of the undertaker who traditionally maintained the Jewish cemetery.
Currently in use by the Jewish community; designed by Karlo Paržik and dedicated in 1904. After World War II, the sanctuary was divded horizontally, with the prayer space above and a community function room below.
See architectural plans and virtual reconstructions in this video by Journey into Jewish Heritage.
Great Sephardi Synagogue
Bosnian Cultural Center
Branilaca Grada 24
Little remains of the grandeur of the great domed synagogue, built in 1930, designed by the prominent Croatian Jewish architect Rudolf Lubynski (or Lubinski) (1873-1935), and one of the largest synagogues in the Balkans. It combined traditional Ottoman-inspired forms with the restrained decorative preferences of modernism. Partially destroyed in the Second World War, it stood abandoned until 1965, when the Jewish community offered it to the city of Sarajevo for use as a cultural center. Almost all of the synagogue’s surviving interior and exterior decoration was removed during the conversion process. A menorah-shaped monument in the atrium of the building marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Jews in Ottoman Bosnia. It was designed by the architect Zlatko Ugljen (b. 1929), professor of architecture in Sarajevo. Ugljen is probably best known for designing the White Mosque in Visoko (Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1980), for which he was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1983. The monument was dedicated on 25 December 1965 as part of the reopening of the building as Djuro Djakovic, the worker’s university. It is now the Bosanski Kulturni Centar, or Bosnian Cultural Center.
See documentation from the Journey into Jewish Heritage on this video:
After their 1878 occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Austro-Hungarian empire built fortifications throughout its new territory. Vraca, built in 1898, overlooks Sarajevo from an almost impregnable position and has never been captured by an enemy force. During World War II it was the site of thousands of Nazi executions of communists, Partisans, Serbs, Muslims, Croats and Jews. In 1981 the City of Sarajevo turned Vraca into a memorial park and museum; the complex was created by the sculptor Alija Kucukalic [Kučukalić] and the architects Vladimir Dobrovic [Dobrović] and Aleksandar Maltaric and was listed as a national monument.
A large memorial lists the names of the 9,091 people of Sarajevo who died here and elsewhere in the Second World War, among them are 7,262 Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Walls of black granite flank the wide ramp that leads into the monument, and here are engraved the names of a further 2,013 fallen Partisans from Sarajevo, 354 of them Jews. A memorial fountain sits in the centre of the complex. It is a round structure of black marble, bearing the names of 26 ‘popular heroes’ of Sarajevo – three of them Jewish.
The complex was heavily damaged in the Balkan War of the 1990s. The museum building was totally destroyed, and the monument itself was badly damaged; many of the names inscribed on it were lost. The outer structure, which is mostly made of granite, was less damaged, and the names of Partisans and popular heroes here are better preserved. A restoration project was begun in December 2001, but due to a lack of funds the project was put on hold.
ELSEWHERE IN BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA
A forested hillside near this town, about 80 kilometers from Sarajevo, is the site of a series of multi-ethnic cemeteries. Although they are divided by religion, no fence separates one from another, and there are crosses in the midst of the Jewish section. This was founded between 1876 and 1888 and contains about 100-150 gravestones; many monuments reflect the relative wealth of the community in former times. The inscriptions are in Hebrew, Ladino, Serbo-Croat, and German. The oldest stone is from 1887. There are portraits on some of them. The cemetery is owned by the Jewish community and is still in use.
The community maintains a small synagogue and Jewish community center In a renovated building with a distinctive scalloped roof in the center of town, near the open market.
The synagogue was erected in 1902 and served the community until 17 November 1942. The Jewish community was then deported to Croatian concentration camps, from which few returned. Early in 1944 the synagogue was burnt by Ustaše and Nazi forces. It was reclaimed after the war by Jewish survivors, who took out a large loan to cover the costs of refurbishment. The community eventually defaulted on repaying this loan, and the building was turned into a puppet theatre. The adjoining house, once the home of the rabbi, is now used by the theatre as an office. EU money funded further restoration work after the 1990s war. A broken stone Decalogue was found during these renovations; it is displayed on the ground near the great stairway that leads to the synagogue/theatre entrance. It is the only evidence of either building’s Jewish origins.
Jewish Cemetery and Holocaust memorial
The cemetery was established sometime between 1890 and 1904. Designated a National Monument in 2004, the 0.2-hectare site is surrounded by a stone wall with an iron gate on the west side. It contains 50-100 gravestones, the oldest of which is dated 1904. Some stones have portraits on them; inscriptions are in Serbo-Croat, Hebrew, and Ladino. Restoration work was carried out with support from the EU in 1996. The cemetery is still in use and is looked after by the Jewish Community of Mostar. The key can be requested at the petrol station opposite.
A large Holocaust memorial, in the shape of a wall of mazevot, was dedicated at the cemetery in 1999. It was the work of sculptor Florijan Mickovic [Mičković], designed by architects Zdravko Gutic [Gutić], Edo Kadribegovic [Kadribegović] and Zoran Mandelbaum.
The synagogue was destroyed in 2004, but the Jewish cemetery remains.
The revered Rabbi Moshe Danon of Sarajevo is buried in a small cemetery at Krajsina, two kilometers west of Stolac, the town where he died in 1830 when en route to the Holy Land. The complex was restored and partially reconstructed in 1989 under the direction of Ivan Čerešnješ and was listed as a National Monument in 2003.
The cemetery is now surrounded by a low stone wall with a metal gate. Inside, a stone path leads diagonally to the grave of Rabbi Danon. The path branches around the tomb in three curving paths, evoking the form of a seven-branched menorah. The central branch is the tomb itself, which consists of a large single stone – long, narrow, and about waist high, with a curved top. It appears that the stone may once have been plastered and painted red, or red and white. The front of the stone has the following inscription, in Hebrew and Ladino: “This stone is placed here so that it can be as a sign and monument of the burial of the saintly person whose works were wondrous and of whom it was said that he was pious and saintly. He was our master teacher and great Haham Rav Moshe Danon. His good works aid us. Amen. He left this world on the 20th day of Sivan 5590.” A simple one-room prayer house for pilgrims visiting the tomb, built in 1832, has also been rebuilt.
The site is shaded by several mature trees. It also contains the graves of two Jewish soldiers, members of the Austrian army who died in the area. One of these has no inscription; the other, in German, bears the name of Arnold Silberstein (d 1889).
Travnik’s New Synagogue, built in 1860 to replace an 18th century synagogue torn down that year, was used after World War II as a metal workshop and was demolished in 2008.
The overgrown Jewish cemetery, founded in 1762, lies next to the Catholic cemetery on a hillside outside the town. There are some 250-300 tombstones, with inscriptions in Hebrew and Ladino. In the center is a simple Holocaust monument: a cubical concrete pedestal on which are positioned three of what appear to be the cemetery’s oldest tombstones.
Travnik city museum has a collection of Jewish ritual objects. Silver artifacts include Megillah (Scroll of Esther) cases and a silver prayer book cover believed to have belonged to one of the city’s oldest Jewish families, the Konfortis. The objects were discovered in 1989 during the digging of foundations for a new house.
Outside town, on the slope of the hill, is a small but relatively well-maintained Jewish cemetery, founded in the mid-19th century and containing 25-50 tombstones. It is surrounded by a gated fence. The Jewish community in Sarajevo takes care of the cemetery; older members visit regularly. Inscriptions on gravestones are in Hebrew, Ladino, German, and Serbo-Croat.
Muzej Grada Zenice, Jevrejska 1
Tel: +387 (0) 32 02 020
The Moorish-style former synagogue was given by the local Jewish community to the municipality in the 1960s in exchange for two residential flats; today it is used as the Municipal Museum. The building is well-maintained, though no original interior features are visible. The sanctuary has been divided into two floors with an exhibition area downstairs and storage above. The small museum office occupies part of the former women’s gallery, above what was once the vestibule. The museum has a collection of Jewish ritual objects which include silver Torah finials from 1896, Hanukah menorot, and Torah staves with mother-of-pearl inlays.
This cemetery, established in 1875, lies on a steep, north-facing hillside, Raspotocije, outside the town. It is fenced and gated but neglected. Inscriptions are in Hebrew/Ladino and German.