Croatia can be divided into two distinct areas with largely separate Jewish histories: the Dalmatian coast, where Jewish settlement was dense, goes back to ancient times and Ottoman and Italian influences are strong; and the inland regions, where Jewish settlement was more scattered, more recent and, since the 16th century, dominated by Austro-Hungarian influences.
The territory as a whole became part of Yugoslavia following World War I; by 1939 it had a Jewish population of around 25,000. The inland part of the country became an independent Nazi puppet state ruled by the Fascist Ustase [Ustaše] in 1941, with terrible consequences for the Jews and other minority groups. Italian Fascists, however, occupied the coast, and there anti-Semitic forces were weaker. Most of the 5,000 Croatian Jews to survive the war lived or were interned here, or fought for the partisans inland.
During the post-war communist period, when Croatia was one of the six constituent republics Yugoslavia, Yugoslav Jews belonged to local communities linked in autonomous republic-wide organizations which in turn were members of a nationwide Federation of Yugoslav Jewish Communities, based in Belgrade. Legally, the Jewish community – consisting of about 6,000 people throughout the former Yugoslavia – was recognized as both an ethnic and a religious community. Local Jews were not persecuted or isolated as were Jews in other communist states. But they generally assimilated into society and lost contact with religious life: they were “Yugoslavs” first, and “Jews” second.
During this period, the Federation of Yugoslav Jewish Communities was responsible for caring for Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and other infrastructure in towns where no Jewish communities existed any more.
After Croatia’s secession from Yugoslavia in 1991 and the series of wars that accompanied the break-up of post-war Yugoslavia, the new government appeared to use support for Jewish causes as an attempt to counter accusations of extreme nationalism. Aid was provided to Jewish-related projects including the reconstruction of the Zagreb Jewish community building after it was hit by a terrorist bomb in 1991.
The 1990s saw a rebirth of Jewish life and identity in Croatia. Most of the country’s 2,000 or so Jews live in Zagreb, with smaller communities in nine other towns.
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