Ryan Schuessler

Born again: Jews of Sarajevo welcome baby boom

Bosnian capital sees hope for revival of historic religious minority community battered by Holocaust and Balkan conflict

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Jewish leaders here recently noticed something that they say they hadn’t seen much of in years: babies.

“We are a small community, so the challenge of maintaining the community is bigger than for the bigger communities that exist,” said Elma Softic-Kaunitz of Sarajevo’s Jewish community. “But I need to say with pride that during the last year — in 2014 — we’ve had 10 newborns in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which hasn’t happened in the last 10 years.”

The baby boom, community leaders say, is largely coming from young people who are returning to Sarajevo, having been sent away as children during the war in the early 1990s. They’ve returned to their homeland during a time of peace and are starting their own families.

She added, “Our challenge is that these little babies — that we provide them the opportunity or possibility to have a Jewish life here. Our challenge is that the community continues to grow.”

But that won’t be easy. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s larger problems — vast unemployment, economic stagnation and political gridlock — are a tall order. Sarajevo’s Jews are in the midst of a cultural renaissance well received by their neighbors, but at a time when the country’s youths see more opportunity abroad than at home. Leaders of the community, which numbers several hundred, are looking for ways to hold on to their young people so that its presence in the city can last another generation and even expand.

Vibrant, tragic history

Sephardic refugees from Spain were the first Jews in Sarajevo, having been expelled along with Muslims and other non-Catholics in 1492. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire expanded, Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews entered the community.

At the end of World War I, Sarajevo was home to more than 12,000 Jews, who made up one-fifth of the city’s population. Nearly all of them were murdered during the Holocaust. In the 1970s, there were about 1,000 members of the community. When war came to Sarajevo again in 1992, hundreds fled for Israel, Spain and other countries.

Sonja Elazar, who was born to Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust after losing 153 members of their family, chose to stay in Sarajevo as sniper fire and tank shells rained down from the mountains surrounding the city.

“I always knew what I was and always knew the Jewish [community center] in Sarajevo was my second home,” she said. In 1992 she went to the community and asked how she could help and was put in charge of the women’s organization.

“It was more than tea parties. In terms of helping the older ones, in terms of supplies, arranging school for children,” Elazar said. “I know what it was like to live in the war, to run across the bridge at 6 in the morning when it’s still foggy so the snipers can’t see me.”

The Jewish community’s humanitarian organization — La Benevolencija —distributed supplies and medical care to anyone in Sarajevo, regardless of religion or ethnic group.

La Benevolencija became a widely publicized example during a war that forced residents to choose sides, Softic-Kaunitz and others said. It was largely a war that pitted the former Yugoslavia’s three main ethnic groups — Roman Catholic Croats, Eastern Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks — against one another. Other minorities such as Jews and Roma were metaphorically and literally caught in the crossfire.

Sarajevo’s Old Jewish Cemetery on Mount Trebevic, where the city’s Holocaust memorial is located, was in use from the 1500s until 1966 and became an artillery position for Bosnian Serbs overlooking “Sniper Alley” on the front line during the Balkan conflict.
Ryan Schuessler


For example, Sarajevo’s Jewish cemetery — among the oldest and largest in Europe — was used by Bosnian Serb snipers to shoot at civilians in the city. The cemetery later became a front line, and its tombstones and Holocaust memorial are riddled with bulletholes to this day.

Like their historic cemetery, many in Sarajevo’s Jewish community became caught up in the war. For many who had grown up in socialist Yugoslavia, where ethnic and religious identity was de-emphasized, picking a side felt wrong.

“Before the war, there was a large number of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Yugoslavia who really thought Yugoslavia was their homeland, and they were declaring themselves as Yugoslavs,” Softic-Kaunitz said. “They didn’t leave their homeland, but their homeland left them.”

She found herself in that position. She is of a mixed background, with just one Jewish grandparent, and she became active in the community only after the war started. Sarajevo’s Jewish community dropped to approximately 200 people when the fighting began, but hundreds like her became active in the community, which grew after the drop-off at the beginning of the war. Today the community is some 700 strong.

“Few hundreds left Sarajevo, then few hundred others became members,” she said. “That was an interesting math at the time.”

‘Before the war, there was a large number of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Yugoslavia who really thought Yugoslavia was their homeland, and they were declaring themselves as Yugoslavs. They didn’t leave their homeland, but their homeland left them.’

Elma Softic-Kaunitz

Jewish resident, Sarajevo

After the war, Sarajevo’s reinvigorated Jewish community put its resources toward a cultural renaissance, hoping to revitalize what had been lost during the course of the 20th century.

Ester Debevec is one of the only remaining individuals who was around before the Holocaust. She was born in Sarajevo in 1933, and by 1941 was fleeing the Gestapo with her family. They escaped by train to Mostar, having posed as Muslims. Her mother wore a headscarf until they were relatively safe, but they were eventually sent to an Italian-controlled concentration camp in Croatia’s Dalmatian islands.

“There’s very few of us that really remember that,” Debevec said of Sarajevo’s flourishing Jewish community before World War II. “They don’t have that feeling like we had in those houses.”

Sarajevo’s Jewish community is a mix of traditions, with a distinct Spanish flair that lived on over the centuries. Debevec, who stayed in Sarajevo and volunteered during the siege from 1992 to 1996 siege, is one of only a handful of community members who still speak some Ladino, the medieval Spanish-Hebrew language traditionally spoken by Sephardic Jews. Yiddish, the German-Hebrew-Slavic language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews, has ceased to exist in Sarajevo, she said.

A lot had been lost by the end of the 20th century, but Sarajevo’s Jews rallied around a new effort to preserve and promote the remaining pieces of Jewish history and culture in the city.

“After this last war, the older of us, we maintained all these things,” Debevec said.

“We are close to the end of Ladino as a mother tongue,” said community leader Eli Tauber. “But we are trying to preserve our Sephardic tradition.”

“I hope that the young people are educated in that spirit,” Debevec said.

Sarajevo’s Jews worshipped separately in the past, but now Sephardi and Ashkenazi members pray together.
Ryan Schuessler

Sarajevo’s Jewish community has changed. It was reinvigorated during the Bosnian War, yet is largely a culture-based community, not religious. A Bosnian rabbi living in Israel visits twice a year, but that’s it. Even though Ladino and Yiddish are on their last breaths, more Jews in Sarajevo speak Hebrew today than they have in years, as the children who lived in Israel during the war have returned to the city. The Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews used to worship separately; today they pray together, following Sephardic traditions in the Ashkenazi synagogue.

The Jewish community regularly puts on cultural events, symposiums and exhibitions, though more Gentiles attend than Jews. Only one of Sarajevo’s six synagogues is currently used as a place of worship, and one has been turned into a museum. There is a choir that sings traditional songs, Sunday school, youth clubs and a Jewish newspaper.

“The younger generations, so they learn how the Jewish community lived here up until World War II,” have ways of exploring their history, said Elazar, who wrote a book about Sephardic life in Sarajevo after the war.

One thing has remained consistent: Sarajevo’s Jews are generally not concerned about anti-Semitism. As fears of growing hatred spread across Europe’s Jewish communities, Sarajevo’s synagogue and community center remain among the few that have no security at their doors, which are open to anyone.

Israel has recognized non-Jewish Sarajevans for risking their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. A notable case is that of Zejneba Hardaga, a Muslim woman from Sarajevo whose family hid their Jewish neighbors during the Nazi occupation. Five decades later, during the siege of Sarajevo, the Jewish family, now living in Israel, saved Hardaga and her daughter.

“Sarajevo is still a multiethnic city,” said Jakob Finci, the president of the Jewish community in all of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who was born in a concentration camp. “Not only where you can see mosque but also churches and synagogues, where people are living together without a problem.”

Like others in Bosnia’s capital, the young members of the Jewish community are concerned about their economic future.
Ryan Schuessler

Igor Kozemjakin, 35, returned to Sarajevo in 2002, having lived in Israel since 1995. “About two to three years [later], I got involved back in community life,” he said. “And I saw there was a need for people like me.”

He was given a Jewish education in Israel and at college in Sweden. In the absence of a rabbi, he acts as the community’s cantor, helping lead the congregation in prayer and song.

And of course, there are the babies, like Kozemjakin’s infant daughter.

“In the last 50 years, it was very unusual to have a baby,” Finci said. From 2010 to 2013, there were 40 Jewish funerals in the country and only one baby. Last year there were 10 babies and already one in 2015.

Sarajevo’s Jewish community survived the Holocaust and Bosnian War, and many of its members are proud to say that it still has a visible presence in the city. Sonja Elazar, who taught at the Jewish school during the siege of Sarajevo, is happy to see her old pupils taking their children to the school today.

But the future of the community, Kozemjakin said, depends on the availability of Jewish education in Sarajevo.

“I hope that we will have full kindergarten and day school, because Jewish education is critical,” he said over a beer after Shabbat in Sarajevo. “Sunday school is not enough. It’s enough for survival of community, but its not enough for flourishing community.”

The community’s leaders are aware that they also face a new challenge: keeping the young people – the future of their community – in Sarajevo.

With an unemployment rate hovering near 45 percent — and some studies showing that 1 in 3 unemployed people in Bosnia-Herzegovina is under 30 — many young people in the country are increasingly tempted to seek opportunity abroad.

Vladimir Andrle, a 29-year-old member of Sarajevo’s Jewish community, is one of those people. He works for the Jewish community organization and is hoping to find work somewhere in the European Union.

A 2013 poll found that 81 percent of young people surveyed in Bosnia-Herzegovina would leave the country tomorrow if they could.

“I don’t see a bad future just for this community. I see a bad future for this whole town,” Andrle said. “I hope that I’m wrong, but this country will become one of old people and politicians.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter