Could Bosnia and Herzegovina, the site of the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust, be the safest place on the Continent to be a Jew?
Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which numbers some 1,000, thinks it may well be.
“We think we’re safe here with open doors,” Finci, a mischievous-eyed septuagenarian tells Haaretz in a recent interview in his office in the synagogue, the only functioning Jewish house of worship in the entire country. “This country is one of the few free of anti-Semitism.”
Touted over the centuries as the “European Jerusalem” and “Jerusalem of the Balkans,” modern Sarajevo, the capital of and largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was a cosmopolitan melting pot at the crossroads between East and West, ruled first by the Ottomans and then subsumed within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Never forced to live in ghettos, the Jews of what is modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina – most of them descendants of Sephardim (the Spanish and Portuguese Jews expelled from Spain in 1492) – were treated much better during Ottoman times than in most of Western Europe, according to Finci.
By the 1930s there were about 12,000 Jews in Sarajevo and another 2,000 elsewhere in the country, according to census figures quoted by Finci and other sources. But the population was decimated during the Holocaust: Some 10,000 of its members were killed by the Ustasa, Croation fascists who sympathized with the Nazi regime.
Even then, though, many Muslims tried to protect their Jewish neighbors, and their bravery is memorialized today at Sarajevo’s Jewish Museum, housed in a former Sephardi synagogue. Some Muslim individuals are listed there as Righteous Among the Nations.
While part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – formed in 1946 and comprising six Balkan republics – religious practice was discouraged in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, explains Finci, the Jews there were treated well by Josip Broz Tito, the communist revolutionary who would later become president of Yugoslavia because many of them had fought with Tito’s Partisans during World War II.
Subsequently, following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, about half of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s remaining population of 2,000 Jews fled to Israel, fearing the worst.
Finci was one of those who stayed on, feeling an obligation to his country and the local Jewish organizations that were heavily involved in providing humanitarian aid to their fellow Sarajevans, their neighbors, irrespective of their ethnicity or religion since the city was under siege, Haaretz reports.
With evening prayer and lighting candles, Jewish people started to celebrate Hanukkah on December 2nd, the feast of light, which lasts for eight days.
“Hanukkah refers to an event that took place 167 years BC. At that time, Judah was ruled by the Greeks, who have tried to make violent hellenization – introduce Greek gods and forbid Jews to believe in one God. During the uprising, which lasted for three years, the Jews succeeded in expelling the Greeks from Jerusalem and the whole region,” says the general secretary of the Jewish community in Sarajevo, Elma Softic Kaunitz.
After burning the candle, they say a prayer of thanks to God for what he has done to Jewish ancestors at that time until the present day. After that, they all sing the song „Ma or cur“ by which, once again, they thank God for keeping them safe.
After lighting candles, the family gathers around the feast. There is a special place at the table with cakes and that is why this holiday is often called the sweet feast, said Softic Kaunitz. The most common specialties are sweet almond cakes called chaldikas, other types are pastry with nuts and halva which is formed in stars or moon shapes.
As part of the celebration, children receive “gelt” (the term for money) in each of the eight days, in order to learn to share it to charity. Recently, the tradition that children receive a small gift in each of the eight nights became popular as well.
“The game that includes candy comes down to that the player who wins gets all the candies. This game is played as a reminiscence that children, by playing the game, tried to distract the soldiers while the Maccabees were preparing to attack and return their temple from Greeks”, said the General Secretary of Jewish Community in Sarajevo.
In BiH, there was a custom that Sephardims prepare “Hanukkah Halvah” for this holiday, which is probably taken from the Bosnian population because, except at the stage of preparation, it is a typical “Bosnian halva”. In the world it is common to prepare “sufganijot”- donuts filled with various jams or chocolate.