The history of the Jews in Serbia dates back to the period of the Roman Empire, some 2,000 years ago, with no evidence on continuity until the 15th century. After fleeing from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions a large number of Jews found refuge on the Balkan Peninsula, in Ottoman ruled areas (Belgrade and south Serbia).
As of 18th century, the north part of today’s Serbia was populated with Jews living under Austro-Hungarian rule.
Jews under Ottoman ruled areas were engaged in many fields of commerce between the various provinces in the Ottoman Empire and were prominent in trade, manufacture and medicine (alternative). In Austro-Hungarian area Jews were mostly engaged in trade, and later on in industrial development, medicine, law and finance, civil engineering, education and administrative service.
In 1804, the Serbs began to fight the Ottoman Turks for independence. Many Jews were involved in the struggle by supplying arms to the local Serbs. In 1830, Serbia finally gained its independence. However, many anti-Jewish discriminative measures were imposed on the community during the 19th century, until they were revoked by parliament in 1889. For Jews living under Austro Hungarian rule, the law on the emancipation of Jews was adopted after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise in 1867. The imperial edict issued by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1868, recognized equality of Jews within the Military border. With this edict ceased all limitations in reference to residence, buying real estates and choosing profession.
The first Jewish Community in Belgrade with secular management was established in 1866, with headquarters in a building on Solunska Street, erected in 1850 and known as ‘Old Home’ or Jewish School. The ‘New Home’ of the Jewish Sephardic Community was built in 1928 on Kralja Petra Street, in a building still in use by the Belgrade’s Jewish community today.
After World War I, upon the creation of Yugoslavia, the Jews of Serbia were linked to Jews in other parts of the kingdom. The Jewish community of then-Yugoslavia was prosperous until 1930. The findings of a demographic study of the approximately 10,000 Jews that lived in Belgrade prior to World War II indicated that 80% were Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews, and 20% were Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews.
Yugoslavian Jewry was nearly annihilated in the Holocaust. The destruction of Serbian Jewry commenced with the Nazi German invasion and occupation of the country. By the time Serbia and Yugoslavia were liberated in 1944, most of Serbia’s Jews had been murdered. Of the 82,500 Jews of Yugoslavia alive in 1941, only 14,000 (17%) survived the Holocaust. Of the Serbian Jewish population of 34,000, the Nazis and their Croatian Fascist allies murdered approximately 29,000.
Already in August 1942, a Nazi report officially declared Belgrade to be “Judenrein” (empty of Jews). A significant number of Jews distinguished themselves through their valiant efforts in the partisan, antifascist struggle against the Germans.
After the war, the Jewish community was reconstituted and various Jews held official positions in Socialist Yugoslavia, including the vice presidency of the Federal Republic and the presidency of the Federal Parliament.
During the past 70 years since World War II, Serbia’s Jewish community has not significantly increased in number, mostly due to emigration to Israel and other countries. Today, the Jewish Community in Serbia as a whole is estimated to consist of 3,300 members, with around 2,000 members residing in Belgrade.
The Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) in Serbia represents the Jewish community in Serbia in the country and abroad. It consists of 10 Jewish communities. The biggest community is Jewish Community of Belgrade.
The Jewish Community in Pristina, capital of the former province of Kosovo and Metohija, was also a member of the FJC Serbia. After the secession of Kosovo and proclamation of its independence, the majority of the Jews from Kosovo moved out to Serbia. Although contact with the present Jewish Community in Pristina still exists, the communities are not bound institutionally.
Religious life unfolds through regular services in synagogues in Belgrade and Subotica, religious education, classes, courses and lectures. FJC Serbia employs an Orthodox rabbi with residence in Belgrade who serves as Chief Rabbi of Serbia. The Ashkenazi synagogue in Belgrade, “Sukat Shalom,” is located downtown. While it serves both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic sectors of Belgrade’s Jewish community, it currently follows the Sephardic “Nusach” (prayer version). Congregation in Subotica is following Ashkenazi prayer version.
CULTURE AND EDUCATION
Hebrew courses are held in several Jewish communities in Serbia. In Belgrade, there is a Center of informal Jewish education which provides Jewish education for children and youth. The Center is comprised of youth and children’s clubs and offers an opportunity to get acquainted with Jewish cultural heritage. Its courses are open for Community members and for all others interested in learning Hebrew. FJC Serbia also issues a monthly newspaper “Jevrejski pregled”, which is distributed to each Jewish household in Serbia, and to a large number of subscribers abroad.
In addition to a variety of social activities offered at the Community’s Day Care Center, the Belgrade Jewish community operates a kosher kitchen service, established in 2005. The kitchen is of great significance to the whole community, catering primarily to elderly Jewish members while extending its service to the wider public in need. The ‘Kosher Kitchen’ is crucial in maintaining Jewish life and improving the quality of life in general of elderly Holocaust survivors.
The Federation also manages the Jewish Historical Museum, which exhibits a valuable collection of Jewish artefacts and hosts an extensive archive.
The Jewish Community Belgrade operates the “Baruch Brothers Choir”, founded in 1879 as the Serbian-Jewish Singing Society. It changed its name to honor the memory of three Serbian Jewish brothers from the prominent Baruch family, who were killed at the outbreak of World War II. Some researchers claim that it is the world’s oldest active Jewish choir. Additionally, the “King David Theater” was founded in 1986 within the Jewish Community Center of Belgrade, with the mission of promoting Jewish culture and theatrical art among the younger population, primarily high school and university students. (For more on FJC Serbia’s activities: www.savezscg.org). The JC Novi Sad operates “Hashira”, a mixed chamber choir founded in 1993.
Unlike most of their brethren in Eastern Europe, the Jews of Yugoslavia maintained lively contact with Jews in Israel and western countries following World War II. All diplomatic relations between Israel and Yugoslavia ceased to exist following the Six-Day War in 1967, until they were renewed in 1992, during the Yugoslav Wars. Israel now has an embassy in Belgrade and Serbia has an embassy in Tel Aviv. Since 1948, more than a half of Yugoslavian Jews who survived Holocaust have emigrated to Israel.
Sites of Jewish interest include the Subotica Synagogue, built in 1902 and well-known for both its beauty and its present state of devastation. It is one of the last architectural structures built in the Secessionist style of the early 1900’s and listed by the World Monuments Fund as one of the world’s most endangered memorial sites; the Jewish Museum in Belgrade; the graves of Theodore Herzl’s grandparents in the town of Zemun; the Jewish Cemetery in Belgrade, with a monument symbolizing the tragedy of Yugoslavian Jews who perished in the Holocaust.