Bosnian Jews marking 450 years survival in Balkans country

Since arriving in Sarajevo in the mid-16th century, Jews have constantly had to manage the challenge of being a minority within a complex inter-ethnic puzzle in a region affected by war, communist ideology and — in later years — sectarian conflict.

As such, the survival of a Jewish community for 450 years in the middle of the Balkans is something really remarkable, said Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country’s EJC affiliate.

To commemorate this nearly half a millennium achievement, Finci initiated a series of anniversary events in the capital last month.

Part cultural, part academic, it included the inaugural exhibition of Edward Serotta’s photographs of the 1992-1996 siege of Sarajevo, titled “Survival in Sarajevo,” as well as a two-day international conference and private tours to see the world-famous Sarajevo Hagadah in the city’s National Museum, an institution that had remained closed for years due to lack of funds.

Born to a Sephardi family in 1943, in Rab, an Italian concentration camp during World War II, Jakob Finci has been described as a “living legend.” Although officially retired, the 72-year-old lawyer and former Bosnian ambassador to Switzerland works tirelessly for the Jewish community.

Finci was one of the founders — and current president — of the Inter-Religious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was established in 1997. Its membership reflects the country’s Islamic, Christian and Catholic communities.

Although the small Jewish community currently only numbers approximately 1,000, Finci said that Jews are also equal partners amid a majority Sunni Muslim population because of their long tradition and presence in the region.

Finci said he would continue to fight for equal rights and the Jewish community.

“We’ve been here 450 years and our intention is to stay another 450. The flame of Jewish life won’t leave Bosnia,” said Finci.

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