Sarajevo’s Jewish Cemetery

It’s been a while since my last post… 19 days, to be exact, and that post didn’t actually provide much insight to what’s been going on in my life. I apologize for that, but things get rather busy and it’s actually rather nice to say, “I didn’t have time to use the computer,” in this modern world.

The weather here was wonderful today, and with the rising temperatures my mood definitely lifted as well. However, as with spring in any place I’ve lived, there is still a very long way to go until we’re actually in the clear. It snowed just last Saturday though, so I would be optimistic in my desire to pull out my shorts and my summer dresses. It’s so tempting to defy mother nature and just do it anyway, but I won’t. People here hang on to their winter coats longer than they do in Wisconsin. I’m sure if this warm spell were hitting Wausau, my schoolmates would be breaking out shorts and sandals with vigor. Things move slower in Bosnia, though. People are pretty confident that the temperature will drop again until proved otherwise, which is a rather shrewd prediction. All the same, the weather is warming overall, shakily and gradually, and I think we are through the worst of it.  This weekend is forecast to be lovely, and I’m hoping to go trekking up one of the hills surrounding Sarajevo with Savannah.

I’ve done several things in the past weeks. Recently, I visited Sarajevo’s Jewish cemetery. This is the second-largest Jewish cemetery in all of Europe, second only to the Prague cemetery. That statistic must refer to total graves, as the Sarajevo cemetery stretches up and up the bottom of Mount Trebević, covering a huge area. The Prague cemetery is confined by city streets, fences, buildings. It’s now a part of the ghetto museum, and my choir visited it when we toured there last spring, actually right around this time of year. Prague’s cemetery is not large, yet there are graves stacked upon graves, and the entire place is also well-preserved with a steady stream of visitors. Sarajevo is very different.

This past fall, I had stumbled upon the place after searching for about half an hour. It is extraordinarily beautiful, with a stunning white stone gate standing at the entrance to the cemetery and a small chapel just inside the gates, constructed out of the same stone. However, it’s not a tourist attraction, and despite its historical significance it is not well-maintained. A rich Jewish history exists in Sarajevo, although today fewer than 1,500 Jews live in all of Bosnia.

Jewish roots in Bosnia can be traced back as early as the late 15th century, when Sephardi Jews were fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. They were welcomed in the Ottoman Empire, and settled in areas of Bosnia, Macedonia, and Thrace. This diaspora brought with it the treasured Sarajevo Haggadah, an illustrated prayer-book of sorts dating back to 1350. It is famous not only for its stunning, rich illustrations which are painted in color, but for its remarkable story of survival (particularly during WWII and the more recent Bosnian War). If you’re interested, you can read more about the Haggadah’s story here. There is also a historical fiction novel following the story of the Haggadah called “People of the Book.” But back to Sarajevo’s Jewish history.

In 1630, the Jewish Cemetery was established when Rabbi Baruch rented the land. As of today, it is the oldest religious burial ground in the city, and is home to unique headstones. Many of them resemble stecci, not unlike the tombstones of the medieval Bosnian Kingdom, yet with Hebrew writing carved into their fronts.

The Sarajevo Jewish community grew when Ashkenazi Jews arrived in the mid-nineteenth century from Hungary around the time the Ottoman Empire lost Hungary (guess they had too much Turkey to be Hungary, right? Come on. You can laugh. It’s okay). Time moved on, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed with the end of WWI. By this point, there were approximately 13,000 Jews living in Bosnia and Herzegovina (source: Jewish Virtual Library).

14,000 Jews were living in BiH by 1940, 10,000 of whom were living in Sarajevo. Yugoslavia was invaded in 1941 by the Nazis and their allies and fell under control of the fascist Croatian government. Jews, Roma, and Serbs were heavily persecuted during this time, sent to camps in Croatia like Jasenovac and Pag. Many Bosnian Jews were deported to Auschwitz in Poland. By the end of the Holocaust, only 4,000 Jews remained in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many (an estimated 2,000) left for Israel after WWII, and even more left in the 1990’s during the wars. Today a monument stone lays at the top of a flight of steps in the cemetery, a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

It was during the ’90’s and the Siege of Sarajevo that the Jewish Cemetery was on the Serb’s front line, and was mined following their retreat. It was de-mined in 1998 and has since been in the process of restoration. When I visited last fall, I wasn’t aware of that and was not only upset that in the 30 minutes I spent there I saw no other visitors, but that it appeared to be poorly kept. However, on my more recent visit, I had to walk around the front gates because the steps were being reconstructed, an inconvenience which I was very pleased about. There were, once again, no other visitors, but it was more peaceful that way.

Here are some of the photographs I took.

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One comment

  1. Rabbi Dan Danson · · Reply

    Hi Anna,

    Thanks for this vivid and sensative reflection and for taking us on along on your journey through the cemetery.

    L’Shalom,
    Rabbi Dan, Mt. Sinai Congregation
    Wausau

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