The Lost Jewish Community of Bosnia

As I research the history of the Jewish community in Bosnia and Hercegovina for school, I would like to provide more background information for my previous post on Jakob Finci. Jews first emigrated to Bosnia and Hercegovina after they were expelled from Spain as a result of the Inquisition. They arrived in the 16th century, and spoke Ladino, or Judaeo-Spanish as their local language. Their life in BiH was relatively peaceful but they were treated as second-class citizens like other “non-Muslims.” The Jews participated in trade, but they were not allowed to wear “Muslim clothing” or ride horses in town. Also, they were not allowed to carry weapons and they had to pay higher taxes than the rest of the population, which funded the local mosques.

Spanish (Sephardic) Jewish Woman in Bosnia. 1918

As Anti-Semitism became more apparent, the Jewish population relocated to Sarajevo. They received permission from the governor of the city to reside in a small quarter of about 2,000 square meters. Each received a piece of this land and a deed of property ownership. They also received permission (again at the cost of high taxes) to build a cemetery, which was how they began to establish their community. In 1833, the Jewish population was threatened with execution but they escaped this threat by paying off the high officials. In 1839, new civil rights laws were introduced and the conditions for Jews in the country improved. Again, they participated in trade and they were even allowed to run for political office.

When the Austria-Hungarian empire took over Bosnia in 1878, a new Jewish population moved to the country. Previously the Jews in Bosnia were Sephardic, but Ashkenazi Jews came at this time. Sarajevo became an important Jewish center in the region, and remained so until the formation of Yugoslavia in 1918. Most of the Sephardic Jews were involved in craft and trade but the Ashkenazi Jews were mostly involved in professions like medicine, law and teaching. The Ashkenazi Jews influenced many of the Sephardic Jews to pursue higher education. At one point in the 19th century, all the doctors in Sarajevo were reported to be Jewish.

In 1901, in a total population of 1,357,000 in the country, there were approximately 7,500 Jews. By 1941, there were a reported 14,000 Jews in Bosnia. At the end of World War II, there were only 4,000 Bosnian Jews still alive. They were killed by the Ustaše Party, which was the the Croatian nationalist far-right movement that ruled part of Yugoslavia under Nazi protection. Also, Bulgarian Muslims aided in their extermination.

After the Holocaust a united Jewish community was formed in 1945 that included both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The Jewish population was led by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At this time post-WWII, Yugoslavia was a loose federation of six republics- Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, BiH, Macedonia, and Montenegro, ruled by Marshal Josip Broz Tito who died in 1980. During Tito’s era, many Jews in Bosnia joined the Socialist movement. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was based in Belgrade, became a socialist organization that focused on secular causes rather than religious ones. There were about 6,000 legally registered Jewish people in all of Yugoslavia, and the community was recognized as both an ethnic and a religious group. They were not persecuted like in other communist states, but they did however end up assimilating into society and losing touch with religious beliefs. There was only one rabbi in the country at this time.

In the 1980s, there was a growing participation in the various Jewish communities. They erected close to 30 memorials around Yugoslavia to help commemorate Jews that lost their lives during World War II. When war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, the Joint Distribution Committee provided the community with food and supplies, and they helped to airlift over 2,000 Bosnian Jews out of the country. Many went to Israel and remained there after the war. As mentioned in the last post, the Jewish community used their neutral status during the war to organize a great deal of humanitarian relief to the people of Bosnia. The community opened a pharmacy, school, and most importantly, helped 3,000 people of all backgrounds escape the war-torn country.

Because the Jewish community was largely organized at a national level during Yugoslavia, the collapse of the country made the continuation of these organizations difficult, even without the trauma of war and emigration. Gradually the communities recreated themselves after the war. There are only 500 Jewish people left in Bosnia today spread throughout the country, but they add an important dimension to the multiethnic history of the nation.

    • Miguel G. Lázaro
    • May 11th, 2010

    Hi Christine!

    Congratulations for these nice posts on the Jewish community in BiH!

    I just wanted to remark that Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 by the so-called “Catholic Monarchs” or Reyes Católicos Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabella of Castilla. Inquisiton is one of the saddest pages in our history, and it lasted since 1478 to 1834 (!), so I think it is not very accurate to say that they were expelled “during” the Inquisition, as this institution existed for three and a half centuries!

    The expulsion of the Jews, excellent merchants and businesspeople, in the mid-term contributed to a deep economic crisis in the Spanish kingdom. Most of them moved to the Ottoman Empire where they were tolerated, and being current BiH under Turk rule, many of them settled in the Western Balkans. There is one nice anecdote of one of the Sultan’s ministers, who praised the Spanish monarchy: the Sultan replied “shut up, you fool… how can you praise such an incompetent king which weakens his kingdom to enrich mine?” 🙂

    Take care,


    • Christine
    • May 11th, 2010

    Perhaps you are right that “during” is not the best word, although I was aware that the Inquisition lasted for a few centuries. I did not think about the implications that the expulsions had on the Spanish economy. I love the anecdote….thanks for sharing!

    best, cb

    • Oscar
    • May 13th, 2010

    Great post!

    And great anecdote, I didn’t know that.

    Certainly, the expulsion of the Jewish and Muslim community was one of the biggest political mistakes ever, without taking into account the huge humanitarian disaster that it meant.

    I also heart once that just before the II WW, Japanese government asked the allied Nazi regime of Germany, to be sent as many Jews they wanted because they realized that wherever are Jews, there’s wealth, science, knowledge, commercial trade…

    And now for example, Israel, with 7 million inhabitants and only 60 years of history they have more Nobel prizes than other countries much more populated, bigger and older, and it’s the second country in the world with more number of inventions registered.

    Jews and gypsies are the only two nations that having been spread all around the world during centuries, have kept a common culture and language, but while ones always become the richest wherever they go, the other are just the opposite. At least they coincide on the hatred they generate in their neighbors, but for different reasons.

  1. May 26th, 2010
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