The history of the Jews in Sarajevo can be traced back over 400 years ago when the first Jews arrived in Sarajevo as early as 1541 via Salonika. They were mostly artisans, merchants, pharmacists, and doctors. They built their own quarter, dubbed El Cortijo (the courtyard), in 1577 with permission from the pasha Siavush. The community built a synagogue in El Cortijo in 1580 with the help of a Turkish benefactor, in a building called Velika Avlija. By the end of the 16th century, the building where Velika Avlija stood became known as old Jewish Cathedral, Sarajevo’s first synagogue.
In the 17th century, Jews of Ashkenazi descent began arriving in Sarajevo, fleeing persecution from Europe. The Jews already established in the city were of Sephardic descent, and the two communities remained separate until the advent of World War II.
A bad fate fell upon the Jewish community when the Austrians occupied Sarajevo in 1697. They burned and destroyed the city’s Jewish quarter, including the synagogue. When the Austrians were forced to return the city to the Ottomans in 1739, the Jews fared much better, and were granted officially recognition. By 1856, Jews had equal status before the law.
Throughout the next few centuries, Jews in Sarajevo prospered. The city became a major crossroads in the Balkans for Jewish life, and came to be known as Little Jerusalem. By the mid-19th century, every doctor in Sarajevo was Jewish, and when educated Jews began arriving from Europe in 1878, Jewish children began attending public school.
Many Jewish communal organizations existed in Sarajevo at this time, including La Benevolencija, a humanitarian society; Lyra, a co-ed Ladino singing group; active Zionist women’s organizations; and the first Ladino newspaper, La Alborada, a scientific and literary weekly.
Bosnia became a part of Yugoslavia after World War I, but the Jews of Sarajevo continued to thrive. They were professionals and owned many properties. A prominent rabbinic dynasty even existed in the city (very rare among Yugoslav Jewry), and a theological seminary opened in 1928.
However, Jewish life in Sarajevo changed forever with the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany during World War II. Before 1941, Sarajevo was home to some 8,000 to 12,000 Jews. Deportations to concentration camps run by Croatian fascists began that year, and by the end of the Holocaust, 85% of the Jewish population of Sarajevo had perished. Many who survived immigrated to Israel in 1948 and 1949.
In 1965, during ceremonies marking 400 years of Jewish presence in Bosnia, the Old Synagogue, though still owned by the remnant Jewish community, was converted into a city-run Jewish museum. Originally built in 1581, the Old Synagogue was one of 15 that functioned in the city before the Holocaust, when Sarajevo was a major Balkan center of Sephardi culture, and the city’s 12,000 Jews made up nearly 20 percent of the local population. Jewish communal services were shifted to an Ashkenazi synagogue, a grand, Moorish style temple built at the beginning of the 20th century, which was converted to include offices and function rooms as well as a sanctuary.
When the Bosnian War broke out in 1992, the Jewish museum was closed and became a storage place for collections from other musuems in the city. It remained closed until 2004, when it was reopened as a museum, under new management that included representatives from the Jewish community and the city. The community plans in the future to update and convert it to a facility that will serve as a cultural and educational center for the Jewish and non-Jewish public.
More than 250,000 people were killed in the Bosnian War. More than 2 million people were displaced. Mosques, churches and entire urban areas were destroyed.
Today, there are only 700 Jews left in Sarajevo, out of a total population of 400,000. The community is not particularly religious, but a rabbi comes in from Israel when needed. They do, in fact, hold Friday night services, and also celebrate all the Jewish holidays with gusto. Some still speak Ladino. A Jewish quarterly is still in publication, Jevrejski Glas (Jewish Voice), and there is also a Jewish community center, which runs events and programs within the community.
There are many wonderful remnants of Sarajevo’s Jewish heritage scattered throughout El Cortijo, which lies near Bascarja, Sarajevo’s Old City, and is bounded by four streets: Ferhadija, Mustafa Mula Beseckija, Gazi Husrev Begova, and Jelice. Included amongst them is the Old Synagogue, which now houses the Jewish Museum. The Jewish Museum chronicles the history of the Jewish community in Sarajevo, including a valuable collection of Ladino and other Jewish books, some printed over 200 to 300 years ago. The building is the oldest synagogue in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was built in 1581, and has been burnt down and rebuilt twice, in 1679 and 1778. It became part of the Sarajevo Museum in 1966, and is dedicated solely to portraying the history of the Jews. It reopened in 2004, after providing sanctuary to much of the city’s ancient artifacts during the Balkan Wars.
The ground floor of the Old Synagogue building is a consecrated synagogue where services are held on special occassions. There is also an exhibition of ritual objects and Jewish religious traditions. The two upper floors, consisting of arched stone balconies surrounding the sanctuary area, house historical exhibits. Part of the museum is dedicated to showing the richness of pre-Holocaust Jewish life as well as a section detailing the operation of the Jewish community duing the Bosnian War. During that war, the community's social welfare organization, La Benevolencija, won international renown as a key conduit for nonsectarian humanitarian aid for the entire city.
Next door to the Old Synagogue is the Novi Hram (New Synagogue), which now houses an art gallery owned by the Jewish community of Sarajevo. There is also a Sephardic synagogue, built in 1932, called Il Kal Grande. It was once the largest and most ornate of all the synagogues in the Balkans, but the Nazis destroyed and ransacked the interior in 1941.
The center of Jewish life in Sarajevo today is the neo-Moorish Ashkenazi Synagogue, which was built in 1902. It also houses the Jewish Community Center in an adjacent, which was originally built in 1927 for administration and other communal services.
There is no resident rabbi in Sarajevo, but Eliezer Papo, who directs a center for Sephardi studies at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, comes back to his native city at least twice a year to officiate at the High Holidays.
The Jewish hillside cemetery, located in Kovacici, is one of the most important Jewish burial grounds in Europe because of the shape of the tombstones and the ancient Ladino inscriptions on them. Established by Sephardic Jews in 1630, the cemetery also became the burial site for many Ashkenazim in 1950. The cemetery has two Holocaust memorials, a Sephardic one erected in 1952, and an Ashkenazi one erected in 1962.
The famous 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah is one of the city’s great treasures. Originally created in Spain, it was rediscovered in 1894 when a poor child tried to sell it at school. It was hidden during both World War II and the Balkan Wars by the Sarajevo Museum, and includes many colorful illustrations of the story of Passover.
Old Synagogue & Jewish Museum
Novi Hram Synagogue (New Synagogue) & Art Gallery
38 Mula Mustafe Kresevljakovica
Il Kal Grande (Sephardic Synanogue)
24 Branilaca Sarajeva
Ashkenazi Synagogue & Jewish Community Center
59 Hamdije Kresevljakovica
Sources: World Jewish Congress, World Jewish Communities, “Bosnia-Herzegovina”
Hecht, Esther, “Sarajevo,” Hadassah Magazine (October 2007).
Gruber, Ruth Ellen, “After 60 years, prayer returns to historic Sarajevo synagogue,” JTA (September 27, 2004).