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Bosnia & Herzegovina Virtual Jewish History Tour

By Stepahnie Persin

The first Jews did not immigrate to Bosnia until the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion in 1492. Jews enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence in the region that is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. They participated in trade and daily life, although, like other non-Muslims in the area, they were treated as second-class citizens. Jews could not, for example, wear Muslim clothing and they could not ride horses in the town. They could not carry weapons and were required to pay a high poll tax.

Learn More - Cities of Bosnia:
Banja Luka | Sarajevo | Travnik

In the 16th century, anti-Semitic feelings became more apparent throughout the community and many Jews had to move from their original city quarter to Sarajevo. This continued through the next couple of centuries and, in 1833, the Jewish population in Bosnia was threatened with execution. The Jews escaped death by paying a large sum of money to high officials. In 1839, however, new civil rights laws were introduced into the region. The living situation for Jews improved as community members participated again in trade and were even elected to office.

The area of Bosnia-Herzegovina was taken over by the Austrian-Hungary empire in 1878. Bosnia had before been occupied by mostly Sephardim, but with the Austrian-Hungarian influence came many Ashkenazi Jews. There were significant differences between the two cultures. Most of the Sephardim were involved in craft and trade, while Ashkenazim took on professions in medicine, law, and higher education. The Ashkenazim had a large influence on the pre-existing Jews in the area, and many of the Sephardim strived for a university of education.

In 1923, 10,000 Jews lived in Bosnia, and in 1926, 13,000 resided there. By 1941, Bosnia-Herzegovina was home to approximately 14,000 Jews. By the end of World War II, only 4,000 Bosnian Jews were still alive. Jews were killed both by Nazi Germans and Bulgarian Muslims who assisted in the Jewish extermination.

After the Holocaust many Bosnian Jews returned home. 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.

During the Communist Era, many Jews in Bosnia joined the Socialist movement. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina was changed into a socialist organization that focused on secular causes instead of religious ones.

When civil war broke out in 1991, Bosnian Jews were left without many options. The Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) relieved the Jewish communities with food and supplies. The most important measure that the JDC took was to airlift over 2,000 Bosnian Jews out of the area. In this way, many more Jews were saved who would have otherwise been trapped in a war. Many of these Jews were taken to Israel and chose to remain there after the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Approximately 1,000 mostly Sephardic Jews live in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and they are spread out among the cities of Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Mostar, Tuzla, Doboj, and Zenica. The Jewish community, though small in each city, enjoys peaceful relations with non-Jewish Bosnians. In fact, the Jewish community is beginning to rebuild itself. The community center provides activities for young adults as well as the elderly. The Jewish human rights group in Bosnia gives support to both the Jewish and non-Jewish poor in the area.

Jakob Finci, the President of the Jewish community of Bosnia and Herzegovina, planned a celebration in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo during November 2015, to commemorate 450 years of Jewish life in the city. Included in this celebration were photo exhibits of the 1996 seige of Sarajevo, and special tours of the Sarajevo National Museum which had remained closed for a number of years due to lack of funds. The famous Sarajevo Hagaddah was on display as patrons toured the museum. Finci told the Times of Israel in November 2015 that Bosnian Jews are very accepting of other religions and opinions, and this has led to Bosnia being in his words “absolutely free of anti-Semitism.”

Sources: American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Centropa Quarterly.
ISJM Jewish Heritage Report, Vol. II, nos 3-4.
Encylopaedia Judaica.
The Jewish Encyclopedia.
Joseph, Anne. “In post-war Bosnia, Jews celebrate 450 years of survival,” Times of Israel (November 28, 2015).