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Serbia Virtual Jewish History Tour

Original article by Stephanie Persin

Serbia has a Jewish history that can be traced back to the 12th century. Today, the Jewish population in Serbia is approximately 1,400 people.

Learn More - Cities of Serbia:
Ada | Belgrade | Niš | Novi Sad | Subotica

Early History
World War II & the Holocaust
Breakup of Yugoslavia
Present Day Community

Early History

From the period of the 12th century C.E. until the mid-18th century, Jews in Serbia were generally treated well. They were traders mainly involved in selling salt. By the end of the Turkish rule over Serbia, Jewish tradesmen were largely responsible for the trade route between the northern and southern ends of the lands ruled by the Turks.

In 1804, the Serbs waged a war against the Turks for their independence. In response to the violent revolt, many Jews moved to Zemun and created their own community there. In support of the wars of independence, Jews supplied the Serbs with weapons, and in return, Jews faced brutal attacks by the Turks.

The wars of independence lasted until 1830 when the Serbs gained the right to self-rule.

The new Serbian government was not as friendly in their relations with Jewish citizens. In fact, by 1831, the Serbs had already begun to prohibit Jews from certain professions. Prince Milosh Obrenovich tried to improve the Jewish situation, but he was overtaken by the Karageorgevich family in 1842. The new dynasty sympathized with non-Jewish merchants and, by 1845, the Serbian Jews had been prevented from participating in even the most basic of professions such as tailoring.

In 1856, Jews were expelled from provincial towns. Prince Milosh Obrenovich reclaimed his role as ruler and again Jews were hopeful of their situation. By 1860, however, Milosh's son was ruling and he followed the ways of the Karageorgevich rulers. Non-Jewish merchants were again favored and Jewish Serbs were prohibited from the mercantile industry.

The inconsistency of the laws regarding Jews continued through the end of the 19th century. In 1861, for example, a decree that called for the expulsion of sixty Jewish families was retracted after one month. In its place, a law was written to allow Jews freedom to practice professions within their own communities. At the same time that the government declared an emancipation of all Serbian citizens, it also reverted back to past discriminatory laws against Jews. The Serbian parliament did not lift its restrictions on Jewish citizens until 1889. Because of blatant Serbian anti-Semitism, the Jewish population in the area decreased each year. In 1912, 5,000 Jews remained in Serbia. Jews in the region began to give their support to the Zionist cause. Sephardic communities, in particular, were influenced by Zionist ideals.

The Holocaust & World War II

By 1941, the Jewish population in Serbia was approximately 12,000. While there was a long tradition of anti-Semitism throughout the republic, the Nazi regime brought with them an official decree against Jews. German troops occupied the city of Belgrade and began to destroy Jewish homes, stores, and synagogues. Jews were quickly forced to register themselves with the government and registered Jews were required to wear yellow identifying stars. An organization of non-Jewish Serbs was created to help control the Jewish Problem.

Belgrade Synagogue

While it was at first sufficient to subject Serbian Jews to forced labor, by the end of the summer in 1941, the Nazis had sent 2,500 to a concentration camp outside Belgrade. Another 8,000 Jewish men who lived in and around Serbia were brought to this same concentration camp. It became clear that none of the Jews would be leaving the camp. Forty-five hundred of the prisoners were killed by gunfire between August and October of 1941. 

In mid-1941, the Crveni Krst concentration camp was established by the Gestapo on the premises of an old military depot in Niš.

The former Yugoslavia was liberated in 1944. Throughout the entire region, only 14,000 Jews returned. The community, however wasted no time in trying to rebuild and the Federation of Jewish Communities was quickly opened. Many of the Jewish communities throughout Yugoslavia were reclaimed.

The Breakup of Yugoslavia

In 1989, following the rise of Slobodon Milosevic to power, Yugoslavia's republics began to violently break apart from each other. While the entire region became embroiled in war, the Jewish communities in particular were thrown into the middle of the situation. Anti-Semitism was not blatant during the 1990s, but rather it was used as a way to win Jewish favor. All sides, particularly the Croatians and the Serbs, would accuse each other of anti-Semitism, hoping to bring Jews to their own side.

By 1992, the breakup of Yugoslavia resulted in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Macedonia all declaring independence. Serbia and Montenegro remained together and formed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.  In 2003, the Republic was renamed Serbia and Montenegro and in May 2006, a public referendum in Montenegro determined that the small area would cease its union with Serbia and declare its own independence.

Present Day Community

Currently, there are around 1,400 Jews living Serbia, with the majority based in the capital of Belgrade.

Subotica Synagogue

While many Jews left Serbia and Montenegro during the many years of conflict, their monuments and synagogues remain. One synagogue particularly well-known both for its beauty and for its present state of devastation is the Subotica Synagogue, located in the city of Subotica. The synagogue was built in 1902, and while its beauty remains, it is in need of major renovations. The synagogue is one of the last architectural structures built in the Secessionist style of the early 1900s. The World Monuments Fund listed the Subotica Synagogue as one of the 100 most endangered memorial sites. Both the World Monuments Fund and the Jews of Serbia and Montenegro are attempting to restore the Subotica Synagogue and are asking for donations from the international community.

The only remaining functioning synagogue in Serbia is the Belgrade Synagogue. The Serbian governmeny recognizes Judaism as one of the seven "traditional" religious communities of Serbia.

In September 2020, Serbia said it would open a commercial office in Jerusalem and to move its embassy to Jerusalem in 2021. After Israel and Kosovo announced plans to establish relations, however, Serbia indicated it would not go ahead if Israel recognized Kosovo. Further complicating the issue, the European Union warned that Serbia could hurt its chances for EU membership if it did move its embassy because it “could call into question the E.U.’s common position on Jerusalem.”

In September 2020, Serbia announced it would designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Sources: American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee;
Centropa Quarterly;
ISJM Jewish Heritage Report, Vol. II, nos 3-4;
Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (June 23, 2005);
Encyclopedia Judaica;
The Jewish Encyclopedia;

“Statement by the President Regarding Economic Normalization between Serbia and Kosovo,” The White House, Yaakov Yaakov Lappin, “EU warns Serbia, Kosovo Jerusalem embassy move could endanger membership bid,” JNS, (September 8, 2020);
Lahav Harkov, “Serbia won’t move embassy if Israel recognizes Kosovo,” Jerusalem Post, (September 9, 2020);
Tovah Lazaroff, “US: Serbia to designate Hezbollah entirely as a terror organization,” Jerusalem Post, (September 13, 2020).

Photo: Belgrade and Subotica Synagogue photos courtesy of HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library (© Jono David Media)