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Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb (Ger. Agram) is the capital of the Croatian Republic, formerly Yugoslavia. The first Jews known to have lived in Croatia, and probably in Zagreb, were Mar Saul and Mar Joseph, King Krešimir’s emissaries to ʿAbd al-Raḥman III, the caliph of Cordoba in the tenth century. *Ḥisdai ibn Shaprut asked them to convey a message to Joseph, king of the Khazars, on the shores of the Caspian Sea. During the 13th century Jews went to Zagreb from France, Malta, and Albania. Some Jews lived there by the end of the 14th century. The city chronicles of Zagreb for 1444 mention a domus judaeorum (community house or synagogue). Little, however, is known about Jewish life and activities, except that they were merchants and moneylenders and that they came from Hungary, Burgenland, or Moravia. In 1526 an expulsion order by Ferdinand I, which was linked to the conversion of most of Croatia into a “military zone,” put an end to medieval Jewry’s existence in Zagreb, and for more than two centuries no Jews lived there or frequented the city.

New Jewish settlers arrived in Croatia in the mid-18th century from Bohemia, Moravia, and Hungary and about 50 families lived in Zagreb in the 1840s. The community was officially founded only in 1806. In 1841 a smaller Orthodox community came into being. The ḥevra kaddisha was established in 1859. The first rabbi of the Zagreb community was Aaron Palota (1809–1849). In 1867 the new synagogue was inaugurated (it was completely demolished in 1941 by the pro-Nazi Ustashe). The building was constructed by Franjo (Francis) Klein, one of the important builders of Zagreb. The spiritual leadership of the community was in the hands of Rabbi Hosea Jacoby for 50 years, and under his guidance a school and a talmud torah were opened and religious life was organized. A new cemetery was built in 1878. The philanthropist Ljudevit Schwarz was the prime mover in establishing a Jewish home for the aged; it still functioned in 1970 as the Central Jewish Home for the Aged in Yugoslavia, and was assisted financially by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Jacques Epstein founded the first public assistance body in Croatia, the Association for Humanism. In 1898 a union of Jewish high school students was created, and became a training ground for future communal and Zionist leaders.

Anti-Semitism and Croat Nationalism

Croatian representatives were opposed to the official recognition of Jewish civil rights, which were not established until 1873. In 1858 there was a blood libel in Zagreb, and merchant and artisan guilds at times incited the population against the Jews, creating dangerous situations. Jews had to apply to Ofen (Buda), the Hungarian capital, or to the imperial chancery at Vienna, to seek safeguards and protection; later, they also had to apply to the Croat nationalist leader (of the so-called Illyric movement), Ljudevit Gaj.

It is noteworthy that individual Jews already sympathized with the Croatian revival in its early stages (Eduard Breier, Dr. Siegfried Kapper), while others were among the ideological or political leaders of modern Croat nationalism (Isaiah (Joszua) Frank, an apostate, and the lawyer Dr. Hinko Hinković). Frank’s name was adopted by the separatist party, whose members were known as “frankovci” (followers of Frank); the same party later became violently fascist and anti-Semitic under Pavelić and his Ustashe.

Communal Life

The main body of Zagreb Jewry remained aloof from local politics, dedicating themselves to the internal affairs of the community, which became the largest in Yugoslavia. Between the two world wars Zionism drew a strong following in Croatia, and Zagreb was chosen as the headquarters of the Zionist Federation, which was led by Alexander *Licht. The Zagreb community also maintained a number of associations: a Maccabi sports club, a choir, women’s and youth organizations, and a union of Jewish employees. The leading Jewish periodicals in Yugoslavia, such as the Zionist weekly Židov (“Jew”), were published in the city. Jewish contribution to the development of Zagreb was manifold. Jews were among the pioneers in export (wine and lumber) and local industry (furniture, beer, streetcars, etc.). Lavoslav (Leopold) Hartmann, the first librarian in Croatia, organized lending libraries, and also founded a printing press.

Jews also made a major contribution to science: the first chairman of the community, Dr. Mavro (Maurice) Sachs, was among the founders of forensic medicine in Croatia, and David *Schwarz, who lived most of his life in Zagreb, invented there the first rigid airship. Jews who were prominent in the arts included the painter Oscar Hermann; the sculptor Slavko Bril; the pianist Julius Epstein; and the bandmaster Anton Schwarz. A Jewish art monthly, Ommanut, was published there for five years (to 1941), ceasing with the Nazi invasion. Zagreb occupied a central position in the Yugoslav Jewish community. About 12,000 Jews lived there in 1941 after an influx of refugees from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and later Hungary. Following the German occupation of Zagreb in April 1941, Jews were persecuted, seized for forced labor, and murdered, with survivors sent to Jasenovac and Auschwitz at the end of 1942 and the beginning of 1943. The remnant reestablished the community after the war.

Rabbis Gavro Schwarz and Miroslav (Shalom) Freiberger, both victims of the Holocaust, were initiators of Jewish historical studies. In 1970 the Jewish population of the city was 1,200. After the secession of Croatia from the Yugoslav federation in 1991, a “Coordinating Committee” was formed consisting of a dozen congegations, with an Orthodox rabbi, Kotel Dadon, heading the Zagreb branch. The community, now calling itself Zidovka Opcina published a journal and literary magazine. A Documentation Center headed by Dr. Melita Svob deals with the claims of Holocaust survivors and the collection and publication of statistical and historical evidence. Around 1,000 Jews remained in the early 2000s.


D.Z., Zagreb (1941); G. Szabo, Stari Zagreb (1941); L. Glesinger, in: Jevrejski almanah, 1 (1954); 2 (1955–56); 8 (1965–67); M. Despot, ibid., 2 (1955–56); L. Šik, in: Židov, 15, no. 37 (1931). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Y. Eventov and Z. Rotem, Toledot Yehudei Yugoslavia, 2 vols. (1971, 1991); Dva stoljeca povijesti I culture Zidova u Zagrebu I Hrvatskoj (1988); I. Goldstein, Holocaust u Zagrebu (2001); M. Svob, Zidovi u Hrvatskoj, 2 vols. (2002).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.