History of the Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnian Jews
Bosanski Jevreji
יהודים בוסניים
Total population
Bosnian, Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino

Jews of Bosnia and Herzegovina or Bosnian Jews have a rich and varied history in Bosnia and Herzegovina, surviving World War II and the Yugoslav Wars, after having been established as a result of the Spanish Inquisition, and having been almost destroyed by the Holocaust. Judaism and the Jewish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina has one of the oldest and most diverse histories in the former Yugoslav states, and is more than 500 years old, in terms of permanent settlement. Then a self-governing province of the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia was one of the few territories in Europe that welcomed Jews after their expulsion from Spain.

At its peak, the Jewish community of Bosnia numbered between 14,000 and 22,000 members in 1941. Of those, 12,000 to 14,000 lived in Sarajevo, comprising 20% of the city's population.[2] The community today is home to between around 1,000 and 1,500 Bosnian Jews, with around 700 living in and around Sarajevo, with the rest in Banja Luka, Mostar, Tuzla, Doboj and Zenica.[3]

History of the community

Ottoman rule

Sarajevo Sephardic Old Synagogue built in 1587

The first Jews arrived in the regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1492 to 1497 from Spain and Portugal.[4]

As tens of thousands of Jews fled the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, Sultan Bayezid II of the Ottoman Empire welcomed Jews who were able to reach his territories. Sephardi Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal were welcomed in  and found their way to  Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Thrace and other areas of Europe under Ottoman control. Jews from the Ottoman Empire began arriving in numbers in the 16th century, settling mainly in Sarajevo. The first Ashkenazi Jews arrived from Hungary in 1686, when the Ottoman Turks were expelled from Hungary[5][6] The Jewish community prospered in Bosnia, living side by side with their Bosnian Muslim neighbors, as one of the largest European centres for Sephardi Jewry outside of Spain.[7]

Jews in the Ottoman Empire were generally well-treated and were recognized under the law as non-Muslims. Despite some restrictions, the Jewish communities of the Empire prospered. They were granted significant autonomy, with various rights including the right to buy real estate, to build synagogues and to conduct trade throughout the Ottoman Empire.[8] Jews, along with the other non-Muslim subjects of the Empire, were granted full equality under Ottoman law by 1856.

Sephardi Jewish couple from Sarajevo in traditional clothing. Photo taken in 1900.

Habsburg rule

The Austro-Hungarian Empire conquered Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878, and brought with them an injection of European capital, companies and methods. Many professional, educated Ashkenazi Jews arrived with the Austro-Hungarians. The Sephardi Jews continued to engage in their traditional areas, mainly foreign trade and crafts.[5]

World War I saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after the war Bosnia and Herzegovina was incorporated into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In the census of 1921, Ladino was the mother language of 10,000 out of 70,000 inhabitants of Sarajevo.[9] By 1926, there were 13,000 Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina.[2]

The Holocaust


In 1940, there were approximately 14,000 Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina,[5] with 10,000 in Sarajevo.

With the invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941 by the Nazis and their Allies, Bosnia and Herzegovina came under the control of the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet-state. The Independent State of Croatia was headed by the notoriously anti-Semitic Ustaše, and they wasted little time in persecuting non-Croats such as Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and Bosniaks.

Deportation and murder

Concentration camps in Yugoslavia in World War II.

On 22 July 1941, Mile Budak  a senior Minister in the Croatian government and one of the chief ideologists of the Ustaše movement[10]  declared that the goal of the Ustaše was the extermination of "foreign elements" from the Independent State of Croatia. His message was simple: "The basis for the Ustasha movement is religion. For minorities such as Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies, we have three million bullets."[11] In 1941, Ante Pavelić  leader of the Ustaše movement  declared that "the Jews will be liquidated in a very short time".[11]

In September 1941 deportations of Jews began, with most Bosnian Jews being deported to Auschwitz or to concentration camps in Croatia. The Ustaše set up concentration camps at Kerestinac, Jadovna, Metajna and Slana. The most notorious, where cruelty of unimaginable proportions was perpetrated against Jewish and Serbian prisoners were at Pag and Jasenovac. At Jasenovac alone, hundreds of thousands of people were murdered (mostly Serbs), including 20,000 Jews.[12]

By War's end, the Ustaše had murdered more than 500,000 Serbs, approximately 40,000 Roma (Gypsies) and 32,000 Jews.[13] Among Bosnian Jews, 10,000 of the pre-War Jewish population of 14,000 had been murdered.[2] Most of the 4,000 who had survived did so by fighting with the Yugoslav, Jewish or Soviet Partisans[14] or by escaping to the Italian controlled zone[11] (approximately 1,600 had escaped to the Italian controlled zone on the Dalmatian coast[15]).

Jewish members of the Yugoslav Army became German prisoners of war and survived the war. They returned to Sarajevo after the war.[11]

Sarajevo Haggadah

Main article: Sarajevo Haggadah

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a 14th-century illuminated manuscript which has survived many close calls with destruction. Historians believe that it was taken out of Spain by Spanish Jews who were expelled by the Inquisition in 1492. Notes in the margins of the Haggadah indicate that it surfaced in Italy in the 16th century. It was sold to the national museum in Sarajevo in 1894 by a man named Joseph Kohen.

During World War II, the manuscript was hidden from the Nazis by Dr. Jozo Petrovic,[16] the director of the city museum[17] and by Derviš Korkut, the chief librarian, who smuggled the Haggadah out to a Muslim cleric in a mountain village near Treskavica, where it was hidden in the mosque among Korans and other Islamic texts.[18] During the Bosnian War of 1992–1995, when Sarajevo was under constant siege by Bosnian Serb forces, the manuscript survived in an underground bank vault.

Afterwards, the manuscript was restored through a special campaign financed by the United Nations and the Bosnian Jewish community in 2001, and went on permanent display at the museum in December 2002.[7]

Post-war community

The Jewish Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina was reconstituted after the Holocaust, but most survivors chose to emigrate to Israel.[11] The community came under the auspices of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, based in the capital, Belgrade.

In the early 1990s, before the Yugoslav Wars, the Jewish population of Bosnia and Herzegovina was over 2,000,[2] and relations between Jews and their Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim neighbors were very good.

Yugoslav wars

When the Yugoslav Wars broke out in 1991, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Mossad evacuated 15,000 Yugoslav (including Bosnian) Jews to Israel. Most chose to remain in Israel after the wars had ended, though some returned.[15]


A synagogue in Doboj

Today, there are an estimated 1,000 Jews living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They enjoy excellent relations with their non-Jewish neighbors and with the Bosnian government, as it was throughout history.[7][15] As a result of the ethnic balancing act involved in the UN-imposed Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jews and other minorities are forbidden in the Constitution of Bosnia from running for the position of president.[19] Jakob Finci, a prominent Bosnian Jew and Bosnia's ambassador to Switzerland, and Dervo Sejdić, a prominent Bosnian Roma and member of the member of Bosnia's Roma Council, have launched an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that Bosnia's Constitution violates the European Convention on Human Rights. A finding is expected in September 2009.[20] In the capital of the Republic of Srpska, Banja Luka, 2015 was officially opened Jewish cultural center Arie Livne (Banja Luka).

Prominent Bosnian Jews

Further reading


  1. "BiH još bez zakona o zabrani negiranja holokausta – Al Jazeera Balkans". YouTube. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  2. 1 2 3 4 "Bosnia-Herzegovina". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  3. "BiH još bez zakona o zabrani negiranja holokausta – Al Jazeera Balkans". YouTube. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  4. "BOSNIA". JewishEncyclopedia.com. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  5. 1 2 3 Excerpts from Jews in Yugoslavia – Part I Archived 16 July 2006 at the Wayback Machine.
  6. Buda
  7. 1 2 3 Makovi, Michael (November 10, 2009). "Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook". Jewcy. Archived from the original on 2010-02-09. Retrieved 30 May 2015.
  8. "Macedonia and the Jewish people", A. Assa, Skopje, 1992, p.36
  9. El español en el mundo. Anuario 2004. El español en Bosnia-Herzegovina. Situación de los estudios de español fuera de la Universidad de Sarajevo, Sonia Torres Rubio.
  10. Mile Budak
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 "Jasenovac-Donja Gradina 1941–1945"
  12. Jews of Yugoslavia 1941–1945 Victims of Genocide and Freedom Fighters, Jasa Romano, p7
  13. Ustashe
  14. "Remembering the Past – Jewish culture battling for survival in Macedonia, Zhidas Daskalovski". Ce-review.org. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  15. 1 2 3 American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – Bosnia-Herzegovina Archived 18 July 2006 at the Wayback Machine.
  16. Vlajko Palavestra, PRIČANJA O SUDBINI SARAJEVSKE HAGGADEBosnia and Herzegovina
  17. Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust at Catholic Online
  18. Geraldine Brooks, Chronicles, "The Book of Exodus," The New Yorker, 3 December 2007, p. 74
  19. Jew challenges Bosnia presidency ban, Yaniv Salama-Scheer, Jerusalem Post, 18 February 2007.
  20. Bosnia Jew seeks to reverse ban on running for president, Haaretz, 5 June 2009
  21. "The Destruction of the Memory of Jewish Presence in Eastern Europe; a Case Study: Former Yugoslavia – Interview with Ivan Ceresnjes". Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. December 2008. Retrieved 14 May 2011.
  22. http://www.benevolencija.eu.org/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=70
  23. "Central and Eastern European Online Library – An Online Library where CEE articles, documents, journals, periodicals, books are available online for download". CEEOL. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  24. Voices of Yugoslav Jewry By Paul Benjamin Gordiejew, Pg 62
  25. "David Elazar – Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Britannica.com. 14 April 1976. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  26. "ספסל- הבית של הכדורסל הישראלי – אינפורמציה, סטטיסטיקה וחדשות יומיות על כל השחקנים, הקבוצות והליגות". Safsal.co.il. 24 February 2007. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  27. Palavestra, Predrag (2000). Translated by E.D. Goy and Jasna Levinger-Goy. "Jewish Writers in Serbian Literature: Isak Samokovlija" (PDF). Journal of the North American Society for Serbian Studies. Bloomington, IN, USA: Slavica Publishers. 14 (1): 65–68. ISSN 0742-3330. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-26. Retrieved 30 May 2015.
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