History of the Jews in Serbia

Serbian Jews

Memorial plaque dedicated to 4,000 Jews of Subotica died in the Holocaust
Total population
Serbian, Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish
Related ethnic groups
Sephardi Jews, Ashkenazi Jews

The history of Jewish community of Serbia goes back about two thousand years. Jews first arrived in what is now Serbia in Roman times. The Jewish communities of the Balkans remained small until the late 15th century, when Jews fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions found refuge in Ottoman-ruled areas, including Serbia.

The community flourished and reached a peak of 33,000 before World War II (of which almost 90% were living in Belgrade and Vojvodina). About two thirds of Serbian Jews perished in the Holocaust. After the war, a great part of the remaining Jewish Serbian population emigrated from the country, chiefly into Israel. In the 2011 census only 787 people declared themselves as Jewish. Today, the Belgrade Synagogue is the only functioning synagogue. Other synagogues, such as Subotica Synagogue, which used to be the fourth largest synagogue building in Europe, and Novi Sad Synagogue, have been converted into museums and art spaces.


Ancient times

Jews first arrived on the territory of present-day Serbia in Roman times, although there is little documentation prior to the 10th century.

Ottoman rule

The Jewish communities of the Balkans were boosted in the 15th and 16th centuries by the arrival of Jewish refugees fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. Sultan Bayezid II of the Ottoman Empire welcomed the Jewish refugees into his Empire. Jews became involved in trade between the various provinces in the Ottoman Empire, becoming especially important in the salt trade.[3]

Independent Serbia and Habsburg Vojvodina

Many Jews were involved in the struggle of Serbs for independence from the Ottoman Empire, by supplying arms to the local Serbs, and the Jewish communities faced brutal reprisal attacks from the Ottoman Turks.[3] The independence struggle lasted until 1830, when Serbia gained its independence.

The new Serbian government was not friendly toward the Jewish community, and by 1831 there were prohibitions against Jews entering some professions. The situation for the Jews briefly improved under the rule of Prince Mihailo Obrenović III (1839–1842), but anti-Jewish provisions were reinstated under Prince Alexander Karađorđević (1842–1858).

With the reclamation of the Serbian throne by the Royal House of Obrenović under Miloš Obrenović in 1858, restrictions on Jewish merchants were again relaxed, but three years later, in 1861 Mihailo III inherited the throne and reinstated anti-Jewish restrictions.[3] In 1877 a Jewish candidate was elected to the National Assembly for the first time, after receiving the backing of all parties.[4][5]

The waxing and waning of the fortunes of the Jewish community according to the ruler continued to the end of the 19th century, when the Serbian parliament lifted all anti-Jewish restrictions in 1889.[3]

In 1879, the "Serbian-Jewish Singer Society" was founded in Belgrade as a part of the Serbian-Jewish friendship. Renamed "Baruch Brothers Choir" in 1950, it is one of the oldest Jewish choirs in the world still in existence.[6] By 1912, the Jewish community of Kingdom of Serbia stood at 5,000.[3] Serbian-Jewish relations reached a high degree of cooperation during World War I, when Jews and Serbs fought side by side against the Central Powers.[7]

While the rest of Serbia was still ruled by the Ottoman Empire, territory of present-day Vojvodina was part of the Habsburg Monarchy. In 1782, Emperor Joseph II issued the Edict of Tolerance, giving Jews some measure of religious freedom. The Edict attracted Jews to many parts of the Monarchy. The Jewish communities of Vojvodina flourished, and by the end of the 19th century the region had nearly 40 Jewish communities.[8]

Kingdom of Yugoslavia

Subotica Synagogue (now converted into an art-exhibition space)

In the aftermath of World War I, Montenegro, Banat, Bačka, Syrmia, and Baranja joined Serbia through popular vote in those regions, and this Greater Serbia then united with State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (from which Syrmia had seceded to join Serbia) to form the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which was soon renamed Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Serbia's relatively small Jewish community of 13,000 (including 500 in Kosovo),[9] combined with the large Jewish communities of the other Yugoslav territories, numbering some 51,700. In the inter-war years (1919–1939), the Jewish communities of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia flourished.

Prior to World War II, some 31,000 Jews lived in Vojvodina. In Belgrade, Jewish community was 10,000-strong, 80% being Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jews, and 20% being Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews.

World War II

Monument in Novi Sad dedicated to killed Jewish and Serb civilians in 1942 raid

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia attempted to maintain neutrality during the period preceding World War II. Milan Stojadinović, the prime minister, tried to actively woo Adolf Hitler while maintaining the alliance with former Entente Powers, UK and France. Nonwithstanding overtures to Germany, Yugoslav policy was not anti-Semitic: for instance, Yugoslavia opened its borders to Austrian Jews following the Anschluss.[10] Under increasing pressure to yield to German demands for safe passage of its troops to Greece, Yugoslavia signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, like Bulgaria and Hungary. Unlike the other two, however, the signatory government of Maček and Cvetković was overthrown three days later in a British-supported coup of patriotic, anti-German generals. The new government immediately rescinded the Yugoslav signature on the Pact and called for strict neutrality. German response was swift and brutal: Belgrade was bombed without the declaration of war on 6 April 1941 and German, Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian troops invaded Yugoslavia.

The Holocaust

Concentration camps in Yugoslavia in World War II

Germany carved up Yugoslavia with most of it going to the fascist Independent State of Croatia, who established the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp to exterminate the Serbs, Roma and Jews of Yugoslavia. In Serbia, German occupiers established concentration camps and extermination policies with the assistance of the puppet government of Milan Nedić.[11]

The Nazi genocide against Yugoslav Jews began in April 1941.[12] The state of Serbia was completely occupied by the Nazis. The main race laws in the State of Serbia were adopted on 30 April 1941: the Legal Decree on Racial Origins (Zakonska odredba o rasnoj pripadnosti). Jews from Srem were sent to Croatian camps, as were many Jews from other parts of Serbia. In rump Serbia, Germans proceeded to round up Jews of Banat and Belgrade, setting up a concentration camp across the river Sava, in the Syrmian part of Belgrade, then given to Independent State of Croatia. The Sajmište concentration camp was established to process and eliminate the captured Jews and Serbs. As a result, Emanuel Schäfer, commander of the Security Police and Gestapo in Serbia, famously cabled Berlin after last Jews were killed in May 1942:

"Serbien ist judenfrei."[13]

Similarly. Harald Turner of the SS stated in 1942 that:

"Serbia is the only country in which the Jewish question and the Gypsy question has been solved."[14]

By the time Serbia and Yugoslavia were liberated in 1944, most of the Serbian Jewry had been murdered. Of the 82,500 Jews of Yugoslavia alive in 1941, only 14,000 (17%) survived the Holocaust.[3] Of the Jewish population of 16,000 in the territory controlled by Nazi puppet government of Milan Nedić, police and secret services murdered approximately 14,500.[15][16][17]

There was a similar persecution of Jews in the territory of present-day Vojvodina, which was annexed by Hungary. In the 1942 raid in Novi Sad, the Hungarian troops killed many Jewish and non-Jewish Serb civilians in Bačka.

Historian Christopher Browning who attended the conference on the subject of Holocaust and Serbian involvement stated:[18]

Serbia was the only country outside Poland and the Soviet Union where all Jewish victims were killed on the spot without deportation, and was the first country after Estonia to be declared "Judenfrei", a term used by the Nazis during the Holocaust to denote an area free of all Jews.

Serbian civilians were involved in saving thousands of Yugoslavian Jews during this period. Miriam Steiner-Aviezer, a researcher into Yugoslavian Jewry and a member of Yad Vashem's Righteous Gentiles committee states: "The Serbs saved many Jews."[19] Currently, Yad Vashem recognizes 131 Serbians as Righteous Among Nations, the highest number among Balkan countries.[20]

Socialist Yugoslavia

The Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia was formed in the aftermath of World War II to coordinate the Jewish communities of post-war Yugoslavia and to lobby for the right of Jews to immigrate to Israel.[21] More than half of Yugoslav survivors chose to immigrate to Israel after World War II.

The Jewish community of Serbia, and indeed of all constituent republics in Yugoslavia, was maintained by the unifying power of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia. However, this power ended with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Yugoslav wars

Prior to the conflicts of the 1990s, approximately 2,500 Jews lived in Serbia,[3] mostly in Belgrade.

The Jews of Serbia lived relatively peacefully in Yugoslavia between World War II and the 1990s. However, the end of the Cold War saw the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the ensuing civil wars.

During the Yugoslav Wars, and international sanctions many Jews chose to immigrate to Israel and the United States. During the NATO bombing in 1999, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia relocated many of Belgrade's Jewish elderly, women and children to Budapest, Hungary for their safety; many of them emigrated permanently.[8]

Contemporary Serbia

Manifestations of antisemitism in Serbia are relatively rare and isolated. According to the US State Department Report on Human Rights practices in Serbia for 2006: "Jewish leaders in Serbia reported continued incidents of anti-Semitism, including anti-Semitic graffiti, vandalism, small circulation anti-Semitic books, and Internet postings", incidents which must be viewed in the context of growing anti-Semitsm in Serbia.[22] In 2013, downtown Belgrade was covered by posters, reportedly distributed by the Serbian branch of Blood & Honour, accusing Jews of being responsible for the 1999 bombing of the former Yugoslavia.[23]

The Serbian government recognizes Judaism as one of the seven "traditional" religious communities of Serbia.[24] The only remaining functioning synagogue in Serbia is the Belgrade Synagogue.



In the 2011 census 787 people declared themselves as Jewish,[1] while 578 stated their religion as Judaism.[26] About half of them live in Belgrade alone, while almost all the rest are found in Vojvodina (especially in its three largest cities: Novi Sad, Subotica and Pančevo). The results of the 2002 census based on ethnicity and 2011 census based on religion are displayed below:

City/Region Jewish
Belgrade 415 1,576,124
Novi Sad 400 299,294
Subotica 89 148,401
Pančevo 42 127,162
Rest of Serbia 239 5,646,314
Total 1,185 7,498,001
City/Region Judaism[26] Total
Belgrade 286 1,659,440
Novi Sad 84 341,625
Subotica 75 141,554
Pančevo 31 123,414
Rest of Serbia 102 4,920,829
Total 578 7,186,862

Notable people

See also


  1. 1 2 "2011 Census of Population, Households and Dwellings in the Republic of Serbia: Population according to ethnicity – "Others" – ethnic groups with less than 2.000 members and multiple declared ethnicity" (PDF). Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia. 2012.
  2. "Jevrejska verska zajednica". Grad Beograd. Retrieved 16 February 2007.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Virtual Jewish History Tour – Serbia and Montenegro". Jewish virtual library.
  4. "News in Brief", The Times, 22 February 1877
  5. "Servia", The Times, 22 February 1877
  6. "Choir "Baruch Brothers"". Jewish Community of Belgrade.
  7. "Exhibition "Jews of Serbia in WWI" opens in Belgrade". Tanjug. 5 September 2014.
  8. 1 2 "Synagogues Without Jews – Croatia and Serbia". Beit Hatfutsot. Archived from the original on 29 April 2006.
  9. Romano, Jaša (1980). Jews of Yugoslavia 1941–1945. Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia. pp. 573–590.
  10. Schneider, Gertrude. Exile and Destruction: The Fate of Austrian Jews, 1938–1945. p. 53.
  11. Ljubica Stefan (1995). "Anti-semitism in Serbia During the World War II". An International Symposium "SOUTHEASTERN EUROPE 1918-1995". Knjige HIC. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
  12. Mitrović, M.; Timofejev, A.; Petaković, J. Holocaust in Serbia 1941-1944.
  13. Lituchy, Barry M. (2006). Jasenovac and the Holocaust in Yugoslavia: analyses and survivor testimonies. Jasenovac Research Institute. p. xxxiii.
  14. Dwork, Debórah; Robert Jan Pelt; Robert Jan Van Pelt (2003). Holocaust: a history. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 184. ISBN 0-393-32524-5.
  15. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 1990.
  16. Ristović, Milan (2010), "Jews in Serbia during World War Two", Serbia. Righteous among Nations (PDF), Jewish Community of Zemun
  17. Ljubica Stefan (1993). "From Fairy tale to Holocaust". HIC. Zagreb: Knjige HIC. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
  18. Browning, Christopher (29 May 2012). "Serbia WWII Death Camp to 'Multicultural' Development?". Arutz Sheva - Israel National News. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
  19. Derfner, Larry; Sedan, Gil (9 April 1999). "Why is Israel waffling on Kosovo?,". Jweekly.
  20. "The Righteous Among The Nations: Names and Numbers of Righteous Among the Nations – per Country & Ethnic Origin". Yad Vashem. 1 January 2014.
  21. "Jews of the Former Yugoslavia After the Holocaust". Jewish virtual library.
  22. "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Serbia". 2006.
  23. "Anti-Semitic posters in downtown Belgrade". B92/Tanjug. 30 March 2013.
  24. International Religious Freedom Report 2005, Serbia and Montenegro (includes Kosovo) (released by US Department of State)
  25. "Ethno-confessional and language mosaic of Serbia" (PDF). Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia. 2014.
  26. 1 2 "2011 Census of Population, Households and Dwellings in the Republic of Serbia: Religion, Mother Tongue and Ethnicity" (PDF). Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia. 2013.
  27. Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, 2002 Census Results, p12
  28. Vukica Strugar (3 June 2012). "Seka Sablić: Kad porastem, biću bogata" (in Serbian). Večernje Novosti.
  • "Jews of Yugoslavia 1941 - 1945 Victims of Genocide and Freedom Fighters", by Jaša Romano, from the English summary in the book Jevreji Jugoslavije 1941-1945. Žrtve Genocida i učesnici Narodnooslobodilačkog Rata, Belgrade: Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia, 1980; pp. 573–590.
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