Why Sarajevo’s Tiny Jewish Community Believes It's in the Safest Place in Europe for Jews

In a country where ethnic hatreds run deep, the Jewish community in the 'Jerusalem of the Balkans' says it is not subject to anti-Semitic acts and is even enjoying a 'baby boom'

Kate Bartlett
Kate Bartlett
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The synagogue in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Doors left unlocked and with zero security manning the gates.
The synagogue in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Doors left unlocked and with zero security manning the gates.Credit: Kate Bartlett
Kate Bartlett
Kate Bartlett

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina – The gate to the old Ashkenazi synagogue is unlocked. There are no security cameras or metal detectors, no police vehicles parked out front. No one even takes your name as you walk in.

This might just be the synagogue with the least security in Europe – here, in a Muslim country where ethnic hatreds run deep. Could Bosnia and Herzegovina, the site of the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust, be the safest place on the Continent to be a Jew?

Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which numbers some 1,000, thinks it may well be.

“We think we’re safe here with open doors,” Finci, a mischievous-eyed septuagenarian tells Haaretz in a recent interview in his office in the synagogue, the only functioning Jewish house of worship in the entire country. “This country is one of the few free of anti-Semitism.”

People may know about the Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats, and especially about the violent war between them in the 1990s. But not many are aware of the existence of a fourth religious and ethnic group here – the Jews, who have resided in this area for centuries.

Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. "This country is one of the few free of anti-Semitism.”Credit: Kate Bartlett

Touted over the centuries as the “European Jerusalem” and “Jerusalem of the Balkans,” modern Sarajevo, the capital of and largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was a cosmopolitan melting pot at the crossroads between East and West, ruled first by the Ottomans and then subsumed within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Its heady mix of cultures and religions is still very much in evidence on the city’s streets today, as Paris-style espresso bars vie for space with Turkish hookah lounges.

“What’s different for Sarajevo is we [the Jews] have been in a very good relationship with the neighbors,” Finci says. “After 450 years we’re very well incorporated into Bosnian society.”

Decimated in WWII

Never forced to live in ghettos, the Jews of what is modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina – most of them descendants of Sephardim (the Spanish and Portuguese Jews expelled from Spain in 1492) – were treated much better during Ottoman times than in most of Western Europe, according to Finci.

By the 1930s there were about 12,000 Jews in Sarajevo and another 2,000 elsewhere in the country, according to census figures quoted by Finci and other sources. But the population was decimated during the Holocaust: Some 10,000 of its members were killed by the Ustasa, Croation fascists who sympathized with the Nazi regime.

Even then, though, many Muslims tried to protect their Jewish neighbors, and their bravery is memorialized today at Sarajevo’s Jewish Museum, housed in a former Sephardi synagogue. Some Muslim individuals are listed there as Righteous Among the Nations.

The old Ashkenazi synagogue in Sarajevo, the only open one in the whole country. "We think we’re safe here with open doors,” says Jewish community president Jakob Finci.Credit: Kate Bartlett

While part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – formed in 1946 and comprising six Balkan republics – religious practice was discouraged in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, explains Finci, the Jews there were treated well by Josip Broz Tito, the communist revolutionary who would later become president of Yugoslavia, because many of them had fought with Tito’s Partisans during World War II.

Subsequently, following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, about half of Bosnia and Herzegovina's remaining population of 2,000 Jews fled to Israel, fearing the worst.

Finci was one of those who stayed on, feeling an obligation to his country and the local Jewish organizations that were heavily involved in providing humanitarian aid to their fellow Sarajevans, their neighbors, irrespective of their ethnicity or religion, since the city was under siege.

According to one story documented at the Jewish Museum here, which reads like a Hollywood screenplay, the Kavilios – a family of Bosnian Jews who had been hidden from the Nazis by their Muslim neighbors, the Hardagas – returned the favor 50 years later when they helped the Hardagas’ daughter escape the Sarajevo siege by bringing her to Israel, where she eventually converted to Judaism.

Although now depleted in numbers, Finci believes Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Jewish community will hold its own.

“What is a good sign is that in the last 15 years only one person left for Israel,” he says.

In fact, about 20 young, locally born Jews have moved back to Bosnia and Herzegovina from Israel in the past few years, Finci says, attracted by the desire to preserve their unique heritage, free university studies and the relaxed, work-lite lifestyle.

Then came a “baby boom.”

Sarajevo's Ashkenazi synagogue. “It’s a Muslim country, but European. Jews here never have any problems,” says a young worshipper named Andrea.Credit: Kate Bartlett

“In 2015 we suddenly got 10 newborns, which was a real miracle,” Finci says. “That means these young people think there is a future here for them.”

Festive Shabbat

While Shabbat is observed every Friday night at the ornate old Ashkenazi synagogue on the banks of the Miljacka river, the Sarajevo community lacks a full-time rabbi. A rabbi who was born in the country but is now based in Israel returns to officiate during High Holy Days.

At one Shabbat this month, about 40 members of the community turned out, with much of the service in Ladino – the historic language of the Spanish Jews. Afterward, the atmosphere was festive with the candelabra lit, the challah blessed, and wine and song.

One of those attending, 24-year-old Andrea, was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and said she celebrates the mix of cultures and tolerance in the country.

“Most of our neighbors are Muslim. It’s a tradition to go and drink coffee with the neighbors for Ramadan and eat baklava and sweets,” the music student says. “It’s a Muslim country, but European. Jews here never have any problems.”

Her friend, Tea, 21, agrees, adding, “People here are not interested in hating Jews.”

While most Bosnian Muslims are fiercely protective of their secular identity, in a country where a woman is more likely to don a miniskirt than a hijab, there have been fears of creeping Wahhabism, and some 200 people from Bosnia and Herzegovina have reportedly left to fight with the Islamic State group in the Middle East.

Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the Sarajevo synagogue. "In the last 15 years only one person left for Israel,” he says.Credit: Kate Bartlett

But Finci, for one, thinks an attack against Jews on home soil like those in recent years in Western Europe is very unlikely. Terror aimed at Jews in Brussels or Paris is much more worthwhile for the perpetrators in terms of international press coverage than an attack in Sarajevo would be, he notes.

With far-right parties gaining ground, as well as a spate of deadly attacks on Jewish institutions in Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2014, Jews in Western Europe may have reason to fear, Finci says. But in Bosnia, because of resurgent tensions between the Serbs, Croats and Muslims, no one pays them much attention.

“It doesn’t mean they like you,” he says. “But these three ethnic groups are too busy hating each other.”

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