Matilda Kalef -- Three Promises

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The Kalefs were one of the Belgrade's oldest families, tracing their roots back more than 300 years. Then the Nazis swept into Serbia in 1941...

While scores of relatives were being shot and gassed, Dona Bat Kalef fled with her two daughters, Breda and Matilda, to a Catholic church in Banovo Brdo. "Can you protect us?" she asked the priest. Father Andrej Tumpej did indeed save Dona and her daughters, and this film tells their story.

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After the First World War, the Kingdom of Serbia became part of the newly founded "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes", which stretched from the Western Balkans to Central Europe. This territory was ethnically very diverse. Tito, who would later lead the region, famously said: "I am the leader of one country which has two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six republics, surrounded by seven neighbours, a country in which live eight ethnic minorities."


Right from the start, problems arose between the different ethnic groups. In 1929, King Alexander I tried to curb nationalist and separatist tendencies by turning the country into a dictatorship and renamed the country "Yugoslavia". He also decided to abolish the country's historic regions and drew new internal boundaries for provinces, or banovinas, that disregarded all historical and ethnic lines.


Alexander I's plan failed when, in April 1941, Axis troops conquered Yugoslavia; many of its citizens didn't mourn its passing. The country was split up: an independent Croatian state, which also included most of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was created under the rule of the fascist Ustashe movement. They conducted large-scale genocide campaigns against Serbian, Jewish and Roma citizens. The area of (roughly) present-day Serbia and the northern part of Kosovo became the occupied "Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia" and was placed under under German Military administration, with a puppet administration led by Milan Nedić, a former Minister of Army and Navy of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.


During the Second World War, a civil war broke out in Yugoslavia between the Croatian Ustashe, Serbian pro-monarchist partisans, or "Chetniks," and communist partisans, led by Josip Brosz Tito. After the war, the communist Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was founded. Tito first became the prime minister and later the longtime president, ruling the country until his death in 1980.


Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980) was the most defining figure of 20th century Yugoslav history.  Here you can watch a documentary about Tito. In 1948, after a conflict between Tito and Stalin Yugoslavia was expelled from the international association of socialist states Cominformm. In the following years Yugoslavia developed its own version of communism - Titoism.


Tito was a popular public figure in Yugoslavia, viewed as a unifying symbol for the Yugoslav federation. He is also named the architect of Yugoslavia's disintegration, however, and remains a controversial figure. Read this Time Magazine article on the life of Tito.


The delicate balance between the different ethnic groups in Yugoslavia was disrupted during the 1990s. Since the early 1980s, economic problems and rising nationalism amongst the various ethnic groups had already escalated tensions. In 1990 these tensions led to a series of conflicts. Political upheavals and devastating civil wars erupted, resulting in the dissolution of the Yugoslavia. Here you can find a brief overview of the conflict.

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The first written records of the presence of Jews in Belgrade date back to the 16th century when the city was under Ottoman rule. At that time Belgrade boasted a strong Sephardic community that was concentrated in the central Belgrade neighborhood called Dorcol.

Until today, most of the Jews who had lived in the area were Sephardim. In later centuries Ashkenazi Jews migrated to the area, many of them from Central Europe and nearby Austria-Hungary. The Jewish Virtual Library provides information on the Ashkenazim.

Belgrade's Ashkenazi Jews mostly lived near the Sava River. This is also the area where the Belgrade Synagogue is located. Traditionally this synagogue, which was founded in 1926, followed the Ashkenazi rite. The synagogue is known in Belgrade as the "Kosmajska Temple" because before World War II it was located on Kosmajska Street. Later the name of the street was changed to Marshal Biryuzov Street. 

About 12,000 Jews lived in Belgrade before World War II. About 80% of them were Sephardim, 20% Ashkenazim. Each of these groups had its own community with administration, school, cemetery and various religious, humanitarian, cultural and national societies. Hashomer Hatzair, the youth club mentioned in the movie, is a Zionist youth movement. The organization still exists, making it the oldest Zionist youth movement still in existence today. 

The community of Belgrade Jews was almost totally destroyed in the Holocaust. Dorcol, as with almost all other synagogues, was demolished in the bombing of Belgrade in April 1941. Of the survivors, only few returned to Belgrade. On the Danube bank, where the Jewish settlement used to be, there is now a monument commemorating the Belgrade Jews, made by the sculptor and Holocaust survivor Nandor Glid.

The Jewish community was also hit hard when Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s - about two-thirds of the Jewish community fled the country. In 2002, about 1,200 Jews were living in Serbia, about half of them in Belgrade. This is the official website of the Jewish Community in Belgrade.

 A general overview of Jewish heritage in Serbia can be found here.

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The destruction of Serbia's Jewry was carried out in two distinct phases. The first lasted from July to November 1941 and involved the mass internment and murder of Jewish men, who were shot as part of retaliatory executions. The second phase, between December 1941 and May 1942, included the incarceration of women and children in the Semlin Judenlager and their gassing in mobile gas vans. Read an article about the Holocaust in Serbia.

The ‘gas van', which in Nazi documents was referred to in euphemisms such as 'delousing truck' (Entlausungswagen), was a normal truck that was refashioned so that the fumes of the exhaust pipe were diverted into the sealed compartment at the back. This way, a 10-15 minute ride was enough to kill as many as 100 people. For a history of the gas van you can read Chapter 3 (p. 57-67) of Christopher R. Browning's book "Fateful Months - Essays on the Emergence of the Final Solution." Read also about Nazi gassing operations.

The staff and patients at the two Jewish hospitals were the first victims of the gas van killings in Belgrade. There were over 800 victims, including Matilda's father Avram Kalef. On 18-19 March 1942, they were loaded into the gas van and died as the van drove to the killing grounds in Jajinci, a village south of the city, where they were buried in mass graves. In August 1942 the puppet government announced that Belgrade was the first city to be Judenfrei or "free of Jews."

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A Sephardic Jew is a Jew descended from, or who follows the customs and traditions of, Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) before their expulsion in the late 15th century. They are referred to as Sephardim, as “Sepharad” means Spain in Hebrew.  For religious purposes, the term Sephardim also refers to all Jews who use a Sephardic style of liturgy, and therefore includes most Jews of Middle Eastern background, whether or not they have any historical connection to the Iberian Peninsula.


The precise origins of the Jewish communities of the Iberian peninsula are unclear. There is inconclusive evidence of a Jewish presence dating from pre-Roman times. More substantial references date from the Roman period, when significant Jewish immigration probably first occurred.


However, in 1492 the Expulsion Decree (often called "Alhambra Decree“) by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile expelled more than 20,000 Spanish Jews from the country. In 1497 King Manuel I of Portugal issued a similar decree. Learn more about the expulsion of the Jewish population from Spain in this article from the Jewish Virtual Library.


Many of the expelled Jews re-settled in the Ottoman Empire, to which the area of Serbia belonged at that time, and where they were welcomed by Sultan Bajazet II. Others settled in places like what is today Morocco, Algeria, southern France and Italy.

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Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, is the language of Sephardic Jews. It only became a specifically Jewish language after their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century. Cut off from the further developments in the language, the Sephardim continued to speak it in the communities and countries to which they emigrated. Ladino therefore reflects the grammar and vocabulary of 14th and 15th century Spanish.


In the Sephardic communities of the Ottoman Empire, the language not only retained the older forms of Spanish, but borrowed so many words from Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Turkish, and even French, that it became more and more distorted.


Like other historical Jewish languages, Ladino is in danger of language extinction (another prominent example is Yiddish). Most native speakers are elderly, many of them having emigrated to Israel where the language was not transmitted to their children or grandchildren. However, it is experiencing a minor revival among Sephardic communities, for example in music.


The music for the Centropa film "Survival in Sarajevo“ was composed by Stefan Sablic. Originally an acclaimed theatre director, Sablic is also a musician and most recently the founder of Shira u’tfila. This world music band aims to preserve and promote the Sephardic musical heritage of the Balkans, Mediterranean and North Africa.

Film Details

  • Duration:
    Serbia, North Macedonia, Bosnia, Croatia

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