Survival in Sarajevo -- Friendship in a Time of War

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The story of how an old synagogue in the Bosnian war zone became a beacon of hope for everyone. During the Bosnian war (1992-1995), the Jewish community of Sarajevo refused to take sides, opened their own humanitarian aid agency inside the city's synagogue, and were soon joined by their Muslim, Croat and Serbian friends. While outside of the besieged Bosnian capital, nationalist politicians swore these ethnic groups could not get along, here's a group of people who never got the memo. In this European war, Jews were not the victims. In this war, Jews were saving Muslims and Christians. An inspiring story of friendship and commitment.

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After the First World War, Bosnia and Herzegovina 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 avoided all historical and ethnic lines.


Alexander I's plan failed and 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.


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 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, Cominform. 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. 

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During the 1990s, a series of conflicts and political upheavals resulted in the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, or simply Yugoslavia. The country was first formed as a kingdom in 1918 and then reorganized as a communist state under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito after World War II. The constitution established six constituent republics and two autonomous provinces, roughly divided on ethnic lines. The republics were: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia, the provinces Kosovo and Vojvodina.


By 1990 Yugoslavia was plagued with many problems: foreign debt, inflation, unemployment, strong nationalist feelings and political problems that created a troublesome atmosphere. This eventually led to a crisis and the country fell apart into several independent countries. Slovenia and then Croatia were the first to break away, but could only do so at the cost of sparking conflict with Serbia. By 1992 further conflict had broken out in Bosnia, which had also declared independence. Because Bosnia's demographic structure was composed of Serbs and Croats that made up close to 50% of the total population, and because ideas of independence rested with the ethnicities rather than the nation as the whole, large sections of Bosnia came under dispute, causing the Yugoslav wars.


The Serbs who lived in Bosnia were determined to remain within Yugoslavia and to help build a greater Serbia. There was fierce fighting between Bosnian-Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. The Serbs massacred thousands of Bosnian-Muslims and engaged in ethnic cleansing. The capital, Sarajevo, was surrounded and besieged by Bosnian-Serb forces, who controlled around 70% of Bosnia. The presence of UN peacekeepers to contain the situation proved ineffective and it lasted until 1995 before a peace agreement was signed.


The Bosnian War left the newly independent country, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and its multi-ethnic capital, Sarajevo, all but devastated. This photo documentary for the New York Times by Andy Spyra, called “The Unending Echoes of the Bosnian War” offers insight into the human suffering caused by this war.

 In December 1995, the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina – also referred to as the Dayton Agreement – was signed in Paris. This agreement ended the war in Bosnia, which had lasted for three and a half years. Here you find a summary of the Dayton Peace Agreement.  


The chief negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords was the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who recently passed away. In honor of his death on December 13, 2010, PBS Newshour posted a video of Holbrooke, in which he talks about the Dayton Accords.

 Read this article published by the Council of Foreign Relations to find out more about Holbrooke and the peace negotiations. In the article, the author talks about the memoir Holbrooke wrote about his time as chief negotiator. Click here to find this memoir with the title "To End a War" on


Becuase Holbrooke was a well-known and well-respected personality, many obituaries were published after his death; here are some of them: Washington Post, BBC, New York Times, The Guardian.

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The history of Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina can be traced back more than 500 years, when, in the late 15th century, many Sephardic Jews arrived after their expulsion from Spain as stipulated by the Expulsion Decree  from King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. Often called the Alhambra Decree, this law expelled 20,000 Spanish Jews from the country. Learn more about the 1492 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 Bosnia and Herzegovina belonged, and where they were welcomed by Sultan Bajazet II. The descendants of Jews from Spain (and Portugal) are referred as Sephardim, as “Sepharad” means Spain in Hebrew.


Sarajevo became the centre of flourishing Jewish life in the Balkans. 

In 1577, the Jewish community was allowed by the Ottoman rulers to build their own quarter - El Cortijo (“the courtyard”). Some years later, in 1581, the city’s first synagogue, the Old Synagogue, or Velika Avlija, was built with the help of a Muslim benefactor. 

Today, most of the Jews who live in the area are Sephardim. When Sarajevo became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878, however, Ashkenazi Jews also migrated to Sarajevo. The Jewish Virtual Library provides information on the Ashkenazim.


When the Second World War broke out, about 14,000 Jews lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the war, the majority of Bosnian Jews was annihilated. On February 26, 1942, Andrija Artukovic, the interior minister of the fascist NDH-state which incorporated Bosnia and Herzegovina, gave a speech before the NDH Parliament, or Sabor, in Zagreb in which he claimed the Jewish question "had been settled in the NDH." Only about 4,000 Jews survived, either by joining partisan groups or by fleeing. After 1945 many of the survivors returned and the Jewish community was reconstituted. 


In recent years, the number of Jews emigrating from Bosnia and Herzegovina has decreased. Today, approximately 1000 Jews live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, about two-thirds of them in Sarajevo. About ninety percent of the community has a Sephardic background. However, and mostly older people still speak Ladino. Learn more about the Jewish history of Bosnia-Herzegovina in this article provided by the Jewish Virtual Library.


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Today, Sarajevo is the capital and largest city of Bosnia and Herzegovina and has about 300,000 inhabitants. The city is located in the Sarajevo valley of Bosnia, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps and situated along the Miljacka River. In 2010, the travel guide series Lonely Planet listed Sarajevo as one of the top ten cities to visit.

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La Benevolencija was established in Sarajevo in 1892. This Jewish cultural, educational and humanitarian society gained international attention for the nonsectarian humanitarian aid that it provided for the people of Sarajevo during the infamous siege of 1992-1995. Here you can find more information about Bohoreta, the women’s club of La Benevolencija.


La Benevolencija is also mentioned in the book ‘Good people in an evil time - Portraits of Complicity and Resistance in the Bosnian War’ by Svetlana Brotz. 


The name “La Benevolencija” is Ladino for “Good will.” Ladino is the Hispanic language of Sephardic Jews. Today, Israel has the highest number of Ladino speakers. Learn more about Ladino-speaking people in this article by the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sephardic Studies and Culture.


The story of La Benevolencija has inspired many other people. The Radio La Benevolencija Humanitarian Tools Foundation, for example, is a Dutch NGO that empowers groups and individuals who are the target of hate speech and ensuing acts. Currently, this NGO organizes projects in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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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. The are referred to as Sephardim, as “Sepharad” means Spain in Hebrew. For religious purposes, the term Sephardim also means 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 substantial 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 resettled in the Ottoman Empire, to which the area of Bosnia and Herzegovina belonged at that time, and where they were welcomed by Sultan Bajazet II. Others settled in places like what are today Morocco, Algeria, southern France and Italy. Some even settled on the island Curacao in the southern Caribbean. 

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 Ladino 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 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. 


Sephardic history also plays a central role in the Centropa film about Güler Orgun. In the traditional Ladino language of her ancestors, Güler Orgun tells us how her family found a new home in the Ottoman Empire after being expelled from Spain in the late 15th century. We learn why her parents converted to Islam and how Güler herself later came to find her Jewish roots again - before she married a Muslim man. 

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    Bosnia, North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia

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