Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina: Four Centuries of Jewish Success and Survival

Sarajevo: A Jewel of Jewish History

The Jewish community of Sarajevo is one of the best examples of Jewish success in the diaspora. The history that remains today is both a testament to a golden era of acceptance and a reminder of the evils of antisemitic persecution.

sarajevo city landscape

Sarajevo as “Little Jerusalem”

Jewish life in Sarajevo began sometime during the 16th century. While most historians debate the exact date, the first documents from the community date to 1565. The Jews that arrived during this time were Sepharidic Jews from Spain. The horror and persecution of the inquisition forced out a large number of Jews, who resettled in Eastern and Western Europe. Life for the Jewish community of Sarajevo was one of relative peace and prosperity.

During this time, Bosnia was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. The majority of the city was Muslim but they welcomed the Jewish community with open arms. Sephardic Jews came with a range of skills making them indispensable assets for the city. Jews held positions as merchants, artisans, tailors, blacksmiths and were renowned for being exceptional doctors. The Jewish community had a great deal of independence as well. They were allowed to govern themselves according to Rabbinic law and established their own religious and community institutions. 

In 1577 the city erected a substantial Jewish quarter with its own synagogue near the main market of Sarajevo. The quarter was known as El Cortijo, “the courtyard”. While the Jewish community inhabited the quarter for many years they eventually moved to other parts of the city. Their relationship with the government and the civilian Muslim population was so good there were no religious or legal restrictions on their movement. The wealth and tolerance for the community grew to be legendary. Sarajevo even earned itself the nickname of Little Jerusalem. In 1697, Austro-Hungarian forces occupied the city and destroyed the synagogue and quarter. 

During the 17th century, Ashkenazi Jews from Western Europe also immigrated to Bosnia and established a community in Sarajevo. By the end of the 18th century the overall Jewish population numbered around 10,000. However, after hundreds of years of peace and prosperity their world would soon come crashing down.

Holocaust: The Devastation of the Jewish Community in Bosnia 

Like most Jewish communities across Europe the Jews of Sarajevo underwent severe persecution at the hands of the Nazis. The day after Germany took the city they burned the Sephardi synagogue. The Jewish community was first deported to work camps in Croatia. Those that survived were eventually sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. By the time the war ended nearly 9,000 Jew from Bosnia had been murdered. 

Sephardic Synagogue in Sarajevo

There is still an active community in Sarajevo today, but it’s a faint reflection of the community that once was. Most Jews from Sarajevo that survived the war immigrated to Israel. By 1971, the Jewish population of Sarajevo was only 1,000 persons. However, there is some hope for the continued growth of the community. Over the last few years there has been an increasing baby boom. Most of these new mothers and fathers returned to their homeland after being sent away as children during the Bosian War in the 1990s. The challenge now for the community is keeping up with the demands of raising Jewish children. The community wants to ensure that future generations have access and outlets for their lives as cultural and religious Jews.       

An Undeniable and Immortal Heritage

Luckily for the Jewish community, many of their historic sites survived the numerous wars. One of the oldest historic Jewish sites in Sarajevo is the Old Jewish Cemetery. For nearly 400 years this cemetery was utilized by both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities. The grounds cover over 30,000 square meters with nearly 4000 graves. The cemetery was severely damaged during the Bosnian War and while the cemetery is no longer in use, it serves as a historic and cultural reminder of the community’s glory days. The only thing that is buried there now are holy books. The cemetery has its very own Geniza, where Jewish holy texts are laid to rest when they are no longer in use.

One of the other most iconic pieces of Sarajevo Jewish heritage is the Sarajevo Haggadah. This is one of the oldest haggadahs in the world, dating to 1350. This traditional text used during a Passover seder includes illustrations and is illuminated with both copper and gold. There are also signs that this haggadah was in use for many years, given the amount of wine stains on the pages. It is most likely that this haggadah made its way from the passover seder table in Barcelona to one in Sarajevo. The estimated worth of the haggadah is unknown but it is insured for almost $7 million dollars. 

The Sarajevo Haggada, the oldest Sephardic Haggadah in the world located at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo

Sarajevo’s Jews as War Heroes and Politicians

In addition to its amazing historic sites and literature, Sarajevo is also the origin city of some of the most famous Jewish names in the world. One of the most well known Bosnian Jewish immigrants to Israel was David “Dado” Elazar. The staunch Zionist that he was David migrated to Israel in 1940 just one year before the Nazis arrived. Serving as an integral part of the Palmach, David eventually became one of the most decorated war chiefs in the history of the IDF. He moved up through the ranks eventually becoming Israel’s ninth Chief of Staff.

David Elazar, the ninth Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces

Another famous Bosnian Jew, Sven Alkalaj, earned himself a less controversial title as the Permanent Representative of Bosnia to the UN. He also served as Bosnia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in the mid 2000s. In addition to his prestigious career Sven also hails from one of the oldest and most prominent Jewish families in Bosnian history. The Alkalaj clan were among the first wave of Sephardi Jewry from Spain. 

A Community that Will Never Fade

Despite all that has been won and lost, what remains today is a community that strives to continue its legacy. Sarajevo Jewry is growing and will continue to rebuild its tradition of Jewish excellence and acceptance.