The sanc­tu­ary of the Dubrovnik syn­a­gogue, cour­tesy of the author

My nov­el, Anna’s Dance: A Balkan Odyssey, traces the hitch­hik­ing trip through the Balka­ns I made as a stu­dent in 1968. But my love for the region began ear­li­er. After leav­ing Bryn Mawr in my fresh­man year, I worked for a D.C. agency that helped the State Depart­ment arrange and over­see the US vis­its of for­eign diplo­mats. At nine­teen, I met many fas­ci­nat­ing Yugoslavs, includ­ing a for­mi­da­ble for­mer female Par­ti­san, and the engi­neer who head­ed the post-earth­quake rebuild­ing of Skop­je. Their sto­ries intrigued me. At George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, where I had resumed my stud­ies, Howard Mor­ley Sachar’s course on Jew­ish His­to­ry moved me to explore Balkan his­to­ry more fully.

Jews lived in the Balka­ns from at least the first cen­tu­ry CE, till the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry; waves of Sephardic and Ashke­nazi Jews came to the area — some as traders, many to flee per­se­cu­tion far­ther west. Syn­a­gogue ruins and graves along the Adri­at­ic Coast place Jews of the late Roman Empire in Croa­t­ia near­ly two thou­sand years ago. Evi­dence shows, too, that Byzan­tine oppres­sion caused some Jews to relo­cate even far­ther east, to the King­dom of Bul­gar­ia. With the Cru­sades and the rise of usury, many Jews from North­ern Europe spread south­east to avoid pogroms, and from 1492 the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion spawned Sephardic Jew­ish migra­tion to the Ottoman Empire. By the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies, with polit­i­cal anti­semitism on the rise in the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire, many Ashke­nazi Jews again looked east­ward for safety.

But the fate of Balkan Jews, as with their West­ern coun­ter­parts, depend­ed on the dis­po­si­tion of their local gov­ern­ments. In the sev­enth cen­tu­ry, when the Avars, war­riors from the Cau­cusus, attacked Split, by then a Byzan­tine city on the Dal­ma­t­ian coast of Croa­t­ia, the Palace of Dio­clet­ian gave Jews sanc­tu­ary. Yet records also show oppres­sion of the kinds seen in the West. Still, many Jews flour­ished despite these restric­tions. Dubrovnik, for instance, once part of the Venet­ian Empire, hous­es Europe’s sec­ond old­est syn­a­gogue, the old­est still in use. It was estab­lished around 1352 on Uli­ca Žudios­ka” (Jew­ish Street), a nar­row, cob­bled street with­in the walled Old City, which con­tained, beside homes and church­es, the Jew­ish ghet­to. This tiny, beau­ti­ful sec­ond-sto­ry wor­ship space now boasts a mem­ber­ship of twen­ty or so, one of whom — a friend — brought me there in 2000. Hav­ing fled to Italy dur­ing the Bosn­ian War — to avoid her sons’ con­scrip­tion into Croatia’s nation­al­ist army — she has kept her three-hun­dred-year-old Dubrovnik home and belongs to that Jew­ish community.

But the fate of Balkan Jews, as with their West­ern coun­ter­parts, depend­ed on the dis­po­si­tion of their local governments.

A rad­i­cal change for Jews came in 1299, when the Ottoman Turks con­quered Byzan­tium and launched their vast empire. While clas­si­fy­ing Jews, along with Catholics, Roma, and Ortho­dox Serbs, as raya, sec­ond-class cit­i­zens, the Turks safe­guard­ed their minori­ties. This assured Jews bet­ter treat­ment than they had expe­ri­enced under Byzan­tium or in the West. With Mus­lims, they were exempt from the devshirme, the child tax,” which every four or five years con­script­ed young Chris­t­ian boys, most­ly Serbs, brought them back to Istan­bul, edu­cat­ed them, and made from them a mil­i­tary and bureau­crat­ic force. The Bridge on the Dri­na, Ivo Andrić’s Nobel-prize-win­ning 1945 nov­el, explores five hun­dred years in the life of a mul­ti-eth­nic Bosn­ian town with­in the Ottoman Empire.

But in the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, as Balkan cit­i­zens import­ed West­ern nation­al­ism through Roman­tic lit­er­a­ture and stud­ies abroad, the Ottoman Empire weak­ened. Vio­lent resis­tance flared in Ser­bia, Greece, and Alba­nia. There­after, bands of for­est-dwelling rebels reg­u­lar­ly ambushed Turk­ish sol­diers. By 1888, Ser­bia became inde­pen­dent and Aus­tria-Hun­gary added Bosnia to its domain. Ini­tial­ly, this bod­ed well for Jews, but that nation­al­ism often took on an anti­se­mit­ic hue.

Croa­t­ian his­to­ry offers a win­dow on the his­to­ry of its Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Croa­t­ia, which embraced Catholi­cism in the sev­enth cen­tu­ry, took Hun­gary as its over­lord in the twelfth cen­tu­ry, a link that endured until the end of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire after World War I, when it joined the King­dom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. But by the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, a Croa­t­ian nation­al­ist move­ment had arisen. Even­tu­al­ly led by a vir­u­lent­ly anti­se­mit­ic Jew­ish con­vert, the move­ment pro­claimed Croatia’s eth­nic puri­ty. Between the world wars, home­grown Croa­t­ian nation­al­ists trained in Italy with Mussolini’s fas­cists and, in 1941, this group, who named them­selves the Ustasha (Insur­gents), took con­trol of Croa­t­ia and acquired Bosnia from Ger­many. That year they imple­ment­ed Hitler’s race laws. With vil­lage mas­sacres and the fourth largest con­cen­tra­tion camp com­plex in Europe, Jasen­o­vac, the Ustasha mur­dered eighty-five per­cent of the Jews with­in its ter­ri­to­ry and boast­ed of its suc­cess. Ger­man-occu­pied Ser­bia fol­lowed suit, rig­or­ous­ly enact­ing the race laws. Bul­gar­ia, hav­ing grant­ed Jews full cit­i­zen­ship in 1880, joined the Axis. But when Ger­many demand­ed its Jews, Bul­gar­ia refused to sur­ren­der those with­in its bound­aries, intern­ing them instead. Nev­er­the­less, it sent 12,000 Jews in its Mace­don­ian ter­ri­to­ries to their deaths in Hitler’s camps — an event that fig­ures in my novel.

The sto­ry of Zagreb’s syn­a­gogue embod­ies the fate of many Balkan Jews from post-World War II to the present. Com­plet­ed in 1867, the syn­a­gogue became the first impor­tant build­ing erect­ed in Kap­tol, Zagreb’s low­er town.” Hailed as a mod­el of Moor­ish revival archi­tec­ture, it drew many pub­lic offi­cials and cit­i­zens to its open­ing and soon became a source of civic pride.

The sto­ry of Zagreb’s syn­a­gogue embod­ies the fate of many Balkan Jews from post-World War II to the present. Com­plet­ed in 1867, the syn­a­gogue became the first impor­tant build­ing erect­ed in Kap­tol, Zagreb’s low­er town.”

Under the Ustasha, Serbs, who out­num­bered Croats in the new­ly com­bined ter­ri­to­ries of Croa­t­ia and Bosnia, were the Ustasha’s main tar­get. But it con­duct­ed a ruth­less cam­paign against its approx­i­mate­ly 25,000 Jews, man­dat­ing the yel­low star, con­fis­cat­ing prop­er­ty, and send­ing 19,000 to their deaths, either in its own or Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps. As for the syn­a­gogue, in 1941, Zagreb’s may­or, Ivan Wern­er, a butch­er and Ustasha mem­ber, ordered its destruc­tion, claim­ing it inter­fered with plans for urban devel­op­ment. Between Octo­ber 1941 and April 1942, Ustaše demol­ished the build­ing and cap­tured the process on film, most of which they lat­er destroyed.

Then came the post-war peri­od, which proved no less dif­fi­cult for Jews. First came Tito’s com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment, which severe­ly restrict­ed eth­nic and reli­gious expres­sions, nation­al­ized all reli­gious real estate (reli­gion being the opi­ate of the mass­es), includ­ing the land on which the syn­a­gogue once stood, and in 1967 sev­ered ties with Israel. Yet even after the fall of Com­mu­nism in 1989, and Croatia’s long-dreamed-for inde­pen­dence, lit­tle changed for its Jews, who could not regain their prop­er­ty. Just eight years ago, in 2012, a report from the Euro­pean Shoah Lega­cy Insti­tute found recov­er­ing Jew­ish prop­er­ty in Croa­t­ia problematic:

While Croa­t­ia has enact­ed laws gov­ern­ing the resti­tu­tion of com­mu­nal and pri­vate prop­er­ty nation­al­ized dur­ing the com­mu­nist peri­od, the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty has recov­ered few prop­er­ties using the estab­lished pro­ce­dure. In addi­tion, the laws relat­ing to the resti­tu­tion of con­fis­cat­ed pri­vate prop­er­ty — in one way or anoth­er –exclude from eli­gi­bil­i­ty vir­tu­al­ly all Jew­ish Holo­caust sur­vivors who were for­mer­ly prop­er­ty owners.

The Insti­tute found that Croatia’s gov­ern­ment returned only 15 of 135 claims sub­mit­ted by Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties for com­mu­nal build­ings and land by the fil­ing dead­line of ten years pre­vi­ous­ly, that no sub­stan­tive progress with respect to the return of con­fis­cat­ed Jew­ish com­mu­nal prop­er­ty for years,” and final­ly, that while dis­crete agree­ments between the gov­ern­ment and indi­vid­ual reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties — such as with the Catholic Church — have led to the return of some con­fis­cat­ed com­mu­nal property…no such gov­ern­ment agree­ment exists with the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Croa­t­ia.” These find­ings reveal the cli­mate with­in which the tiny Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Croa­t­ia (some 2,000 alto­geth­er, most of those in Zagreb) has oper­at­ed from 1945 to today.

Zagreb Jews long fought to memo­ri­al­ize and rebuild it their syn­a­gogue. But their lack of progress under­scores the pre­car­i­ous life of Jews in a still nation­al­ist Croatia.

Zagreb Jews long fought to memo­ri­al­ize and rebuild it their syn­a­gogue. But their lack of progress under­scores the pre­car­i­ous life of Jews in a still nation­al­ist Croa­t­ia. A tiny minor­i­ty with­in a state that proud­ly sees itself as West­ern and Catholic, Jews have had to nego­ti­ate their iden­ti­ties care­ful­ly. Even as they hope to pre­serve their her­itage, they must appear loy­al Croats or risk being oth­ered. So even the effort to com­mem­o­rate the land on which the syn­a­gogue once stood, prime real estate in cen­tral Zagreb, has proven com­pli­cat­ed. The local gov­ern­ment and busi­ness inter­ests have put it to mul­ti­ple uses: a vol­ley­ball court, a depart­ment store, and final­ly a park­ing lot between two urban buildings.

In 1986, as com­mu­nists strug­gled to gov­ern an increas­ing­ly frac­tious Yugoslavia and region­al gov­ern­ments began to exert more pow­er, the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty of Zagreb (ZOZ) were per­mit­ted to place a small plaque on one of the park­ing lot’s adjoin­ing walls. This tiny memo­r­i­al states in Hebrew and Croa­t­ian that the Zagreb Syn­a­gogue occu­pied that space from 1867 until destroyed by fas­cists” in 1941 – 42. While this might seem a vic­to­ry, let us con­sid­er the word­ing. The term fas­cists” clev­er­ly obscures the actu­al cul­prits, the Ustaša. The plaque holds a face­less exter­nal ene­my respon­si­ble. More­over, since post-war Croa­t­ian his­to­ry texts declare their ene­my fas­cists,” and spend maybe a para­graph on the Holo­caust, the implied vic­tim here is Croa­t­ia, not the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. The syn­a­gogue becomes mere­ly col­lat­er­al dam­age in the fas­cist war against Croa­t­ia rather than the spe­cif­ic tar­get of a past Croa­t­ian gov­ern­ment that tout­ed its suc­cess­es in elim­i­nat­ing Jews. Croa­t­ia thus evad­ed blame for its actions. But to secure the plaque, a token memo­ri­al­iza­tion, the ZOZ accept­ed this language.

Still, this plaque, which I saw in 2000, demon­strates that by 1986, the ZOZ had cho­sen to fight for the syn­a­gogue. In that year two archi­tects pre­sent­ed the ZOZ their plans for a Jew­ish cen­ter. The ZOZ reject­ed both, hop­ing to spon­sor an inter­na­tion­al archi­tec­tur­al com­pe­ti­tion for a syn­a­gogue and com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter to draw more atten­tion to its cause. But Zagreb’s munic­i­pal gov­ern­ment refused to issue the papers required.

But when Fran­jo Tuđ­man became Croatia’s pres­i­dent in 1990, its rel­a­tive­ly benign lead­er­ship changed once again. Echo­ing many Ustasha claims, argu­ing that Croatia’s geo­graph­i­cal posi­tion, four­teen-cen­turies-long his­to­ry, civ­i­liza­tion and cul­ture” sit­u­at­ed it in the cen­tral Euro­pean and Mediter­ranean cir­cle in Europe” and that Serbs are east­ern peo­ples, like the Turks,” Tuđ­man was no friend to Jews. His 1989 Waste­lands of His­tor­i­cal Real­i­ty acknowl­edged that crimes were com­mit­ted against Croa­t­ian Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust, but ques­tioned the num­ber of Jew­ish vic­tims and cit­ed wit­ness tes­ti­mo­ny that Jews in Jasen­o­vac had received spe­cial treat­ment, helped run the camp, and gen­er­al­ly behaved in ways that val­i­dat­ed anti­se­mit­ic stereo­types. He like­wise derid­ed Israel and Zion­ists,” warn­ing that Jews would try to con­quer the world. Still, in 1990, Zagreb’s munic­i­pal gov­ern­ment final­ly issued the nec­es­sary papers for an archi­tec­tur­al com­pe­ti­tion sched­uled for Jan­u­ary 1991. But the Bosn­ian Con­flict inter­vened, and from 1991 – 1995 the coun­try focused its atten­tions on what it called the Home­land Wars.”

In 1997, it spon­sored an exhib­it in a down­town gallery of pho­tos from the 1880’s titled Zagre­bač­ka Sin­a­goga – Reli­quae Reli­quar­i­um (Rem­nants of Rem­nants). This Latin phrase evokes the frag­ile exis­tence of Zagreb’s Jews.

After Croatia’s vic­to­ry in 1995, its nation­al­ism grew stronger. But the ZOZ con­tin­ued its strug­gle to rebuild the syn­a­gogue. In 1997, it spon­sored an exhib­it in a down­town gallery of pho­tos from the 1880’s titled Zagre­bač­ka Sin­a­goga – Reli­quae Reli­quar­i­um (Rem­nants of Rem­nants). This Latin phrase evokes the frag­ile exis­tence of Zagreb’s Jews.

At last, when Tuđ­man died in Decem­ber 1999, a more inclu­sive gov­ern­ment came to pow­er. That same month Zagreb returned the syn­a­gogue site to the ZOZ, which resumed plan­ning for the building’s recon­struc­tion. Two years lat­er it spon­sored yet anoth­er exhib­it, The Syn­a­gogue and Zagreb,” in the city’s Archae­o­log­i­cal Muse­um, using visu­al and writ­ten tes­ti­monies and the lone remain­ing minute of Ustasha film doc­u­ment­ing the demo­li­tion to show Zagreb’s cit­i­zens what the syn­a­gogue had meant to the city in the twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry. Through this, the ZOZ hoped to height­en pub­lic aware­ness and secure civic and finan­cial sup­port for the reconstruction.

But by this time anoth­er prob­lem had emerged: a break-down in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty itself. When the ZOZ polled their mem­ber­ship and promi­nent non-Jew­ish Zagreb res­i­dents on what the pro­posed build­ing should do and how it should be recon­struct­ed, the result showed a sharp divi­sion. Some wished the syn­a­gogue to serve strict­ly reli­gious pur­pos­es; oth­ers want­ed a mul­ti-func­tion­al build­ing. Some believed it should repli­cate the orig­i­nal build­ing; oth­ers favored a more mod­ern design. Nev­er­the­less, in July 2004, the ZOZ sent both the gov­ern­ment of Croa­t­ia and the city of Zagreb a new finan­cial plan to the gov­ern­ment of Croa­t­ia and the city of Zagreb. Told to revise it, the ZOZ com­plied, resub­mit­ting it that Octo­ber and call­ing for anoth­er archi­tec­tur­al com­pe­ti­tion in 2005.

But by this time it was too late. The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty had offi­cial­ly split in two. Six­teen promi­nent Jews, includ­ing a local Holo­caust sur­vivor, Slavko Gold­stein, and his his­to­ri­an son Ivo, left the ZOZ to form a new group, Bet Israel. Since its incep­tion, Bet Israel has lob­bied hard, with sup­port from the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty and the Arch­bish­op of Zagreb, to retain the Moor­ish design of the orig­i­nal build­ing. Accord­ing to Bet Israel, only a pre­cise repli­ca­tion can ful­ly embody the endurance of Croatia’s Jew­ish community.

But by this time it was too late. The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty had offi­cial­ly split in two.

The plaque on the wall of the park­ing lot where once stood the Zagreb syn­a­gogue, cour­tesy of the author

In 2006, the Croa­t­ian gov­ern­ment again agreed to par­tial­ly finance the recon­struc­tion, pledg­ing to work with the city of Zagreb and both Jew­ish groups. But the ZOZ declared itself the only true rep­re­sen­ta­tive, refused to coop­er­ate with Bet Israel, and with­drew from dis­cus­sions. Then Zagreb may­or Milan Bandić com­ment­ed, We’re wait­ing for the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty to present its idea of the new object, and we’ll do our part of the job. It’s not up to us to arbi­trate if there are dif­fer­ent views with­in the com­mu­ni­ty.” The city’s finan­cial pledge, mean­while, fell far short of the amount required to rebuild.

The strug­gle remains unre­solved. So that park­ing lot in Zagreb tes­ti­fies to both the ori­gins of its Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and its con­vo­lut­ed his­to­ry. State and local gov­ern­ments, less than ful­ly com­mit­ted to a tiny minor­i­ty their antecedents once sought to extin­guish, make half-heart­ed ges­tures to the Jews, while the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty is in dis­ar­ray. Accord­ing to one com­men­ta­tor, there exist on the one hand, Jews who hate their fel­low Jews and despise their Croa­t­ian coun­try­men for attempt­ing to white­wash the Shoah and make it more palat­able and more for­get­table; on the oth­er, devot­ed Jews and Zion­ists who are also patri­ot­ic Croats and who fight for their country’s war nar­ra­tive”— or, as I would sug­gest, who fear being seen as oth­er. If you vis­it Zagreb today, you can wor­ship at either Bet Israel or the Chabad House.

Final­ly, if once again Croa­t­ian Jews teeter on the edge, torn between hon­or­ing their roots and pla­cat­ing a nation that con­tin­ues to mar­gin­al­ize them, oth­er Balkan Jews face a sim­i­lar fate. In Ser­bia, sites where thou­sands of Jews were detained and mur­dered have become, despite the pleas of Jews, shop­ping malls and venues for rock con­certs. Bosnia has not yet grant­ed its Jews and Roma full cit­i­zen­ship, a human rights vio­la­tion that has slowed its hoped-for entry to the EU. And Bul­gar­ia, which alone among the Sovi­et satel­lites allowed most of its Jews to emi­grate to Israel, set down harsh restric­tive mea­sures under com­mu­nism. But here, at least, the tiny Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, which has had no con­tact with their cul­ture for years, are begin­ning to reestab­lish their roots.

To learn more about the Balkan Jews, you can read my essay on the Ustasha geno­cide against Serbs (which includes ref­er­ences to is treat­ment of Jews), the plight of Jews in occu­pied Ser­bia dur­ing WWII, my chap­ter on the politi­ciza­tion of vic­tim mem­o­ries in Croa­t­ia, Ser­bia, and Bosnia, and my nov­el, Anna’s Dance: A Balkan Odyssey.

Addi­tion­al resources:

Levy, Michele. Anna’s Dance: A Balkan Odyssey. Black Rose Writ­ing, 2020.

From Skull Tow­er to Mall: Com­pet­ing Vic­tim Nar­ra­tives and the Pol­i­tics of Mem­o­ry in the For­mer Yugoslavia,” in Simona Mitroiu, ed., Life Writ­ing and Pol­i­tics of Mem­o­ry in East­ern Europe (Pal­grave MacMil­lan, 2015): pp.202 – 221.

A Tan­gled Tale: The Sur­vival of Ser­bian Jews dur­ing World War II. Ser­bian Stud­ies: Jour­nal of the North Amer­i­can Soci­ety for Ser­bian Stud­ies. 27. 15 – 41. 10.1353/ser.2013.0001.

The Last Bul­let for the Last Serb”: The Ustasha Geno­cide against Serbs, 1941 – 1945,” Nation­al­i­ty Papers, Vol. 37, no. 6, Novem­ber 2009 (807837).

Like her pro­tag­o­nist, Michele Levy was bewitched by Balkan dance in her ear­ly twen­ties, and the Balka­ns have entranced her ever since. She has trav­eled there sev­er­al times and pub­lished on their lit­er­a­ture, his­to­ry, and cul­ture. In this nov­el, Levy por­trays the spe­cial beau­ty, vibran­cy, and com­plex­i­ties of the land and its peoples.