Since arriving in Sarajevo in the mid-16th century, Jews have constantly had to manage the challenge of being a minority within a complex inter-ethnic puzzle in a region affected by war, communist ideology and — in later years — sectarian conflict.
As such, the survival of a Jewish community for 450 years in the middle of the Balkans is something really remarkable, said Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
To commemorate this nearly half a millennium achievement, Finci initiated a series of anniversary events in the capital last month. Part cultural, part academic, it included the inaugural exhibition of Edward Serotta’s photographs of the 1992-1996 siege of Sarajevo, titled “Survival in Sarajevo,” as well as a two-day international conference and private tours to see the world-famous Sarajevo Haggadah in the city’s National Museum, an institution that had remained closed for years due to lack of funds.
Born to a Sephardi family in 1943, in Rab, an Italian concentration camp during World War II, Jakob Finci has been described as a “living legend.” Although officially retired, the 72-year-old lawyer and former Bosnian ambassador to Switzerland works tirelessly for the Jewish community.
Finci was one of the founders — and current president — of the Inter-Religious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was established in 1997. Its membership reflects the country’s Islamic, Christian and Catholic communities.
Although the small Jewish community currently only numbers approximately 1,000, Finci said that Jews are also equal partners amid a majority Sunni Muslim population because of their long tradition and presence in the region.
“I think this is very important, especially taking into account all the activities during the last war when we were able to help non-Jews,” he said. “We really did our best to help everyone without questioning who they were, what was their religion or anything else.”
Finci’s office is located in Sarajevo’s Jewish community center. Unusual for a Jewish institutional building in Europe, it has no security.
“Here, [in Sarajevo] we feel very safe,” he remarked.
When Sarajevo was besieged during the war, the building, which also houses a synagogue, became a focal point for the community. In 1991, La Benevolencija, an old cultural and welfare organization was re-established with Finci as vice-president. A non-sectarian humanitarian aid agency, it operated out of the center, providing food and medicine to the population, regardless of their religious or ethnic background.
Crucially, La Benevolencija — and Finci — managed to arrange the evacuation of over 2,000 people, organizing 11 mixed convoys of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims and Jews.
Jewish neutrality was advantageous as it meant Finci and his team could obtain clearance from all the necessary parties. Finci recalls traveling with numerous sets of documents, prepared to produce whatever relevant papers were needed at any given moment.
The reaction of international Jewry at the time was tremendous, he said, in particular the help given by CBF (the Central British Fund, now World Jewish Relief) and the JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee).
“Life here was really saved by these two organizations working together,” Finci explained, during what would be the longest siege of a city in the history of European warfare: 1,425 days.
Both charities continue to play a significant part in the community’s development.
‘We try to live together, to stay as Jews but we are accepting of different religions’
Finci believes that the Bosnian Jewish community, in Sarajevo in particular, is characterized by a unique sense of harmony and co-existence.
“We try to live together, to stay as Jews but [at the same time] we are accepting of different religions, different opinions,” he said.
Finci claims that it is these values that have resulted in Bosnia and Herzegovina being “one of the few countries that is absolutely free of anti-Semitism.”
He also denied that there is increased Islamophobia in the country, unlike in the rest of Europe. That is not to say that relations are tension-free. Events in the Middle East can have an impact. During the last Gaza campaign, Operation Protective Edge, there were pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the city. However, he added, such demonstrations never marched past the Jewish community center as a mark of respect.
This attitude goes some way to explain the response following an incident at a demonstration held two or three years ago, when a placard depicted a Magen David [Star of David] equalling a swastika.
“We sent a letter to the newspaper saying that these signs cannot go together,” explained Finci. An immediate apology was issued and nothing of that nature has happened since, he said.
The Holocaust had a profound affect on the community. Before World War II there were a reported 14,000 Jews in Bosnia, 12,000 of them in Sarajevo. After the war, approximately 2,000 returned.
Once the Bosnian War began in April 1992, many Jewish families left Sarajevo. Finci’s wife chose to stay and support him in his work, but when their 13-year-old son narrowly missed being hit by a bullet as he walked on a stairway at home, they made the difficult decision to send him to Israel where his older brother was already living.
The Fincis, like many others, expected the war to be over within a few weeks. But that didn’t happen and his sons never came back and now live in the US with Finci’s four granddaughters. Although Sarajevo will always be home to his sons, he said, he is under no illusion that they will return.
Finci acknowledged that there are many challenges facing the predominantly aging Jewish population. Political stagnation, a weak economy and high unemployment also mean that many young, educated people find it difficult to get jobs and consider leaving to seek opportunities abroad. Some are unrealistic, Finci said, believing that their university education will immediately grant them access to a better future overseas and are surprised when they get there that they can only find work washing dishes in a restaurant.
‘We’ve been here 450 years and our intention is to stay another 450’
Finci is optimistic about the future, though, and pointed to encouraging signs of regeneration. Twelve new babies were born in the Jewish community in the last year (in the previous 20 years there had been no more than 10). This baby boom is largely due to the return of a younger generation who, as children, had been sent away during the war. The challenge now, said Finci, is to keep this next generation in the community, to provide for their children — there is talk of setting up a kindergarten — and to ensure they are raised as Jewish, as many are from interfaith marriages.
As a respected public figure, Finci was elected in 2000 to chair a national committee charged with the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission. Two years later he was appointed as head of the Civil Service Agency. However, his political ambitions were thwarted when he learned that he was unable to run for president.
Under the Dayton peace agreement that ended the war in Bosnia on December 14, 1995, membership to the parliament’s upper house or presidency is reserved for one of the three ethnic groups: Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs. Minorities, or “others” outside these constituent groups, such as Jews and Roma, can be MPs, he explained, but may not stand for higher political office.
Finci, and Dervo Sejdic, a member of the Bosnia’s Roma Council, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn the law. Six years after the 2009 ruling, they are still waiting for Bosnia to implement the judgement, which found that certain provisions of the Bosnian constitution and election law discriminate against minority groups.
Until then, Finci will continue to fight for equal rights and the Jewish community.
“We’ve been here 450 years and our intention is to stay another 450. The flame of Jewish life won’t leave Bosnia,” said Finci.
Full disclosure: the writer’s spouse is the chairman of World Jewish Relief.