Kishinev Choral Synagogue. Photo by Wikipedia

Landlocked between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova has enjoyed a turbulent history over the past two centuries. Following the Bucharest Treaty of 1812 putting an end to the conflict between it and Constantinople, St. Petersburg annexed the eastern part of the Principality of Moldavia, under Ottoman suzerainty, and named it Bessarabia. Bessarabia, then overwhelmingly made up of Romanian-speaking Moldovans, thus became a territory of the Russian Empire which remained isolated from the process of creating modern Romania, consecrated in 1859 by the union of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldova. In 1917, in the context of the collapse of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Revolution, Bucharest claimed its rights over the Romanian-speaking provinces of Bucovina and Bessarabia, which were thus attached to Greater Romania in 1918.

Orhei Synagogue. Photo by Photobankd-MD – Wikipedia

In 1939, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union, which had never accepted the loss of Bessarabia, recovers this territory which it retains until the outbreak of Operation Barbarossa and the arrival of Romanian troops in the region. In 1944, the USSR regained control of Bessarabia. The part of this region with access to the Black Sea coast is transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the rest of Bessarabia becomes the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the 15 republics making up the Soviet Union. In 1991, Soviet Moldova gained independence and became the present Republic of Moldova. A small country of hills resolutely off the beaten track, Moldova has a rich Jewish history, that of Bessarabian Judaism, of which Meir Dizengoff, Dina Vierny and Robert Badinter are among the most illustrious children.

Jewish cemetery in Chișinău. Photo by Agenția de Inspectare și Restaurare a Monumentelor din Republica Moldova

The first traces of Jewish settlement date back to the 1st century AD, when the Roman Empire conquered Dacia, a historic region corresponding to the present-day territories of Romania and Moldavia. However, it is especially from the 15th and 16th centuries that the Jewish presence will be established in a more structuring way in the region. It effectively served as a crossing point between Constantinople and the city of Lvov, then in Poland, and a number of Jewish traders from the Sublime Gate gradually set up trading posts in Bessarabia, thus developing the first communities in the region.

The Judaism of Bessarabia was marked by important developments after the annexation of this region by Russia in 1812. At that date, Bessarabia was home to a Jewish community of about 20,000 people, or about 5% of the total population, and this proportion grew very rapidly during the nineteenth century. First of all, Bessarabia is included in the “Zone of Residence”, this territory established by Catherine II in 1792 in the west of the Russian Empire and in which the Jews had citizenship. Second, St. Petersburg is pursuing a policy aimed at promoting the settlement of Bessarabia by settlers from the rest of the Russian Empire, in order to promote its integration into the latter and facilitate its economic development. A number of incentives are implemented: exemption from taxes, levies and military service for new arrivals, absence of serfdom, aid for the creation of farming communities.

In addition, Bessarabia, located on the edge of the Russian Empire, still remained in the nineteenth century, relatively untouched by the waves of anti-Semitism already hitting the empire of the Tsars. It is in this context that a certain number of Jews from other regions of the Zone of residence settled in Bessarabia, in a more general movement of migration of Jews from northern Russia (Lithuania, Ukraine, White Russia) to the recently conquered South (in addition to Bessarabia, Odessa region, and further west of Nikolaïev and Kherson). The Jewish population of Bessarabia thus represented 80,000 people during the 1850s and then more than 230,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century, for a global population which also increased, reaching 1,500,000 in 1897. In addition to the the economic attractiveness of a region to be developed, the situation of the Jews there was comparatively better than in the rest of the Russian Empire.

Chisinau Jewish Cemetery. Photo by Bertramz – Wikipedia

Until the 1840s, for example, there were no restrictions on the Jewish community in terms of land rights, the possibility of operating drinking establishments or even settling in areas near the borders of the Empire. This explains the emergence of one of the peculiarities of Bessarabian Judaism: its strong rural dimension, evidenced by the existence of some twenty Jewish agricultural settlements in Bessarabia in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The adoption of an imperial decree in 1882 forbidding Jews from all over the Empire to exercise rural activity led to a reflux of the Jewish population of Bessarabia towards the urban centers, Akkermann, Orhei, and especially Kishinev, the capital of the province, of which more than one inhabitant in two is, at the beginning of the twentieth century, of Jewish faith. Until then living in good harmony with the other peoples of Bessarabia, Moldovans, Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Gypsies, Germans, the Jewish community of Bessarabia will experience the bitter experience of its first pogrom in April 1903. The Kishinev pogrom, unleashed following the discovery of the body of a young Russian boy who would have been assassinated by Jews seeking to recover his blood to prepare matzot, causes fifty deaths and several hundred wounded. The poet Haim Bialik, commissioned by the historical commission of the Jewish community of Odessa, his hometown, to investigate the drama will draw from his visit to Kishinev a long poem, “The city of the massacre”.

The impact of Kishinev’s pogrom was considerable and it was this drama that for the first time brought international attention to the plight of the Jews in Russia. In France, Jean Jaurès will take the example of the Kishinev pogrom to criticize the policy of rapprochement with Saint Petersburg then implemented by the Combes government. The events of Kishinev also played a crucial role in the development of certain currents of the Zionist movement, in particular that structured around Vladimir Jabotinsky, whose translation into Russian of Bialik’s poem was a huge success. The Kishinev pogrom also played a major role in raising awareness among European Jewish communities of the need to defend themselves, as evidenced by the development of many Jewish defense leagues after this massacre. As early as 1904, it sparked off a major wave of departure to Eretz Israel, known in the history of Zionism as the second aliya.

Haim Nahman Bialik. Photo by NPC Israel – Wikipedia

With the integration of Bessarabia into Greater Romania in 1918, the Jews, like all the inhabitants of the region, became Romanian citizens but were generally considered as suspects in the eyes of the Bucharest authorities, who saw them as in the other minorities of Bessarabia, potential agents of Moscow, in any case citizens whose loyalty to their new homeland would be doubtful. This trend deteriorated with the development of state anti-Semitism in Romania during the 1930s, which reached its peak with the coming to power of Marshal Antonescu in 1940. It was from the start of Operation Barbarossa that the Shoah begins for the Jews of Bessarabia. After an initial phase – during the summer of 1941 – of extreme violence, mass executions by gunshots, drownings, imposed famines, during which more than 100,000 people died, most of the Jews remaining in Bessarabia were herded into the ghettos of Transnistria, a region of Ukraine situated between the Dniester and Bug rivers and occupied by the Romanians until 1944 with co-religionists from Bucovina and the rest of Romania: it is estimated that around 380,000 Romanian victims of the Shoah, a majority of which lived in Bucovina and Bessarabia.

At the end of the war, this region became Soviet again and most of the Jews who had fled it during the war resettled there. During the 1970s, the Jewish community in Soviet Moldova numbered around 100,000 people. When Soviet Jews began to be allowed to emigrate to Israel, tens of thousands of them made alya, one of the most famous being Avidgor Liebermann, born in 1958 in Chisinau. The alias of the Jews of Moldova gained momentum after independence in 1991, mainly for economic reasons.

The Jewish community in Moldova currently represents, in its broadest sense, around 10,000 people, most of them living in Chisinau. After two difficult decades, a Jewish renewal is currently at work in Moldova, structured spiritually by the Chabad community and culturally by the community center of Chisinau. In addition, a number of historic sites hitherto neglected by the authorities now appear to be receiving some renewed interest.

Larnaca Bekir Pasha Aqueduct. Photo by Dickelbers – Wikipedia

The Jewish presence in Cyprus probably dates from the 3rd century BC, during the Roman conquest of the island.

There seems to have been at least three synagogues, in Lapethos, Golgoi and Constantia-Galamine. The Jews took part in the revolt against Rome led by Artemion in 117 and were driven from the island by the Romans as a punishment.

The Jews settled there over time, as Benjamin de Tudela attested in the 12th century. A stabilization that continued until the advent of the Ottoman Empire.

From the end of the 19th century, following the British conquest and the rebirth of Zionism, dozens of Jewish families settled on the island. Some hoping to be able to reach Palestine then under British mandate but limiting access. In 1901, the island had 120 Jews, most of them living in Nicosia.

Synagogue of Larnaca. Photo by Panek – Wikipedia

Following the rise of Nazism in Germany, hundreds of Jews found refuge in Cyprus. When the war ended, the island was used by England as a detention camp for more than 53,000 Jews who wished to join Israel.

They suffered from very difficult living conditions, somewhat alleviated by the help of international organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the help of thousands of courageous Cypriots. Many of the prisoners had to wait there until Israel’s independence in 1948.

In 1951, only 165 Jews lived in Cyprus, a figure that fell to 25 in 1970. It took a few decades for that number to rise again significantly.

In 2005 a  Chabad House opened in Larnaca, the first official Jewish place of worship for centuries. A few hundred Jews then lived in Cyprus. Arieh Zeev Raskin became its first rabbi.

Chanukah in Cyprus. Photo by London2012Cyprus – Wikipedia

Apart from the Chabad House in Larnaca, there are also four other similar places on the island. In  NicosiaPaphosLimassol and  Ayia Napa.

In 2020, this figure will be close to 3,500. Not to mention Israeli tourism, which has been on the rise for the past twenty years, with the two countries maintaining strong economic, cultural and security ties. The country also hosts many civil marriages of Israelis, but also of Lebanese, who do not wish to depend on the religious authorities of their respective countries.

A Jewish museum is currently under construction in Larnaca to showcase the contributions of Jewish culture to the island as well as the courageous actions of Cypriots during the war to help refugees. It will also feature 19th century Torah scrolls.

Saint-Paul. Photo by G.Mannaerts – Wikipedia

It seems that the Jewish presence on the island of Malta dates back more than 3000 years! Sailors descended from the tribes of Zevouloun and Asher accompanied Phoenician sailors. An ancient union between Jews and Phoenicians, which prospered and grew stronger over the centuries.

Traces of this link can be found in particular on the island of Gozo in the north-west of Malta, where sailors landed at the time. Similar traces are also present in the Jewish catacombs of the Greek and Roman eras. Some of the catacombs still standing today showcase Jewish symbols, including menoroths. The most famous being the  catacombs of St Paul in Rabat.

Following the Arab and Norman conquests, the island’s Jews remained integrated in Malta and participated in civil society. In 1240, 25 Jewish families lived on the main island of Malta and 8 in Gozo.

During the Middle Ages, there were Jewish communities in Mdina, Birgu, Valletta and Zejtun. Thus, we find in Mdina a “Jewish silk market”, in Birgu a Jewish street and in Zejtun a Judaic place. There are also “Gates of the Jews” in several cities, the only places where Jews were allowed to enter the city.

Chabad House in Malta. Photo by Frank Vincentz – Wikipedia

Among the figures of the period was the mystical author Avraham Abulafia who resided in Comino between 1285 and his death a few years later. There he wrote his “Sefer ha Ot” and “Imrei Shefer”.

The Jews came mainly from Sardinia, Sicily, Spain and North Africa. And their living conditions were relatively less difficult than in most Mediterranean regions at the time. Sometimes occupying prestigious positions such as that of Chief Physician. Position held in particular by two members of the Safaradi family, Bracone and Abraham.

The Jewish population increased under Spanish rule. At the beginning of the 15th century, the Bishop of Malta as well as civil authorities removed discrimination against Jews. Xilorun, a Jew from Gozo was even appointed Ambassador of Malta to Sicily. However, the Inquisition of 1492 led to the confiscation of their property and their expulsion. Some fled and others were converted. Many Maltese are still found today with surnames of Jewish origin.

Jewish Cemetery, Marsa. Photo by Contineltaleurope – Wikipedia

During the reign of the Knights of the Order of St. John, which lasted until the defeat by France in 1798, the population was subjected to martial politics. Without distinction, all kinds of populations found themselves victims of military raids on sea and land, liable to be captured and enslaved. This was particularly the case with the Jews, who were also obliged to wear distinctive signs. There are many accounts of the looting, murder and sale of slaves during these centuries.

On the road to Egypt, Napoleon conquered Malta in 1798 and therefore applied French law there, including the abolition of slavery and equality between all citizens. This acquired freedom was maintained by the British conquerors soon after. In 1846, the community had its first official rabbi since the time of the Inquisition: Josef Tajar.

During World War II, Jews fleeing Nazism did not have to have a visa to arrive in Malta, which allowed thousands of them to seek refuge there. Many Maltese Jews enlisted in the British Army at the time.

Ta’Braxia Cemetery, Malta. Photo by No swan so fine – Wikipedia

The country gained its independence in 1964. Following neighborhood renovation projects, the old synagogue in Malta was destroyed in 1979. But thanks to the support of English and American Jews, a  new synagogue also serving as a community center was built in 2000 In 2013, a  Chabad House was also established on the island.

In 2012, according to demographer Sergio DellaPergola’s estimate, there were between 100 and 300 Jews in Malta. Most Maltese Jews live in Valletta.

There are three Jewish cemeteries in Malta. The oldest cemetery in  Kalkara dates from the 18th century. In the suburbs of  Marsa is the second, which dates from the mid-20th century. The third is located in   Tal Braxia and is abandoned.

Shaar Hachamayim Synagogue. Photo by Moshi Anahory – Wikipedia

The Jewish presence in Gibraltar seems to date back to the 14th century.

A historical document from 1356 refers to an attempt by the Jewish community to free prisoners held by pirates.

During the Inquisition of 1492, many Jews fled to North Africa via Gibraltar. When, following the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, the island came under British rule, Jews were allowed to resettle there.

During the 18th century, Jews settled in Gibraltar, notably merchants from Tetouan in Morocco, later joined by English and Dutch.

Nefutsot Synagogue. Photo by Moshi Anahory – Wikipedia

In 1805, they constituted half of the inhabitants of Gibraltar, even creating a newspaper in Ladino, “Cronica Israelitica”. In 1878, the island had more than 1,500 Jews.

In the 20th century, this figure declined rapidly until the beginning of the next century, notably following the evacuation of civilian populations during World War II and the Franco blockade.

An increase in the Jewish population was seen at the start of the 21st century. There are believed to be just under 800 Jews in Gibraltar today, constituting 2% of the population.

Abudarham Synagogue. Photo by Moshi Anahory – Wikipedia

There are four synagogues in Gibraltar.

David Nieto, Chief Sephardic Rabbi in England, had Isaac Nieto as a son. He was appointed rabbi at the English synagogue at Bevis Marks.

He then headed the  Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue, built in the mid-18th century, which was also inspired by the architecture of Bevis Marks. It is still Gibraltar’s main synagogue today.

The  Etz Chayim Synagogue was inaugurated in 1759 on the premises of the former yeshiva founded by Isaac Nieto. Following the Moroccan rite, it was destroyed and later rebuilt.

Etz Chayim Synagogue. Photo by Moshi Anahory – Wikipedia

The  Nefutsot Yehuda Synagogue was founded by Dutch merchants in 1800. Built in a garden, it is architecturally inspired by the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam. Destroyed by fire in 1913, its style changed during its reconstruction, more inspired by an Italian touch inside the walls.

Following the death of Rabbi Solomon Abudarham in 1804, his Talmudic school was converted into a synagogue fifteen years later. The  Abudarham Synagogue is a small place of worship with wooden PEWS facing the bimah.

The  Jews Gate Cemetery, the ancient Jewish cemetery, is located on Windmill Hill. It was used between 1746 and 1848. This is where the former Grand Rabbis of the island were buried. The cemetery is located near the Pillars of Hercules monument.

The  current cemetery is on Devil’s Tower Road. Heroes of the First World War and the Second World War are buried there.

Jewish Families of Kavajë. Photo by Mosa Mandil – Wikipedia

While Jews have lived in Albania for centuries, there is little physical evidence of their presence in Berat, Sarande, Tirana and Vlore. A good reason to visit Albania, however, might be to pay homage to besa, the Albanian code of honor and hospitality. Through this practice, Muslims and Christians risked their lives during World War II to save the local Jewish population, as well as hundreds of refugees from neighboring countries.

The Jews of the Balkans were linked by family and business ties. Thus, Albanian Jews were particularly close to the communities of Corfu and Ioannina.

According to Albanian historian Apostol Kotani, Jews arrived in Albania around AD 70. Sources mention Roman ships with Jewish prisoners on board who were reportedly stranded in Albania after their ships sank. The descendants of these captives may have been those who built a synagogue in the southern port city of Sarande in the 5th century.

Other accounts point to a small group of Jewish merchants living in the city of Durres, an important point on the trade route between Rome and Istanbul.

Development of the Jewish communities of Albania

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Jewish community represented a third of the population of Vlore, then the administrative and commercial capital of the country. The Jews of Vlore came from France, Corfu, Spain, and even Naples. They exported textiles and leather.

In the 17th century, Vlore lost its importance to Berat where followers of Sabbatai Zeevi settled.

Finally, in the 19th century, a large community from Greece settled in Albania. The same phenomenon recurred after the country became a monarchy in 1928. The census of 1930 mentions 204 Jews.

Note that in 1935, the country’s tolerance and tranquility made it a potential candidate for the establishment of a Jewish home.

Hiding Jews during the Holocaust

After Hitler came to power, Jews from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and even Poland found refuge in Albania. The Albanian Embassy in Berlin issued visas to all Jews who requested them, when no country dared to do so – remember that Albert Einstein fled Germany in 1935 with Albanian papers. Thus began a remarkable rescue, both at the state level – on the orders of King Zog – who refused to give the German authorities his census lists; than at the level of its predominantly Muslim population who hid the Jewish community at the risk of its life. Only one family was deported. Albania therefore not only rescued 200 local Jews, but also 2,000 foreign Jewish refugees. Albania is thus the only country to have increased its Jewish population tenfold between 1939 and 1945. To date, 69 Albanians have been elevated to the rank of Righteous Among the Nations.

To learn more about this little-known aspect of WWII, it is recommended to watch the American documentary Besa the Promise so you will find the trailer here in English.

After the end of the war, 180 Jews lived in Albania. When the borders opened in 1991, the majority left the country for Israel. There are in 2021 from 50 to 200 Albanian Jews.

Ancient synagogue of Luxembourg destroyed during the war

The first documents attesting to the presence of Jews in Luxembourg date from 1276, when an act mentions the Jewish religion of Henri de Luxembourg. The Jews have lived in the Pétrusse valley at the time.

Persecutions, leading in some cases to death, followed charges of poisoning wells during the plague epidemic of 1348. The Jews who survived these persecutions fled the country, from which they were officially expelled in 1391. Some families tried to stay in Luxembourg and Echternach, but, in 1532, the Edict of Charles V put an end to these hopes.

In the emancipatory spirit of the French Revolution, Luxembourg, conquered by France, applied imperial directives. Thus, on July 14, 1795, the discriminatory taxes imposed on the Jews and the geographic limitations were abolished by decree.

An early 19th century census shows that 75 Jews live in Luxembourg. A fairly young age average. They mainly came from villages of the Moselle and the Saar. People attracted by the hope of being able to work trade or crafts and live their religion freely.

Synagogue of Luxembourg. Photo by Cayembe – Wikipedia

Two characters symbolized the roots of the Jews on Luxembourg territory. First, Jean Baptiste Lacoste (1753 – 1821), lawyer and former deputy of Cantal to the Convention. He was appointed prefect in Luxembourg and in the company of the Municipal Council and the Imperial Prosecutor, they attested to the Court of First Instance that “civil and political conduct was free from all reproach and that police surveillance encountered no complaint. particular against them, which is a constant testimony of their morality ”.

The other outstanding figure was Pinhas Godchaux. Born in 1771, and coming from a Messina family and having among his ancestors the Maharal of Prague, Pinhas Godchaux moved to Luxembourg in 1798. Gradually, he became the leader of the Jewish community, first attached to the Consistory of Trier then to the one of Maastricht.

From 1815, the Jews, coming mainly from Germany and Lorraine, settled successively in other cities: Arlon (city which was part of Luxembourg until 1839), Ettelbruck, Grevenmacher, Mertert, Dalheim, Echternach, Grosbous, Erpeldange, Frisange, Schengen and Esch.

Synagogue of Luxembourg. Photo by Sultan Edjingo – Wikipedia

The inauguration of the first synagogue in Luxembourg took place in 1823, in the rue du Petit Séminaire. Following the arrival of other Jewish families the regions of Alsace and Lorraine during the War of 1870, the community obtained the right to build a second synagogue, inaugurated on September 28, 1894 by Rabbi Isaac Blumenstein and the President of the Consistory Louis Godchaux welcoming on this day the high Luxembourg authorities. During this century, the towns of Ettelbruck, Mondorf and Esch also built a synagogue.

Clausen Malakoff, created in 1817, was the first Luxembourgish Jewish cemetery. It remained active until 1884, when the  Bellevue cemetery was used instead.  Ettelbruck (1881), Grevenmacher (1900) and Esch-sur-Alzette (1905) also allowed the creation of Jewish cemeteries.

Rabbi Samuel Hirsch was the great intellectual Jewish figure of that time. Trained in the eminent traditional community of Dessau, his liberal vision of Judaism, promoting the familiarity of the Jewish philosophical approach and contemporary societal thought, forced him to leave the institution. Although he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Luxembourg from 1843 to 1866, he failed to convince the traditionalist community of his reformist approach. He then shared it in Philadelphia, deeply inspiring the American liberal current.

Synagogue of Esch sur Alzette. Photo by Aimelaime – Wikipedia

At that time, Samson and Guetschlick Godchaux, the nephews of Pinhas, revolutionized the weaving trade and the condition of workers in the 19th century. An economic adventure that started in 1823 with two weaving looms in a shed on rue Philippe II. Moving to Schleifmuhl, the company developed its activity. Associated at the end of the century with the manufacturer Conrot, the family employed more than 2,000 workers, the majority of whom were in Schleifmuhl. The evolution of social condition is characterized by the construction of a workers’ village with small houses in Hamm. Far from being a dormitory town, this village had its own choir, a nursery and a nursery school as well as a Kayak club. It organized cultural events and above all a society of mutual aid, a kind of early social security experiment. The decline started after World War I. The factories closed in 1939. Emile Godchaux, descendant of the family and last director of the company, was deported at Theresienstadt and died there in 1942.

In the interwar period, many Jews from Eastern Europe fleeing poverty and anti-Semitism settled in the Grand Duchy, encouraged by the invitations to tender in the mining basins of the steel industry. This immigration continued with the arrival of Jews from Germany and Austria between 1935 and 1940, following the application of the Nuremberg laws.

Synagogue of Esch sur Alzette. Photo by FLLL – Wikipedia

On May 10, 1940, Luxembourg was invaded by the German army. Its 4,000 Jews were persecuted by the Nazi chief of civil administration sent by Berlin. The synagogues of Luxembourg and Esch were destroyed.

A period also marked by the courage of a handful of men who managed to organize the escape of the Jews from Luxembourg. Chief Rabbi Serebrenik was assisted by a Wehrmacht officer in charge of the passport office, Franz von Hoiningen Huene (François Heisbourg recounts this period in the book “This strange Nazi who saved my father”), the American charge d’affaires George Platt Waller and by the former president of the Consistory, Albert Nussbaum.

The latter organized a complex network from Lisbon, funded by the American organization JDC. The JDC enabled many Luxembourgish, but also Belgian, German and Eastern European Jews to embark for the United States, Brazil and other Latin American destinations such as Cuba, Jamaica or Venezuela.

Victor Bodson, former Minister of Justice, saved Jews by helping them to flee the country. In particular by the Sauer river near where he lived and which marks the border between Germany and Luxembourg. For his courage, he was then named Righteous among the Nations.

Following the Liberation on September 9, 1944, the 1,500 Luxembourg Jews who survived rebuilt the community, thanks in particular to government assistance. Architects Victor Engels and René Maillet constructed a building that serves as both a place of worship and a community center.

Mondorf-les-Bains synagogue. Photo by Cayambe – Wikipedia

The inauguration took place on June 28, 1953, in the presence of HRH the Grand Duke Jean, the high authorities of the City and the State and numerous rabbis among whom the Chief Rabbi of France Jacob Kaplan. Chief Rabbi Lehrmann consecrated the  synagogue during a solemn ceremony presided over by the President of the Consistory, Edmond Marx.

A year later, Esch-sur-Alzette also hosts a  synagogue. Of liberal current, it is located on the rue du Canal. A building made in the same style as the city synagogue built in 1899 and destroyed during the war. We particularly notice its large stained glass windows.

One can also visit the ancient  synagogue of Mondorf-les-Bains which is today a cultural center. The Ettelbruck synagogue, ceded by the Luxembourg Consistory to the city of Ettelbruck which has made it a Culture and Meeting Center will soon house a Museum of Luxembourg Judaism.

Doctor Emmanuel Bulz greatly marked the contemporary period of Luxembourgish Judaism. Chief Rabbi from 1958 to 1990, he worked constantly for a rapprochement with the non-Jewish world and more particularly Luxembourg civil society. This, by sharing a knowledge of Judaism and a demythification of certain prejudices. Joseph Sayag succeeded him, then Alain Nacache, Chief Rabbi since 2011.

The work of historians such as Serge Hoffmann, Paul Dostert and Denis Scuto, as well as the political action of deputy Ben Fayot allowed a precise study of the history of the Luxembourg Jews during the Shoah. This resulted on February 10, 2015, in the presentation by Vincent Artuso of his report “The Jewish Question in Luxembourg, 1933-1941. The Luxembourg State faced with anti-Semitic Nazi persecution”.

Musée national de la Résistance, Esch sur Alzette. Photo by Cayambe – Wikipedia

On May 11, 2015, the decision was made to erect a monument to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. A monument inaugurated on June 17, 2018 in the presence of the Grand Duke Henri, the Grand Duchess Maria Teresa and the national and municipal political authorities. The monument is located in the heart of the city. A  memorial carved in pink granite by the artist and survivor Shelomo Selinger, close to the Gëlle Fra, symbol of the freedom and resistance of the Luxembourg people.

The Luxembourg Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah (FLMS) was created in 2018. A structure whose mission is to perpetuate the memory of the Shoah but also of all other crimes against Humanity. It also fights preventively by organizing programs against racism, revisionism and negationism. Historical revenge, since the site is located on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters.

Another interesting place to visit is the  National Resistance Museum located in Esch. He retraces this history in Luxembourg during the war. Photos, objects and works of art are presented to the public.

Interview of Claude Marx, former president of the Israelite Consistory of Luxembourg

Jguideeurope: The Memoshoah Association devoted an exhibition to the rescue of Luxembourg Jews to Portugal and the Atlantic crossing. How was this rescue organized logistically?

Claude Marx: On May 10, 1940, during the invasion of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg by the German army, the Jewish community was made up of 1,000 Luxembourgers and around 3,000 foreign Jews, mainly German and Austrian refugees. 45,000 people are fleeing the country, of which around 1,500 belong to the Jewish community. Many of these German, Austrian and stateless immigrants who have been unable to flee are going to great lengths to seek lighter skies.

An evacuation project was imagined in July by the association of several people: Chief Rabbi Robert Serebrenik, Albert Nussbaum, a Jewish merchant and President of the Consistory and Baron Franz von Hoiningen Huene, a German officer, notorious anti-Nazi and responsible from the passport office, could be finalized on August 8, 1940.

Between August and October, real and false visas bought very expensive by the Consistory allow, thanks to passes issued by von Hoiningen, several hundred refugees to cross France, then Spain, and finally succeed in Portugal from where they will have the possibility of embarking towards South America, the Dominican Republic or the United States.

A convoy that left on November 7, 1940 with 293 Jews was arrested in Vilar Formoso, a border town between Spain and Portugal, after the Portuguese border guards discovered on board uniformed and armed SS men. The convoy had to turn back to France after 10 days, stopped on a siding with a ban on passengers getting off.

Despite this incident, 7 other convoys were still organized, allowing several hundred refugees to escape death. On May 20, 1941, Chief Rabbi Serebrenik was informed by von Hoiningen that he was designated “for liquidation” as he soberly stated in his memorandum. On May 26, 1941, he accompanied a convoy bound for Lisbon and was able to embark for New York. On October 15, 1941, a last convoy of 132 people left Luxembourg. It was about time: on November 16, 1941, the first German transport to the East took 323 Jews deported to Litzmannstadt.

 

Ancient synagogue

Do you think that there has been an important evolution in Luxembourg in the approach to the history of the Jews?

It was only after the conquest and annexation by France in 1795 of the Duchy, which then became the forest department, that the new legislation granting citizenship to the Jews allowed a few families to settle in the Luxembourg. A character from Lorraine, Pinhas Godchaux, intelligent and cultured, has the confidence, esteem and consideration of both the authorities and the Jewish community. His charisma and relationships will allow a rapid improvement in the economic conditions of the Jewish Community. As for the observations made on the morality of people, they are particularly flattering (“lives off his business as an honest man”, “deserves public confidence”, etc.). Chief Rabbi of Luxembourg in the 19th century, Samuel Hirsch, promoter of a line of radical reform of Judaism and who belongs to a Luxembourg masonic lodge, inaugurates a new period which will allow certain intellectuals, industrialists and financiers to tie through the masonry, constructive links across Europe. At the same time, the Godchaux family will build in Luxembourg an industrial empire inaugurating social laws favorable to the workers, which will considerably promote the attitude of Luxembourg society towards the Jews.

The successive rabbis after the war contributed significantly to the good relations between Luxembourg Civil Society and the Jewish Community. It is necessary to quote more particularly Charles Lehrmann, doctor in philosophy and licensees-es letters, convinced of the need to make known to his non-Jewish contemporaries what is Judaism, and who allowed by his radio talks to bring another look at the Jewish Community. From 1958, it was the Chief Rabbi Emmanuel Bulz who assumed the pastoral charge at the head of the Jewish Community of Luxembourg. Prodigiously cultivated, a great resistance during the war, Emmanuel Bulz concentrated his efforts on the Judeo-Christian dialogue. His speeches, lectures and radio broadcasts on a wide variety of subjects have earned him the respect and admiration of large sections of the Luxembourg population. Dr. Bulz’s commitment to a greater fraternity, his work for inter-religious dialogue are still very much present in Luxembourg’s memory and reflect on the Jewish community.

 

Ancient synagogue. Painting by local artist Guido Oppenheim (1862-1942)

How was the decision made to rebuild the synagogues of Luxembourg and Esch?

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Jewish Community of Luxembourg was devastated: a third of its population on May 10, 1940 disappeared in the storm. For those who, hidden somewhere in Europe have survived, for others who have emigrated across the seas and who return to the country, the essential concern, in a country devastated by war where the accounts between patriots and collaborators of the Nazi regime, is to rebuild a family and professional life, to find its marks. The synagogues of Luxembourg and Esch having been destroyed by the Nazis, a Consistory quickly constituted with at its head Mr. Edmond Marx, Vice-President of the Pre-War Consistory, set to work to find a Religious Center. The state is ready to help, but in view of the destruction, it is urgent and the religious project is not a priority. Negotiations for a new location, plans and funding will take 8 years. During this transitional period, a room for worship was rented in the Stock Exchange building. The synagogue, resolutely modern and designed to also serve as an Administrative Center, was inaugurated on June 28, 1953.

In Esch sur Alzette, it is also in a very modern style, adorned with superb stained glass, that with the financial aid of the State, the commune and the Office for war damages, the rebuilt synagogue was inaugurated on October 17, 1954.

 

Can you tell us about your project concerning Jewish cultural heritage in association with the Luxembourg Ministry of Culture in the UNESCO zone?

Since 1994, the fortress of the City of Luxembourg and its old districts have been part of the cultural heritage of UNESCO. In collaboration with the Israel Consistory, a Jewish heritage itinerary project should soon highlight the historical past of the Jewish community, talk about Jewish businesses, and the social impact of that community. The aim of the walk will be to show that the history of the Jewish community is an integral part of that of the country and an important part of UNESCO’s world heritage. The visits are intended to recall to what extent the Jewish presence represents a cultural and entrepreneurial enrichment for society.

Famous personalities from the Jewish Community, shops, monuments, commemorative places will be evoked during this guided tour by the Izi travel app in French, German, Dutch, English and Luxembourgish. One of the highlights of the visit will be the “Kaddish” monument, created by French-Israeli artist Shelomo Selinger.

Seder of Pesah in Tbilissi, 1924 © Beit Hatfutsot, Museum of the Jewish People The Oster Visual Documentation Center – Courtesy of Luba Danielov, Israel
Prayers at the Tbilisi synagogue
Tbilissi Synagogue. Photo by Iberieli – Wikipedia

Straddling Europe and Asia, Georgia, situated between the eastern shores of the Black Sea and the high mountains of the Caucasus, is a land of plenty, rich in exceptional nature and in historical heritage. Well preserved, it was praised by Pushkin, Alexander Dumas, or Lermontov.

The Georgian nation, whose genesis goes back to the kingdom of Colchis, is evoked in the myths of the Golden Fleece and Prometheus. In the fourth century, it takes for religion Christianity, like neighboring Armenia. Federated in the eleventh century under the reign of King Bagrat III of Abkhazia, the kingdom of Georgia then enters a long period of instability as much related to the internal divisions as the pressures of the Byzantine and Mongolian, Arab, Persian and Ottoman neighbors and invaders.

Beautiful painting on the wall of the Kutaisi synagogue
Kutaisi synagogue. Photo by Dato Rostomashvili – Wikipedia

Annexed to Persia by the Russian Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in the context of the advance of St Petersburg in the Caucasus, the Republic of Georgia will experience an ephemeral independence between 1918-1921, before being integrated to the Soviet Union, like the other two countries of the South Caucasus.

Tbilisi regained its independence in 1990. After a particularly dark 1990s, notably marked by the civil war, Georgia has been engaged since the beginning of the 2000s in a dynamic of international openness and modernization, becoming one of the most welcoming country in the region.

Dome of the synagogue of Oni shedding light inside the building
Oni Synagogue Dome. Photo by Dato Rostomashvili – Wikipedia

The history of Georgian Jews is at least as old as the history of Georgia itself. Their presence in the area echoes several biblical stories. According to the first, the Georgian Jews would be ancestors of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, exiled from Jerusalem to other areas of Assyria by King Salmanasar around the eighth century BC.

According to the second version, they are descendants of the inhabitants of the kingdom of Judah, exiled by Nebuchadnezzar II after the capture of Jerusalem in 597. This version also explain why the Georgian Jews are called “guriyim”, which means lion cub in Hebrew, the emblem of the tribe of Judas.

Jewish woman's dress at the museum in Tbilisi
Jewish Woman’s Dress at the Museum in Tbilisi. Photo by Adam Jones – Wikipedia

Finally, the region of the Caucasus, and in particular the territory of present-day Georgia, would also have welcomed Jewish populations exiled from Jerusalem after the second destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70. Parallel to the biblical stories, the presence of Jews in the territory of present-day Georgia is mentioned in the first History of Armenia, written by Moise of Khorene around the fifth century of note era. According to the historian, several kings of Georgia and Armenia, including those from the Bagrat family, were of Jewish origin, would descend from King David. For their part, the Georgian Chronicles, written between the ninth and the fourteenth century, relate that the people of Georgia would already bring the people of Israel when Moses crossed the Red Sea.

The Jewish neighborhood of Tbilissi, 1987© Beit Hatfutsot, Museum of the Jewish People The Oster Visual Documentation Center – Courtesy of Ottar Koveliani, Géorgia
Tevah of the synagogue of Akhaltsikhe
Akhaltsikhe Synagogue. Photo by Julian Nyca – Wikipedia

Developing over the centuries their own dialect, kivrouli, Georgian Jews are mainly engaged in agricultural activities, which explains in particular the presence of settlements throughout the territory, and not only in large urban centers.

The history of Judaism in Georgia knows an important turning point in the early nineteenth century, when under the terms of the Golestan Treaty, signed in 1813 between St. Petersburg and Tehran, Georgia is integrated into the Russian Empire.

Along with the Mizrahim Jews, indigenous, a number of Ashkenazi from other parts of the Russian Empire will gradually settle in Georgia: this region of the Russian Empire has about 20,000 Jews in the 1860s.

Inside the synagogue of Tbilisi with a colored maguen david
Tbilisi synagogue. Photo by David Holt – Wikipedia

This is why, even today, a distinction is made between the synagogues of Georgian rite and those of Ashkenazi rite. It is the rise of the Zionist movement in Russia that will allow, at the end of the nineteenth century, the development of contacts, hitherto limited, between the two communities. Georgia became part of the nascent Soviet Union in 1921, and like the rest of the USSR, Jewish citizens enjoyed a certain freedom of worship there until the turn of the 1930s, from which a major repression in the religious sphere is started. It should be noted that for a variety of reasons this repression was less noticeable in Georgia, where Jews were able to maintain a number of religious activities. On the whole less assimilated than most other Jews of the Soviet Union, the Georgian Jews will benefit in priority of authorizations to emigrate to Israel: their alyah begins in the early 1970s, after a group of Georgian Jews sent, in 1969, a request for assistance to the United Nations, which then had international repercussions.

Gate of the Batumi synagogue with a maguen david
Synagogue in Batumi. Photo by Jonathan Cardy – Wikipedia

This emigration is particularly the subject of a cult scene of the Soviet film Georgian Mimino (1977), where the main character seeks to call in the Georgian city of Telavi, but is put, following a mistake by the operator, in relation with Tel Aviv. By chance, a Georgian Jew answers him. It follows a long dialogue interspersed with traditional Georgian songs between the two characters. This scene will remain for a long time the only evocation, on a comic note, of the emigration of the Soviet Jews in Israel.

Today, the Jewish community in Georgia, which numbers about 5,000 people, is concentrated mainly in Tbilisi, Kutaisi, and Batumi on the shores of the Black Sea. Dynamic, this community also benefits from Georgia’s success with Israeli tourists, whose growing influx, about 60,000 per year, has contributed for several years to a real revival of local Jewish life.

Visitors walking on the street named after Norway’s national poet Henrik Wergeland (1808-45) will be reminded that it was Wergeland who was behind the law that allowed Jews to immigrate to this country.

Oslo Synagogue. Photo de Grzegorz Wysocki – Wikipedia

Trondheim synagogue. Photo by Olve Utne – Wikipedia

Most of Norway’s Jews live in Oslo (950 people), with about 100 living in Trondheim. The Norwegian community can pride itself on having given Israel a minister: the great rabbi Michael Melchior, who became a deputy in 1999 and later a member of the Barak government in charge of relations with Diaspora Jews. Although strictly Orthodox, Rabbi Melchior (son of the former grand rabbi of Denmark, Bent Melchior) belongs to the center-left party Meimad.

Jødisk Museum. Photo by Kjetil Ree – Wikipedia

Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies. Photo by Leifern – Wikipedia

 

The Great synagogue of Stockholm. Photo by I99pema – Wikipedia

There are nearly 15,000 Swedish Jews today. Most live in Stockholm. The other communities are mainly located in Malmo, Goteborg, Lund, Helsingborg, Boras and Uppsala. Synagogues are present in the first three cities of the country. And Jewish cemeteries in Gotand, Kalmar, Karlkrona, Karlstad, Larbro, Norrkoping and Sundsvall.

Although the presence of Jews in Sweden dates back a long time, notably in Goteborg and Stockholm, a community was not established there until the 1770s. Aaron Isaacs, a German engraver living in Stockholm, was the first Jew to live there. be allowed to live there as such at that time, without having to convert to Christianity.

Synagogue of Malmo. Photo by François Polito – Wikipedia

The island of Marstrand, located near Goteborg, allowed the arrival of populations of other countries or other religions. In this momentum, the city of Goteborg authorized the settlement of Jews in 1782. The other towns which authorized their visit were Norrkoping and Karlskorna. In that same year permission was granted to build synagogues in these cities.

In 1840, the number of Swedish Jews was estimated at 900. At that time, King Charles XIV granted many civil rights to Jews. Once this access to citizenship and equal rights was granted, Jews rarely encountered anti-Semitism.

Raoul Wallenberg. Photo from the archives of USHMM

This development motivated the arrival of Jews from neighboring countries, more worried about their fate, notably from Russia and Poland. Thus, the Jewish population of Sweden increased to reach 6,500 in 1920.

In the interwar period, more restrictive measures were implemented to limit Jewish immigration. From 1933 to the start of the war, only 3,000 Jews were allowed to settle there, mainly from Germany, Austria and then Czechoslovakia, the places conquered by the Nazi regime.

Nevertheless, during World War II, many Swedes were involved in rescuing the Jews. In 1942, 900 Norwegian Jews were granted permission to settle in Sweden. And of course the two famous rescue operations.

First of all, that of the 8,000 Danish Jews who found refuge there thanks to the courage of the people of their country. Then, the valiant efforts led by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg which made it possible to save thousands of Hungarian Jews. It should be mentioned, however, that some Swedish companies adopted a different attitude and traded with Germany.

Synagogue of Norrkoping. Photo by Harri Blomberg -Wikipedia

The Jewish community developed after the war, in particular thanks to the arrival of Jews from communist countries, mainly from Poland and Czechoslovakia.

But by the end of the 1980s, neo-Nazi and Islamist speeches and attacks against Jews spread. This encouraged Swedish political institutions to set up educational projects to combat anti-Semitic and racist prejudices. Particularly thanks to the University of Uppsala.

This did not prevent the rise of anti-Semitic attacks across the country, which rose sharply in the 2010s. Whether it was the Molotov cocktail attack by Islamists on the Stockholm synagogue.

A year later, it was the home of a Jewish politician from Lund that was burnt down. Hence Prime Minister Stefan Lofven’s decision to add more educational programs but also to increase the penalties for anti-Semitism.

In 2017, during an Islamist demonstration in Helsingborg, violent anti-Semitic slogans were uttered under the guise of “anti-Zionism”. In Umea, a Jewish cultural center was closed in 2017 following the vandalism suffered at its premises and the many threats received. In Norrkoping, during the Passover celebrations in 2021, bloody dolls were hung on the synagogue …

Synagogue of Turku. Photo by Västgöten – Wikipedia

Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden until 1809. Thus, during Swedish rule, Jews were allowed to live in only three cities, none of which was on the territory of Finland. Following the war between Sweden and Russia, Finland came under Russian control, but the legal system in force remains that put in place by Sweden. The Jews were therefore not allowed to settle there.

The first Jews to settle in Finland were Russian soldiers who had completed their military service. Consequently, a decree dating from 1858 allowed demobilized Russian soldiers and their families to settle temporarily in the country without discrimination on the basis of their religion.

The law evolved slowly. In 1889, the government in place authorized by decree the presence of Jews in Finland. This decree did not guarantee a long-term presence and confined the Jews to certain regions and professions. Professional activities are also geographically limited, prohibits markets and forced to be near the place of residence.

Photo of the synagogue of Helsinki in 1908. Photo by IK Inha

Although debates on the emancipation of Jews and their access to equal citizenship status have been public since the 1870s, access to these so-called rights did not materialize until 1917. When Finland finally achieved independence. Parliament promulgated a law in 1918 allowing Jews to acquire Finnish citizenship.

The country’s Jewish population grew from a thousand at the end of the 19th century to two thousand in the interwar period. Mainly as a result of the emigration of Russian Jews at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution, but also Polish and Lithuanian Jews. Most Jews then worked in the textile industry, following a tradition of attachment to one of the few permitted professions in the 19th century.

The fate of Finnish Jews during World War II was somewhat paradoxical. Many Jews enlisted in their country’s Army against the Russians, sometimes finding themselves in close proximity to the German Army which was allied with Finland. With a famous anecdote from the Russian Front, worthy of the great moments of Jewish humor close to the spirit of a Romain Gary in his novel Genghis Cohn, where the Jewish soldiers had set up a prayer tent a few steps from the Reich army.

Despite being an ally with Germany during the war, the Finnish government refused to exert pressure against the Jews, strongly opposing these demands of the Germans. As a result, 22 Finnish Jews died during World War II, all in combat in their country’s uniform.

Synagogue built in a tent by Finnish soldiers on the Russian Front. Photo by Wikiwand

On the other hand, an investigation conducted in 2018-2019 clarified the involvement of Finnish volunteers in the Waffen SS, and their part in the perpetration of violence against Ukrainian civilians, many of them Jews. On their return, these volunteers kept discreet, trying to forget their involvement, which complicated the research.

Following an arrangement between the Russian and Israeli authorities in the 1980s, 20,000 Jews were able to make alya through Finland, most of them being welcomed and helped by volunteers from the Zionist Christian movement in Finland.

In 2020, Finland’s Jewish community represents around 1,500 people. Most live in Helsinki. However, 200 live in Turku and around 50 in Tampere.

On the approximately 8000 Jews living in the country of Denmark, the great majority of them as Ashkenazim who make Copenhagen their home. In 1968, 2500 Polish Jews fled the anti-Semitic purges led by the Communist government there and settled in the capital and in Arhus.

Jews of the Danish Antilles

What are today the U.S. Virgin Islands were a Danish possession from 1672 to 1916. The Danish influence remains in the architecture (notably on Saint Thomas), and in the name of places (Christiansted) and people -or in the Jewish community of the island. The synagogue of Saint Thomas, still active, was built in 1796 (reconstructed after a fire in 1833). Denmark named Jewish governors, and in 1850, half the European inhabitants there were Jewish, coming for the most part from the Dutch Antilles.

Choral synagogue of Kiev. Photo by Kazimierz222 – Wikipedia

The terrifying war against Ukraine changes, of course, the function of these pages devoted to the Jewish cultural heritage of that country. Many of the places mentioned were razed to the ground by bombs. While these pages are not intended in the present time for tourism, they may be useful to researchers and students as historical references. References to so many painful histories during the pogroms and the Shoah, but also to the glorious history of Ukrainian Judaism, in its cultural, religious and Zionist dimensions. Wishing the Ukrainian people a speedy end to these atrocities of which they are victims.

Ukraine, the largest of the former Soviet Republics, is, along with Belarus and Lithuania, heir to the former “Pale of Settlement”, the buffer zone designed t contain the Jews within the westernmost margins of the Russian Empire. Despite considerable losses due to the Shoah and resulting emigration, Ukraine still contains a large Jewish community (around 500000 members, or 1% of the population), concentrated primarily in the major cities (Kiev, Odessa, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, and Donetsk) and in certain old shtetlach to the south. Jewish cultural life, in full blossom here ever since the country’s independence in 1991, nevertheless remains limited due to both the weight of seventy years of assimilation and persecution by the Soviet regime and fresh waves of emigration.

The history of the Jewish communities in the Ukraine needs to be retold in the context of the complex historical reality of Ukraine itself, which never before held the status of an independent state, except in the eras of the powerful eleventh to thirteenth century Kiev principality (Kievskaya Rus’), shared birthplaceof both the Russian and Ukrainian nations.

An evolving geography

For centuries, the history of Ukraine’s Jews was conflated with that of the Jews of Poland. From the time Poland was divided until the First World War, it was associated with that of Russia’s Jews, with the exception of Galicia, which fell within the Autro-Hungarian Empire. Since the 1917 Revolution, Ukrainian Jewish history has been tied to that of the Soviet Jews (again, except for Galicia, and Volhynia, which belonged to Poland until 1939).

When the Jews were expelled from France in 1394, and later from Spain and Portugal in 1492, they were taken in by Poland. In full economic and military expansion at the time, Poland represented a host country where religious tolerance reigned for all who willfully submitted to the authority and primacy of Catholicism.

Odesa Synagogue Jewrejs’ka. Photo de Investigatio – Wikipedia

The kings of Poland, in particular Sigismund I and Sigismund II in the sixteenth century, engaged in a policy of tolerance toward Jews. They offered them certain tariff exemptions and encouraged their communities to establish institutions responsible for collecting taxes. The growth of the Jewish community throughout the fifteenth century was apparent in nearly every city of the Polish realm, especially in the central and eastern regions (such as Galicia, Volhynia, Podolia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine), where Jewish craftspeople and merchants had been immigrating for years.

Massacres of the Jewish population

This period of growth was brutally interrupted in 1648 and 1649 by the first great catastrophe to strike these communities: revolts by Khmelnitsky Cossacks against the Polish nobility. The Cossacks massacred the Jewish population of every town they captured, pogroms of an incredible cruelty that left 100000 Jews dead throughout Ukraine.

The Jewish communities of certain cities, such as Ostrog, Sokal, Vladimir-Volynski, Uman, and Proskurov, were completely wiped out. They only regenerated many years later, but only in areas that enjoyed the protection of a nobleman of the king himself.

The birth of Hassidism

It would take an entire century after these massacres for Jewish communities in Ukraine to begin growing again, sparked by an upsurge in religious fervor marked in particular by Hasidism, a movement founded in Polodia by Israel ben Eliezer (1700-60), also known as the Baal Shem Tov of Medzihbozh. The movement has considerable success in Lithuania, Poland, and throughout Ukraine. This revival was fueled as well by the many magidim, or itinerant preachers, including the maggid of Dubno Jacob Kranz (allied with the anti-Hasidic Mitnaggedim), Dov Ber of Mezritch, Nahman of Bratslav, and other tsadikim.

In the late eighteenth century, with the repeated division of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795 and Ukraine’s absorption by Russia, the situation changed starkly for the Jews. Russia, which had forbidden Jews the right to reside in its territory, suddenly found itself in charge of the largest Jewish population in the world. The czarist government thus established the boundaries of a “Pale of Settlement” within which Jews were forced to settle, an area coinciding approximately with the regions taken from Poland (Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine west to the Dnieper, the kingdom of Poland); added to these were virgin lands in the New Russia (Kherson, Nikolayev, Odessa, Crimea), as well as the left bank of the Dnieper (Poltava, Kremenchug, Ekaterinoslav -renamed Dnepropetrovsk).

Rivne Synagogue. Photo by Venzz – Wikipedia

Development of Yiddish literature

The Russian Empire’s repressive policies persisted throughout the nineteenth century. In 1827, Jews were officially expelled from Kiev. After a period of liberal reforms under Alexander II, oppression of the Jews picked up again with Alexander III, during whose reign a number of pogroms took place against the Jewish population, driving the latter to emigrate in ever large numbers to Europe and the United States. At the same time, classic Yiddish-language literature began to develop, most notably by the writers Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Moykher Sforim.

At the end of the First World War, from 1917 to 1921, revolution and civil war tore through Ukraine. Nationalist gangs led by Simon Petliura perpetrated atrocious pogroms, massacring 100000 Jews across the country in cities such as Zhitomir, Proskurov, Rovno, Belaya Tserkov, Kiev, and Vinnitsa. The Soviet powers, in contrast, abolished the “Pale of Settlement” and other restrictions against the Jewish community, and even supported early Yiddish theater in Kiev and Odessa. However, they simultaneously began antireligious campaign that let to the closure of many synagogues.

Extermination during the Holocaust

By far the most traumatic event for the Ukrainian Jewish community was the Second World War and the Shoah. The Germans invaded the Soviet Union on 21 June 1941 and immediately arranged for the community’s extermination. After forcing the Jews to reside in ghettos, the Nazis liquidated theses districts one by one, most often in mass, public executions, and tossed the bodies of the victims in common graves dug by the victims themselves.

The location of these executions can still be found in the woods neighboring almost every Ukrainian city; they are usually marked with a stele reading “to the victims of Fascism”. An inventory of these sites would require an entire website in itself.

Rebirth of Jewish cultural life

After the war, certain Jewish communities regenerated following the return of those who managed to escape into central Russia in time, but the official antireligious and anti-Semitic policies continued; after the so-called “doctors’ plot” in the early 1950s, many synagogues and community institutions across the country were closed. It was not until perestroika in 1985 and Ukraine’s independence in 1991 that a Jewish cultural renaissance began. Increasing emigration by younger generations, however, has ultimately aged, impoverished, and weakened the community.

Map of the residential zone in 1905 © The Jewish Encyclopedia – Wikimedia Commons

Until the early twentieth century, the history of Russia’s Jews unfolded primarily in territories that no longer belong to the present-day Russian federation (Ukraine, Belarus, Bessarabia, and Lithuania). With a few rare exceptions, Jews were forbidden to settle in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and the city of Central Russia. Of course, Jewish colonies have existed  since antiquity on the shores of the Black Sea and in Crimea, and a bit later in the Khazar kingdom, which took Judaism as its main religion in the late eighth and ninth centuries. The Khazar realm soon crumbled, however, eventually replaced by the principality of Kiev, the birthplace of the Russian nation, between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. After the decline of Kievan Russia and its absorption by Lithuania and Poland, Russia’s center shifted northward to Moscow, Pskov, and Novgorod, where Jews had no right to reside. It was only after conquering Polish territories that Russia inherited its Jewish communities and, consequently, a “Jewish problem” it had never grappled with before.

In 1654, after annexing Ukraine up to the right bank of the Dnieper, Russia appropriated territories inhabited by many Jews, though the latter had in large part already been massacred in Khmelnitski. In 1721, moreover, Peter I issued a ukase expelling the Jews from “Little Russia”. This decree was reconfirmed by Empress Elizabeth Petrovna in 1742, who then forced the Jews beyond the borders of the Russian Empire.

Catherine II by J.B.Lampi ca. 1780 © Kunsthistorisches Museum

It was therefore principally only during the three divisions of Poland (in 1772, 1793, and 1795) that Russia truly gained lands occupied by large Jewish communities -“Russia’s enigmatic acquisition”, according to the phrase coined by historian John Klier. In the span of several decades, a country previously devoid of Jews found itself governing a Jewish population 700000 to 800000 members strong, the largest community in the world. In 1791, Catherine the Great took measures aimed at restricting the Jews’ freedom of movement and preventing them from settling in other regions of the empire. These measures, reaffirmed by successive monarchs between 1804 and 1825, gave birth to what was called the “residential zone” inside which Jews were forced to live; it stretched across the entire western edge of the empire, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, in what is present-day Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. Forbidden from working the land, moreover, Jews survived as merchants and artisans concentrated in small rural towns, or shtetlach. In addition, certain large cities, like Kiev, were off limits to Jews.

In the mid-nineteenth century, these restrictions began to soften: permission to live beyond the “residential zone” was granted in 1859 to “merchants of the first guild”, in 1860 to tenured professors at major universities, in 1865 to certain tradespeople, in 1867 to military veterans, and in 1879 to those with a higher education. Because leniency was offered only to the most affluent Jews, who were in turn attracted to the nation’s two capitals, by the late nineteenth century the highest circles of Jewish intelligentsia had left the shtetlach and moved to Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

The “Residential Zone”

“But in order to live in Petersburg, one needs not only money, but also a special permit. I am  a Jew. And the Tzar has set aside a special zone of residence for the Jews, which they are not allowed to leave.”

Marc Chagall, My Life, Trans. Dorothy Williams (London: Peter Owen, 1965).

It was not until 1917, however, when the “residential zone” was abolished, that this became a mass movement. Large communities of Jewish intellectual and artists began settling in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and Moscow, raising cultural life in those cities to new heights during the 1920s. A major catalyst was the Jewish State Theater (GOSET) founded by Alexander Granosky and Solomon Mikhoels. The Bolsheviks of the era supported Yiddish as an expression of the popular Jewish classes and encouraged the theater’s development in Minsk, Kiev, and Odessa. Jewish schools teaching in Yiddish began to appear (there were 1100 of them in Russia by the early 1930s), while Jewish sections started opening at the universities.

Russian Jewish Theater

The origins of Yiddish-language theater in Russia dates to the nineteenth century and evolved primarily out of Purim-spiele, plays retelling the story of Esther. The father of Yiddish theater was Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908). This basically traveling form of theater began to take off and the Revolution of 1905, thanks to Peretz Hirschbein, who established in Odessa the Jewish Artistic Theater, where “classics” by Itzhak Leybush Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, and Shalom Asch were performed, along with plays of his own. With the Revolution of 1917 and during the 1920s, Yiddish theater moved through a second phase : Alexander Granosky (1890-1937) founded the Jewish Studio in Petrograd, where he discovered Salomon Mikhoels, a cult figure in the world of Jewish and Soviet theater. In 1920, Granosky’s troupe moved to Moscow and became GOSET (the Jewish State Theater), which garnered fame with the help of set designers such as Chagall, Altman, Rabinovitch, and Faltz.

The Soviet regime viewed the “jewish question” largely in socio-economic terms, and sought to gain the support of the Jewish masses by offering them land, previously forbidden to them under the czar. It also offered them a secular, Soviet Yiddish culture but repressed Hebrew culture. In the 1920s, Jewish kolkhozes began concentrating in southern Ukraine and Crimea, within regional Jewish districts. In 1928, the Far East region of Birobidzhan was declared an autonomous Jewish region with Yiddish as its official language and open to all Jews willing to colonize it. At the same time, however, Zionist activities were prohibited, including the He-Halutz, Makkabi, Ha-Shomer ha-Tsair organizations, the Poalei Tsion Party and, in the name of atheism, anything else pertaining to religion, including synagogues, yeshivot, hadarim, and mikva’ot.

In the mid-1930s, the government’s antireligious policies worsened : from 1937 to 1939, at the height of Stalinist oppression, practically every Jewish institution and organization was prohibited, with a large number of Jews falling victim to purges, deportations, and executions. In 1939, more than 3 million Jews lived in the Soviet Union, a number that climbed to 5 million after the annexation of eastern Poland following the German-Soviet nonaggression pact.

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany surged across the Soviet Union and exterminated the Jewish population in the occupied territories, which corresponded approximately to the former “Pale of Settlement”. Between the summers of 1941 and 1942m Jews were executed by the hundreds of thousands, city by city and town by town, then tossed into mass graves -all this before the “clean” death in the gas chambers had been invented in Poland.

In 1942, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was founded under the leadership of actor Solomon Mikhoels, designed to sensitize and alert international opinion to the Nazi massacre of the Jews. Most members of this committee were arrested and executed in 1952.

Beginning in 1948, anti-Semitism became official government policy, in the guise of the struggle against “cosmopolitanism”. All remaining active synagogues, Jewish theaters, libraries, and Yiddish presses were shut down. Jews who held high positions were dismissed, such as the famous photographer Evgueni Khaldei, who snapped the famous photo of the Soviet flag flying over the Reichstag. Great Yiddish writers were murdered -Peretz Markish, Der Nister, David Bergelson, and others.

After Stalin’s death and a slight thaw under the Khrushchev regime, Jews accused of so-called “doctor’s plot” were pardoned, and a Yiddish-language review, Sovetish Heymland, was allowed to appear beginning in 1961. After the Six Day War of 1967, official anti-Semitism reappeared in the form of anti-Zionist and hostility toward the state of Israel. Soviet Jews who asked to emigrate were flatly denied, such as Anatoly (Natan) Shcharansky, who later became the Israeli Minister of Housing.

It was only in the late 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, that the situation improved for Russia’s Jews, who were finally permitted to practice their religion and cultural activities and given the right to emigrate. Many synagogues and Jewish schools reopened across Russia and the former Soviet republics, and a hundred or so Jewish Russian-language newspapers and periodicals were founded besides a host of other Jewish organizations, congresses, and communities. In Moscow and Saint petersburg, “Jewish Universities” were established, along with the Judaic Institute in Kiev, near the Mohyla Academy. The massive emigration of Russian and Soviet Jews that began in the 1990s has abated somewhat today. Yiddish is no longer much spoken, and the Sovetish Heymland shut down operation in 1992.

 

 

Synagogue of Tallinn. Photo by FLLL – Wikipedia

The Estonian Jewish community is the smallest of the Baltic states, and historically, the one that played the least important role in Yiddishland before the Shoah. Indeed, the community never counted more than 4500 members.

Although present in Estonia since the fourteenth century, the Jews did not assume a permanent residence in Estonian territory until after 1865, when the czar abolished the decree forbidding them to live there.

The cantonists, Jewish soldiers serving in the imperial army, established the community in Tallinn in 1830; that of Tartu was begun in 1866. Synagogues were built in the two cities in 1883 and 1900, respectively; both burned down during the Shoah.

Nothing remains of the small Jewish communities of Narva, Valga, Pärnu, and Viljandi, which were destroyed during the war. Jews in Estonia today are in very large part Russian-speaking Jews who arrived after 1945.

Tartu Synagogue

During the interwar period, independent Estonia treated its Jewish minority fairly. Jews enjoyed all the civil liberties granted to other Estonian citizens, and beginning in 1925, cultural autonomy as well. A minority chose to settle in Palestine, where they contributed to the foundation of two famous kibbutzim: Kfar Blum and Ein Gev.

The 1940 Soviet occupation of Estonia put an end to all Jewish communal life: 400 Jews were sent to work camps. The Nazi invasion in July 1941 succeeded in exterminating the community, whose members were killed by the Einsatzgruppen with the active complicity of local collaborators, most notably militants from the Omakaitse Fascist movement.

Klooga Memorial. Photo by Sander Sade – Wikipedia

After 1945, the Soviet state outlawed all forms of Jewish cultural activity: all that remained was a small community that maintained the cemetery of Tallinn (which still exists). In contrast, one of the effect of anti-Jewish Soviet policy in terms of higher education was that a number of Jewish students from Moscow, Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), and Kiev went for their studies to the University of Tartu or the Polytechnic Institute of Tallinn, which were considerably more open.

Also, during its Soviet occupation, Estonia was a relatively accessible open door for the refuseniks heading toward the United States or Israel. The Jewish community in nearby Finland had helped and continues to aid many Estonian Jews.

Jewish life in Estonia began again in 1988 with the creation of a Jewish Cultural Society and later a school in one of the locations of a former Jewish gymnasium. Since Estonia’s independence in 1991, the Jewish community has become openly active. It scarcely numbers 1000 people (mostly of retirement age) according to official Estonian sources -3000 according to Jewish sources.

In October 1993, a law granting economy was passed. Unlike the tendencies in Latvia and, to a lesser degree in Lithuania, the former Estonian Waffen SS receive absolutely no official or public support and the extreme right is hardly visible.

Rabbi Shmuel Kot

Interview with Shmuel Kot, Chief Rabbi of Estonia

Jguideeurope: How do you perceive the evolution of the Jewish community in Estonia since you moved there 23 years ago?

Shmuel Kot: The community is growing in different perspectives. Religiously, culturally and on the organizational level also. The synagogue has been located in a contemporary building for the last 15 years. We have nice activities every Shabbat, with different kinds of guests invited to participate. During the Holidays we provide lessons for Talmud Torah for children as well as for adults.

Do you feel that the community has developed a more professional and official role with its development?

Yes, definitely. Jewish life today offers a vast diversity of possibilities to be enjoyed. Most of our members are Russian speakers, but we also have an important group of French members. Just before COVID, due to the growing number of French members, someone donated twenty prayer books in French-Hebrew. Jewish life is very different in the winter and in the summer. During the winter, there is almost no daylight. People are more active inside. During the summer, Shabbat can start sometimes at 11PM! The night of Shavuoth where Jews study all night has also to be readapted. Life is very nice here. People can be Jewish very openly, there’s no anti-Semitism and the relationship with the Muslim minority is also good.

Are there new ways of sharing Jewish heritage?

The country makes many efforts in its sharing. And places related to bright and dark pages of that Heritage are shared today. The oldest cemetery was destroyed by the Russians a long time ago. A new cemetery has been opened and is still used today. The Jewish Museum offers a good description of that evolution, displaying the early history of Jewish life in Estonia in the 19th century with young Jewish soldiers settling, the era of prosperity of Jewish cultural life between the two World Wars with for example the Maccabi events and the tragedy of the Holocaust.

Estonia was both the first country to grant Jews cultural autonomy in the 1920s, and on the other side the first to declare itself Judenfrei during the Holocaust! The Museum also displays Jewish life during the Soviet era.

Are you often contacted by persons outside of Estonia wishing to know more about Jewish historical facts and questions about genealogy?

Every day! People contact us for various research. Some archives that we have made available to the public and others that are kept by local authorities, which we try to obtain for them. The Estonian government is making many efforts to enable the gradual availability of those documents online. We just discovered that someone in our synagogue was adopted and found out his Jewish roots thanks to such documents.

Peitav Synagogue of Riga. Photo by Avi1111 – Wikipedia

The Jewish community of Latvia traces its origins to the middle of the fourteenth century.

Numbering today some 15000 persons, it developed in the principalities of Kurland and Livonia, territories that have often changed hands. The presence here of Baltic barons contributed to the Germanization of the country and placed the Jews themselves under this cultural influence.

The gradual annexation of the country by the Russian Empire weakened the Jewish presence, sine only Jews who could prove to have lived there before it was absorbed by the Russian Empire were authorized to stay.

Riga Jewish community and the museum building. Photo by JewsinLatvia – Wikipedia

However Germanized or Russianized the Jews became (even for 85% of them the everyday spoken language was Yiddish), their position was always uncertain in relation to the national movement in Latvia, which saw them as foreigners.

The large majority of Jews now established in Latvia came from the former Soviet Union, and are thus Russian speaking.

As in the other Baltic states, Latvians conceive of citizenship as rooted in ethnicity, which means, in effect, Jews are not citizens of the new republics, and yet are no longer Russian citizens either.

 

Jewish Museum. Photo by JewsinLatvia – Wikipedia

In the 1970s, Riga was an important center of refusenik activity.

Outside the big cities, Jews obeyed strict religious observance. Latvia gave us two remarkable figures of Orthodoxy: Rav Joseph Rosen (1858-1936), known by the name “Gaon of Rogatchov”, after his birthplace, or “Rogatchover”, who officiated in Daugavpils (Dvinsk); and Rav Meir Simha ha-Kohen (1843-1926), known as Or Sameah, who also lived in Daugavpils.

In addtion, the Zionist revisionist movement was powerful among the country’s 85000 Jews (4% of the population), who before 1940 were concentrated in Riga and Liepaja.

Choral Synagogue Memorial. Photo by Kalnroze – Wikipedia

Indeed, Riga was the cradle of Betar, the right-wing Zionist youth movement.

Before the Shoah, Betar had even organized a nautical club, whose members later helped establish Israel’s first navy.

The Shoah destroyed 90% of Latvia’s Jewish community, and the work of remembrance had not been accomplished as it should have been. The Latvian Waffen SS are still perceived by Latvians as “patriots” who fought against the Soviet Union; neo-Nazis are free to parade in the streets under the gaze of the authorities.

As a result, only a single monument to the genocide exists, in the Bierkerniecki forest, where 46000 Jews were killed.

The Jewish community of Lithuania numbers only some 6000. People It is no more than a shadow of what it once was: until the Shoah, it was a center of the Yiddish-speaking lands.

Choral Synagogue in Kaunas. Photo by Avishai Teicher – Wikipedia

In a sense, everything began here from the fifteenth  and sixteenth centuries when European Judaism’s center of gravity shifted from Germany and France to Poland and Belarus. As a reaction to the pietisitic practices of the Hasidism then in fashion among common Jews in the middle of the eighteenth century, the rigorous and elitist intellectual current of the Mitnaggedim emerged, personified by the Gaon of Vilna (1720-97).

Lithuania, which alternated repeatedly between periods of independence as a regional power, submission to Teutonic lords, and Polish domination, was finally divided between the historic center around the capital under Russian domination, and the region around Klaipèda (Memel), controlled by Prussia. Despite the politics of the forced Russianization in the middle of the nineteenth century, a national renaissance began with the revitalization of the national language, Europe’s oldest.

Vilnius Synagogue. Photo by FLLL – Wikipedia

Submerged in a profoundly Catholic country, the Jewish communities nevertheless established a number of thriving yeshivoth.

This fashioned the cultural landscape of Orthodox Judaism, especially in communities such as those of Panevezys and Kaunas (also named Kovno).

Lithuania was not only a religious center, but also the cradle of Jewish secularism and the Yiddish language. The Socialist movement Bund was established in Vilnius in October 1897.

At the time of the 1924 census Jews numbered 155000, or 7,65% of the population, a number that would be larger if one included the thousands of Karaites. Subjected to anti-Semitism, Lithuanian Judaism was totally annihilated by the Shoah, with the help of many from the local population.

The Republic of Belarus is a state formed of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It has retained, however, close ties to Moscow. Historically, Belarus belonged to Lithuania in the fourteenth century, Poland in the fifteenth, and later the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century. From 1920 to 1939, its western regions (including Grodno and Brest-Litovsk) were integrated within Poland, while the rest of the country fell within the Soviet Union. The history of the Jewish community in Belarus is thus related to that of neighboring countries Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. Jewish communities were first mentioned in Brest-Litovsk in 1388, in Novogrudok in 1445, in Minsk and Smolensk in 1489, in Pinsk in 1506, and later still in Vitebsk, Mogilev and Orsha. After Poland’s division, Belarus was surrounded by the “Pale of Settlement” of the Russian Empire and thus subject to the restrictive policies of those areas. In 1847, 225000 Jews lived in Belarus; in 1897, the number had reached 725000 (or 13,6% of the total population).

From an intellectual and spiritual point of view, Belarusian Judaism resembled Lithuanian Judaism, marked by the haskalah (Enlightenment movement). The majority of Jewish communities here, in particular those of the north and west, were composed of Mitnaggedim, Orthodox rationalists opposed to Hasidism. Imported from Ukraine, Hasidism nevertheless took root in Vitesbk, thanks to Menachem Mendel. In the nineteenth century, the socialist movement became popular in Belarus, which had become the homeland of the Bund, the Jewish Socialist Party that would later be repressed by the Bolsheviks. In the 1920s and under German occupation in World War II, the Communist movement had a strong following among Belarusian Jews, who in large part joined the ranks of the partisans or became soldiers in the Red Army. The occupation was extremely violent in Belarus, where the Jews were exterminated inside their ghettos, and where one in four inhabitants were killed. In 1970, there remained 148000 Jews here, but emigration had significantly reduced this number, today estimated at approximately 30000.

In spite of this reduced number, the Jewish community of Belarus remains the third of former USSR – after Russia and Ukraine. Its capital, Minsk, hosts some 20,000 members. There are now 19 Jewish schools in the country and 1,400 students in 13 different cities. You can visit in Minsk a Jewish cultural center and the Center of the History of the Jews of Belarus in Vitebsk. If you read Belarusian, you can consult the community newspaper www.sb.by.

The Union of Belarussian Jewish Communities is the largest community organization in the country.

For any research related to ancient shetlts and its inhabitants, for which it would be impossible to make an exhaustive list here, visit the Belarus Holocaust Memorials Projects website.

A Sephardic family from Bosnia, early nineteenth century.

In Sarajevo, where most of Bosnia’s Jews lived, the earliest refugees from the Iberian Peninsula began arriving around 1565, having first stopped in Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, and other regions under the Turkish domination. Belonging to the rayah (the term used by the Turks to designate non-Muslim populations under their control), as such they had a status equivalent to that of other non-Muslims. A certain autonomy to manage religious and community affairs was accompanied by various requirements and constraints, as well as repeated exactions by local pashas. For example, Jews had to step aside for any Muslim they encountered in the street, and they were forbidden to ride horses and bear arms, except when traveling; any Jew over the age of nine was required to pay a residence tax. During the first final decades of Turkish rule, until 1878, Jews had to pay a special tax, the bedelija, to avoid being drafted into the military. Jews were expected, moreover, to provide horses for maintenance work on roads and to the Turkish army when it launched campaigns.

The Turks imposed restrictions on clothing as well. In Bosnia, which had been conquered in 1463, Jews had the right to to wear turbans provided they were not too large and, most important, that they were yellow, to the exclusion of any other color. Of a Jewish man wore a fez, as his ancestors did in Arabian Spain and descendants would continue to do long after the Turks were gone, it had to be dark blue. Similarly, wearing green was strictly prohibited to all non-Muslims, while shoes could only be black.

Sephardic couple in Bosnia, 1900

Such constraints led Sephardic women of the region to develop a very specific code of dress, the memory of which had been preserved by Jewish Museums in the former Yugoslavia. Until the early twentieth century, for example, Jewish women in Bosnia continued to wear long, embroidered dresses called anteriyas, as well as tokados, small hats decorated with a row of ducats called the frontera in Judeo-Spanish. Hair remained hidden, though the back of the tokado was extended by long cloth fringes, named the purçul. And if widows dispensed with the frontera, young girls were content with displaying only a single ducat on their foreheads.

Beyond that, life for Bosnian Jews under Ottoman rule was more or less similar to that of other inhabitants of this poor and mountainous corner of the empire, far from the main roads and commercial centers of the era. Although the Jewish community here included numerous doctors and scientists, like the mid-nineteenth century proto-Zionist rabbu Juddah ben Soloman Hai Alkalai, it was composed mostly of people of modest means, who were no better off than other ethnicities in the province. A charitable association, the Benevolencija, was this established to aid the most impoverished; it was still active during the recent interethnic was from 1992-95, to the benefit of country’s entire population.

Far from home

Winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Ivo Andric set the scene for his Bosnian Chronicles in his native town of Travnik, a small city in western Bosnia that temporarily served as capital to this Turkish province in the early nineteenth century:

On a hot morning in May 1814, Salomon Atijas, the patriarch of the town’s small Jewish community, reeking of garlic and untanned sheepskin, came to offer twenty-five ducats to the French consul. The latter had been ordered to close down the consulate in Travnik but did not have the means to finance his trip home. Atijas brought him the money because the diplomat, over the seven years he has spent in the town, showed kindness and care toward the Jews “in ways neither the Turks nor any other stranger had ever done”.

“No matter what part of this earth beyond Spain we might be in, we would always suffer, for we would always have two homelands. This much I know. But here in this place, life has been particularly harsh and degrading for us…We are wedged between the Turks and the Christian peasants, the poor downtrodden peasants and the terrible Turks. Utterly cut off from our own kind, we try to preserve everything that reminds us of Spain, the songs and the food and the customs, but the changes within us goes on relentlessly, we can feel the erosion, the fading of memory”, old Atijas exclaimed to the western-bound voyager. In fact, whereas they were most grateful to Turkey for welcoming them after their expulsion from Spain, the Jews who landed in Bosnia suffered, more than other Sephardim, from their uprooting, cultivating nostalgia as the centuries passed for their “incomparable Andalusia”.

Ivo Andric, Bosnian Chronicles, Trans. Joeph Hitrec (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963).

Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878 and annexed it in 1908. The region experienced rapid economic development during this period, notably under the impetus of Ashkenazic arrivals, who invested in industry and the intellectual and liberal professions. The Sephardic Jews here remained working as tradespeople and artisans, but their cultural level began to rise considerably. They say here that at the turn of the century, all the doctors in Sarajevo were Jewish.

Mantle of the Law, Bosnia-Herzegovina, late nineteenth century  ©Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, Paris

After World War I, when Bosnia-Herzegovina itself integrated with the new realm of Yugoslavia, the Jewish youth of Sarajevo and the provinces became known for the political activism. While the Zionist movement was gaining influence throughout Yugoslavia, in Sarajevo, it was a radical Marxist organization, the Matatja, that attracted local Jewish youth. Established in 1923, this cultural and political organization soon boasted 1000 members.

On the eve of the Second World War, Bosnia-Herzegovina contained 14000 Jews, 8000 of whom lived in Sarajevo. When Germany invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, it handed Bosnia-Herzegovina over to the puppet state installed in Zagreb. As in Croatia, the Jews of Bosnia-Herzegovina were pursued by Ustashis  with the support of Muslims gangs formed by the mufti of Jerusalem, the Palestinian Haj Amine el Husseini. This admirer of Hitler pushed for the formation of an SS division composed of Muslims called the Ansar, whose ferocity toward the Serbs and Jews rivaled that of the Ustashis.

A thousand Bosnian Jews managed to join the ranks of the Resistance, a third of whom died in combat. In the years following the liberation, half of the 2200 survivors in the region made their aliyah to Israel. This is why, even before the 1992-95 war, the Jewish community in Bosnia-Herzegovina consisted of only around 500 members. This number had dropped even further due to the fighting and the transfer of refugees.

 

Synagogue in Subotica. Photo by Marko Stanojevic

Serbia and Voivodina form, along with Montenegro, a nation that had been called The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia until 4 February 2003, when it was renamed Serbia and Montenegro.

The Serbian and Voivodinan regions witnessed one of the first implementations of the Final Solution, its Jewish population as brutally martyred by German troops as were Jews in Poland or the Soviet Union.

In fact, the extermination project began in the former Yugoslavia the moment the country was invaded in April 1941 -several weeks before Hitler’s attack upon the Soviet Union.

 

Belgrad synagogue. Photo by Krumb77 – Wikipedia

In the zones directly administrated by the German army, it took the Einsatzgruppen SS less than four months to arrest the 4000 Jews of Banat (the region north of Belgrade), with the help of gangs of local Volksdeutschen (ethnic Germans), and deport them to Belgrade.

The men of Banat were placed in a concentration camp, while the women and children were held in the city’s Jewish community housing. The men were gunned down in groups of 50 to 200 beginning in September 1941; the women and children were gassed several months later in trucks designed to asphyxiate human cargo using exhaust fumes.

Novi Sad synagogue. Photo de PetarM – Wikipedia

Jews throughout the rest of Serbia met a similar fate, beginning in late 1941. During the summer of 1942, an SS officer reported to his superiors that Serbia and Banat were from that moment on judenreinen (cleansed of all Jewish presence). This was, alas, in large part true. Of the 17000 Jews inhabiting the region before the war, barely 10% survived.

In Backa and Baranya, largely Hungarian-speaking regions in Voivodina that were reattached to Yugoslavia after the First World War but annexed in 1941 by German-allied Hungary, Hungarian troops “were content with” implementing an array of exclusionary measures against the Jewish minority: approximately 16000 strong before the war, Voivodina’s Jews endured seizure of property, forced labor, and kidnappings. Properly speaking, systematic extermination did not occur here, beyond reprisals following acts by the Resistance. In early 1944, however, Germany invaded Hungary and deported en masse the Jewish population. Only 3000 would return from the camps.

Jewish seller in Thessaloniki, beginning of the Twentieth century

Below the Acropolis is Athens, a marble plaque engraved with a menorah has been uncovered amid the clutter of the Agora, near a statue of Emperor Hadrien. Perhaps it used to rest on one of the ancient synagogues visited by Saint Paul, who had as little success with the Athenian Jews as the Greek philosophers had with the Areopagus.

How far back does the Jewish presence in Greece date? This question remains unanswered to this day. An even earlier question is, When did the Greek themselves come in contact with the Jewish people for the very first time? Legend has it that the first meeting between the two communities was peaceful and courteous. Alexander the Great, on his way to conquer Persia, is supposed to have bowed down before the high priest in Jaddua in Jerusalem.

That Jews and Greeks rubbed shoulders before the Macedonian conquest is certain, including as mercenaries in the Egyptian armies. The Hellenization of Judaea following Alexander’s victory, however, was a source of extreme tension. A nationalistic and religious revolt was unleashed after a statue of Zeus was brought into the Temple of Jerusalem. For the Jews, such a sacrilege was, as the Bible describes it, the “abomination of desolation”.

Beth Hashalom Synagogue in Athens. Photo by Rakoon – Wikipedia

Yet the unstoppable spread of Greek culture, along with the “scattering” of the Jewish people long before the Temple’s destruction by Titus in 70 C.E., quickly led to the translation of the Torah into Greek. This was the book of the Septuagint, translated by seventy-two scribes in Alexandria, Egypt’s great hellenistic port where Jews numbered one million, or a third of the city’s population. The book became, in the second century, the “official version” of that sacred text, the only intelligible one for Hellenized Jews and the sole means by which the earliest Christians received the Old Testament. Domination and coexistence, cultural and intellectual exchange and schisms (such as the one between the major Jewish philosophers Maimonides and Philo) thus wove the singular relationship between the two peoples.

Jewish communities first settled in present-day Greece most certainly around the third century B.C.E. However, according to Joseph Nehama in his monumental Histoire des Israélites de Salonique (History of the Jews of Thessaloniki), “more than immigration and the buying back of captives, it was the extreme force of proselytization animating the Jewish religion at the time that assured the recruitment and vitality of the colonies of the Diaspora”. It would be among such converts, the “Godfearers”, that Christian preaching would encounter its earliest successes.

The Jewish Museum of Greece. Photo by Tilemahos Efhtimiadis – Wikipedia

Though most often city dwellers, Jews also lived in the countryside. In the Kalamariá region of Macedonia, a tombstone reveals that Abraham and Theodote, a Jewish couple, worked the fields there around the year 200.

Beginning with Constantin’s 312 C.E. conversion to Christianity, Roman emperors were from then on Christian, and the status of Jews within the realm began to erode. After the empire was split, moreover, the Jews abandoned the nation’s Byzantine section; accusations of being christoktonoi or theoktonoi (“murderers of Christ” or “murderers of God”) abound in religious literature of the era. Judaism was defined as the “death-bringing religion”, and Jewish proselytizing and mixed marriages were fiercely prohibited under Theodosian Code. Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis further reinforced in the sixth century restrictive laws against Jews. While synagogues remained protected religious sites, building new ones was strictly forbidden.

Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Athens. Photo by Dafniotis – Wikipedia

Life for the Greek-speaking, or “Romaniote”, Jews during the Middle Ages is not so well-known. It is certain that they endured invasions by the Slavs, Bulgars, and Normans both before and after the year 1000. Merchant and traveler Benjamin de Tudela, a Jew from Navarre, visited the Medieval diasporas in the twelfth century. In his Massaoth Schel (Itinerary), he mentioned the major Greek cities inhabited by Jews, including Corinth, Thebes, Návpaktos, Patras, Kastoria, and Thessaloniki in particular, where they numbered half a million and held a quasi-monopoly over the dye and silkworm industries.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, a nearly uninterrupted inflow of Jews found refuge in the Ottoman’s Empire new possessions. After the edict signed by Ferdinand and Isabella on 31 March 1492 expelling all Jews from Spain, they were welcomed these en masse. At the east-west crossroads, “Byzantine-Thessaloniki” became “Jewish Thessaloniki”. The first group supposedly arrived from Majorca: they were called Baal Teshuva, signifying the return to Judaism of the Marranos, Jews who, on the surface, converted to Catholicism to escape the Inquisition. A the years passed, Castilians flooded in an imposed their linguistic dominance; they were followed by Aragonians, Catalonians, and Navarrans, and later by the Portuguese, Apulians, Venetians, Moroccans, and Livornians. They gathered together by synagogue: kal Castilia, kal Aragon, kal Mayor, or simply Gueroush-Sepharad (Expulsion from Spain).

 

Kahal Shalom Synagogue in Rhodes. Photo by Sailko – Wikipedia

Censuses show that the Ottoman metropolis of Thessaloniki contained only around 2200 Islamic and Christians households in 1478; in 1519, less than twenty years after the Alhambra Decree, the city possessed 4000 households, 56% of which were Jewish. A century later, there were 7500 households here, the Jewish proportion reaching 68%. Thessaloniki, whose Jewish residents spoke a hybrid of Castilian and Hebrew called Judezmo, was called “Mother in Israel” and the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” for more than four centuries. The responsa, opinions by Jewish jurists in Thessaloniki on liturgical or practical questions, have become famous. Samuel Moise of Medina de Campo, who ordered the city’s various congregations to adopt uniform Sephardic rituals, delivered around 1000 such opinions.

Spanish exiles settling in Thessaloniki shook up Romaniote Jewish communities and their traditions, as they did as well in Serres, Kavála, Patras, Drama, Larissa, Tríkala, and Rhodes. (This was not the case in Ioannina, however). In the seventeenth century, the major centers of Jewish life were drawn into a religious storm by a false Messiah named Sabbataï Zevi. The crisis subsided with Zevi’s conversion to Islam, as rabbis smothered the faithful in suffocating rituals. Two centuries later, the fall of the Ottoman Empire plunged the Jewish communities of the Balkans, who had until then enjoyed official tolerance, into disarray and uncertainty.

Saloniki Holocaust memorial. Photo by Arie Darzi

One episode, or rather a legend with dramatic consequences, illustrates the difficult situation endured by the Jews during Greece’s long war for independence. This war began with a revolt, in 1821, throughout the southern part of the country. In retaliation, the Greek ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory V, was hanged from the gate of the Phanar. Greeks claimed that his body had been thrown into the Bosphorus by three Jews on the order of the grand vizier. In any case, this was the excuse used by Greek insurgents for massacring thousands of Jews during the capture of the large city of Tripolis, in central Peloponnese. A flare-up of anti-Semitism punctuated every major liberation of “Greek lands” over th years to follow: Ioannina (1872), Corfu (1891), Larissa (1898), Tríkala (1898), Crete (1898), and Thessaloniki (1912 and 1931). Accusations of ritualistic crimes -the murder of Christians children by Jews- degenerated into pogroms. These events provoked the massive emigration of Jews to Marseille at the turn of the twentieth century, including the family of famous novelist Albert Cohen.

A reading of reports on this subject published by the Universal Israelite Alliance in the late nineteenth century is edifying. It is clear that such scheming was the work of a small minority in Greece, driven to extremes by a nationalist press and fringe of the lower Orthodox clergy. In contrast to these outbursts of anti-Semitism, which remained strong in Greece, liberal measures were also taken, beginning in 1832, by the Greek state in favor of equality of civil rights and religious tolerance.

The Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens. Photo by Tilemahos Efhtimiadis – Wikipedia

With Thessaloniki integration within Greece’s borders after the Balkan war in 1912, Greek-Jewish relations grew tenser. Greek soldiers had taken de facto the largest port in the Balkans and a cosmopolitan city with a Jewish majority. Coveted by the Serbs, Bulgarians, and, of course, the Greeks, Thessaloniki was once a political center under the Ottoman Empire. David ben Gurion, the founding father of Israel, came to study Turkish here in 1910 to plead the Zionist case before the Sublime Porte. The Young Turk Revolution broke out, pushing the last of the Sultans, Abdul Hamid, into the background. Their right to Thessaloniki having been solidified after the First World War, the Greeks made it their objective to assimilate into the nation-state an especially stubborn Jewish population. Hellenization progressed bit by bit, accelerated by the great fire of 1917 that reduced to ashes the historic Jewish city along with its thirty-two synagogues. Well versed in the French language and culture thanks to efforts by the Universal Israelite Alliance, a large number of Jewish families emigrated -to Paris, in particular.

The demographic balance was permanently upset by an influx of 150000 Greeks from Asia Minor as part of the dramatic population transfer required by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. “Furthermore, after the massive refugee influx, tensions mounted between Greeks and Jews in the city and in Northern Greece generally, as a result of exacerbated competition for the control of local economic life”, historian George Mavrogordatos stressed in Stillborn Republic. A pogrom erupted in 1931 in the popular Campbell suburb, followed by other fits of violence. Dockworkers from the port of Thessaloniki left en masse for Haifa. Ironically, calm returned only after the establishment of General Jean Metaxas’s Fascist regime in 1936, which publicly manifested kindness toward the Jewish community.

Beth Hashalom Synagogue, Athens. Photo by Rakoon – Wikipedia

Such appeasement was to be short-lived. Describing the disappearance of entire community, their uprooting by the Nazis from soil they had inhabited for centuries, the most ancient for 2000 years, has never been properly accomplished -and cannot been done here. Before the despair that still grips the rare survivors and their descendants, the numbers poorly reflect the immensity of the drama that struck Greece’s 80000 Jews, 80% of whom were victims of the Shoah. Of Thessaloniki’s 60000 Jews, no more than 1950 remained by the end of the war.

Beginning in 1941, the Germans began taking anti-Jewish steps in Greece. In 1942, the great Jewish necropolis, the oldest and largest of all the Sephardic east, was razed through the active participation of the local authorities and part of the population. Under the iron rule of Eichmann lieutenant Dieter Wisliceny’s SS and Alois Brunner, himself in exile in Damascus, the Final Solution was set in motion in 1943. After their temporary confinement within ghettos, the Jews of Thessaloniki were deported in sixteen convoys to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Italians and, to a lesser degree, the Spanish made heroic efforts to save Jewish life.

Rhodes Jewish cemetery memorial. Photo by Arie Darzi – Wikipedia

Beyond Thessaloniki, where indifference or hostility were manifest, Jews found courageous allies in a large part of the population, among the Resistance and even the authorities. The Orthodox archbishop of Athens, Monsignor Damaskinos, constantly intervened on their behalf and took the initiative of transmitting to the Germans letters of protest signed by around thirty celebrities and community leaders. In Thessaly and “Old Greece”, including Athens, hundreds of Jews were saved. The Athenian Parliament passed no anti-Semitic laws during the war, while the capital’s chief of police, Angelos Evert, provided Jews false papers.

Yitzhak Persky, British army volunteer and father of Shimon Peres, parachuted into the mountains of Attica in 1942. Captured by the Germans, he managed to escape, finding shelter for months in a monastery in Hassia. The 300 Jews of Zákinthos were all protected by the mayor and the archbishop, but the other communities in Epirus and the islands could not escape destruction. Of Corfu’s 2000 Jews, only 120 avoided the death camps. In Thrace, 2700 of the region 2800 Jews were handed over to the Germans by the Bulgarian occupiers.

A half century has passed since the Shoah. The majority of those who survived have emigrated to Israel of the United States. Those who remained have settled mainly in Athens. Of the 5000 Jews in Greece today, 4000 inhabit the capital, while 1000 are divided between Thessaloniki and a handful of smaller towns. An official monument in memory of the victims of the Shoah was unveiled in Thessaloniki a few years ago.

Interview with Zanet Battinou, Archaeologist & Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece

 

Jguideeurope: Which exhibitions are prepared for the near future at the Jewish Museum?

Zanet Battinou: The Jewish Museum of Greece has gone fully digital the last year presenting and sharing lectures, educational products and exhibitions on line. The latest, to be viewed as all the rest at the JMG website, tells the story of the Jewish Community of Corfu. Needless to say, many of our plans have had to be postponed because of the pandemic, but the most important one that will hopefully be realised in the autumn of 2021, is an extensive exhibition spreading over two Athenian Museums, the JMG and the Epigraphic Museum, based on the Corpus of Jewish Inscriptions that the JMG published in 2018, after long years of research.

This program, which showcases the early date of the settlement of Jews in Greece and offers archaeological evidence for this fact, was awarded by the Academy of Athens in December 2019, for its originality and impact. The forthcoming exhibition will serve as the second stage of the program after the publication, contribute to the interpretation and synthesis of the data the research brought to light, and bring the message of the exhibition home to our lives today, through an art exhibit based on selected epigraphies, which will also be housed at the JMG.

 

Could you share with us an encounter with a researcher or historian which marked you particularly?

In light of the forthcoming Greek Chairmanship of IHRA, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an international alliance of 34 member countries, that aims to unite governments and experts to strengthen, advance and promote Holocaust education, remembrance, and research worldwide and to uphold the commitment of a world that remembers the Holocaust, of a world without genocide, I would like to mention my encounter with Prof. Yehuda Bauer, historian of the Holocaust and Academic Advisor of IHRA.

It has been my honour to have participated in the biannual meetings of the IHRA since the very first one in Stockholm in 2000, as a member of the Greek National Delegation, serving in the Museums & Memorials Working Group of the organisation and undertaking the position of chairperson of the WG in 2014, during the British Chairmanship. This is how I came to meet Prof. Bauer and partake of his wisdom and his insightful analyses on the dire phenomenon of the Holocaust. His deep understanding and conviction in its educational and social value for the contemporary world has been a crucial source of inspiration and motivation for me.

In the past 20 years, the JMG initiated Holocaust Education in Greece and continuously works with the Ministry of Education at the forefront of all relevant initiatives and actions, pioneering effective programs for Holocaust Education, teacher training seminars and the creation of new content for schoolbooks. In the heart of this significant effort, lay the words of Prof Bauer:

Never be a victim,

Never be a perpetrator

And never, ever, be a bystander.

Engraving after Nicolas de Nicolay, Jewish Merchant of Turkey, 1568. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, Paris.

In the beautiful synagogue of Ahrida, one of the oldest in Istanbul, the tevah assumes the shape of a caravel symbolizing not only Noah’s Ark but also the vessels that in 1492 transported the Jews banished from Spain to the shores of the Ottoman Empire. A royal edict issued in Granada, only recently recaptured from the Arabs, gave the Jews no choice but conversion to Catholicism or exile. Five years later, the Portuguese nobility followed the example of their counterparts in Madrid. A millennium of Jewish presence on the Iberian Peninsula was thus swept away. Sephardic Judaism, one of the most splendid manifestations of Judaism at the end of the Middle Ages, was dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin as far north as the United Provinces.

Many Jews chose to accept the hospitality of Sultan Bajazet II, who “had heard about the wrongs that the Spanish sovereign had inflicted upon the Jews and learned the Jews were looking for a safe haven”. The sultan was also said to have declared, “Can you call such a sovereign wise and intelligent? He impoverishes his country and enriches mine”. Such sympathetic tales from Jewish historiography such as the chronicle of Rabbi Elijah Capsali (sixteenth century), are not corroborated by Ottoman sources, but in any case, they attest to the Jews’ enormous gratitude toward the sultans of their adopted homeland. The Jews prospered for many years under the sultans’ protection and remained loyal subjects until the end of the Ottoman Empire.

“In contrast to their counterparts in the west or northern Africa, the Sephardim of the Balkans overwhelmed the native community. They introduced Judeo-Hispanic culture to such a degree  that cities such as Istanbul, Andrianopolis, Smyrna, Thessaloniki, and Sarajevo absorbed these influences and in them a sort of Sepharad was transplanted and re-created”, notes an important study on Ottoman Judaism, The Jews of Balkans: the Judeo-Spanish Community, 15th to 20th Centuries. Today, however, traces of a Jewish presence in Turkey before the arrival of the Spanish exiles are literally concealed by the cities themselves. The remains of a classical synagogue, dating from the third century C.E., for example, was discovered in the ruins of Sardis, near Izmir. A bronze column found at Ankara lists the rights the emperor Augustus conferred upon the Jewish communities of Asia Minor. These hellenistic Jewish communities, called Romaniotes, settled particularly in the large coastal cities of the Aegean.

The Jewish communities persisted during the Byzantine period despite numerous persecutions. Byzantine emperors simultaneously wielded both political and religious power. A a result, the severity of discrimination against the Jews quickly escalated in Byzantium as compared with the West. Humiliated, restricted to certain economic activities, and confined to living in specially designated neighborhoods, the Jews no longer event had the right under Justinian (527-65) to say in their prayers, “our God is the only God”, a phrase considered an insult to the Holy Trinity.

In 422, the Jews were thrown out of Byzantium by Theodosius II.  They returned to the capital only in the ninth century, settling along the southern banks of the Golden Horn, close to the Marmara Sea and the defensive walls of the city. The anti-Semitism of the Byzantine authorities never weakened. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the patriarch Athanasius I complained about the presence of a synagogue in the capital to the emperor Andronicus II Paleologue: “Not only are the masses allowed to continue to live in ignorance, but they are being contaminated by the presence of the Jews”.

At the same time, the inexorable advance in the fourteenth century of the Ottomans across Anatolia, and later through the Balkans, was enthusiastically welcomed by the Romaniote Jewish communities. “It meant an immediate liberation not only from oppression, persecution, and humiliation, but even from slavery”, writes Stanford J. Shaw, who emphasizes that, in 1324, many Jews from the city of Bursa helped Sultan Ohran capture this large city in northwestern Anatolia, which would become the first Ottoman capital. From the beginning, however, the tolerance of the Ottomans toward the Jews was dictated by reasons of a vested interest. The Ottomans were a society of warriors and peasants whose burgeoning state bureaucracy left them little time for other activities. Commerce, most notably, was left to Christians and Jews. As in other Islamic lands, the Ottomans had a policy of dhimmi, or protected people, found both in the Koran and in the sunna (the “tradition”) that provided for governing peoples of the Book who could not be converted by force. This policy guaranteed the security of individuals and their property, but non-Muslims were required to pay a tax to the state. And although non-Muslim communities were permitted self-governance under the authority of their religious leaders, the policy made non-Muslims second-class citizens subject to a number of discriminatory measures. These were mostly of a symbolic nature relating to clothing or domestic architecture, the forbidding of nonbelievers to bear arms or keep certain esteemed animals -all practices meant to show the superiority of the true believers. The policy could be applied in a more or less humiliating fashion. In the main, however, the Ottomans sultans were open and pragmatic. From the fourteenth century onward, European Jews streamed in from the lands that had expelled them, from Hungary in 1376 and France in 1394. Others arrived from Sicily at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Most of them settled in Adrianopolis (present-day Edirne), then capital of the empire. “I assure you, Turkey is a country of abundance where, if you wish, you will find rest”, wrote the rabbi Isaac Zarfati in a famous letter to his fellow believers still living in Christian lands.

Map of Constantinople, sixteenth century.

The Ottoman authorities forced small Jewish Romaniotes communities to resettle in conquered areas in order to supply their cities with artisans and merchants. This policy was implemented for example in 1453 for colonizing Istanbul. The surgün, as the deported peoples were known, were differentiated from the kendi gelen, or people coming of their own free will, such as the Jewish exiles coming from the west. Jewish exiles remained an active group for many years. The steady stream of Jews arriving from Spain lasted for several decades. Some of them arrived directly, while others only after long journeys, notably by way of Italy. Either way, the trend was set. Censuses undertaken by the Ottoman authorities in 1520-30 counted 1647 Jewish households in Istanbul, some 10% of the city’s population, and 2645 households in Thessaloniki, of a population of 4863 family units. Thirty years earlier there had not been any Jews in this large Balkan port city that was to remain the capital of the Judeo-Spanish world until the end of the Ottoman Empire. In Istanbul, Jews from the Iberian Peninsula did not become a majority in the local community until the seventeenth century, but they had a major role there due to their energy and prestige. They could also count on the goodwill of the Ottoman authorities’ vested interest in their prosperity. As the historian Bernard Lewis explains, “From the Turkish point of view, the Jews, especially those that came from Europe, presented a number of advantages…Abreast of European affairs but relatively uninterested in them, the Jews were able advisers in the relations the Ottoman Empire maintained with western powers…Finally, and above all, the Ottomans had no a priori reason to suspect treason or suspicious sympathies with their primary enemy, the Christian Occident”.

Jacket, Ottoman Empire. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, Paris.

Pillars of the empire, the Jews opened the first printing presses in Istanbul and Thessaloniki in the fifteenth century. However, Turkish authorities forbade them to use the Arabic alphabet in order to keep it from being profaned, and so that Turkish scribes and calligraphers would not be deprived of work. Jews introduced theater to the Ottoman Empire, which until then had been totally ignored. They brought with them new techniques of navigation and weapons production, as well as capital. Nonetheless, it was in the economic sphere where Jewish contributions were most significant. Jews had key roles in tax administration, in the Empire’s finances, in the textile industries, and in banking. For example, the sultan benefited from the management skill and immense wealth of the rich Portuguese Jew Jospeh Nassi, who, by the end of Suleiman the Magnificent’s reign, had distinguished himself in his diplomatic activities with Poland, Italy, and Spain.

After Nassi’s death in 1579, Jews were no longer to occupy such elevated government positions. However, two professions allowed Jewish influence to persist in the life of the empire: as doctors for political figures and, above all, as attendants in Turkish harems. As keeper of the jewels, clothing, or perfume of the sultan’s favorites or their powerful mothers, such women as Esther Handali or Esperanza Malchi secured close friendships with the influential women of the harem.

Pillars of the empire

Jews occupied a crucial place in the flourishing Ottoman Empire of the sixteenth century. This fact was noted by numerous western chroniclers, such as Michel Febure (quoted by Robert Mantran), who lamented “They are so adroit and industrious they make themselves indispensable to everyone. There is not a single wealthy family among the Turks and foreign merchants where one does not find a Jew in their employ, whether to appraise merchandise, or to serve as an interpreter and to give advice about everything that happens. Regarding any location in the city they are able to recount in detail everything that is available for sale, its quality and quantity…Other Oriental nationalities, such as the Greeks or Armenians, lack this talent and would not know how to attain such shrewdness: this is what obliges merchants to make use of the Jews, despite the slight aversion that one feels”.

Robert Mantran, Istanbul au temps de Soliman le Magnifique (Istanbul Under Suleiman the Magnificient) (Paris: Hachette, 1994).

The decadence of Ottoman Judaism in the seventeenth century accompanied and anticipated that of the Empire. One of the causes of this phenomenon was the end of Jewish immigration from Europe that had afforded the Ottoman administration contact with the western world. Christian minorities, beginning with the Greeks and Armenians, began at this time to fulfill the roles of intermediaries between these two worlds. The marginalization and withdrawal of the Jewish community from secular functions were accelerated by the crisis of the false messiah Sabbataï Zevi that so shook Judaism within the Ottoman Empire.

Sabbataï Zevi

Sabbataï Zevi (1626-78) and the Deunmés

The hot-headed Kabbalist Sabbataï Zevi was born in Smyrna (present-day Izmir) in 1626 into a family of drapers hailing from Peloponnese. Convinced that he was the Messiah, he created upheaval in the Jewish community that led to its persecution by the Ottoman Empire. According to Gershom Sholem, the most penetrating modern commentator on Zevi, this religious and insurrectional movement developed out of a background of Kabbalist mysticism, the dominant form of Jewish piety of the period. From the time of their exile from Spain, Jewish thinkers sought answers to the tragedy of the expulsion, a catastrophe they likened to the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. A rabbi in Rhodes proposed in 1495, “I think these trials are the birth pains of the coming of the Messiah”. One can thus understand the enthusiasm and hopes the sudden messianic movement in Smyrna aroused, despite Zevi excommunication by the rabbis of Jerusalem. In 1665, Sabbataï Zevi departed for Istanbul. He was arrested by the Ottoman authorities and forced to choose either martyrdom or conversion to Islam. The false Messiah chose to submit. Some considered this apostasy as an indispensable step in the realization of his mission and also converted to Islam, all the while maintaining their Jewish faith and practicing its rites in secret. The community of deunmés (those who turned) resigned themselves to going to Turkey at the empire’s end. Even today, certain great deunmé families occupy an important place in publishing or industry. Hiding for many years and continuing their low profile during the first seventy years of Kemal’s secular republic, Turkey deunmés have begun to openly reclaim their identity and history.

In the traumatized and despaired communities, the rabbis took on enourmous power and effectively precluded any possibility of more liberal tendencies to develop/ The Ottoman authorities began to regard the Jewish minority, which until then had attracted no particular concern, with growing suspicion. By the next century, when the Ottoman Empire was forced by western powers to begin modernization, the Jews of the Levant had become a scorned and impoverished minority. Far from the great intellectual debates around haskalah, religious reform, Zionism, or the renaissance of the Hebrew language, Jews had fallen into obscurity. Western travelers who passed through the Jewish quarters of Istanbul of the Golden Horn recounted a miserable reality, totally opposite to what voyagers had described two centuries before. Turkish Jews kept to themselves in their communities, earning their living as shop owners, artisans, or low-level employees. Worse, an anti-Semitism encouraged by Christian minorities such as the Greeks began to develop: the first accusation of ritual murder suddenly occurred in Damascus in 1840.

The pariahs

“I never saw the curse denounced against the children of Israel more fully brought to to bear than in the East […] Where they are considered rather as a link between animals and human beings, than as men possessed of the same attributes, warmed by the same sun, chilled by the same breeze, subject to the same feelings, and impulses, and joys, and sorrows, as their fellow-mortals.

There is a subdued and spiritless expression about the Eastern Jews, of which the comparatively tolerant European can picture to himself no possible idea until he has looked upon it…It is impossible to express the contemptuous hatred in which the Osmanlis hold the Jewish people; and the veriest Turkish urchin who may encounter one of the fallen nation on his path, has his meed of insult to add to the degradation of the outcast and wandering race of Israel.”

Julia Pardoe, in a description of The City of the Sultan (1836).

Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Salvation came from outside. Western governments increased their pressure of the sultan’s regime to accelerate its liberal reforms intended to guarantee the Ottoman Empire’s integrity but also western economic interests. The 150000Jews living in Ottoman territories in the middle of the nineteenth century benefited from these initiatives, as did other minorities. In 1856 and later in 1869, decrees specifying and amplifying the first reforms of 1839 guaranteed the equality of all citizens before the law. The concern of Occidental Jewish communities over the welfare of their fellow believers in the Levant gradually awakened Turkish Judaism from its stupor. A small group of elite Jews played an essential part as intermediaries . They supported the francos, Jews from foreign origin who benefited from the privileges accorded to western expatriates by the sultans. The conflict between the Conservative rabbis and the small modernist elite first crystallized over the opening of a new school in 1858 under the patronage of banker Abraham de Camondo, “the Rothschild of the Orient”. Two years later Reform sympathizer Jacop Avigor was elected the grand rabbi of the empire. Conservatives countered with the support of much of the working class. Violent upheavals in 1862 prevented authorities from intervening. Soon after, the traditionalists came back into power and excommunicated Abraham de Camondo. Three years later the Ottoman administration reversed its previous position and imposed on Jewish communities a more liberal policy that limited the power of the rabbis. But resistance continued and the francos established their own so-called “Italian” community. This community worked actively to introduce the schools of the Universal Israelite Alliance, based in Paris, into the lands of Levant. The first such schools opened in Istanbul in 1870. French replaced Ladino, first among the elites and, gradually, among the majority of the empire’s Jewish population. By 1912, every Ladino community of more than 1000 persons had been granted and Alliance school. This organization increasingly replaced the weakened existing community institutions. In 1908, and Alliance supporter, Haim Nahum, became the head of Judaism in an empire where the triumph of the Young Turks Revolution had installed a constitutional monarchy. One of the centers of the movement was the great city of Thessaloniki. Nonetheless, its Jews played only a marginal part in the new democratic regime. The first Ottoman assembly elected in 1908 included only four Jews. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13, Greece conquest of Thessaloniki, the First World War, and the crumbling of the empire marked the end of Ottoman Judaism. Thereafter, Judaism in Turkey was divided among several hostile, if not rival, nation-states. The First World War and the war of independence devastated other minorities. The Armenians were massacred in 1915 and the Greeks hunted down in the context of the great migration of populations that followed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

According to a census taken in 1927, 81872 Jews lived within the boundaries of the Turkish republic claimed by Mustapha Kemal, most concentrated in the cities os Istanbul and Izmir. Traumatized by the defeat of 1918 and the crumbling of the empire, the Turks attempted to forge a specific national identity, regarding minorities with suspicion. The new republican political system, directly inspired by the Jacobin model, had a major effect on the living conditions of the Jewish community. The new republic was above all determined to encourage the formation of a national middle class. The Universal Israelite Alliance schools were forced to break their foreign ties, and Turkish was made the language of instruction. The militant secularism of the Kemalist institutions suffocated the last Jewish community schools. The Jews were reminded that they were “guests” and that it behooved them to show their gratitude by integrating as quickly as possible.

Although in principle Jews were guaranteed full equality under the law, reality was otherwise. Public posts of a certain level remained off limits to Jews until the years 1945-50. As Esther Benbassa and Aron Rodrigue have observed, “This authoritarian, non-liberal nation-state left the Jewish community deprived of its own institutions while not permitting it to integrate into social and public spheres”. This discriminatory policy toward minority populations intensified during the Second World War. It is true that Kemalist Turkey which remained neutral during the war welcomed a number of Jews affiliated with German universities after they were forced out by the Nazis in 1933, and it permitted refugees furnished with an entry visa for Palestine to travel across its territories. Nonetheless, in 1942 in instituted an “exceptional tax” that in fact was conceived to bring about the economic ruin of its minority populations. They were divided into four groups (foreign residents, non-Muslims, Muslims, deunmés) and taxed accordingly. The official estimate of individual means was most often completely arbitrary. On average, the tax was 5% for Muslims and 150-200% for Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. Most had no way to pay such exorbitant taxes and were forced to sell their belongings. Those unable to pay were then condemned to work camps in the far reaches of Anatolia. The tax was finally abolished in March 1944. But its effect on Turkish Jews was traumatic and prepared the way for a massive emigration to Israel beginning in 1948 and continuing during the years 1950-60. Emigration increased with each nationalist initiative despite the reinstallation of a multiparty system and the democratization of republican institutions.

Today about 26000 Jews live in Turkey, mainly in Istanbul. Good relations between Ankara and Israel, the only two democracies of the region and both faithful allies of Washington, permit this community to live without major problems. It is the only significant Jewish community resident in an Islamic nation. Friendly to the west and secular, Turkey is Islamic but not Arab. Surrounded by hostile neighbors, it has obvious strategic interests in common with Israel, which led in 1998 to the signing of a military agreement. The authorities in Ankara have willingly reclaimed traditional Ottoman hospitality toward the Jews. Turkey celebrated the 500-year anniversary of the welcoming of Spanish Jews with great pomp. Still, Turkey’s Jews remain concerned by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in their country and fear being the target of terrorist attacks, such as on 6 September 1986 at the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul, which left twenty-three dead.

 

Medieval miniature of czarina Sara, Czar Alexander and their children.

In a medieval miniature, Bulgarian Czarina Sara figures beside her husband, Czar Alexander, a two children, Shishman and Tamara. A Jewish queen, Sara of Turvono was obliged to convert to Christianity, adopting the name Theodora. In the fourteenth century such a union shock no one in Constantinople, though it would have been inconceivable to the leaders of Rome.

Jews first landed on the banks of the Danube over 1000 years ago, long before the arrival of the Slavs and Huns. Engraved with a menorah and Latin inscriptions, a Roman-era stele has been discovered in Nikopol, in the northern part of the country.

The Jewish diaspora, moreover, took refuge in this stopping ground and melting pot called Bulgaria. Expelled from the heart of the Byzantine Empire, Jewish colonists took root here over centuries of relative tolerance.

In the early days, Judaism and Christianity competed in the conversion of the Bulgarians, most of whom were still atheists at the time. The Christians won out, even if the faith of early Bulgarian Christians was in large part syncretic, borrowing from both Judaism and lingering pagan rituals.

Synagogue in Sofia. Photo by Apostoloff – Wikipedia

Around 860 C.E., Bulgarian emissaries were still asking Pope Nicholas I whether they ought to choose Saturday or Sunday as their day of rest. The first names of the earliest Bulgarian princes -David, Moses, Aaron, and Samuel- also reflect Jewish influence on Bulgarian life.

Already enjoying trade relations with their fellows in Italy and Dubrovnik (Ragusa), local Jews -a majority of whom were still of the Romaniote (Byzantine) tradition- benefited from royal privileges that included the right to hold to post torturer! Rabbi Yaakov ben Eliyahu once recounted to his apostate cousin, the Spaniard Pau Christiani, how the good Bulgarian king Ivan Asen II had commanded two Jews to avenge their people by tearing out the eyes of Salonae’s governor, Theodore I Angeleus; known as the “Greek Devil”, the latter had made a name for himself through his hatred of the Jewish faith. But taken with pity, the pair refused their monarch’s enucleation order. In response, Ivan Asen II had the two thrown off a mountaintop.

Third century mosaic of a Menorah found in Plovdiv synagogue ©WikimediaCommons (Realsteel007)

Fleeing persecution in western Europe, Jews flooded into Bulgaria in successive waves throughout the fifteenth century, first from Hungary and Bavaria, and later from Spain after their 1492 expulsion by Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Falling under Turkish domination, Bulgaria, like neighboring Greece, proved to be one of the most accommodating countries for Sephardic Jews from Spain. More numerous, cultivated, and prosperous than Bulgaria’s other communities, the Sephardim quickly gained a foothold there, progressively transmitting to the rest of the population their unique language, Judezmo. According to historian of Bulgarian Judaism Vicki Tamir, after the fifteenth century, Yiddish was no longer heard on the streets of Sofia. Four hundred years later, Iberian culture still thrived among the Jews of Bulgaria, who now spoke old Castilian and prepared the same Spanish dishes that had decorated Cervantes’ table. This all occurred, moreover, inside the mosaic of the other Greek, Turkish, Albanian, Armenian, and Gypsy minorities.

Canetti remembers

“The first children’s songs I heard were Spanish, I heard old Spanish romances; but the thing that was the most powerful, and irresistible for a child, was a Spanish attitude. With naïve arrogance, the Sephardim looked down on other Jews.”

Elias Canetti, The Tongue Set Free: Remembrance of a European Childhood, Trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979).

Rabbi Joseph Caro

Exiled from his native Toledo, the eminent rabbi Ephraim Caro chose to settle in Nikopol. His son Joseph, author of the Shulhan Arukh, one of the greatest treatise codifying Jewish law, moved on to the Palestine city of Safed. Within the vast Ottoman Empire, where they saw little persecution but suffered heavy taxation, Jews enjoyed prosperous trade relations with the other communities spread across the Dalmatian coast, the Balkans, and the Levant.

The nineteenth century saw an upsurge in balkan nationalism, while the Jewish elite itself became gripped by the Enlightenment and its egalitarian claims.When the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War broke out, a precursor to Bulgarian independence, many Jews joined the national liberation movement that was largely controlled by the Russians.

Paradoxically, the emergence of Bulgarian nationalism was concomitant with the spread of anti-Semitism, with many locals viewing Jews as henchmen of the formerly occupying Turks. Massacres and pillages ensued, perpetrated by both the Bulgarian-Russian military and the Turkish Bashibazouks. The communities in Nikopol, Kazanluk, Svishtov, and Tsara Zagora were forced to flee en masse; the brand new synagogue in Vidin was destroyed by Russian artillery. Thousands of Bulgarian Jews found shelter in regions that were spared from war, or beyond in Andrianopolis and Constantinople.

Former synagogue of Burgas. Photo by Vassia Atanassova – Wikipedia

Following Turkey’s defeat, the 1878 Treaty of Berlin required that the newly created Balkan kingdoms, Bulgaria included, grant full civil rights to their Jewish minorities.

And yet, whereas Jews were subjects to the military draft like the rest of their fellow citizens, they were barred from attending the Military Academy and excluded from the higher spheres of government.

Bulgaria’s economic difficulties after its defeat on the First World War (it had sided with the Central Powers in that conflict) not only affected the Jewish minority but stoked local anti-Semitism as well.

It was in this era that the famous French reporter Albert Londres kept his readers on the edge of their seats with his coverage of the brutal Comitadjis, Bulgaria’s fiercely anti-Semitic underworld composed of partisans bent on annexing recently independent Macedonia.

Jews in Bulgaria were therefore less inclined to assimilate than those in other European countries at the time (such as Austria, Germany, and Hungary), where anti-Semitism was otherwise more deeply rooted.

Samokov Synagogue. Photo by Anthony Georgieff – Wikipedia

This did not prevent younger generations from abandoning the Judezmo tongue for Bulgarian, however. The country’s first Jewish newspaper, Chelovecheski prava (Human Rights) was published in Bulgarian; another community periodical, La Alborada (Dawn), initially published in Judezmo, eventually switched to the national language, too. That said, the Zionist movement also proved to be wildly successful in Bulgaria, dominating the entire community here between the wars, including the consistory. More than 7000 Bulgarian Jews emigrated to Palestine before 1948.

Allied with Nazi Germany, in 1940 the kingdom of Boris III enacted harsh anti-Semitic laws, quickly depriving Jews of all means of subsistence through a series of bans, confiscations, and forced-labor decrees. However, when Adolf Eichmann’s services demanded the final liquidation of the Jews in 1943, the fate of the armed conflict had begun turning against the Axis powers. The Battle of Stalingrad marked a turning point in the war, the Allies had landed in North Africa, and the question of a front opening up in the Balkans had arisen.

Plovdiv Synagogue. Photo by Yossi Nevo – Wikipedia

Bulgaria nevertheless handed over 12000 Jews from its annexed territories (Macedonia, Thrace, Pirot in Yugoslavia) without batting an eyelid, but retained its own nationals due to the intervention of a segment of the intelligentsia and hesitation by the state apparatus, sensitive to warnings issued by the Allied powers. The country’s 50000 Jews escaped extermination.

Several years later, Bulgaria’s new regime had still not returned to Jewish citizens property confiscated from them during the war. Bulgarian Jews eventually formed one of the largest contingents of emigrants to Israel, with 90% of the community moving there. Since 1990, Shalom, the new organization of Bulgarian Jews (consisting of no more than around 3500 members) has sought the return of “nationalized” Jewish goods, and breathed new life into a community today presided over by only a single rabbi.

Brasov synagogue © Wikimedia Commons (Gitanes232)

There is little evidence of a Jewish presence on the coats of the Black Sea before the arrival of Roman legions in the early second century C.E. Vestiges, coins, and inscriptions preserved in a museum in Bucharest, however, attest to the existence of Jews in the region throughout the first millennium. Near the end of the thirteenth century, the great voyager Benjamin de Tudela had already noted their presence in southern Wallachia.

Romania is made up of three distinct historical regions that extend beyond the country’s current borders. Wallachia is located between the southern stretch of the Carpathians and the Danube, Moldavia is enclosed between the eastern Carpathians and the Pruth River, while Transylvania neighbors simultaneously Ukraine, Hungary, and, along its southernmost province (Banat), Serbia.

Each of these regions saw different destinies under three bygone empires: the Ottomans, Russians, and Austro-Hungarian. It was not until 1859 that Wallachia and Moldavia came together as part of the small Danubian kingdom. After the First World War, they were joined by the Austro-Hungarian and Russian provinces, where Romanians happened to form a majority. These regions included Bukovina and Bessarabia, centers of Romania Judaism at the time but defunct today.

The thirteenth tribe?

Before and after the withdrawal of the Roman administration under Aurelian in 217 C.E., the Romanized Dacians north of the river were steamrolled by migratory inflow. According to an audacious and as-yet unverified hypothesis advanced by Arthur Koestler in his book The Thirteenth Tribe, the Khazars, whose empire in the eighth to tenth centuries stretched from the Volga to the Carpathians, might be the ancestors of millions of Jews living in eastern and Central Europe before the Shoah.

Built near the synagogue of Iasi, the monument honors the Jewish victims of the massacres
Monument for the victims of Iasi. Photo by Cezar Suceveanu – Wikipedia

Out of the 800000 Jews who settled in Romania between the wars -the third most important community after Poland and the former Soviet Union- only about 12000 remain today. Remember that in 1940, after the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, the Soviet Union annexed Bessarabia and Bukovina, while Hungary helped itself to a good half of Transylvania. Around 400000 Jews lived in these provinces before their massive liquidation, either by the Romanian army allied with the Nazis in the war against Soviet Union (in Bessarabia, Bukovina, and Trans-Dniestria) or in Auschwitz, handed over by the Hungarian authorities installed in occupied Transylvania. Those living in the territories that remained Romanian, however, though stripped of their belongings and marginalized, largely survived the Shoah despite pogroms in Bucharest, Dorohoi, and Lasi. Over the following decades, they emigrated to Israel, the United States, or western Europe.

Sculpted wooden doors of the hekhal of a Polish synagogue, seventeenth century  © Wolfson Museum, Jerusalem

Poland represents the most illustrious and tragic chapter in European Jewish history. For centuries, this country was the most welcoming to Jews fleeing Germany, Spain, and southern Europe; the continent largest Jewish community was born here, enjoying privileges and autonomy granted by the different kings and developing an incredibly rich culture of its own. Ultimately, however, Poland wound up the largest cemetery in Europe, the place where the Nazi dream of “exterminating the Jewish race” was almost perfectly realized. Two numbers are enough to grasp the magnitude of the disaster: there were 3500000 Jews in Poland in 1939, or 10% of the population; a maximum of 2000 to 3000 live here today. Touring Jewish Poland resembles an archaeological dig conducted after a Pompeii-style cataclysm, a search for traces of a lost civilization alive today only in literature and the memories of those who emigrated in time or miraculously survived.

The earliest remnant of a Jewish presence in Poland dates to the tenth century: a traveler from Toledo, Ibrahim ibn Jacob, wrote the first major report dealing with Poland in 965. In 1098, during the Crusades, Jews expelled from Prague settled in Poland. Jewish communities were mentioned in Plock in 1237, Kalisz in 1287, and Kraków in 1304. In 1264, the king of Poland, Boleslas the Pious, issued the “Kalisz statute”, which guaranteed Jews religious freedom and security of person and property. In the fourteenth century, under Casimir the Great, these privileges were reaffirmed in 1364 and 1367, and then once more in 1453 by Casimir Jagiello; they remained effective for Jews until Poland was divided in the late eighteenth century. Jewish communities here were virtually autonomous, enjoying the right to dispense justice and build synagogues and schools, making Poland the most tolerant country to Jews in Europe.

Starting in the mid-sixteenth century, Jewish exiles from Germany found refuge in Poland. Jewish quarters began forming in Lvov (1356), Sandormierz (1367), and Kazimierz near Kraków (1386); in all, communities were reported in eighty-five cities. Refugees continued flowing in throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries not simply from the Germanic countries but also from Spain, Italy, and Turkey. Centers of Jewish life began shifting eastward through the country.

Polish Jews from Warsaw, 1846  © Israel Museum, Jerusalem

In 1581, the first “Diet of the Four Countries” convened in Lublin (Sejm Czerterech Ziem, or in Hebrew Vaad arba aratsot) and continued to meet every year until 1764. The Sejm, or Vaad, governed the Jewish communities of Poland and Lithuania: it issues ruling , collected taxes, and worked to protect the community. It was the Vaad that voted to erect fortified synagogues in Brody, Buchach, Lesko, Lublin, Shargorod, Stryy, Szczebrzeszyn, Zamosc, Zólkiew, and other towns. In 1648, the Jewish populqtion on Poland was estimated at 500000 inhabitants, or already 5% of the total population.

A fifth of Poland4s jews were massacred by the Cossacks under Bohdan Khmelnitsky. The Hasidic religious revitalization movement was born and flourished in Poland and Ukraine as an indirect consequence of these massacres and of the impoverishment of those who survived them. Jews would have to wait until the eighteenth century for their communities to form again and grow. In 1790, after the first division of Poland, Their number reached about 900000, or 10% of the population.

From 1795 to 1918, Poland was erased from the map, split between the three neighboring powers (Russia, Austria, Prussia), except during the years 1807-15, at which time Napoleon created the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. The vast majority of Jewish communities in Poland found themselves under the Russian Empire and so lost all the privileges they had enjoyed during the Polish era. Community self-governance was suppressed, as the czar relegated the Jewish population to the Pale of Settlement and imposed other serious restrictions on them. A large proportion of Jews also lived in the section of Poland annexed by Austria (Galicia); though they did at first see some of the privileges abolished, they benefited from favorable local governments in certain cities. From 1867 to 1868, all subjects under the Austrian monarchy, including Jews, were granted equal rights. In Galicia the assimilation of Jews was greatest: a number of Jewish intellectuals turned toward German culture, such as Karl-Emil Franzos (born in Czortkov) and Joseph Róth (born in Brody), while others embraced Polish culture, such as Bruno Schultz (born in Drohobych).

After the First World War, an independent Poland was re-created with enlarged eastern borders containing “borderlands” (kresy) In Galicia, Volhynia, Belarus, and Lithuania.

Polish Jews, c. 1865  © Bibliothèque des Arts décoratifs, Paris

The “Jewish question” was increasingly posed: this was not merely a national and religious question but a social one, considering the teaming, poverty-stricken masses that lived in Poland’s ghettos. The Polish government between the wars, dominated by anti-Semitic National Democracy, burdened them with taxes and prevented their social ascent. Tensions were mounting, and when the “rising threat” and German occupation arrived, the Jews were slowly but surely abandoned by the Poles, themselves subject to severe repression and concerned with their own survival.

What followed is too well-known to be related here in detail. On 1 September 1939, the Germans invaded Poland and created ghettos in which they gathered together the Jewish population, strictly separating the Jews from the “Aryan” districts and imposing sweeping restrictions aimed at exhausting them through work and lack of food.

Starting in 1941 and throughout 1942, the ghettos were liquidated one by one, their populations transferred to newer camps in Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka explicitly designed for extermination, or to already existing ones like Auschwitz or Majdanek, set up both for labor and extermination. The entire Jewish population of Poland, with few exceptions, perished in these death camps. The best known of all the camp is Auschwitz, today the symbol of the Shoah. It was there that the industry of death was taken to its extreme. However, we will only touch on Auschwitz in this guide, precisely because its history is so well-known and because it is too much visited and so depressing. We have chosen to stop at Poland’s more beautiful sites, to discover and tour with pleasure and emotion places like Kraków, Lesko, Zamosc, and Lublin, and to present lesser known but equally moving camps like Sobibor, Treblinka, and Chelmno, where a visitor can reflect more easily that among the throngs of tourists at Auschwitz.

The postwar history of Poland’s Judaism demonstrated once again misunderstandings between Jews and Poles. Besides the rare survivors of the ghettos, the only other Jews still living were soldiers in the Soviet zone who had joined the Red Army and participated in their country’s liberation. When they returned, they found the ghettos deserted, their homes destroyed, their relatives all extermined. The first wave of emigrants to Israel began, growing in 1947 after the Kielce pogrom. Every jolt of Polish nationalism or national-Communism from then on provoked new waves of Jewish emigration, notably on 1956 with Gomulka’s arrival to power, and in 1967 and 1968 after the Six Days War. This tide of emigration almost completely emptied the country of its Jewish population: of the 300000 or 400000 still living in Poland in 1945, there remain merely a few hundred today, concentrated in Warsaw, Kraków and Lódz, their communities so depleted they often cannot gather a minyan.

 

Jewish clock on Josefov Town Hall © Øyvind Holmstad – Wikimedia Commons

Below the bell tower of Prague’s Jewish city hall, there are two clock faces. One displays Roman numerals, and the other Hebrew letters. The hands of the first clock revolve in the normal clockwise direction while those of the second turn counterclockwise, following the customary manner of reading Hebrew right to left. Such clocks are rare, and this is the only one of its kind adorning a public building. Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, like many poets and writers, were fascinated by the clocks, which evoked “a time that seems to forever turn backward”. Just opposite the tower one sees the large triangular, jagged facade of the Stare Nova (Old-New) Synagogue constructed in the thirteenth century. A few steps away is the entrance to the former cemetery and its 12000 graves. Although no more than 1200 jews remain in the Czech capital, before the war there were over 32000. The 700 Jewish communities in the cities and villages of Bohemia and Moravia were almost completely annihilated by the Shoah. Synagogues and cemeteries outside Prague, where Nazi destruction was concentrated, largely escaped damage. With the extermination of the Jews, much of their heritage was pillaged, making these monuments, in the end, a “museum of vanished people”. The Czech Republic, with its remains of the Zidovske Mesto, the former Jewish quarter of the capital, and many small ghettos of the provinces, hold the richest and most compelling ensemble of Europe’s Jewish heritage.

The first records of a Jewish presence in the Czech lands date from the ninth and tenth centuries. The Jewish-Arab merchant and traveler Ibrahim ibn Jacob described Prague in 965 as a large commercial city: “The Russians and Slavs came there from their royal cities with their goods. Muslims, Jews, and Turks also arrived from the land of the Turks with goods and money”. As evident from this famous text, a number of Prague’s early Jews came from the east adding to those from German and Italian lands. early Jewish settlements concentrated on the left bank of the Vlata, at the foot of the hill where Prague’s castle would later be erected. Massacres and forced baptisms are mentioned as early as 1096, at the time of the first Crusade, but such tragedies remained isolated. A charter signed by Prince Sobeslav II in 1174 assured Jews the same rights and privileges as other foreign merchants. Jews also had the right to move freely about the city and settle along the large commercial routes. They were active in trade and the import of luxury goods from the Orient. Representatives of the flourishing community were given frequent audience at court. Around this time the Jewish community extended to the right bank of the river, establishing itself in an enclave north of the old city that would later become the Jewish quarter. Prague thus became one of the most important centers of Jewish culture in Europe. Such well-known Talmud scholars as Isaac ben Jacob and his disciple Abraham ben Azriel were members of this community.

Stare-Nova (Old-New) Synagogue © Øyvind Holmstad – Wikimedia Commons

As in the rest of Europe, the fortunes of Czech Jews changed after the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which forbade them to possess land and drastically limited their economic activities. Jews were forced to live in separate areas and permitted only moneylending as a livelihood. Their lives improved, however, when King Premysl Otakar II, following the example of Pope Innocent IV in Rome, enacted in 1254 more favorable legislation that placed the Jews under the direct protection of the crown. It was during this period the New Synagogue was constructed, later called Stare-Nova (Old-New), the oldest building for worship in the Czech capital.

In the course of the following decades, despite Charles IV’s reaffirmation of these guarantees, the persecutions and massacres amplified. The most terrible was the Easter pogrom of 1389, which coincided with the two last days of Passover. Thousands of Jews were accused of having profaned the Host and were massacred by a fanatical crowd, encouraged by their priests. “Many were killed; to number them is an impossible task -young women, youths, old men, and babies. O you, God of all souls, not one of them needs you to recall him, you will judge all and you will know all…” So wrote Rabbi Avigdor, who, as a child, witnessed the carnage that claimed also his father. This elegy is read every Yom Kippur in the Stare-Nova Synagogue.

The Hussite wars that ravaged the Czech lands between 1417 and 1439 also adversely affected the lives of the Jews. The doctrine of Jan Hus made reference to early Christianity to demonstrate the abuses of the Church. “Catholics considered the Hussites to be a sect of Judaism, and the Hussites themselves , notably the most radical of them from Mount Tabor, saw themselves as an extension of biblical Israel”, notes historian Arno Parik, conservator of the Jewish Museum in Prague. He emphasizes that this anti-feudal revolt movement showed a certain indulgence to local Jews despite some exceptions.

Hans von Aachen, Portrait of Rudolf II, 1590 © Kunsthistorisches Museen, Vienna

The development of a monetary economy gradually marginalized the Jews. They were forced out of a number of towns in Bohemia and Moravia by a growing bourgeoisie desirous of eliminating Jewish competition in banking and lending. Although protected in the first decades of the sixteenth century by Kings Vladislav Jagiello, Ludwig Jagiello, and the Hapsburg emperor Ferdinand I at the beginning of his reign, Jews in the capital also suffered worsened conditions. In 1541, with the sovereign’s approval, the Diet voted to expel the city’s Jews. Only some fifteen families escaped banishment by bribing officials. Gradually, and for a large sum, Jews began returning to the city. In 1551, Ferdinand I forced the Jews of Bohemia to “wear a characteristic mark that would permit them to be distinguished from Christians” and to live within the wall of the ghettos. In 1558, the Jews of the capital were again threatened with expulsion and had to pay in order to remain. This precarious situation lasted nine years, until Emperor Maximilian II issued a new decree authorizing the Jews already present in Prague and other Bohemian towns to stay where they were. The sovereign reinstated their freedom to engage in commerce and circulate freely. These measures were extended by the successor of Maximilian II, the flamboyant Rudolf II (1552-1612). This “wise fool and mad poet”, great protector of scholars, astrologists, and artists, settled in Prague with his entire court after six years on the throne.

During this period Prague’s Jewish community reached its height in the Baroque efflorescence of this heart of European intellectual life, as the great Slavic Italian writer Angelo Mario Ripelino masterfully described in his work Praga Magica (Paris: Plon, 1993). Leading Jewish personalities included, for example, the mathematician and astronomer David Glans and the scholar and chronicler Rabbi Yehuda ben Betsalel, who, according to later legend, created the golem, a manlike clay creature who escaped his creator. The legendary rabbi, whose tomb is still revered, even received an audience, on 16 February 1592, with Rudolf II, who was curious about kabbalistic rituals. Another great figure, the financier and philanthropist Mordecai Marcus ben Samuel Meiser, as mayor of the Jewish quarter enlarged the cemetery and had the Jewish city hall and new synagogues built. Jacob Bashevi, an adventurer and successful financier from Italy, was given the name von Treuenburg, and thus noble status, by his protector, the infamous condottiere Albrecht de Wallenstein. The Jewish banker believed himself justly rewarded for his loyalty to the emperor, a faithfulness shared by the majority of his community.

The splendor of Jewish Prague continued until the beginning of the seventeenth century under Ferdinand II, when the revolt of the Czech lands converted by the Reformation was crushed in 1620 in the Battle of White Mountain. The Counter-Reformation triumphed throughout the Hapsburg Empire. Prague’s Jews survived the attempts to expel them that affected the communities in the provinces, but a plague epidemic in 1680 and great fire in 1689 devastated the ghetto. Some Jews considered moving to another district, but finally the new ghetto was reconstructed  on the ruins of the old.The situation nonetheless remained precarious, with explosions of anti-Semitism in 1694resulting from the Simon Abeles  affair (a twelve-year-old boy who wanted to convert to Catholicism was killed by his father  and one of his father’s friends).

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, approximately 12000 Jews resided in Prague, making it the site of the largest Jewish settlement in Christendom. Life for the Jews became very difficult, however, under Emperor Charles VI (1711-40), who decided to drastically limit their numbers in the city. In 1726 he organized a census and enacted legislation putting a ceiling on the number of Jewish families living in Czech lands (8541 in Bohemia and 5160 in Moravia). Only one son per family -usually the eldest- had the right to marry and set up a household; other male children wanting to marry had to emigrate or wait for the departure of death of other family members. The ascension of Maria Theresa (1740-80) to the throne aggravated the status of Czech Jews, especially those in Prague. To punish their alleged disloyalty during the Silesian War against the Prussians, the bigoted archduchess issued a decree in 1744 banning all Jews from the capital. The measure elicited far-reaching public outcry in Europe, but Maria Theresa remained inflexible, and 13000 Jews left the city for the surrounding areas in March the following years. The archduchess then demanded they leave the Czech territories altogether. She finally relented, however, and after exacting exorbitant payments as restitution -equivalent to ten times the normal yearly taxes- the Jews were allowed to return to Prague in 1748-49. They lived under the threat of new expulsions in a dirty, overpopulated ghetto that contained on average 738 inhabitants per acre- a population density three times that of the rest of the city. Fires were unavoidable, and one in 1754 destroyed a large part of the quarter, including six synagogues. Only at the end of the century, with the ascension of Emperor Joseph II (1780-90), did the Jews see their fortunes improve.

The old Jewish quarter in Prague is still called Josefov, in honor of the enlightened sovereign who, with the Toleranzpatent (Tolerance edict) of 1782 abolished some of the discriminatory measures against Jews. This decree accorded Jews and Protestants a measure of religious freedom as well as most of the rights enjoyed by other citizens of the empire. Only sixty years later, however, did full equality become a reality. The modernizing reforms of Joseph II, which instituted, among other things, military service and German and the language of instruction, profoundly impacted not only the empire but also the daily lives of its Jews. Thereafter Jews had access to secondary and even higher education, but the communities of Bohemia and Moravia nevertheless had to create primary schools whose language of instruction was German. Traditionalists such as the extreme critic of the Haskalah Rabbi Ezekiel Landau denounced the assimilatory trends of by the Jewish Enlightenment then spreading among German communities. The Jews were forced to give in, however, and the first German-language Jewish school opened in Prague on 2 May 1782. An elite, modern Jew was thus born and nurtured, and drawn to leave the ghetto, whose walls did not officially come down until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Virulent anti-Semitism remained in the general population, as demonstrated by riots in 1844, when angry textile workers destroyed Jewish-owned factories. In 1848, as the great wave of revolution swept across Europe and the Czech lands, the army had to intervene in Prague to protect Jewish property. With the establishment of the first Austrian constitution in the same year, the discriminatory laws were abolished and the empire’s Jews finally won full and equal citizenship. It was another ten years, however, before they gained the right to own property outside the old ghettos.

The Jewish population grew considerably from the middle of the nineteenth century. By 1890, 94599 Jews were living in Bohemia and 45324 in Moravia. An even greater number of Jews streamed into Prague and other industrial centers from the outlying towns and villages. A Jewish bourgeoisie formed, but integration proved difficult. This was due as much to the Jews feeling obliged to chose between their own culture and the Germanic world surrounding them as it was to the Czech nationalism that was increasingly suspicious of German culture and openly anti-imperialistic. “For the young Czech nationalists, the Jews were Germans. For the Germans, the Jews were Jews”, emphasized Ernst Pawel in his biography of Kafka, who experienced this conflict directly The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984). Hatred of Jews represented the only point of agreement between the most radical of the German and Czech nationalists. It is therefore not surprising that a number of the first militant Zionists came from Czech lands. On the occasion of the first language census of 1880, which could be considered as a veritable declaration of faith for one or the other of these two identities, only a third of the Czech Jews declared Czech as their principal language. Ten years later, 55% chose Czech, although in fact almost all Jews spoke German. Although under some pressure to do so, choosing the Czech language showed Jews to have an attachment to the burgeoning Czech nation.

The Czech nationalist youth movement slid easily into anti-Semitism: during the riots of 1897, after overrunning the most well-known German cultural and commercial establishments, for three days the crowd attacked Jewish shops and synagogues and anyone who appeared to be a Jew. This rage took and even more malicious form in 1899 with the Hilsner Affair, eastern Europe’s equivalent of the Dreyfus Affair in France. As Pawel notes, “Such was the hate-filled atmosphere of Kafka’s world. But he never had known anything else, and it took some time before he understood why it was so difficult for him to breathe”.

Tomáš Masaryk

The Hilsner Affair

A young woman was found murdered on 1 April 1899, the night before Easter, near the hamlet of Polná, where she lived. For the villagers, it was clearly a Jewish ritual murder. A small anti-Semitic newspaper in Prague took the news item and amplified it into a public campaign accusing Leopold Hilsner, a Jewish cobbler in the village, of the crime. He was arrested, tried, and condemned to death without proof, thus unleashing a wave of anti-Semitism throughout the empire.

Tomás Masaryk, the future first president of Czechoslovakia, was the only politician to have the courage to go against the tide of public opinion: in a small pamphlet, he demonstrated in minute detail all the inconsistencies of the investigation. Student demonstrations succeeded in forcing him from the university. The booklet was banned, and he was labeled a traitor. Nevertheless, the Left was roused, as well as some of the intelligentsia. A new trial took place, with, however, the same verdict, but the death penalty was commuted. The cobbler was finally pardoned in 1918.

Around this time the destruction of the old Jewish ghetto began as part of a vast project to clean up the oldest neighborhoods of the city. The new Jewish elite, like that in many other European cities, had little interest in preserving the houses and sordid little streets that only reminded them of the horrors of the recent past. The urban renewal operation, which lasted  until 1905, wiped away not only the run-down hovels and old buildings, but also small synagogues.

Prague’s German-speaking Jewish intelligentsia occupied a highly visible place in Czechoslovakia around the time of the First World War, especially on the world of literature as exemplified by Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Franz Werfel, Leo Perutz, and other members of the “Prague Circle”. In this city the poet Paul Kornfeld called “an asylum  for the metaphysically alienated”, three cultures, German, Jewish, and Czech, intermingled, making Prague one of the great cultural capitals of Europe. Jews had key roles not only on the art and industry but also in the political life of the new country. A representative example is Adolf Stransky, publisher since 1893 of the prestigious Czech daily Lidové Noviny. President Tomás Masaryk even traveled to Palestine in 1927 in order to visit Jerusalem and the Jewish colonies. Unfortunately, the democratic and humanist Czech Republic that he succeeded in creating would last only twenty years.

Hitler in Prague, 15 March 1939 (Czechoslovak News Agency)  © Bundesarchiv

In September 1938 Hitler imposed the Munich Accords on a Czechoslovakia abandoned by London and Paris. The accords amputated from Czechoslovakia the western Sudetenland, forcing thousands of Jews and Czechs to flee. Soon after, part of southern Slovakia was ceded to pro-Nazi Hungary, and German troops installed themselves in the rest of Slovakia, which in turn proclaimed itself an independent state allied with the Reich. In March 1939, what was left of Bohemia-Moravia was occupied by the Nazi army and placed under the direct control of the Reich. At the time, some 118000 Jews lived in this territory. With the immediate imposition of the Nazi race laws, Jews were banned from all public positions and Jewish doctors were forced to limit their practice to Jewish patients. Jewish businesses were confiscated, Jews had to register all their belongings, and their capital and assets were seized. In 1940 they were forced to begin wearing the yellow star.

The Final Solution began in the Czech lands in October 1941 with the first convoy of 1000 people to a Polish ghetto. A few months later, a ghetto was created in the small town of Terezín (in northern Bohemia), which had been emptied of all its inhabitants. Czech Jews were held there for weeks or months before transport to extermination camps in Poland. In all, approximately 89000 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia were deported, of which 80000 perished. After the war Jewish refugees from the east, especially Ruthenia, streamed into Prague. Approximately 19000 Jews emigrated to Israel. Another wave of 15000 departures followed in 1968 with the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks. Today no more than some 6000 Jews remain in the Czech Republic.

Leave?

“I’e been spending every afternoon outside on the streets, wallowing in anti-Semitic hate. The other day I heard someone call the Jews a ‘mangy race’. Isn’t it natural to leave a place where one is so hated? (Zionism or national feeling isn’t needed for this at all.) The heroism of staying on is nonetheless merely the heroism of cockroaches, which cannot be exterminated, even from the bathrooms.

I just looked out the window: mounted police, gendarmes with fixed bayonets, a screaming mob dispersing, and up here in the window the unsavory shame of living under constant protection.”

Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena, Trans. Philip Boehm (New York: Schoken Books, 1990).

Although Prague’s rich jewish heritage eclipses that of the country as a whole, Jewish institutions and tourists unduly overlook the outlying areas. In the small towns of Bohemia-Moravia, it is still possible to see extraordinary Jewish cemeteries, like that of Kolín, and well-preserved ghettos, as in Trebíc. The Nazis almost completely eliminated the small Jewish communities of the Czech territories, and a half century of neglect under Communism destroyed much of what remained of this heritage. Many synagogues have been transformed into shops, warehouses, or municipal buildings, and new structures have been placed atop former cemeteries. Still, numerous traces remain of the some 118000 Jews who, until 1939, lived in Bohemia-Moravia, evidence discovered and catalogued through the patient work of historians and conservators.

Jiri Fiedler: Archaeologist of memory

Born in Olomouc in Moravia, the historian Jiri Fiedler worked almost completely alone for many years despite the indifference or even hostility on the part of Communist authorities, compiling a list of the last vestiges of some 700 Jewish communities -proof of their presence in Czech lands over many centuries. “Today there are 200 synagogues in this country. There were 300 more than that after the war”, states Fiedler. His book Jewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia (Prague: Sefer Ed., 1991) is an indispensable guide and exhaustive catalogue of a constantly threatened heritage. Over the years dozens of small villages synagogues have been transformed into shops or storage place. Those in use as warehouses have been destroyed either by state or their owners. The small Jewish cemeteries dotting the Czech countryside are attacked by vandals convinced there is gold to be found in the Jewish tombs.

Kids playing in Bratislava. By Roman Vishniac

The history of Jews in Slovakia -dating from the sixteenth century under the protection of the Hapsburg- intersects that of their fellow believers in Hungary and the Czech Republic. Jews in these three countries experienced the same vicissitudes of discrimination, expulsions, and, in the seventeenth century, the acquisition of some civil rights. Numerous Jews from neighboring Moravia flocked to Bratislava and nearby cities. At the time a part of norther Hungary, this region was called “Magyar Israel”. Just after the installation of the double Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1867, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law emancipating the Jews and granting them full civil rights equal to those of other citizens. Their “Magyarization” accelerated, notably in the western cities. The great majority of Slovakian Jews, in contrast, lived in the east in the heart of small, introverted communities following the model of the shtetl of Galicia or Ukraine.

Anti-Semitism in Slovakia is more virulent than in the Czech Republic, where the nationalists reproach the Jews for being German cultural background. In Slovakia, they denounce Jewish assimilation to Hungarian culture. Slovakian Judaism itselt is marked by the struggle between Reform and Orthodox Jews.

With the birth of Czechoslovakia after World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, the Jews also obtained the right to be recognized as a specific nationality. Jewish cultural life bloomed in the new democratic state, where the Jews enjoyed a major economic role, especially in Bohemia-Moravia. They held more than one-third of industrial investments. In contrast, 65% of Slovakian Jews still lived in the countryside in 1930.

Jewish shop in Bratislava, 1930s.

The Munich Accords of 1938 and the capitulation of London and Paris in the face of Hitler’s demands led to the dismantling of Czechoslovakia. The Czech territory was separated from the Sudetenland. Slovakia in its turn lost eastern and southern territories to Hungary, regions where some 40000 Jews lived, and became an autonomous region. Less than a year later, in March 1939, Slovakia proclaimed its independence under the protection of Nazi Germany. Slovakia elected Father Josef Tiso as president, and as prime minister Andrej Hlinka, the leader of the Slovakian Peoples’ Party. This religious and extremely right-wing party quickly became the only political party in the country. From the first, discriminatiry measures were taken against the country’s 135000 Jews and were hardened in September 1941 with the promulgation of anti-Jewish legislation in 270 articles. This legislation forced Jews to begin wearing the Star of David and institutionalized forced labor. The deportation of the Jews to death camps (primarily Auschwitz) followed soon after. By the end of 1942, more than three-quarters of Slovakian Jews had been exterminated. The deportations and massacres resumed in April 1944, during the repression of the Slovakian Resistance movement, in which a number of Jews participated. At the end of the war there were no more than 5000 Jews in the country, who had been able to hide themselves with false papers. At most only some 20000 Slovakian Jews survived Nazism.

Bratislava was a large centre for Jewish culture, and flourishing communities existed in small cities such as Kosice or Presov; in the main, however, most Jews traditionally resided in the small western villages of what is today contemporary Slovakia. Some vestiges still exist of the close to 200 synagogues and 630 cemeteries within the boundaries of this new nation, which came to existence 1 January 1993 as part of an amiable separation from the Czech Republic. Most of the remains of a Jewish presence in Slovakia are buried under modern reconstructions or have been left in ruins. Ultimately, these ruins are the last clues to a world that has all but disappeared. Before the war, 135000 Jews (4,5% of the total population) lived within the boundaries of contemporary Slovakia. Today there remain no more than some 4000 Jews, mainly elderly. Of this greatly reduced community, 1000 live in Bratislava.

Mishnah Torah, thirteenth century. Bookstore of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

At the Jewish Museum of Budapest, a replica of a tombstone dating from the third century bears the image of a menorah. This relic attests to nearly 1700 years of Jewish presence in the Carpathian basin, predating that of the Magyar tribes who broke free from the confines of the Ural Mountains during the ninth century. The modern history of Judaism in Hungary goes all the way back to settlement by Bohemian, Moravian, and German Jews here during the eleventh century. Under Ottoman occupation (1526-1686), tens of thousands of Sephardic Jews from Spain took refuge within the empire’s borders. The country was then taken back in 1686 by the Habsburgs, unleashing a wave of pogroms. Considered as collaborators with the forces of Ottoman occupation, Jews were either massacred or expelled. They did not return until the late eighteenth century, encouraged by Joseph II’s policy of tolerance. From that point until the twentieth century, two distinct Jewish communities coexisted in Hungary. One, of Moravian and German origin, settled in both the country’s western regions and in Budapest; the other, made up mostly by Hasidism, settled in the Northeast.

In 1840, Jews in Hungary became the first to enjoy freedom of trade  within the Habsburg Empire. The nation counted around 340000 Jews at the time, many of whom enlisted in the army during the war of independence from Austria in 1848 and 1849.

The 1860s saw the rapid development of the city of Pest, where Jews had a significant presence. Meanwhile, the community’s poorest members were leaving their villages for the city to earn a living.

A sort of tacit “social contract” was developing: the Magyar nobility restricted itself to administration and political careers, gladly leaving the industrial  and financial spheres to the Jews, who possessed both capital and know-how. With the passage of the 1867 law of emancipation, Jews were granted full civil rights. They were called upon in exchange to assimilate and “Magyarize”- the Hungarian language defining nationality at the time. But as François Fejtö has pointed out in his work Hongrois et juifs : Histoire millénaire d’un couple singulier (Hungarians and Jews: 1000-Year-Old History of a Singular Couple [Paris: Balland, 1997]): “The historical Magyar class had another reason to grant Jewish civil rights. This was their desire to reinforce the weight of Magyar speakers in a country where Hungarians…held only a weak majority of 51,4% at the turn of the century, and this thanks to the support of assimilated Jews and Germans. Thus the Jews’ choice of language took on special meaning, causing the demographic balance to tilt toward the Magyar side”, a fact of primary importance, for the Magyar kingdom faced an upsurge in nationalism by other minority groups living under its control.

Despite the 1870 schism between the progressive Neolog Jews and the Orthodox community, the turn of the twentieth century marked a golden age of assimilation. In 1900, 72% of Jews were listed as Magyars. In 1910, Jews numbered 203000 in Budapest -not including converts- or 23% of the city’s population, while in Vienna and Prague they made up respectively only 8% and 5% of the population.

Between the wars, they represented only 6% of the population, though half of all merchants, manufacturers, and bankers were Jewish. In 1940, Jews owned 40% of the property in Budapest.

Allegory to the Glory of Joseph II, circa 1782  © Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, Paris.

In 1919, the dismemberment of the Hapsburg Empire altered the political landscape. Mutilated by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory. The conservative regent Horthy took the reins of the country, while Jews were becoming the target of increasing anti-semitism. Hungary became the first European country to reintroduce anti-Jewish legislation, notably the numerus clausus of 1920, though this law was unevenly applied. Horthy’s irredentist politics, meanwhile, led him into an alliance with Hitler. When the war began, this approach paid off, as Hungary quickly regained all its lost provinces. Although Horthy managed to resist Hitler’s pressure for a time, he was forced to appoint a pro-nazi government when German troops occupied the country in March 1944, resulting in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Veesenmayer, Hitler’s plenipotentiary in Hungary, declared not long after: “Thanks only to the zealous and full participation of the Hungarian police apparatus have we succeeded in completing our task in less than three months”.

Dispossessed of their belongings, 600000 Hungarian Jews -of a total of 900000- were deported. Practically every Jews from the provinces was liquidated, though half of those from Budapest (around 120000) managed to survive the Shoah.

Today, the Hungarian-Jewish community is estimated at around 100000, centered mostly in Budapest. There has been an undeniable reawakening of Jewish identity here. The newfound presence of newspaper, schools, organisations, and klezmer bands attests to a cultural rather than religious renaissance. Hungarian society has not yet settled its account with history; as François Fejtö has remarked: “No one has yet expressed, in the name of the nation, condemnation of shame regarding Hungary’s complicity, and history books remain surprisingly quiet on the subject”.

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Building located at the Jewish cemetery in the city of Ojisek
Osijek’s Jewish cemetery. Photo by Flammard – Wikipedia

Jewish settlers had to wait until the death of Austria’s Catholic and very anti-Semitic Archduchess Maria Theresa and the ascension of her tolerant son, Joseph II, to gain the right to establish communities in northern Croatia, which at the time had been Habsburg territory for nearly three centuries.

Except for the probable existence of a synagogue in Osijek (Roman Mursa) and a few rare references in documents between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, a prior Jewish presence in the region was unremarkable. Before Joseph II’s 1781 edict of tolerance, however, a few cities, like Krizevci, Koprivnica, Bjelovar, and Osijek, did permit Jewish merchants to spend a maximum of three days here during fairs, but only in exchange for a hefty tax. Then, in 1688, the Austrian army deported 500 Jews from Belgrade to work as slaves in Osijek, which had just been taken back from the Turks. A few decades later, Jews were allowed to settle in certain cities temporarily in order to guarantee a good supply of garrisons.

It was not until 1867, the year the Jews achieved total emancipation under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that their communities began to develop in Hungary, of which northern Croatia formed an integral part at the time. Croatian Jews numbered 13500 in 1880, and reached 20000 by 1900, the vast majority of them ashkenazic. Jewish fathers devoted to intellectual and commercial pursuits were succeeded by sons who were lawyers, doctors, and journalists. For these younger generations, moreover, Croatian had quickly become a maternal language.

After the First World War, the country was absorbed into the Serbian kingdom. This change, coupled with an upsurge in anti-Semitism fueled by a local nationalism and right-wing extremism, made assimilation more difficult. Zionists took control of the community’s major institutions, while a segment of the Jewish youth was drawn to the underground Communist movement.

Graves at the cemetery of the city of Split
Jewish cemetery Split. Photo by MoS810 – Wikipedia

When Germany invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, it installed an independent puppet government in Zagreb led by Fascist nationalist president Ante Pavelic. Soon after, the Ustashis, German army auxiliaries living throughout the Yugoslavian territory, attacked the Jewish community, seizing property, executing or sending residents to concentration camps (most notably in Jasenovac)- all with the aim of effecting a Final Solution.In the spring of 1943, Croatia’s concentration camps were emptied of their Jewish prisoners, who were soon exterminated in Auschwitz. The Roman Catholic Church managed to spare a few hundred Jews married to Christians; other fled to the Italian-occupied zone, while a few hundred more joined the ranks of the Resistance. At the time of the liberation, over 80% of the 25000 Jews living in Croatia in 1941 had been killed. Meanwhile, half the survivors quickly emigrated to Israel. The country’s Jewish community, though still active, consists today of fewer than 2000 members, half whom live in Zagreb.

Tower and synagogue, Maribor

A Slavic land under Germanic rule for many centuries, Slovenia finally gained independence in 1991. The fate of the Jewish population here depended largely over the years on the good will of its princes.

Nonetheless, the Jewish presence in the region goes back to antiquity. Archaeological digs have revealed a tomb engraved with a menorah at the Skocjan site, which likely dates back to the fifth century C.E. Traces in the region then disappear until the twelfth century, with documents that mention the arrival of immigrants from Central Europe and Italy. It is also known that a community prospered in Styria, where Jews owned vineyards and mills. At the time, Jews could be found living in ghettos in and around ten cities or localities, including Maribor, Piran, and the current capital of Ljubljana.

At the end of the fifteenth century, however, the Hapsburgs exiled the Jews, first from Styria and Carinthia and later from Ljubljana, confining them to a rural setting. In 1718, moreover, Emperor Charles VI ordered their complete expulsion. At the end of the eighteenth century, small communities began to reestablish themselves in the extreme northeast of the country, then under Hungarian domination: Jewish life began flourishing to an extent in or around Murska Sobota, Beltinci, and Lendava.

Lendava Synagogue. Photo by Gibalec – Wikipedia

The brief “Illyrian Provinces” interlude under Napoleonic domination, from 1808 to 1814, was not enough to convince a great number of Jews to return to the country. And in 1817, the Hapsburgs forbade them to settle in Carniola, the central region of present-day Slovenia. The total emancipation of the Jews in 1867 by the Austro-Hungarian Empire had little effect in Slovenia: the anti-Semitism was so virulent in the region that any large-scale return was discouraged.

In 1940, present-day Slovenia contained a Jewish community of 1500 people. Germany annexed the region directly into the Reich, sending more than 90% of its Jews to their deaths. Only a small minority managed to flee to the Italian-occupied territory or into the underground Resistance. Today, Slovenia’s Jewish community consists of fewer than 100 people.

Žale cemetery of Ljubljana. Photo by Dino Kuznik – Wikipedia

Rabbi Ariel Haddad, living in Trieste, the Italian town near the Slovenian border, has been touring the country every week since 2002 to help rebuild Slovenian Jewish life, which has only a few hundred members within of its communities out of a total of two million inhabitants in the country. A number that was never very high, reaching just under 1,000 Slovenian Jews in 1921.

On August 6, 2018, the country held a ceremony marking the official return of Jewish life to Slovenia. The laying of 23 remembrance stones commemorating the victims of the Shoah. German artist Gunter Demnig, behind the Memorial Stone Project which began in 1992, was present at the ceremony. As a sign of the importance of the event at the national level, the ceremony was led by President Borut Pahor and Head of Parliament Matej Tonin who laid the first two stones. 587 Slovenian Jews died during the Holocaust. The president recalled the horrors of the Shoah and warned against the resurgence of anti-Semitic hatred.