Elkan’s View from Dubrovnik

ELKAN’S VIEW 3rd June 2015

Jewish settlement in Croatia, where I will be when you read this, has had a long and very colourful history, although recently both sad and bloody.

Jews are believed to have settled in Croatia around the third century when Roman influence was very powerful there. Archaeologists have found remains of a third century synagogue, and it seems clear that one stage the Jews took refuge in the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian, and even built a synagogue there.

One of the earliest references is a letter from the Spanish Rabbi and diplomat Hasdai Ibn Shaprut referring to a Jewish community in the territory, and it would seem that the King of that area sent a delegation to Cordoba which included “Mar Shaul and Mar Joseph”, both Jewish names and titles.

Sephardi Jews arrived in Croatia after the 1492 expulsion from Spain, and although Jews in the area suffered various restrictions, some of the more enlightened leaders encouraged their settlement on the basis that as merchants they would promote trade and therefore prosperity. In the 19th century the area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and by 1873 the Jews had full legal equality. There were a number of flourishing communities in the interwar period especially in Zagreb.

In April 1941 Axis Powers invaded Yugoslavia and this proved to be the doom of Croatian Jewry. The ultranationalist and anti-Semitic Ustaše party established the Independent State of Croatia and enthusiastically erected a series of concentration camps. The most notorious of these was Jasenovac the cruelty of whose methods was said to exceed even those at Auschwitz. A total of 32,000 Jews, or 75% of the country’s prewar Jewish population, was murdered.

The list of righteous Gentiles who helped the Jews is large and includes both Muslims and Christians.

After the war many Croatian Jews made Aliyah to Israel but there are synagogues in Dubrovnik Split and Zagreb. There is a strong and flourishing cultural identity including the Zagreb Jewish Film Festival.

Like many other communities however the Jewish community of Croatia wonders how long it will have a future.