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The Troubled Past and Bright Future of Belgrade’s Jews

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Sukkat Shalom synagogue, the only functioning shul in Belgrade. (Michael Fraiman photo)

On a hot June day in 1862, a child named Sava Petkovic waited in line for some water on a relatively quiet residential street in Belgrade. The shady trees were in full bloom, but the sun was too strong, drawing locals out from their wooden homes and into the sweaty streets. They weren’t the only ones who were thirsty: some Turkish soldiers, representatives of the Ottoman Empire’s fading rule over Serbia, wanted some water for themselves and weren’t keen on waiting, so they pushed the young Petkovic out of the way and cut the line.

Petkovic didn’t like that, so he pushed back – a small act of resistance that would soon spark a full-blown citywide riot. The Ottomans struck Petkovic, so local Serbian police arrested the officers, resulting in more Turkish soldiers opening fire. Today, the Cukur Fountain incident, as it’s known, is commemorated by a small statue of a dead boy lying on the very spot where the fountain once stood.

The story is relatively well known among Belgraders, but what’s less known is the Jewish postscript. During the chaos, some Serbs fled to a Jewish office in the neighbourhood – the only concrete building on a street of wooden homes. An Ottoman soldier threw a bomb at the building, but it somehow got lodged in the wall and didn’t explode. When the rabbi walked outside and saw the bomb, he proclaimed it a miracle. The locals agreed, fuelling their spirits and justifying their fight for independence.

You can’t learn that part of the story just by visiting the statue. My wife and I heard it from Aleksander Stojanovic, a professional tour guide with Domovina, a company that offers Jewish tours of Belgrade and rents apartments throughout the city. The apartment we rented from the company was a great deal – easily the biggest space we’ve stayed in during our nine weeks travelling across Europe, and priced far lower than the city’s ritzy downtown hotels – so we were excited to add the tour to our itinerary and dig into Belgrade’s Jewish roots.

The Jewish cemetery in Belgrade, featuring a Holocaust memorial by renowned Serbian artist Bogdan Bogdanovic. (Michael Fraiman photo)

Stojanovic himself is Orthodox Christian, but he did a PhD on Serbia’s Nazi collaborators. Chatty and encyclopedic, he offered deep insights into every building and monument with a Jewish connection, from the rabbi’s contribution to the Cukur Fountain incident, to the storied history of a former elder-care home whose facade bears ornate Hebrew script.

A recurring motif, as with most Balkan countries, is the Holocaust. The Germans destroyed or defiled most of the city’s Jewish culture: they blew up one massive Sephardic synagogue (“One building every Belgrader was proud of, regardless of religion,” Stojanovic sighed, exhibiting charming nostalgia for a structure he’d never seen) and used another synagogue, the only currently functioning one, Sukkat Shalom, as a brothel, after which rabbis spent a year purifying it.

Stojanovic’s three-hour tour offered more information than we could absorb, but there’s a reason: Serbia is unique in the Balkans, as it has warmly accepting Jews throughout its history. “Serbians did not perceive Jews as ‘other,’ ” he told us. “They saw them as Serbs of Jewish faith.”

For proof, one can head to the city’s Jewish community centre. As soon as I sat down in its vast boardroom, the president of the Belgrade Jewish Community, Domilo Medic, extended to me a box of fine milk chocolates.

Jewish community leaders, including Domilo Medic, second from left. (Michael Fraiman photo)

“We just got them from the American Embassy,” he explained. He then reached deeper into another gift bag and pulled out a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label scotch, giving it a look of approval.

When I told him I was curious about Belgrade’s modern Jewish community, its successes and struggles, he replied with dry humour: “Actually, we are struggling. We were expecting Belgian chocolates.”

This is Belgrade’s new Judaism: wealthy, confident and connected. Everything changed in early 2016, when Serbia became the only former Yugoslavian country to make good on an international commitment to compensate the Jewish community for the horrors suffered during the Holocaust – specifically, Medic told me, because Serbs and Jews suffered together under Ottoman rule.

“The bond between our two people is the bond of common suffering,” he said.

The Serbian government agreed to pay 950,000 euros ($1.4 million) annually to the Serbian Jewish community for 25 years, in addition to handing over the leases to several historic Jewish properties, which the community now rents out for additional income.

The news rocked Belgrade’s Jews. Suddenly, a community long held together by volunteers watched an influx of paid staff take over and institutionalize everything. (The transition was allegedly ugly: the current leadership is largely composed of patronage appointments, while the former volunteers were essentially pushed out.) Community members followed the same pattern: before the restitution law, the community counted 92 Jewish Belgraders under age 18; after the new funding allowed them to offer child support and other benefits, that number shot up to 277.

“The community got more wealthy and powerful,” Medic said. “There is security and comfort among community members now.”

They’re putting the money toward local projects, but movement is slow. They briefly considered moving the Jewish museum, located on the building’s second floor – a slapped-together treasure trove of original Sephardic clothes, Yugoslavian artifacts and old tombstones – but nothing has happened yet. They also excavated the ruins of a former synagogue by demolishing the old basketball court that stood on the site, but construction walls have blocked the area for months with no apparent end in sight.

In the meantime, Medic recommends any Jewish visitors to Belgrade see the Jewish cemetery, whose centerpiece is a massive sculpture by renowned Serbian artist Bogdan Bogdanovic, who also created the Stone Flower at Croatia’s largest concentration camp. Stojanovic agrees with the idea: of all the Holocaust monuments in Belgrade, Bogdanovic’s is one of the most impactful, far more deserving of public attention, he argues, than the larger abstract communist works whose dedications list inflated numbers of “all the victims of fascism.”

Instead, this sculpture, which resembles two broad wings, is composed of the stones from destroyed Jewish tombs and buildings, forging a palpable connection to Serbia’s Jewish past. Walking through the winged gateway, you can see a menorah, its seven lamps reaching skyward like human arms, a beacon of hope at the end of a grey and dreary path. Luckily for Serbian Jews, that light may actually shine for many years to come.