Sarajevo's synagogues

If you ask in Sarajevo, where the synagogue is, everyone will surely direct you to the beautiful, large, four-towered, Moorish-style building, built in 1902 for the Ashkenazi community arriving in a large number from the Monarchy, by Karel Pařík, the Czech master who designed the seventy most important buildings of Austro-Hungarian Bosnia. The reason is that, since the end of WWII, this is the only active synagogue in Bosnia, where the three thousand – now only seven hundred – Jews who returned from the death camps, pray in Bosnian, regardless of their origin and mother tongue. But also because the other former Jewish prayer houses are called in Sarajevo’s tongue not synagogue, but kalkahal, religious community –, borrowed from Sephardic/Ladino. In fact, the Jews of Sarajevo spoke in this language for four hundred years.

This postcard was written by Gizus to her friend in the Hungarian Zalaegerszeg in 1904, showing how great the Austro-Hungarian traffic was in Sarajevo until the pistol shot. The sender of the second postcard, Alois Adamtschek, however, was hardly in the picture, sending a Christmas greeting with the image of the synagogue.

In July 1492, when the Spanish rulers expelled the Jews from their country, Sultan Bayazit II immediately sent for them the Turkish fleet, led by Kemal Reis – the uncle and preceptor of the great cartographer Piri Reis – to carry them over to the provinces of the Ottoman Empire. “They call Ferdinand wise, although he made his country poor, and mine rich!”, he allegedly said to his courtiers. And he sent fermans to the governors of his provinces, commanding the acceptance and benevolent support of the refugees. This is how the Jews came also to Sarajevo, where they really enjoyed a benevolent acceptance. Janissary agha Siyavush, the Bosnian governor and later Grand Vizier, who was born in a Hungarian family in Nagykanizsa, built a special quarter for them on the edge of the bazaar. This was the Great Courtyard, in Sephardic Il Kortizo, in Turkish Čifuthana, that is, the Jewish Caravanserai, where sixty Jewish families lived and traded, and where they built their first synagogue, Il Kal Vježu, the Old Kahal.

The Sarajevo Haggadah, composed in 1315 in Barcelona, the greatest treasure of the Jews of Sarajevo

The settlement of Sephardic Jews is traditionally dated back to 1565, though they apparently arrived in several vawes and from several places along the major trade routes passing through Sarajevo, from Saloniki, Istanbul, and Ragusa/Dubrovnik. The Kal Vježu was built not much later, in 1581, and despite the great fires and the Nazi destruction, it still stands in its orignal form. It is a large three-nave sanctuary, with women’s galleries in the two side naves. The Sephardic synagogues, unlike the Ashkenazi ones, look southwards, the heklah, the Torah ark is in their southern apsis. The synagogue, which today serves as the Jewish museum of Sarajevo, is surrounded by a high wall: this much remains from the original Kortizo.

There are also other Hungarian threads in the Jewish history of Sarajevo. In 1686, following the Christian takeover of Buda – described from Jewish perspective by Isaac Schulhof in his Chronicle of Buda – several Sephardic Jews of Buda arrived with the retreating Ottoman army. Among them was Cevi Hirsh, whose family – just like that of Isaac Schulhof – perished in the siege of Buda. He was Sarajevo’s second rabbi known by name – the first one was Samuel Baruh (1623-1640), who rests under the earliest dated grave of the Jewish cemetery in Kovačić district (about which we will write in a later post) –, and for a century his offspring occupied this position. His son Haham Ishak Cevi started the Pinakes, the detailed chronicle of the Sarajevo Jews. It was lost in 1941, but the last great rabbi, Moritz Levy (1917-1941) took over a lot from it in his 1912 monograph Die Sephardim in Bosnien.

Sephardic (“Spaniolisches”) girl from Sarajevo in an early 20th-c. postcard

The building of the second synagogue, the Kal Nuevo, standing next to the old one, is associated with the name of the most revered rabbi of Sarajevo, Mojsije Moshe Danon (1815-1830). This one has perhaps the most amazing story. It happened that a Travnik Jew, Moshe Havijo converted to Islam, joined the local dervishes, practised prophecy and miraculous healing, and did not stop reviling his former co-religionists. Then in 1820 he suddenly disappeared. The Bosnian governor, Ruzhdi Bey supected the Travnik Jews of having killed him, but since they were few, and he could not crush much money out of them, the held responsible the Sarajevo Jews. He arrested the rabbi and ten superiors of the synagogue, and once they were at hand, also some wealthy Christians, and required a ransom of five hundred thousand silver groschens within two days, otherwise they would be hanged.

Since the community could collect only six thousand groschens in two days, the last night moneylender Ruben Levi turned to the Muslim superiors of Sarajevo to soften the heart of he pasha. They tried it, but it was useless. Next morning, however, in the twilight after the first prayer, three thousand Muslim men surrounded the pasha’s palace, Begluk. The guards were disarmed, the hostages freed, and the escape of the pasha was a close shave. The kahal decided to spend the collected money on the building of a second synagogue. The Kal Nuevo was erected in 1821. It is still owned by the Jewish community, which uses it for gallery of temporal exhibitions.

An anecdote of Sarajevo begs to be told at this point. A Bosnian delegation was asked in the court of Istanbul, who their best governor was. They replied: the one who left Istanbul, but never arrived at Sarajevo.

To the left the old, to the right the “new” Kal

But the story continues. Ten years later, Rabbi Moshe convoked the former hostages, Jews and Christians alike, and he announced that, according to the custom of the rabbis of Sarajevo, he would go to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, to be buried in the holy ground. However, he predicted that he would never arrive to the holy city, and also that each of those present would have a son within a year. He entrusted them with the care of his grave. While traveling towards Ragusa/Dubrovnik, he stopped in Stolać. There he had a bath, put on clean clothes, and died while praying in the coffee house. His grave is still a place of pilgrimage for Bosnian Jews, who gather around it and say kaddish on 20 June, his jarzeit.

Tomb of Mojsije Moshe Danon outside Stolać’s borders. Below: Sarajevo pilgrims at the tomb before the war

It is a strange coincidence, that Stolać is also an important center of medieval Bosnian carved tombstones, stećaks (stećci), and the rabbi’s tombstone was carved in a similar shape. The entire monumental complex of the village was proposed on the World Heritage List. And here was born the greatest 20th-century Bosnian poet, Mak Dizdar (1917-1971), whose beautiful poems were inspired by these carvings and their inscriptions. We will write about it later.

“Bogumil gravestone”, as stećci were called in the Romantic era, in the Trebović mountain above Sarajevo. Below: stećci in the necropolis next to Moshe Danon’s grave.

The good relationship between Jews and Muslims is also documented by another fact. It seems that the Jewish community did not have their own mikve, but used the Turkish baths of the nearby mosques for ritual cleansing. From 1767 on, the books of accounts regularly report that the hammams of the two largest mosque complexes, of Isha Bey and Ghazi Husref Bey, were hired for ritual bathing before weddings.

Sephardic women from Sarajevo on early 20th-century postcard

As the district south of the two Kals was the area of the bazaar and of the Muslim population, the natural direction of the 19th-century outbreak of the Sephardic Jews was north. They built their elegant eclectic and Art Nouveau buildings on the two sides of the road leading from the bazaar to Ragusa/Dubrovnik, called first Shalom Albahari, later Čemalusa, and now Tito street. Before the war, there were six hundred Jewish-owned shops along the long street. At the beginning of the street, where the northern highway going round the bazaar and Ferhadija, the bazaar’s main street meet, a Hungarian Jewish entrepreneur, Daniel A. Salom built an elegant cornerhouse in 1893, the Grand Hotel, which was also designed by Karel Pařík. Next to it was built in the late 19th century the prayer house called Kal di Kapon after its founder, the highly educated Avraham A. Kapon, community treasurer, writer and publisher. It was also called Kal de Đajen after its best-known director, Sebatej Đajen, and also Kal de lus mudus, the prayer house of the mutes, for it used chorus at the service, during which the believers prayed in silence. The synagogue is today a residential house. The tradition of the chorus is continued by the choir of the Ashkenazi synagogue, which also performs Sephardic rite and Sephardic secular songs on a regular basis.

The Čemalusa and the Grand Hotel in 1917. In that year, the Grand Hotel is already Landesbank (who goes to visit Sarajevo during the war?) and the street also bears the name of Franz Ferdinand. Not for long.

Sarajevo’s synagogues. Click on the red dots

The hilltop north of Čemalusa, Mejtaš with its winding streets was also considered a Jewish district. In the middle of the quarter, on Mejtaš Street was built the Mejtaš prayer house, which is also a residential house today, but its first-floor medallions with the menorahs and stars of David bear witness to its original function. Its founder, Avram Papo came from one of the most prominent Sephardic families, which also boasted with the pharmacists of the city – the equipment of their pharmacy is today in the Jewish museum – and with Laura Papo Bohoreta (1891-1942), the first Sephardic female writer and first feminist in the Balkans. We will later report about her book La mujer sefardí de Bosna (The Sephardic woman of Bosnia).

The Mejtaš prayer house today

The Papo pharmacy in the bazaar

The last and largest synagogue of the city was so short-lived, that it was completely erased from the memory of Sarajevo. It is not even mentioned in most Jewish sites, and you can find material on it on the postcard auction sites. The huge Sephardic synagogue, the largest one in the Balkans, was erected between 1926 and 1930 as a counterpart of the Ashkenazi synagogue on the opposite river bank, in the Art Nouveau neighborhood. Its builder, Rudolf Lubinski of Zagreb, himself a Jew, was one of the greatest Croatian Art Nouveau artists. The Kal Grande was therefore built in the same Art Nouveau style as the Ashkenazi one, but also with many Art Deco details, with a large elliptic dome, and with an entrance courtyard imitating Alhambra. Its apsis, according to the Sephardic tradition, looked toward south, the river, while its entrance was from the north.

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The synagogue, designed for two thousand believers, stood only ten years. The Ustashas entering the town in April 1941, while their Nazi hosts unscrewed the Yugoslav Gavrilo Princip memorial plaque on the site of Franz Ferdinand’s assassionation, and sent it to the former Austro-Hungarian corporal Hitler for his birthday, systematically destroyed the synagogue’s equipment, and annihilated the archives of the four-hundred-year old community. The three thousand Jews coming back from the twelve thousand strong pre-war community (20% of Sarajevo’s pre-war population) agreed to use the Ashkenazi synagogue, and donated the Kal Grande to the city. It was restored in 1965. Until the change of the regime, it hosted the Đuro Đjakovic Workers’ University, and today is the house of Bosnian culture. In its lounge, a huge marble menorah recalls the 400th anniversary of the settlement of the Jews in Sarajevo.

Hitler watching the Gavrilo Princip memorial plaque sent for his birthday on 20 April 1941, in the Illustrierter Beobachter

Locals pillaging the Kal Grande after the destruction of the Ustashas

The pillaged Kal Grande

We will return several times to the history and memories of the Sarajevo Jews. Now we say good-bye to it with the Sephardic song, well-known also in Bosnia, which gave the title to Vesna Ljubić’s 2001 film on the Jews of Sarajevo. It is still often performed here, like by Barimatango in Mostar, or Bojana Marković’s Flamenco band. The following version comes from the neighborhood, the Macedonian Baklava ensemble, from the film The Third Half (Treto poluvreme, 2013) about the tribulations of Sephardic Jews during the war. You can also watch/listen to it together with the film’s trailer.

Adio kerida (Good-bye, my darling). Performed by Baklava Ensemble.

adio, adio kerida
no kero la vida
me l’amargates tú

tu madre kuan te parió
y te kitó al mundo
korasón eya no te dió
para amar segundo

va buškate otro amor
aharva otras puertas
aspera otra pasión
ke para mi sos muerta
good bye, my darling,
I don’t want my life
poisoned by you

your mother, when she gave birth
to you, and brought you to the world,
did not give you a heart
to love anyone else but yourself

go, look for another lover
knock on other doors
hope another passion,
for you are dead to me

Tombstone in the Jewish cemetery of Kovačić district

1 comentario:

Fawzia Radman dijo...

This was an amazing article, very well written and informative. I would like to make a minor correction. "Cemalusa" and "Tito Street" are not one and the same. They still go under these names, but they are two different locations. Iwould like to share something with you.
I was born in Sarajevo, in Ferhadila Street in an apartment in a building which my grandfather built. I attended a small elementary school behind the Cathedral as did all children from that neighborhood. It was in 1953. Before WW2 there was very large Sephardic population in that area. The furniture in the classroom was prewar, and on the top of the desk was carved SARA KAMHI. 1938.
I am seventy two, and sometimes wonder what happened to this little girl whose desk I shared.
Thank you.