Sarajevo Stories

The Jewish community in Sarajevo

The first Jews to come to Sarajevo were Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century.

The oldest written document related to Sarajevo Jews is a sidžil (court document) from 1557 which makes mention of one Jusuf, a scribe and accountant, who had a debt of 1,852 akča (Ottoman silver coins), which the deceased had borrowed from a wool dyer named Hasan and an unnamed Jew.

However, Sarajevo’s Jewish community puts the date for the actual founding of their municipality at 1565, when Jews are again mentioned in one court document as traders of felt and processed goatskins.

At first, Jews took up residence in Sagrakči Hadži Mamudov mahala, known locally as Ulomljenica, which took in parts of Sagrdžija, Ulomljenica and Toromanova Streets.

As their numbers increased, they expressed the need for a way to properly organize their social life, so the Jews of Sarajevo approached the Ottoman officials, asking them to set aside a place where they could live and perform their religious duties.

Their request was fulfilled in 1581 by the Grand Vizier, Sijavuš Pasha, who gave funds for the Jews to construct Sijavuš Pasha’s Daire near the Sarajevo čaršija. This large inn was called Kortiž by the Jews and Velika Avlija by other Sarajevans.

First temples

At the end of the 16th century, the first synagogue in Sarajevo was built in this small Jewish neighborhood, which wasn’t a typical ghetto, as the doors were always open. It was known as Stari Hram (Old Temple), as well as Old Synagogue and Great Temple (Il Kal Grandi), and it now houses the Jewish Museum.

The first known Sarajevo rabbi was Samuel Baruh from Solun, whose tombstone is considered the oldest of its kind in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Kovačići, where Sarajevo’s Jews have been buried since the middle of the 17th century.

After Bosnia was occupied by the Austro-Hungarians in 1878, Aškenazi Jews also began to settle in Sarajevo and the Aškenazi Municipality was established in 1879. The Ashkenazi Synagogue, as designed by Karl Paržik, was built in 1902 and is now the only active Jewish temple in Sarajevo.

Up until the Second World War, Sarajevo’s Jewish community continued to grow with the city.

The Sephardic Jews, who were the greatest in number, built the Great Temple between 1926 and 1930. It now houses the Bosnian Cultural Center, but it could accommodate around 2,000 worshippers. A census from 1935/1936 shows that 12,500 Jews were living in Sarajevo at that time, which was about 16% of the city’s population of 80,000.

450 years after

Some 1,500 or more of Sarajevo’s Jews survived the Fascist occupation and deportation to concentration camps. Most of them participated in the Partisan movement and the struggle for Yugoslavia’s liberation.

After the Second World War, a percentage of Sarajevo’s Jewish population moved to Israel and others left during the last war, so there are now fewer than 700 Jews living in Sarajevo.

While the number of remaining Jews is small, they have had a tremendous influence on the development of this city to become the Sarajevo that we know today, the Sarajevo that Pope Francis recently called “the Jerusalem of Europe”.