This year's Passover celebrations will be intimate, in close family circles, despite the fact that communal prayer and Seder supper was not even missed during the siege of Sarajevo. The Seders held during the siege had gathered up to 200 members of the Jewish community at the Ashkenazi Synagogue. (The war-time Seders can be viewed via the link.
On the eve of Passover, chazzan of the Sarajevo Synagogue, Igor Bencion Kožemjakin, distributed to the members of the Jewish community unleavened bread, to be eaten during the holidays, and a prayer in Latin script was sent to those who do not read the Hebrew script.
Traditionally during the Passover, Jewish families gather to read from Haggadah, Jewish prayer book. One of the most famous ones is Sarajevo Haggadah, an invaluable masterpiece of medieval Jewish art, preserved today in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This manuscript was brought to Sarajevo in the 16th century by the Sephardic Jews after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal.
Jews in Sarajevo
Originally, the Jews were settled in the Sagrakči Hadži Mahmudova Mahala (neighborhood), colloquially known as Ulomljenica, and which encompassed parts of the present-day Sagrdžije, Ulomljenica and Toromanova Streets.
In addition to working in trades during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Sephardic Jews had also begun opening Sarajevo's first apothecaries - shops which sold medicinal herbs, ointments and medicinal spices and which were called attari.
The Jewish Community in Sarajevo was established in 1565. As their numbers grew, they asked the Ottoman governors to provide them with a place to live and perform religious ceremonies.
Then in 1581, the Grand Vizier Sijavus-Pasha funded the construction of Sijavus-Pasha Daire, near Baščaršija, which was essentially the first residential quarter for Sarajevo Jews, known as Kortiž among the Jewish community members, as Velika Avlija (the Grand Courtyard) by the rest of Sarajevans.
At a time, this was the only Jewish dwelling in Europe whose doors were always unlocked, so the travelers started referring to it as "Little Jerusalem".
The first known rabbi in Sarajevo was Samuel Baruh of Thessaloniki, whose tombstone is considered the oldest one in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Kovačići, where the Jews of Sarajevo have been traditionally buried since the mid-17th century.
Sephardi and Ashkenazi
After the occupation of Bosnia by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy (1878), the Ashkenazi Jews began settling in Sarajevo. In 1879, the Ashkenazi municipality was founded. Soon after, in 1902, the first Ashkenazi synagogue was built utilizing the designs of Karl Paržik. Today, this synagogue is the only active Jewish place of worship in Sarajevo, and it still is the third largest one in Europe.
The Sephardic Community, which still comprised a majority of Jewish inhabitants in the city, had built the Great Temple from 1926 to 1930, to accommodate to its growing population. The Great Temple, present-day Bosnian Cultural Center, was able to accommodate around 2000 worshipers.
According to the 1935/1936 census, 12 500 Jews lived in Sarajevo, making up around 16 percent of the city's then population of about 80 000.
Following World War II, just over 1,500 Sarajevo Jews survived the Nazi occupation and deportation to concentration camps, mostly those participating in the partisan movement and struggle for the liberation of Yugoslavia.
Some surviving Sarajevo Jews had moved to Israel soon after World War II, while some left during the last war. Today, Sarajevo Jewish community is 500 to 700 members strong.
Although small in number, the impact of Jews on today’s Sarajevo is immense. So much so that just recently Pope Francis referred to our city as European Jerusalem.