NIS, SERBIA (June 2012) – My interest in Jewish heritage dates back to when I lived and worked as a journalist in Belgrade many years ago. At that time Belgrade was the capital of Serbia and also of what was then Yugoslavia, and my principal focus, as the chief correspondent for UPI, was following mainstream developments. Still, it was back then that I first came into contact with the small surviving Jewish communities in the region, and it was also then that I first visited some of the synagogues and Jewish cemeteries that had also survived the Holocaust.
The Yugoslavia I knew years ago is long gone, broken asunder in the bloody wars of the 1990s, and I have to admit that I haven’t made too many trips back in recent years. When I do visit, though, I find myself succumbing to the almost subversive pull of the place. Each trip becomes an exploration – or, perhaps, a re-exploration -- and even sometimes an adventure.
This was certainly the case this past April, when I made a quick trip to the towns of Nis and Pirot in southern Serbia. I hadn’t been to either place in, well, decades, but some things just don’t change: delicious hot burek from a local bakery; succulent ajvar (chopped roast pepper salad) and local white cheese; local fruit brandy (quince as well as plum); endless cups of coffee; and… smoke. Yes, I had forgotten how much people in Serbia smoke. There seems to be some half-hearted attempt to create non-smoking areas, but not too many; at the excellent Stara Srbija restaurant in Nis, there was an ashtray conveniently set out right next to the “no-smoking” sign on our table.
Decades of heavy duty cigarette smoke permeated the lobby of the Hotel Ambasador, a glass and steel tower on the central square of Nis, clouding the air and adding to the “Communist retro” atmosphere of the place. The lobby in fact was something of a time capsule of the 1970s: a muddy brown color scheme, with yellowing chandeliers, modernistic stained glass decorations, and a big green potted plant that looked like some sort of alien monster. On the walls hung framed photographs from the heyday of yore – black and white snaps of Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert De Niro, and local stars attending a film festival in Nis in 1971. The only touch of the 21st century seemed to be an “Internet caffe” where you could use a couple of computers to log on.
Nis, Serbia’s second largest city, promotes itself as the birthplace of Constantine the Great, the ancient Roman Emperor who converted to Christianity, and next year the city is celebrating the 1700th anniversary of Constantine’s Edict of Milan, which proclaimed religious freedom in the Roman Empire – or, as a placard in the center of town calls it “1700 years since the triumph of Christianity.”
But I traveled to Nis on a fact-finding trip to assess the condition of two key sites of Jewish heritage: Nis’s historic Jewish cemetery and a ruined mikvah in Pirot, an ancient market town further east, near the border with Bulgaria. Both sites are unique in their historical significance, and both face an uncertain future, despite stated local desire to preserve and conserve them.
I had been invited on the trip by an old friend, Ivan Ceresnjes, a researcher at the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem and the foremost expert on Jewish material heritage in the various countries of former Yugoslavia.
Ivica -- a former president of the Jewish community in Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- had been trying for years to get me to go on a Jewish heritage documentation jaunt with him. This time, the stars aligned, and I took the long, slow train from Budapest to Belgrade: nearly eight hours to cover just 360 or so kilometers.
Early the next morning, Ruben Fuks, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia, picked me up at my hotel. We drove to the airport to meet Ivica’s five-hours-late plane from Tel Aviv and then sped down the highway to Nis, where we joined up with Jasna Ciric, president of the tiny Jewish community there. Jasna has conducted widespread documentation of Jewish heritage in the former Yugoslavia (see her web site http://elmundosefarad.wikidot.com/) and is a champion of preserving and promoting Jewish heritage in Serbia, particularly in provincial towns where few if any Jews live today. “This is my life, my mission,” she told me.
In Nis, she had been point person in getting the striking little modernist synagogue, dating from the 1920s, restored – it is now used as an art gallery – and also getting the name of the street where the synagogue is located changed to “Davidova” – David’s street.
For years she has been waging an uphill battle to secure protection and maintenance of the Nis Jewish cemetery, which is believed to date back to the 18th century or even earlier. Because of its age and, particularly, because of the mysterious carvings on many of the older grave markers, it is considered one of the most important – and enigmatic – Jewish heritage sites in Serbia; it was listed as a National cultural heritage site in 2007.
A big new cultural and touristic map set up in the center of town clearly marks the cemetery as one of the city’s attractions, but it is very difficult to visit and is under threat from several directions.
A Roma village, or Mahala, occupies one-third of the original cemetery grounds, and the rest of the site was long used as a dump. In 2004, Jasna spearheaded a major clean-up operation that lasted 43 days and removed tons of garbage and waste that covered the tombs. But illegal construction, warehouses, industry and even a restaurant and cut-rate department store have encroached on another third of the cemetery. And these builders constructed a raw, four-meter-high wall that blocks access to the surviving part of the cemetery. What’s more, despite an agreement with the municipality, little is being done to maintain or care for the part of the cemetery that survives.
The weeds had been cut ahead of our visit in April, so we were able to photograph the strange carvings on the flat, horizontal tombs – sinuous snakes, half-spheres, and other geometric forms that Ivica believes have a relationship to Jewish mysticism and possibly link the cemetery to followers of the 17th century false Messiah Shabbetai Zvi. But pictures Jasna took in June, two months later, showed the place completely choked by waist-high weeds that barred access and hid most of the tombs.
Ivica and I (along with a colleague from the Jewish Museum in Belgrade) were able to gain entry to the Mahala. It’s a labyrinth of tiny courtyards, crooked alleys and narrow passageways amid a welter of brick and concrete homes and other structures. By now, some 70 families, or between 700 and 1,500 people, live here, among the graves. Led by the headman of the village, Arif, and escorted by two security guards and two plainclothes policemen, we threaded through the site, documenting about a dozen grave markers that are visible in the open, outside houses: we did not enter any of the buildings to see what might be inside. Most of what we found were slabs or fragments embedded in the paving or protruding from the foundations of homes, but we also encountered several sarcophagi, including one with inscriptions, scattered amid hanging laundry.
It’s clear by now that the Mahala is a permanent settlement – some of the houses are very substantial – and it would be very difficult to move the villagers out. Jasna voices more concern now about the encroaching industrial and business construction and the overall neglect: town officials told us openly that they didn’t have the money to care for the site.
From Nis, Ivica and I, joined now by a young architect from Belgrade, continued on to Pirot, an hour and a half’s drive to the southeast – and what a stunning drive it is, through the deep, narrow gorge of the Nisava River. Dragan Jankovic, a photo-journalist from Pirot, came to Nis to pick us up. An amateur historian, Dragan has become the local expert on the Jewish history of Pirot, a rather pleasant town that’s famous for its sheep products – colorful woven carpets and yellow Kachkavalj cheese.
Our main concern in Pirot was to examine the old mikvah – a small, freestanding brick structure shaped something like a rounded hut. Though in ruinous condition it is one of the very few surviving traces of the pre-war Jewish community. The cemetery was razed after World War II (one gravestone is preserved at the local museum), and most of the Jewish quarter also was torn down and replaced by modern buildings. Just one pre-war house still exists. Dragan also showed up a small fountain on the main square built by pair of wealthy Jewish merchant brothers, and also a photography store that once was Jewish-owned.
According to Ivica the mikvah is the only remaining mikvah from the Ottoman period that survives in the Balkans. Hemmed in now behind new metal garages, it stands at the edge of what was once the Jewish communal compound. A modern apartment building and grassy yard occupy the site of the synagogue. Not even a photograph of the pre-war synagogue exists: no-one knows anymore what it looked like.
Surprisingly, we found the interior of the mikvah largely intact. We could see where the heater and the water channel had been, and even decorative arches and other features. A local official we talked to at the town hall said the municipality would like to find funds to restore the building as part of what seemed to be a concerted effort to restore knowledge of the Jewish past. Already there is a new information panel on the former Jewish street, and just a few weeks before our visit, a new Holocaust memorial, created and funded by the city, was inaugurated just a few steps away from the mikvah. It is in the shape of a Star of David sinking into the earth and centered on a memorial plaque to the destroyed Jewish community.
As I stood near the monument, waiting for Dragan and Ivica, I watched an older woman carrying groceries approach. She was talking to herself and looked a little disturbed. She stopped in front of the monument, and I frankly was concerned at what she might do. I shouldn’t have been. The woman took some sort of food package out of one of her bags and laid it in front of the memorial, like an offering. Then she stepped back – and appeared to be praying.
Across the street, I noticed that someone had scrawled graffiti, in English, on a wall between the Holocaust memorial and the ruined mikvah. “Scream of Justice,” it read. Somehow I found it fitting.