When Hana Montiljo was born in Sarajevo in 1940, Jews had been living in Bosnia for 400 years, but one year after Hana came into the world, more than 85% of Sarajevo’s Jews were murdered. Hana Montiljo-Gasic shares with us her pictures and her stories of a world that no longer exists.
The history of Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina can be traced back more than 500 years. Many Sephardic Jews arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina after their expulsion from Spain under the Expulsion Decree, also known as the Alhambra Decree. This decree banished 20,000 Jews from the Kingdom of Spain, where they had lived for thousands of years. Learn more about the 1492 expulsion of the Jewish population from Spain in this article from the Jewish Virtual Library.
Many of the expelled Jews re-settled in the Ottoman Empire, to which the area of Bosnia and Herzegovina belonged. The ruler of the Empire, Sultan Bajazet II, welcomed them. The descendants of Jews from Spain (and Portugal) are referred as Sephardim, as “Sepharad” means Spain in Hebrew.
Sarajevo became the centre of flourishing Jewish life in the Balkans. In 1577, the Jewish community was allowed by the Ottoman rulers to build their own quarter - El Cortijo (“the courtyard”). Some years later, in 1581, the city’s first synagogue, the Old Synagogue, or Velika Avlija, was built with the help of a Muslim benefactor. Even today, most of the Jews who live in the area are Sephardim. However, when Sarajevo became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878, many Ashkenazi Jews also migrated to Sarajevo. The Jewish Virtual Library provides information on the Ashkenazim.
When the Second World War broke out, about 14,000 Jews lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A Nazi puppet state was set up, called the NDH (Independent State of Croatia), which included Bosnia and Herzegovina in its territory. In 1942, the interior minister of this fascist state, Andrija Artukovic, claimed the Jewish question “had been settled in the NDH”. Indeed, most Bosnian Jews were annihilated: only about 4,000 Bosnian Jews survived, either by joining partisan groups or by fleeing. After 1945 some of the survivors returned and the Jewish community was slowly rebuilt.
In recent years, the number of Jews emigrating from Bosnia and Herzegovina has decreased. Today approximately 1000 Jews live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, about two-thirds of them in Sarajevo. About ninety percent of the community has a Sephardic background. However, mostly older people still speak Ladino. Learn more about the Jewish history of Bosnia-Herzegovina in this article provided by the Jewish Virtual Library or in this Centropa film.
In 1878, centuries-long Ottoman Turkish rule ended in Bosnia-Herzegovina when the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed the land and occupied it. From 1912 onwards, the region was the site of various wars as Serbia began to challenge Austro-Hungarian rule in the Balkans. This conflict eventually led to the assassination of heir to the Austrian throne, the archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo. Today this act is known as the spark that ignited WWI. Read more about WWI here.
When Austria-Hungary collapsed at the end of the war, the Serbian army occupied the area that became Yugoslavia. In 1918 they established a union known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Solvenes, which stretched from the Western Balkans to Central Europe. Migration, religious differences, and a history of occupation meant that this kingdom was one of the most ethically diverse in Europe between the wars. Tito, who would later lead the region, famously said: "I am the leader of one country which has two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six republics, surrounded by seven neighbours, a country in which live eight ethnic minorities."
Right from the start, problems arose between the different ethnic groups. In 1929, King Alexander I tried to curb nationalist and separatist tendencies by turning the country into a royal dictatorship and renamed the country "Yugoslavia". He also decided to abolish the country's historic regions and drew new internal boundaries for provinces, or banovinas, that avoided all historical and ethnic lines. Read more about the interwar years of Yugoslavia.
Alexander I's plan failed and when, in April 1941, Axis troops conquered Yugoslavia; many of its citizens didn't mourn its passing. The country was split up: an independent Croatian state, which also included most of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was created under the rule of the fascist Ustashe movement, who became a Nazi puppet state.
During the war, Yugoslavia was occupied by German, Italian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian groups. The Axis powers were able to exploit the tensions between the many different ethnic groups in the region. Yet, large-scale genocide campaigns were conducted against Serbian, Jewish and Roma citizens. The head of the Croatian state, Ante Pavelic, declared: “the Jews will be liquidated in a very short time”. Indeed, the vast majority of Yugoslavia’s Jews were murdered during the war.
The Ustashe authorities quickly set up concentration camps in Yugoslavia, the largest of which was Jasenovac. Between 77,000 and 99,000 people would be killed in this camp or at the nearby killing fields at Granik and Gradina, among them Jews, Roma, Serbs, and political dissidents. Other camps were established at Danica, Stara Gradiska, Loborgrad, and Djakovo.
After Yugoslavia fell to the Nazis, two resistance movements emerged: one by the Chetniks, who were Serbian pro-monarchist partisans, and one by communist partisans, led by Josip Brosz Tito. However, the movements had irreconcilible aims, and so civil war broke out in Yugoslavia between the fascist Croatian Ustashe, the pro-monarchist Chetniks, and the communist partisans. Some Jews survived by fleeing to or fighting with Tito’s partisans. In 1945, Tito’s communists liberated Sarajevo. Read more about the civil war here.
Tito became prime minister and later long-time president of the communist Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was founded after the war. He ruled the country until his death in 1980.
Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980) was the most defining figure of 20th century Yugoslav history. Here you can watch a documentary about Tito. In 1948, after a conflict between Tito and Stalin, Yugoslavia was expelled from the international association of socialist states, Cominform. In the following years Yugoslavia developed its own version of communism - Titoism.
Tito was a popular public figure in Yugoslavia, viewed as a unifying symbol for the Yugoslav federation. However, he is also named the architect of Yugoslavia's disintegration and remains a controversial figure.
The delicate balance between the different ethnic groups in Yugoslavia was disrupted during the 1990s. The collapse of communism led to a series of conflicts and political upheavals. A combination of foreign debt, inflation, unemployment, strong nationalist feelings and political problems created a troublesome atmosphere. This eventually led to a crisis and the country fell apart into several independent countries. Slovenia and then Croatia were the first to break away, but could only do so at the cost of sparking conflict with Serbia. By 1992 further conflict had broken out in Bosnia, which had also declared independence. Because Bosnia's demographic structure was comprisied of Serbs and Croats that made up close to 50% of the total population, and because ideas of independence rested with the ethnicities rather than the nation as the whole, large sections of Bosnia came under dispute, causing the Yugoslav wars.
The Serbs who lived in Bosnia were determined to remain within Yugoslavia and to help build a greater Serbia. There was fierce fighting between Bosnian-Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. The Serbs massacred thousands of Bosnian-Muslims and engaged in ethnic cleansing. The capital, Sarajevo, was surrounded and besieged by Bosnian-Serb forces, which controlled around 70% of Bosnia. The presence of UN peacekeepers to contain the situation proved ineffective and only in 1995 was a peace agreement signed.
The Bosnian War left the newly-independent country, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and its multi-ethnic capital, Sarajevo, all but devastated. This photo documentary for the New York Times by Andy Spyra, called “The Unending Echoes of the Bosnian War” offers insight into the human suffering caused by this war Here you can watch a Centropa film about how an old synagogue in the Bosnian war zone became a beacon of hope for everyone. During the Bosnian war, the Jewish community of Sarajevo opened their own humanitarian aid agency inside the city’s synagogue, and was soon joined by their Muslim, Croat and Serbian friends.
In December 1995, the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina – also referred to as the Dayton Agreement – was signed in Paris. This agreement ended the war in Bosnia, which had lasted for three and a half years. Here you find a summary of the Dayton Peace Agreement.
Here you can find a timeline of the recent history of Bosnia-Herzegovina, from 1908 until today.
The Haggadah is a book read by Jews at the Seder on the first night of Passover, which tells of their freeing from slavery in Egypt, an event also known as the Exodus. As well as the story, the Haggadah also contains songs and points of discussion. The Exodus story is read out in accordance with the Biblical command to tell your son of what happened in Egypt, which is why “haggadah” literally means, “telling”. Its opening lines invite all who are hungry to eat, and all who are needy to come and celebrate Passover together.
The Sarajevo Haggadah is arguably the most famous Jewish book in the world. It was created sometime in 14th century Spain, which was a golden age for manuscript painting. One of the reasons the Sarajevo Haggadah is so famous is because it left Spain after the expulsion of the Jews, resurfaced in 17th century Italy and escaped being burned during public burnings of Jewish books. The Haggadah then made its way from Italy to Sarajevo, and it is one of the few copies left from this era.
The Sarajevo Haggadah, and had such important status that the occupying Germans launched a search for it, with the intent to destroy it. Dervis Korkut, a Muslim scholar, hid the book from the Nazis, ensuring its survival through the Second World War. For this, and for helping hide Jews during the Holocaust Kokurt was named Righteous Among the Nations.
During the Bosnian war (1992-1995), the Sarajevo Haggadah disappeared, but remained a symbol of hope for the city. Rumours abounded as to its whereabouts, until in 1995, during the siege, the Bosnian President attended the Jewish community’s seder and brought the Haggadah along with him. Watch this film about the Sarajevo Haggadah during the Bosnian war.
Duration:14:40Countries:Bosnia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, North Macedonia