Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Religion Unplugged

In the courtyard of this city’s Bosnian Cultural Center are posters touting upcoming concerts and theatrical events at the 800-seat theatre inside. Nestled in one side of the courtyard is something that may seem out of place at a music venue - a giant menorah.

The great, gray building was once the “Il Kal Grande,” or the Great Synagogue - the third largest synagogue in Europe, capable of seating 2,000 of Sarajevo’s prewar population of 10,000 Jews.

But after the Holocaust, both the building and the city’s Jewish community were in ruins. The few surviving Jews “donated” the rubble and the very valuable riverside property it rests on to the city. Many of them emigrated to Israel. The city of Sarajevo erected the menorah as a monument to the past. 

Bosnia Herzegovina Mostar

Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where a Jewish synagogue is now a puppet theatre. PICTURE: Kimberly Winston.

The Bosnian Cultural Center is just one of an unknown number of valuable properties in this Balkan nation that once belonged to Jews but were confiscated either by Nazis or the Yugoslavian communist government that succeeded them - and sometimes by both. Today, more than 70 years after World War II - almost 30 years after both the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the end of the Bosnian War - Bosnian Jews are still awaiting restitution for these long-gone homes, commercial buildings, places of worship and burial sites. 

“There used to be seven fully functional Sephardic synagogues in Sarajevo. Now there are none.”

- Francine Friedman, a Ball State University professor who has spent years researching and writing about Bosnian Jews.

As the world marked the 18th annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27th January, Bosnia’s small community of Jews are no closer to gaining restitution than they were in 1945. A stew of stalled legislation, benign neglect, an absence of political will and, perhaps most potently, ongoing genocide denial by some of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s top leaders, makes it unlikely restitution will happen soon.

“That’s only one building that never came back,” Francine Friedman, a Ball State University professor who has spent years researching and writing about Bosnian Jews, said of the former synagogue. She estimates between 25 and 40 per cent of present-day Sarajevo was once owned by the city’s Jewish residents. 

“There used to be seven fully functional Sephardic synagogues in Sarajevo,” Freidman continued, referring to Jews originally of Mediterranean descent. “Now there are none.” 

The vast majority of Bosnia’s Jews came to the region after they were expelled from Spain and Portugal by its Roman Catholic leaders in 1492. Sarajevo - with its ring of broad-shouldered mountains and city-spanning rivers - became home to the largest community of Sephardic Jews outside Spain.  

By the mid-20th century, there were approximately 14,000 Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews - originally from the Rhineland area - in Bosnia, the majority of them in Sarajevo. According to Friedman, author of Like Salt for Bread: The Jews of Bosnia and Herzegovina, they were military officers, businessmen and factory owners, doctors, lawyers and tradesmen.

“They came to Bosnia, they settled in Bosnia, they married Bosnian women, they acquired property,” Friedman said.

The exact number and value of properties once owned by Bosnia’s Jews is elusive. Records have disappeared, were destroyed or were never created as the region shifted hands over the centuries from Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Nazi and Yugoslavian rule. And the destruction, displacement and general carnage of the Bosnian War - which pitted Catholic Croats, Bosniak Muslims and Serbian Orthodox citizens against each other - only added to the chaos. 

In a 2020 report on the status of Holocaust restitution in Europe, the US Department of State reported the Jewish community of Bosnia believes that about 10 per cent of all seized property once belonged to Jews and placed a value of $US3.3 billion on the lot. 

In 2003 - eight years after the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian War, which saw between 120,000 and 300,000 people killed - the national Bosnian government passed a law allowing religious communities to seek restitution for their seized property. But the country’s local governing bodies - called “entities” and roughly similar to state governments - never adopted it. The result is a kind of catch-22: Bosnian Jews and other religious groups have the right to seek restitution but no legal framework with which to do so.

“Passing a restitution law unfortunately gets mired in questions of ‘competencies’ as they are known in Bosnia,” said Ellen Germain, special envoy for Holocaust issues at the State Department.  “Where does the authority lie? At the state level? Or does it lie with the entities of the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina? There is a lot of debate in Bosnia about competencies.”

Bosnia Herzegovina Sarajevo synagogue

Sarajevo's Ashkenazi synagogue, the last remaining synagogue in the city. PICTURE: Kimberly Winston.

In 2009, Bosnia-Herzegovina and 46 other nations endorsed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets. Crafted on the site of the Terezin concentration camp, the nonbinding document promised “every effort” to rectify “the consequences of wrongful property seizures” during World War II and acknowledged the Holocaust, the genocide of six million Jews.

But in Bosnia-Herzegovina, genocide is a hot-button issue. Despite multiple convictions of Bosnian War leaders for “crimes against humanity,” including genocide, genocide denial in the region is common.

And genocide denial starts at the top. After last year’s passage of a law outlawing the denial of any genocide, Milorad Dodik, the Serb representative on Bosnia’s three-person presidency, threatened to withdraw his entity, the Republika Srpska, from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dodik has long denied that the “ethnic cleansing” of Bosniak men and boys at the village of Srebrenica in 1992 was genocide. Earlier this month, the US Department of the Treasury sanctioned Dodik’s assets.

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Mark Weitzman, chief operating officer of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, said ignoring the fact of genocide - whether it occurred during the Bosnian War or World War II - sidelines restitution for Jews to the back burner.

“If you haven't accepted the basic facts of the Holocaust, of the responsibility of those who caused it, you can't begin to adequately talk about restitution,” he said. 

Nor are Jews the only religious group seeking the return of or restitution for property seized in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Serbian Orthodox Church claims several properties in central Sarajevo, including the site of its state-level parliament and a high-rise Holiday Inn, while Bosniaks say they are owed for 30 million hectares of land scattered across the country.

Of course, Bosnia is not the only country that needs to make restitution for properties seized during the Holocaust and beyond. But other former parts of Yugoslavia have at least slightly better records. According to a report by the World Jewish Restitution Organization, Croatia and Macedonia have laws for restitution but have returned only a few properties, while Slovenia, with no restitution law, has returned several significant ones.

Bosnia Herzegovina Sarajevo synagogue

Inside Sarajevo's last synagogue. Bosnia has no law allowing for the restitution of Jewish property seized since World War II. PICTURE: Kimberly Winston.

There has been some effort to return property in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to which the European Union has tied to the country’s hopes to join.

In February, 2021, city council members in the city of Zenica - about 65 kilometres north of Sarajevo - voted unanimously to return the city’s single synagogue to the Jewish community, according to a report by the European Jewish Congress. But, as Zenica’s Mayor Fuad Kasumovic noted at the time, the city remains the owner of the building because “a law on restitution is not in play yet in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

But without a major turnaround, Bosnian Jews - of which there remain only about 1,000 in the country, mostly in Sarajevo - will continue to wait. In addition to threats of secession from the Republika Srpska, the nation is suffering from ever-rising inflation, massive unemployment and a brain drain among young workers, among other ills. Last year, the United Nations high representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina reported that the country now “faces the greatest existential threat of the postwar period.”  

“It’s a manageable issue to resolve, precisely because the numbers are not so great,” Weitzman said. “But it does require political will, right?”

Friedman, the Ball State University professor, agreed. In the early 2000s, she had a sit-down interview with Haris Silajdžić, who served as the wartime prime minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1993 to 1996. Friedman, who is researching a book on Jewish properties in Bosnia, asked him why there was no law for the restitution of seized Jewish properties.

“He said, ‘It’s a fair question,’” she recalled. “‘But we have to take care of the refugees from the war first.’ And he said, ‘Well, we can't deal with it.’ So let’s just say that my opinion is that the Jewish community, as small as it is, doesn’t have the kind of clout to get it done.”

This story was made possible by a reporting grant from the Global Exchange on Religion in Society.