Climbing the steps of the old, poorly maintained building, I was unsure what to expect from Belgrade’s Jewish museum.
Inside, the exhibits, while fascinating, had been unchanged for decades; this was not a museum set up to attract international tourists.
A few days later, in Sarajevo, we experienced a very different trip to the Jewish museum. The exhibits were neatly laid out in display cases — no photos stuck on to the walls here! Although visitors would benefit from a little more information, this museum does cater for attract international tourists. Nonetheless, in one sense both museums were similar: in both places, we were the only tourists there.
Looking closely, we discovered other similarities — and fascinating contrasts.
In both museums, it was clear that the Jewish community was anxious to demonstrate its long-standing, valuable contribution to the region. Both displayed a number of very old photos and artefacts from local Jewish communities, evidence of the well-established presence of Jews in the Balkans.
However, the two establishments took different approaches to their material. The Sarajevo museum focused on notable individuals, looking both at significant members of the city’s Jewish community, and the large number of those declared as Righteous Amongst Nations by Yad Vashem for having acted to protect their Jewish friends and neighbours.
The Sarajevo Museum, too, emphasised the loss of individuals within the Jewish community — a type of remembrance that has become quite familiar in relation to the Holocaust.
The museum in Belgrade took a slightly different approach. In their concern to demonstrate the long-standing role of local Jewish people, the museum’s administrators emphasised the role and the loss of the whole community, rather than focusing on individuals.
In addition, and of particular interest, was the focus upon the Serbian Jewish Community in Tito’s Yugoslavia.
I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the history of the Jewish community throughout the Balkans although — thanks to Geraldine Brooks’s novel, People of the Book — I was particularly excited to see the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was so carefully protected for hundreds of years, including during the Holocaust and the conflict of the 1990s.
It was certainly fascinating to see the different ways that the two communities are celebrated in each city, to observe the museums in this part of the world, and to learn from them a little about the former, and remaining, Jewish communities. Sad to say, the Balkans has very few Jews remaining; these communities were devastated by the Holocaust.
Both museums were very keen to demonstrate the vital role of Jews in their cities, and to demonstrate that Jews properly belong in the region. These days, the Sephardi synagogue in Sarajevo is used only on High Holydays.
I wonder if these communities will ever be restored to something like their former glory. It seems unlikely, though the Sarajevo museum certainly appeared to have benefited from some financial backing. The building itself remained untouched during the siege 20 years ago, and international donations appear to have helped.
On the other hand, I wonder if the Belgrade museum gets many visitors, let alone donors and it seems very unlikely as things stand that anyone in these cities will be able to undertake the refurbishment of either of its Jewish establishments.
Is there nobody within international Jewry who can help these historic places rebuild and recapture something from their long, proud history? Having had the privilege of finding out something about this history, in the places where it took place, I believe a campaign to bring back something of Balkan Jewry’s past glories would be a very worthwhile cause