Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
Jewish Communities in East-Central European Countries Today
Gruber, Ruth Ellen [et al.]
This brief overview of several East-Central European countries is based on: excerpts from Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe by Ruth Ellen Gruber (1999); reports, based on 1997 statistics, obtained through Lisa Palmieri-Billig, the Anti-Defamation League representative in Italy, in cooperation with Marta Halpert from the ADL offfice for Central and Eastern Europe in Vienna; and information from the 1999 report by ADL and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry on The Reemergence of Political Antisemitism in Russia.
The ancestry of many Diaspora Jews lies in Eastern Europe, the place where Jews lived for so many centuries, where millions experienced the horror of the Holocaust, and where today small Jewish societies are experiencing a gradual transition and renewal. Before the Nazi regime and the Holocaust this region was the world’s Jewish heartland. It was home to millions of Jews, many of whom lived in abject poverty, while many others were solidly prosperous in their near total assimilation, including some who exerted the most important cultural and intellectual influence of the time. Today these countries, whose pre-war Jewish population made up a considerable part of their inhabitants, have only a handful of Jews remaining. In some places there are well-kept synagogues, cemeteries and museums presenting the rich history of Jewish society – as well as an enthusiastic, if miniscule, contemporary Jewish community. Throughout the region thousands of old Jewish cemeteries lie abandoned and untended. Hundreds of former synagogues languish in disrepair or have been transformed for secular purposes, some still, however, marked by rusting Stars of David or Hebrew inscriptions. A number of them have been restored to their original appearance for use as museums or other cultural purposes.
For the first time in half a century the recent political changes in the area have made it possible for Jews to worship freely and carry on a Jewish life, a situation in which there is gradual renewed preoccupation with Jewish identity and the preservation or recreation of Jewish culture. At the same time the new freedoms have unleashed worrisome new waves of antisemitism along with ancient nationalistic sentiments long held in a sort of suspended animation under the communist regimes. The following brief look at some of these countries indicates the radical wartime and post-war changes in Jewish population. It also begins to open a small window on some of the revitalization that is slowly beginning to take place in these Jewish societies in transition.
Romania has been an independent republic since 1991. The Jewish population is thought to be 14,000 out of a total population of 23 million. Of the 800,000 Jews living in Romania before WW II, approximately 380,000 died between 1939 and 1945. 400,000 emigrated to Israel after the war. The collapse of communism in 1989 was not the beginning of immediate democratization. It has left contemporary Romania still confronted with many problems including ideological confusion and a weak civil society.
Throughout Romania there are many well-maintained synagogues and cemeteries in use by Jewish communities located in more than 150 cities, towns and villages. There are organized Jewish communities in more than 60 towns, and more than 70 syngagogues are in active use. Today more than half of Romania’s Jewish population lives in the capital city, Bucharest where there is full opportunity for a rich Jewish life. Other important Jewish communities include Timisoara, Arad, Brasov, Jassy and Cluj. All are administered by the Federation of Jewish Communities’ Bucharest office which is responsible for deciding about religious ceremonies, social and medical assistance, and cultural activities. The Federation cooperates with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and with other charitable organizations. It is also responsible for protecting the interests of Jews in Romania. Since the violent overthrow and execution of Ceausescu, there has been a marked rise of openly expressed nationalism and antisemitism. One example is the antisemitic propaganda – including The Protocols of the Elders of Sion, Mein Kampf, and books about the worldwide Jewish conspiracy – which is widely distributed in the cities.
The Republic of Bulgaria has been independent since 1990. The approximate Jewish population is 6,000 out of a total population of approximately 9 million. There were about 64,000 Jews in Bulgaria before WW II, 14,000 of whom died between 1939 and 1945, and 45,000 of whom made aliyah in 1948. Under the communists, religious Jewish life in Bulgaria practically came to a halt. All but a few synagogues were demolished or converted for secular use. Jews were not actively persecuted but were regarded as an ethnic rather than a religious group. The rate of intermarriage was high and contacts with international Jewish organizations were limited. There were formal, communist-dominated Jewish organizations, but they were culturally, not religiously, oriented. Opportunities for Jewish education were nonexistent.
Since the political changes, there has been an upsurge in Jewish life: Bulgaria and Israel resumed diplomatic relations broken after the Six-Day War in 1967; contacts with international Jewish organizations have blossomed; religious programs have been set up. The former communist-dominated Cultural and Educational Society of Jews in Bulgaria has been replaced by the Shalom Organization, founded in March 1990, whose branch offices serve as a coordinating network of Jewish revival throughout the country. Efforts have been concentrated on the education of the young, health care and a new system of social care. This has been happening in Sofia as well as in Plovdiv, Russé and Pajardjik. For the young, the Jewish days schools and Sunday Schools have become the point of reference for Jewish identity and their natural refuge from social intolerance. The effort to create new Jewish institutions has not been without difficulty since the transition toward democracy has also been marked by increasing xenophobia, extreme nationalism and antisemitism.
Hungary has been an independent republic since 1989. Prior to WW II there were approximately 650,000 Jews in Hungary. The death toll between 1939 and 1945 was approximately 450,000. About 20,000 emigrated in 1956. Out of Hungary’s population of 10 million people today, there are approximately 10,000 registered and 70,000-90,000 non-registered Jews. More than 90% of Hungary’s Jewish population, the largest in East-Central Europe, lives in Budapest.
Around the country there are more than 100 remaining synagogue buildings and about 1,300 cemeteries, most of them abandoned and in poor repair. However, many cemeteries and remaining synagogues, even when put to secular use, have prominent memorials to local Jews who perished in the Holocaust. In Budapest there are about a score of synagogues and prayer rooms where regular services are held. Budapest Jews enjoy all the Jewish facilities and services of any major Jewish city in the West, and there has been a renaisssance of Jewish life and cultural activities since the ouster of the communist regime. Jewish life centers around the old Jewish section in Pest where are found the offices of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, the Budapest Jewish Community, and other Hungarian and international Jewish organizations, including the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In the surrounding streets are several of the main synagogues, an Orthodox mikvah,the Jewish museum, and a striking Holocaust memorial.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The Czechoslovak Republic, founded in 1918, was one of the rare experiments in democracy in East-Central Europe, and Jews contributed greatly to its economic and cultural development. At the outbreak of WW II the estimated Jewish population in the Czechoslovakia was 357,000. Approximately 277,000 died between 1939 and 1945. Most Holocaust survivors emigrated after the end of the war. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have been independent since 1989/1993. In the Czech Republic, out of a total population of 10 million, there are approximately 2,000 registered and 2,500-4,000 non-registered Jews. In Slovakia, out of a total population of approximately 6 million, there are about 2,000 registered and 2,500 nonregistered Jews. Czechoslovakia became a sacrifical lamb to Hitler with the Munich Pact of 1938 when it was forced to cede its frontier regions to Germany. Under the communists, Jews in Czechoslovakia continued to suffer persecution – as did members of other religious groups. Immediately after the communist takeover in 1948, the senior communist party leadership included many Jews. This boosted antisemitism among the people. When antisemitism became official communist policy in the early 1950s, Jews were executed, arrested, dismissed from jobs, or sentenced to hard labor. Anti-Zionism gained ground, and relations with Israel were broken after the Six-Day War in 1967. During the short-lived Prague Spring in 1968 there was an attempt to right wrongs, but after the Soviet-led invasion the Czechoslovak communist regime was one of the most oppressive in Eastern Europe regarding all religious practice.
After the ouster of the communists in 1989-1990, Jewish life began to flower somewhat, particularly in Prague, Bratislava, and Kosice – the only cities with a sizeable Jewish community. Young people in particular have become involved in learning about their cultural heritage. Diplomatic relations with Israel were reestablished, and Czechoslovak President Vaclav Haval was the first of the new noncommunist East-Central European leaders to visit Israel. The renaissance of Jewish life continued after the breakup of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. By mid-1993, rabbis were serving in Prague, Bratislava, and Kosice, and active Jewish educational, cultural, and religious programs were under way in all three cities. Racism has only recently appeared in the Czech Republic since the Communist regime had managed to suppress explosions of racism, though not without exploiting subconscious racism along the lines of the ‘divide and conquer’ principle. In 1996 the government declared that all crimes with racial overtones would be punished as such. Several racist groups continue to exist throughout the country. In Slovakia, where national and economic issues have played major roles, Slovakian nationalism is based on a xenophobic relationship to those elements which it considers foreign. This includes fear of Hungarian expansionism, fear of Czech historical consciousness, and fear of a foreign world where “Jews hold dominant positions.” Nevertheless, this xenophobia is not very widespread.
Serbia and Bosnia.
Serbia and Bosnia have been independent republics since 1992. In Serbia the current Jewish population is about 3,500 out of a total population of 6.5 million. Prior to WW II there were approximately 25,000 Jews in Serbia of whom 15,000 were exterminated between 1939 and 1945. In Bosnia the current Jewish population is about 900 out of a total population of 3.5 to 4 million. Before WW II there were approximately 20,000 Jews in Bosnia. Approximately 12,000 were exterminated during the Holocaust.
Before 1939 antisemitism was almost unknown in Serbia. In 1941-42, when Prime Minister Milan Nedic with the help of the Nazis made it a top priority to engage immediately in “the most severe action against the Jews”, Serbia very quickly became judenfrei. At the beginning of the Tito era, prejudices against Jews did not exist. When the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, Yugoslavian foreign policy was favorable to the new State. During the 1991 civil war Serbian nationalist propanganda, disappointed by the stand taken by Jews in the West against Belgrade’s politics, declared that the “conspiracy against Serbs and Serbia” was controlled by the Jews. During this time a renewed exodus began of the last young Jews from Serbia - who now had a country which awaited them where they could live and work. Thus, as a consequence of the Yugoslav tragedy, many young Serbians discovered their Jewish roots, which their parents to a greater or lesser extent had forsaken.
The friendly relationship between Bosnia and the Bosnian Jews goes back to the 1492 Spanish Inquisition when Jews persecuted in Spain found a safe haven in the Ottoman Empire in the remote province of Bosnia. In Sarjevo, for many centuries, the catholic cathedral, a mosque, an orthodox church and a synagogue have coexisted within a small area. This allowed many social relationships to take place in this unusual mix of nations, languages and religions. The safe haven that hundreds of Jews found at the beginning of WW II in Sarajevo came to an abrupt end in 1941 when the war and the tragedy of the Holocaust reached the city. After the war, when organizations were again allowed in the city, La Benevolencia, a Jewish cultural, educative and humanitarian assoication, was one of the first to restore its activities.
Despite the war and crisis in the Balkans, Yugoslav Jews have managed to maintain an active communal life, with the support of international Jewish organizations such as the Joint Distribution Committee and World Jewish Relief. In fact, the turmoil, economic hardship, isolation and trauma associated with the bloody break-up of former Yugoslavia have led to a strengthening of Jewish identity and a remarkable revival of Jewish community life and activities in Belgrade and elsewhere in Serbia. More than half of Yugoslav Jews live in Belgrade where, since 1995 exceptional educational, cultural and religious activities have been developing. Through a program run by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, Jewish revival in several smaller provincial communities is being facilitated. In Bosnia, throughout the war and during the siege of Sarajevo, La Benevolencia functioned as a key nonsectarian conduit for humanitarian aid to the beleaguered city. It won international recognition for this role which included the distribution free of charge of medicine, food, clothing and other necessary goods and services. Throughout the war period, regular Saturday morning services were held in the Sarajevo synagogue, and other religious and community activities took place. Today a small Jewish community exists in Mostar, the once-beautiful town in southern Bosnia-Hercegovina that was devastated during the war, and a tiny Jewish community continues to live in Tuzla.
The Jews of the former Soviet Union comprise the world’s third largest Jewish community, with those in the Russian Federation alone numbering approximately 500,000. For the past several years a revival of Jewish life has been taking place in the community, including efforts to reestablish religious and cultural life and to provide for the well-being and security of its people. Well over 100 Jewish organizations and groups operate in Moscow today. They range from religious and cultural, research and education, to charitable and welfare institutions. Efforts such as the 1998 Russian Orthodox-Jewish Conference held in St. Petersburg are indications of nascent interfaith efforts towards a pluralist and multicultural society in which there is tolerance of other cultures and beliefs.
However, political antisemitism appears to be on the rise, where an unstable political situation and chaotic economic conditions have led some to blame Jews for society’s ills. While the antisemitism that existed as official state policy during the Soviet era has not resurfaced, some prominent political figures, particularly those associated with the Communist party, have employed antisemitism to further their own political ambitions. The organized Russian Jewish community has taken the current precarious political situation very seriously and has expressed concern about the future well-being of the Jewish population in Russia. Today Russia’s weak democratic structures allow manifestations of ethnic hatred and violence to go unchecked. Ultranationalist forces do not display concern for human rights, and demonstrate harsh views toward minority groups. The transition toward a democratic and pluralistic society in Russia continues to proceed slowly, as does the development of an appropriate infrastructure to support economic development, law enforcement and minority rights.
Before World War II nearly five million Jews lived in East-Central Europe. Most of them perished in the Nazi Holocaust, and most of those who survived emigrated, mainly to Israel and the United States. Despite World War II and despite more than four decades of communist rule, much still stands to bear witness to the rich Jewish faith and culture that once flourished in this region. Even more stiking are the increasingly visible signs which indicate that, despite the atrocities of this recent history, small local Jewish communities are courageously choosing life through the restoration and recreation of faith communities and Jewish culture, contributing anew to the changing world of East-Central Europe today.