Centropa Quarterly
Excerpts from Jews in Yugoslavia - Part I
   Jewish communities in South Slav Lands - Dalmatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia   
   Jewish communities (Hebr. kehillah, kahal) are a traditional form of self-governing socio-religious organization of the Jewish population of a settlement or town, in which all members are equal. Such communities were established in what is today Yugoslavia throughout the many periods in which Jews settled in or achieved permanent residence.

Until World War II there were 121 Jewish communities — 72 Ashkenazic, 36 Sephardic and 13 Orthodox (traditionalist) with a total membership of 75,000. After war and genocide perpetrated by the invaders and their collaborators, only 32 were able to be restored.


The Jewish communities of Split and Dubrovnik are longest in continuity and can be traced back to the 14 c. They were barely 100 to 300 strong, but their influence on commercial and economic progress was of greatest significance. There were distinguished doctors, writers, scholars and other public figures among them. The position of Jews in Split was until 1808 defined by Venetian law. In Dubrovnik, the Republic of Dubrovnik enforced acts and regulations, to a certain extent under the influence of those in Venice and the Ottoman Empire, and the general attitude of the Catholic world towards Jews. Under Napoleonic occupation Jews were granted equality for the first time, in 1806 in Split, and in 1808 in Dubrovnik. Until that time they had lived in ghettoes in both cities. In 1814 equality was withdrawn when Austria annexed these areas, but during the 19 c. Jews gradually attained it again.


The first written document mentioning a Jew, a doctor, without giving his name dates from 1326. Later on, Jews appeared in documents more frequently, as merchants temporarily resident in Dubrovnik. The first Jew with permanent residence was recorded in 1421. The arrival of exiles from Spain and Portugal, at the end of the 15 c. and early 16 c. increased the number of Jews in Dubrovnik and they created a community headed by a consul installed by the authorities of Dubrovnik to collect taxes.

The Dubrovnik authorities recognized in these exiles educated people trained in many skills, whom they employed to help promote their city, especially in transit overseas trade, but not without restrictions. As a consequence of deep-rooted prejudice against Jews, an eminent doctor, Mose Maralija and ten Dubrovnik Jews were slandered for having committed a “ritual murder” when an old woman was killed on the outskirts of the city. They were tortured, burnt alive, Muralija himself was strangled, and only three were released. In 1662 Isak Jesurum was charged with the same crime but was later set free.

Anti-Jewish laws of Venice and the model of the Kingdom of Naples induced the Republic of Dubrovnik to expel the Jews in 1515, but as the overseas trade soon declined substantially, the authorities called Jewish merchants back offering them certain privileges.

A new wave of Jews from Greece and Albania began in 1532. They revived transit trade between the Balkans and the Apenine Peninsula, and served as mediators in a specific form of “trade diplomacy” which had developed between the Ottoman Empire and its opponent Christian states. They began to be considered as citizens in the 18 c., albeit protected, but still as second-class citizens with restrictions and prohibitions, special orders and taxes. They were not allowed in the streets at night, to visit Christian homes (with the exception of doctors and merchants), or employ Christian maid-servants under 50 years of age. Permission to settle was granted only to those who had at least 1,000 gold ducats. The Jewish Community was instituted in Dubrovnik in 1538. It is recorded in documents as UNIVERSITAS HAEBREORUM, UNIVERSITA DEGLI EBREI, SCUOLA DEGLI EBREI and sometimes as SINAGOGA DEGLI EBREI. The Ghetto was established in 1546. It was jammed in one street, closed by gates at both ends, and called Zudioska ulica (Jewish street) until today. The ghetto consisted of 11 houses and a synagogue, now at no. 3. According to the census of 1756 there were 78 persons in the ghetto, with 20 families in 19 houses and 103 persons outside the ghetto. Apart from permanent residents, the ghetto accommodated temporary settlers, so the houses were overcrowded and in bad condition. The houses were owned by the state, and under the term “lease for the ghetto” Jews had to pay poll-taxes even for children from birth onwards. The school Talmud Torah offered religious instruction for children and a yeshivah gave higher religious education. A Hevra Kadisha is assumed to have existed since the establishment of the Community to take care of the sick and the dying, and of burials for those who passed away according to the religious rites. The old Jewish graveyard was near the northern city walls, with a street called Na grebe Zudijoske (To Jewish Graves) leading to it. With cultural life flourishing in the Dubrovnik Republic, the small Jewish community also thrived producing several notable writers and scholars.

Didacus Pyrrhus (1517-1599), an immigrant from Portugal was a prominent poet (in Latin), knowledgeable in Greek and Latin literature and culture, a teacher of classical languages who imbued many young men of Dubrovnik with a love of literature and cultural values. His older friend Amatus Lusitanus (1511-1568) was one of the best known doctors of the 16 c. He wrote seven books describing 700 diseases he had treated. His sixth book depicts the diseases he cured during his stay in Dubrovnik. Several notable rabbis of Dubrovnik in the 16 c. and 17 c. wrote commentaries on the books of the Old Testament, discussed new interpretations and promoted Judaic tradition among the Jewish community of Dubrovnik (Salomon Cef, his grandson Aron Lunelli Koen and others).

The French army occupied Dubrovnik in 1808 and stayed there until January 1814. French General Marmont abolished all previous laws against Jews on 22 June, 1808. By the end of January 1814 Dubrovnik was occupied by the Austrian army and Jews again lost their rights. According to a census of 1799 Dubrovnik had 171 Jews. According to a French census of 1808, 227 Jews lived there. The highest number of Jews - 260 - was recorded in the 1831 census after which the number began to decrease as many started to emigrate.

An Austrian census of 1815 gives the number of Jews as 205. Of 57 able to work, 18 were craftsmen, 13 retail merchants, 12 whole-sale merchants, 5 stock-brokers, 2 rabbis, 2 teachers (1 man and 1 woman), 1 “maestro di scuola”, 1 middleman and 2 man-servants. In 1940 the Jewish community of Dubrovnik numbered 87 members. They included 61 Jews from Trebinje, Bileca, Herceg Novi, Kotor, Budva, Tivat and Cetinje. During World War II, 27 members of the community lost their lives. Thanks to two brothers and a sister Tolentino, Abramino, Emilio and Regina - the valuable collections of synagogue objects being hidden in time were rescued.


It is very probable that the first Jews settled in Split as early as the 7 c. together with the inhabitants of Salona when these left their town and found a safer refuge within the walls of Diocletian's Palace in Split.

Extant written sources on the Jewish community of Split date back to mid-14 c. when several documents of the Archbishopric of Split mentioned the “great synagogue” on the site of the large central hall of Diocletian's Palace and a synagogue in the house of Maroje Horesic. The new synagogue, still existing, was built around 1500. Its present appearance stems mainly from 1728, but some alterations were made later on.

In Split, as in Dubrovnik, the numbers of Jews increased in the 16 c. when exiles from Spain and Portugal arrived. The Jews of Split, as elsewhere, were also subject to all orders and restrictions enforced against Jews in the territories ruled by Venice, but they were here observed less rigorously than in Venice itself.

Among other incidents, all Talmudic books were burnt in 1553. The yellow Jewish badge was obligatory, introduced in Venice as early as 1394, but it does not seem to have been strictly adhered to. Main occupations of Jews in Split included trade and crafts, the most prominent being leather tanning, manufacture of yarn and fabrics, and the tailoring of peasant costumes. Many were engaged in the sale of old clothes and second-hand furniture. The most significant contribution of Jews to the city of Split at the time was associated with the name of an eminent contractor, Daniel Rodriguez. He submitted to the Senate of Venice in 1566 a project for the construction of the Split port (“skela”), which was approved only in 1577. With a lot of difficulties and by investing his own money, Rodriguez completed the construction of the harbour with a customs-house and a lazaret in 1572. This made Split a serious competitor of Dubrovnik, attracting Turkish merchandise through Jewish and Bosnian merchants in Sarajevo. Rodriguez was elected consul by Split Jews in 1572, which was confirmed by the Dodge of Venice who granted him some privileges - at his request several Jewish families were permitted to settle in Split and Venice. At a request by the Jewish community, the Venetian government licensed a Jew in 1592 to open a bank. In the course of the 17 c. outstanding members of the Jewish community were elected consuls of the port of Split. One of them, Josip Penso, elected in 1630, and Samuel Lima (after 1669) were instrumental in promoting transit trade. In Venetian wars against the Turks, Jews of Split supported Venice. When in 1657 the Turks surrounded Split, Jews took part in building the city walls and the Gripe fort. They distinguished themselves in particular in the defense of the north-western tower of Diocletian's Palace - Amiro's fort - which has been called the Jewish fort or the Jews' position since then. The ghetto of Split came into existence in 1778, although there had been proposals to establish it at the end of the 16 c. A year before the establishment of the ghetto , Jews of Split were forbidden to engage in industry, to deal with grain, to stay in the villages and employ Christians. Better-off families began to emigrate. A regulation Sopra la ricondota degli Ebrei published in Venice in 1737, was enforced in 1778 in the occupied territories. The regulation guaranteed Jews freedom of religion, freedom of trade, and to some extent equality before law; it prescribed restrictions in clothing and engagement in certain crafts. The publication of books was forbidden in the ghetto, as was the possession of real estate and permanent residence. The only science the Jews were allowed to engage in was medicine. There are well-known names of Jewish doctors who cured Christians, even among the nobility and the clergy (Juda Lombrozo, Tobija Gabaj and others). At that time, 54 Jewish families with 279 members lived in Split The Jewish Community appears in documents under the names of UNIVERSITA DEGLI EBREI, SCUOLA DEGLI EBREI, SOCIETA EBREICA DI SPALATO and COMMUNITA EBREICA DI SPALATO. The community’s supreme body was the Chief Assembly – kahal gadol – headed by gestaldi (Hebr. parnasaim). The Assembly consisted of members who payed more than 12 ducats as communal tax annually. The Jewish consul was elected from among the most prominent members and he represented the Community before the Venetian authorities.

Societies for welfare and education, for the ransom of captives and aid to Eretz Israel made part of the Community. The French army marched into Split in 1806. All previous bans were abolished, which provoked animosity against the Jews of the town by the population who were afraid of economic competition. When the Austrians took Split in 1814, the old bans were re-enforced. By an order of 1825 all gates to the ghetto had to be locked from evening to morning. Jews had to obtain permission from the authorities to get married. In the first decades of Austrian rule, Split was impoverished. In 1867 Split Jews were granted equality and all civil rights, and they revived the town's trade and crafts. The most prominent name among Split Jews at the time was Vid Morpurgo (1838-1911), one of the prime movers of the national movement in Dalmatia and representative of the National Party in the Dalmatian Assembly in 1870 and 1882. He was the founder of the first Dalmatian folk bank, owner of a distillery, promoter of new industrial activities and a leading bookshop owner of Split and Dalmatia. He was the first to introduce a lending library in Dalmatia. His bookshop was the Jewish community of Split had 284 members, 150 of whom survived the war and the occupation.

German occupation authorities devastated the synagogue in 1943 and plundered the synagogue of its treasures. A few old books, communal minutes, protocols and registers of births, marriages and deaths were saved; these are now basic sources of the functioning of the Community between the 17 and 19 c.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Turkish Empire, ruling Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1463, received Jewish exiles from Spain and Portugal because it benefited from their erudition, knowledge of the economy and of manufacture of arms and ammunition. Jews in the Ottoman Empire were treated as raya equal to all non-Muslims. The Sephardim began to settle in Bosnia and Herzegovina, mainly in Sarajevo, in the first half of the 16 c. individually, and in groups in the second half of the century. The first Ashkenazim came from Hungary after 1868 when Turks had been expelled from Budim.
Various bans concerning Jews originated from the 7 c., in the time of Kalif Omar; with certain changes and additions they were confirmed by the ferman of Sultan Murat IV in 1579. As other non-Muslims, Jews had to differ from Muslims by their clothing, especially in its colour. Green was forbidden. Shoes could be only black, and the fez also. They had to show deference to the Muslim and cede way, and were not allowed to ride horses in town or carry arms except when they were travelling, but even then the harness had to be plain, and only an unadorned knife and pistol were allowed. Synagogues could not be enlarged during renovation, and religious rituals were not to disturb other people. Every Jew over the age of 9 paid poll-tax. (After 1856 it was bedelija, a tax for exemption from military service.) They gave horses for the maintenance of the roads, and during the wars waged by Turkey, for the transport of ammunition. They had to cater for the accommodation, transport and food of the land vizier (provincial governor), when he was in Sarajevo. Despite bans, Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina enjoyed autonomy of religion and education, a Jewish court Bet din administered justice in civil law-suits, while criminal trials were under the authority of state courts. Jews took the oath in the law-court “by God who revealed the Torah to Moses”. The reforms of Sultan Abdul Madjid of 1839 and 1856 granted full equality to all non-Muslim population, but certain rights did not materialize during Turkish rule.

Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878, and the annexation took place in 1908. Whatever the Sephardim had achieved in the way of progress in the Ottoman Empire in the 16 c. was now out of date in comparison with western countries. European capital now out of date in comparison with western countries. European capital now began to penetrate Bosnia and Herzegovina, large companies came into existence, monopolies were created, the railway built. At the same time a substantial number of Ashkenazim settled there; they were educated, and well-trained in economics, which allowed them to promote various branches of industry and were also notable as lawyers, doctors, veterinarians, teachers at all academic levels and engineers. The Sephardim continued mainly in foreign trade and crafts, but the number of educated young people among them began to increase.


Sephardic Jews began to settle in various parts of Sarajevo, in the first half of the 16 c., and a Jewish Community was established in the second half of the century. When the Grand Viziter, Siyavush Pasha came to the city in 1581, local government representatives allegedly asked him to separate Jews from the rest of the population because they made a lot of noise and caused fires. The Pasha built the civutana, communal lodgings for the Jews, called also Sijavus pasina daira, Velika avlija (great courtyard) and Kortiz with a synagogue next to it (today it houses the Jewish Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina). The Velika avlija had 46 rooms accommodating poor Jewish families, while the rest lived in other mahallas (city quarters). In view of the fact that Jews had freedom of movement, Velika avIija was not considered a ghetto. It was burnt down in a fire on 8 October 1879 and never reconstructed. Only the synagogue was rebuilt. The Jews of Sarajevo had always lived in friendship with the rest of the population — Christian and Muslim. Many Jews were white-collar workers, and negotiated in trade between Turkey and Venice, Ancona and other towns. They were also engaged in local trade, money-affairs and various crafts, and were practically the only metal founders. They were known as good doctors (from Arabic hedim) and pharmacists (herbalists). Jews of Sarajevo were initiators of industrial development in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They produced a considerable number of seamen, scholars, scientists and writers. Learned rabbis had an influence not on religious life only but on cultural as well. There were two Jewish Communities in Sarajevo - Sephardic and Ashkenazic. They founded societies and institutions, erected buildings and developed publishing and journalism. The Sephardim had seven synagogues, and the Ashkenazim one. A substantial portion of the archives of both Communities was lost during the war including the communal reports Pinkas, kept from 1720. On the eve of World War II, the Sephardic Community numbered 7,045 members, and the Ashkenazic 1,060. More than 600 Jews of Sarajevo were killed during the war. Jews settled in other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina later than in Sarajevo, from early 17 to late 19 c. In 1940 there were 20 Jewish Communities (including Sarajevo) with a membership of about 14,000 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some 4,000 survived.


Of all Yugoslav regions in which Jews lived, the history of Jews in Slovenia is the least researched and written up, although there are both archeological finds and archival material available. Archeological finds which emerged by chance, since no systematic exploration has been done, show that Jews lived in what is today Slovenia, in Roman times. Roman coins were found in the foundations of houses in the old ghetto of Maribor; a graveyard near Skocijan surfaced an oil lamp with an engraved menorah, probably from the middle of the 5 c. Traces of these oldest settlers were lost at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, during frequent incursions of barbarian tribes and the Voelkerwanderung.

New Jewish settlers arrived in what is now Slovenia in the 12 c. as evidenced by the remains of seven medieval ghettoes. The arrivals came along two routes: from Italy and from Central Europe. Jews emigrated from the Venetian state for economic reasons. Poor Jews left depressed areas for better developed Slovenian towns, where they were able to find more favourable working conditions, in spite of the fact that they were forced to live in ghettoes. Better-off Jews from Venice settled in Istrian towns, with ghettoes at Porec, Rovinj and Pula. The last settlers came from north-eastern Italy, particularly from Cividale towards Stanijel and Ljubljana.

Another route brought immigrants from areas, which are now part of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany, the reason being to escape persecution at the time of the Crusades. The exiles mostly settled in the towns of Styria, in Maribor, Radgona, Ptuj and Slovenj-Gradec, from where some, mostly the better-off, moved on to Ljubljana. They engaged in trade and money-matters, establishing trade connections with Italy and Central European countries. Many Jews in Styria possessed real estate - houses, vinyards and mills. The better-off Jews were tolerated by the nobility, mostly German, who had power in their hands, as long as they found it profitable. The nobility took loans from Jewish money-lenders and merchants, but avoided paying debts, which resulted in conflict. The worsening of the position of Jews in Styria in the course of the 15 c. is revealed by the Regional Archives of Maribor, which show that Jews were selling their property en masse, seeming to sense the threat of expulsion. Indeed, at an assembly in Graz in 1495, delegates of the Styrian and Carinthian nobility demanded from Emperor Maximilian to expel Jews. Representatives of Carniola opposed expulsion, so that Maximilian's expulsion decree of 1496 concerned the Jews of Carinthia and Styria only. Two decades later, 1515, under the pressure of the German nobility and clergy, Jews were expelled from Ljubljana. Many found refuge in Slovenian villages, since Slovene peasants had also been persecuted by German counts. A 1672 document shows that Leopold I reproached the regional governor Graf Auersperg that there were still Jews in the villages of Carinthia in spite of imperial orders. Only in 1718 were all Jews expelled from the region, during the reign of Charles VI. Napoleonic conquests and the creation of I Illyria in 1809 made it possible for Jews to settle again in Slovenia with full civil rights. The position was reversed by the re-entry of the Austrians. A decree of 1817 by Emperor Francis II prohibited Jews from settling and residence in Carniola. Thus the majority moved to Prekomurje, Murska Sobota in particular, and a certain number to Maribor. Jews appeared again in Carniolan censuses, in 1880 numbering 96, in 1890 numbering 89, in 1889 and 1890 - 145 and in 1910 - 146 Jews. There was no later settling because the Slovenian press encouraged anti-Semitic propaganda requiring that Jews be expelled from Slovenia.


Among medieval Jewish communities in Slovenia the one in Maribor was the strongest. Between 1427 and 1435, the notable rabbi of Maribor, Israel Isserlein, author of numerous theological dissertations and religious poetry, held the title of “Chief Rabbi of Styria, Carinthia and Carnolia”. His letters (the so-called response) answered queries on theological, legal and other Jewish dilemmas coming from all Austrian countries. His writing has been preserved and it is a comprehensive source concerning the life of Jewish communities in Styria in the 15 c. Although living in a ghetto was not compulsory, the Jews of Maribor preferred to live together, clustered around the synagogue. It offered them a greater degree of security and an opportunity for more intensive social life, which was already flourishing. They got along well with the town population and peasants in the surroundings. This is confirmed by the fact that in Rabbi Isserlein's time several dozen Roman Catholics requested to be converted to Judaism, probably a unique case in the Europe of that time. The Jews of Maribor were comparatively the most prosperous: archival material shows that they owned vineyards, houses and land, and that they had established financial business reaching to Italy, Hungary and Moravia. Even so, their situation was far from ideal because they had to endure humiliation, bans, and frequent outbursts of despotism on the part of the German nobility and clergy, who, having borrowed money from them did not pay it back and eventually managed to obtain an expulsion decree, because they were unable or did not want to return it.

After expulsion, the Jews of Maribor scattered in various directions, mainly to the Republic of Venice and Hungary. A few families reached Split via Venice, among whom the most famous Jewish family in Split - the Morpurgos, who took their name from Maribor, the place they came from. Even earlier, the Rabbi of Maribor Isaak Carfati went to Adrianople, and called on all his co-religionists from Austrian lands to move to Turkey where greater security and better conditions of life awaited them.

In the 19 and 20 c. a few Jewish families settled in Maribor. They were too few to establish a Community, so they joined the Jewish Community of Varazdin.


The medieval ghetto in Ljubljana has left traces in two streets, Zidovska steza (Jews' path) and Zidovska ulica (Jewish street). The Slovenian 17 c. historian 1. V. Valvasor says that Jews of Ljubljana renovated the synagogue burnt down earlier from 1213 to 1217. From that time until their expulsion in 1515 Jews of Ljubljana had a quiet life, as traders, artisans and farmers. They had their own school and law court (bet din).

In the 19 c. several Jewish families settled in Ljubljana, but were faced with difficulties. In 1919 they separated from the Community of Graz, but being too few to establish a Community of their own they joined the Jewish Community of Zagreb. Attempts to create a Jewish Community in Ljubljana despite the circumstances gave rise to a range of reactions published by Slovenian press, from furiously anti-Semitic to appreciative, the latter quoting the German economist Werner Sombarth: “Well-being reigns where there are Jews, and poverty where there are not”.

An independent Jewish Community was established in Ljubljana after World War II, even though it had only some 80 members.
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