With Bosnian war raging, Jewish group celebrates life
By John Pomfret5 September 1992.SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — On a ping-pong table in a cluttered room next to asynagogue, Zoya Finci works to restore ancient parchments – Hebrew scripts telling the story of the exodus of Jews from the Holy Lands. A dab of acetone here, a swab of alcohol there.Despite the crash of mortars and heavy machine-gun fire outside, Finci is preparing for anexhibition. With an almost heroic obstinacy, the Jews of Sarajevo are planning to celebrate their 500 years in the city.“It only comes once every 500 years,” said the middle-age University of Sarajevo art professor,whose family has lived in Sarajevo for four centuries.“We can’t postpone it. We have to celebrate it despite the bloodshed.“About 1,000 Jews are left from an original population of 1,600. About 600 women, children andelderly have been evacuated since the war for control of Bosnia-Herzegovina began between themainly Muslim government and the self-proclaimed Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.Some went to Israel, others to Austria and Italy. Spain, where 95 percent of the Sephardic Jews inSarajevo trace their roots, took 50 families.Ivan Ceresnjes, 47, the president of the Jewish community, said only a few more Jews want toleave.“The rest will stay in Sarajevo,” he said. “We are Bosnians first.”Jews are fighting in the Bosnian army – side by side with Muslims. They are in the police force andwork in civil defense, he said. The Jewish graveyard, with tombs dating to the 16th century, is aSerbian stronghold. Serb militiamen have placed a heavy machine-gun in its chapel.The tribulations of Ceresnjes’ family highlights the sometimes colorful, often tragic history of theJews in this part of the world.Expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, the first Jews came to the hard scrabble country aroundSarajevo in September 1492 — the year Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. Recordskept in the city say the first Jews arrived on Sept. 11, the date this year’s exhibition begins.Boats from the Ottoman Empire — which saved Jews and Arabs alike from the religioussuppression launched by the Roman Catholic Church in Spain — brought them to the Balkans.In recognition, they invited Turkish President Turgut Ozal to the exhibition.