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A Walk through Jewish inter-war Belgrade


Belgrade, once capital of Kingdom of Serbia emerged from the Great War devastated and scarred, but at the same time as the capital of the three-time bigger state than before the war: Kingdom of Yugoslavia to become. Next twenty years were dedicated to catching up with Europe in all areas of life – especially – in modernization [1]. At that time the city, as well as life in it, started to change dramatically: in twenty years the city grew three times larger [2] and the life in it became more comfortable and luxurious: many modern palaces were constructed with central heating, bathrooms, elevators and phones. [3] The first line of urban transport along with the taxi service and the first private cars were introduced. [4]

This was the time when Josephine Becker visited Belgrade [5] while everybody was already dancing in the rhythm of jazz orchestras. [6] Modern theatres emerged playing Shakespeare in English, Arthur Rubinstein twice played Bach and Beethoven at the New University in October 1927, and Berlin opera performed Mozart in the National Theatre. Modern clubs opened in Belgrade, Auto-Moto and Aero-Club being the most popular. [7] Many children started their education at French [8] or English private schools, and first tourists were able to land at Belgrade Airport. [9] Two big bridges were constructed over Sava and Danube [10] and in September 1938, Philips staged the first television broadcast in the Balkans from its pavilion at the Belgrade Exhibition Grounds. [11] In the same year, Czechoslovakian car manufacturer Škoda constructed a 74m tall steel parachute tower, the highest in Europe at the time. Yugoslavia won the third place in the FIFA First World football Cup in 1930, and in September 1939 Belgrade saw the first Racing Car Grand Prix around Kalimegdan. [12]

For Belgrade, the inter-war period was la belle époque.

Fully integrated in Serbian Society, Jews (referred to as “Serbs of Moses religion”) were the most significant national minority that largely contributed to this development. [13]

Jews in Belgrade

There are data about Jews living in Belgrade as early as Roman times. There is even a custom of reading Megilat Ester on the second day of the Purim holiday, which is the custom that was, according to Mishna, prescribed only for cities that were fortified in the time of Joshua bin Nun. [14] However the reliable evidences trace Jewish presence in Belgrade back to sixteenth century where they came, after Expulsion from Spain, through Thessaloniki. They settled on the Danube bank, near the fortress, in the neighbroohood known as Jalija (turkish the bank). Even today, one of main streets in former Jewish neighborhood bears the name of Thessaloniki. In seventeenth century, during the time of rabbi Jehuda Lerma, Belgrade became the third most important Jewish learning center in Ottoman Empire (beside Istanbul and Thessaloniki) with the famous yeshiva, active for more than fifty years. [15]

However, modern period in the history of Belgrade Jewry started towards the end of nineteenth century. Jewish Community developed its activities following the Serbian constitution of 1888, when Jews were granted full civil rights. From that time on, focal point of Jewish organization became the Jewish community officially known as Religious-Educational Jewish Community, either Sephardic or Ashkenazi. [16]

Following the end of WWI and the consequent events, Serbia was the second state to sign the Balfour declaration. [17] About eleven thousand Jews lived in Belgrade in 1939, 80% of them were Sephardim. [18]

Ashkenazi community

The Ashkenazi community settled in Belgrade later than Sephardic, and lived near the Sava river bank. There was an older Ashkenazi synagogue in the vicinity of the present one, established in the nineteenth century. The present one, Sukat Shalom Synagogue was designed in academic style by Franjo Urban and Milan Šlang, [19] son of the famous Belgrade rabbi Ignjat Slang that perished in Banjica Concentration Camp in 1942. A solemn ceremony of cornerstone lying took place on June 15th 1924, and a charter containing texts in Hebrew and Serbian was sealed in it. The charter was signed by King Alexander and Queen Maria of Yugoslavia. The general construction was finished by November 1, 1925, and once the interior was completed, the building was finally opened in the summer of 1926, and consecrated by rabbi Šlang. Traditionally this synagogue followed the Ashkenazi rite and served the Belgrade Jews congregation that spoke Yiddish. The building survived WWII because of the fact that was turned into restaurant and brothel by the Germans. [20] “Working girls” were in private boxes on ezrat nashim (women’s gallery). Re-consecration of the synagogue after the WWII was done already by December 1944. [21] Later, in the basement there was a kosher mess for students and the Maccabi gym.

Also active was the Benefactor, the Society of the Ashkenazi women founded in 1894. Its main aim was to support sick and poor women, mothers and girls. In the interwar period its president was Elza Feldman. It is also interesting to notice here that, unlike Sephardic community that had more than fifteen supportive societies, beside this one and traditional Hevra kadisha Society there were no other humanitarian societies within the Ashkenazi community. [22]

Dr. Fridrih Pops, lawyer, was the president of Ashkenazi community during the inter-war period. He was a very well-known Serbian patriot [23], member of Democratic Party and initiator of the Ashkenazi synagogue construction. He was also one of the cofounders of the Association of Jewish communities of Yugoslavia and the B’nei brit lodge. [24] He dedicated his work to overcoming differences with Sephardic community. In popular culture he is still now well known as the father-in-law of the famous football player Milutin Ivković-Milutinac.

Sephardic community

Since gaining civil rights in 1888, [25] all professions were at the disposal of Jews in Serbia. On the eve of WWII, the Sephardic community consisted of, for example, 27% merchants, 21% civil servants, 8% craftsmen and 4% doctors and engineers. [26] But they were not all rich – 74% paid the lowest possible tax and four hundred families were too poor to pay any tax. [27] On the other side, there were rich Jews like Alkan Djerassi manufacturer and rentier, who erected the large beautiful building with flats for rent, today a kindergarten. Many were distinguished tradesman, doctors, solicitors and artists and they belonged to various political parties. [28] Better off Jews were not numerous in comparison to the rest of the population, but they invested money into industry (food industry, mills [29] , sugar production, textile industry, leather industry, construction, banking [30] and wholesale trading).

Through the activities of many humanitarian [31] and cultural organizations, community life grew more important and produced significant impact to the general Serbian society, evident also through construction of synagogues, community buildings and many important buildings, either private or business, that were put up.

Author: Čedomila Marinković, PhD
Art Historian / Independent Scholar, Belgrade

The text is dedicated to the memory of Albert Semnitz, Belgrade Jew who was the first to declare his property (essentially nothing) in May 1941, and was among the first Belgrade Jews to be taken to Topovske šupe Concentration Camp in October 1941, and killed.

Belgrade rabbi Ignjat Šlang before WWII. Photo: Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade

Belgrade rabbi Ignjat Šlang before WWII. Photo: Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade

Jews in Belgrade, book by Rabbi Ignjat Šlang, Belgrade 1926, reprint 2006. Photo: Čedomila Marinković

Jews in Belgrade, book by Rabbi Ignjat Šlang, Belgrade 1926, reprint 2006. Photo: Čedomila Marinković

Jewish Architecture in Belgrade in the inter-war period

Hotel “Palace“ owned and built by engineer Leon Talvi in 1923, was the most beautiful and most modern hotel in the whole country and without competition even in the Balkans. Constructed in reinforced concrete, with two basements, ground floor and six floors, it had its own power plant, cooling installation and ice-cream production, laundry, pumps for hot water, central heating, large kitchen, three lifts, post office and car or bus transfer. Silver cutlery, gallery of paintings and sculptures in five lounges on the fifth floor, worth 2.5 million dinars, with Italian, French, Russian and local artists paintings, open roof restaurant, café, restaurant, dancing theater and banquette halls made it even more special. According to Politika newspaper, the first Yugoslav Zionist congress took place in the theater hall of this hotel on June 16th and 17th 1924.

Čelebonović Palace was named after dr Jakov Čelebonović, lawyer and president of Sephardic community. The building was built from 1927 to 1929 by renowned architects S. Belić and N. Krasnov. It was built as a two-story palace in the academic style, had a remarkable entrance and a spacious marble staircase with ferre forgé.

Jakov and Johana (Jovana) Čelebonović had six children, of whom Marko and Aleksa occupy a special place in Serbian culture and art. Marko (Mordehaj) Čelebonović is one of the most important Serbian painters of the twentieth century, an Aleksa Čelebonović eminent art historian, university professor and art critic. [32] Due to Dr Čelebonović’s reputation in social life of Belgrade between two wars, and the fact that he was the president of Sephardic community, the Palace itself used to be the hub of cultural life, the meeting place of renowned people of the period like Geca Kon (1873-1941?) [33], the most famous Belgrade publisher who, over forty years, published more than four thousand titles of Serbian and many foreign authors. Besides publishing Geca Kon invented many of modern book selling methods and was the first one to publish high school and university text books covering a wide range of topics from Science to Humanities. His books store in Knez Mihailova 12 is still the most important bookstore in Belgrade [34]; Stanislav Vinaver (1891-1955), [35] man of letters, poet, and translator. Vinaver volunteered in the Balkan wars and took part in World War I as one of the 1,300 corporal’s famous students battalion, in which he was a lieutenant; Georgije Ostrogorsky (1902-1976) [36] – founder of the famous Belgrade Byzantine school; Šemaja Demajo (1877-1932) [37], lawyer, member of Radical Party, vice president of Belgrade municipality; Lujo Davičo (1910-1942) [38], ballet dancer, and many others.

The first modern department store in Belgrade was built in 1907 by Victor Azriel. Its owner, Bencion Buli (1867-1933), was banker and Parliament deputy, member of Radical party and very well-known Serbian patriot, decorated with three major Serbian decorations (Decoration of St. Sava II order, Star of Karadjordje, White eagle decoration). [39]

Buli’s Department store was the first modern commercial building in Belgrade, with several interconnected stories and the unique, open retail space. The facade has the Art Nouveau style decoration with beautiful masks, swans and floral elements. This building even today represents the most beautiful example of that style in Belgrade. [40]

Jews were the first to accept all modern innovations in various fields of life: the first football ball was brought to Belgrade by Bencion’s brother, Hugo Buli (1875-1941/42), who played football in Berlin “Germania” and who introduced this sport to Serbia as early as in 1896;[41] The first steam bakery “Soko”, daughter company of the famous Viennese Ankerbrot Bäckerai, was founded and managed by the Jew Jovan Fisher. [42] “Micky Jazz” was the first jazz orchestra established in 1923 by the Jews, [43] and the first sound movie was screened in the Colosseum Cinema Theater, owned by Jews, Kronstein and the Tatajcak-Andjelković brothers, in 1929 – to mention just a few of them. [44]

Even the very modern architectural Art Nouveau style was first embraced by Jews whose houses decorated in that style can still be seen along the Kralja Petra Street. [45] Kralja Petra Street is an old and interesting street, linking Sava and Danube riverbanks, and also two worlds, in which one can find an orthodox church, the synagogue and the mosque. Jewish families lived in almost every building in this street until WWII. [46] After the WWI, Sephardi Jews, who lived at the Danube river bank, started to move up the hill towards the city center and Knez Mihailova Street. [47]

The new home of the Jewish Sephardic Council as well as the Beth Israel synagogue were built in the span of twenty years in the Kralja Petra and Cara Uroša streets. Funds for both were provided by Jewish benefactors Matatija Levi and his wife Rachel. The Community building was erected in 1928 by Sarajevo born architect Samuel Sumbul and decorated by lavish oriental Moorish ornaments. It has a ground floor and five upper floors. Besides offices and flats for rent, there is a large hall designed for ceremonies, meetings and Purim balls. Community home housed many scholastic and cultural associations and societies: Jewish library, [48] Serbian-Jewish Coral Society, Hashomer Hacair, Makabi Theater. [49] After the Nazi occupation, this building was appropriated by Kulturbund that destroyed all the paintings of the famous Jewish painter Leon Kohen. During German occupation Jews were not even allowed to walk along this part of the street.

Dorćol – the Old Jewish neighborhood

Romantic life of Jewish families in Jalija by the Danube, in the period before WWI, can be found in the books of Haim Davičo who described small Balkan type houses with huge fragrant gardens full of flowers in front of which Sephardic women of exotic names: Perla, Luna, Reina sat on benches during hot summer Belgrade nights singing old ballads in ladino. [50]

The first Jewish community building in Belgrade was erected in 1860 in Dorćol, in Solunska Street- It was the famous Old Home or mildar. [51] In the vicinity of it was the El Kal Vieho, the Old synagogue, focus of Jewish (Sephardic) life in Belgrade for more than three hundred years. A beautiful two storey building, in decorative Moorish style [52] , designed by Samuel Sumbul, was added to this traditional environment in 1923. Its large hall served for various public gatherings, social events – like pre-election political meetings, weddings, religious ceremonies, and occasionally, as a synagogue. One-storey building in the yard was added in 1929, and served as an old people’s home.

These tree buildings completely dominated the life of almost every Dorćol Jew.

The Society of Jewish Women, founded in 1894, was the first such Society among all Sephardi in Europe. [53] It played an important part in the education of Jewish children. The Society activities centered on aiding needy mothers with small babies and sick women, as well as needy brides-to-be. During WW I, many members of the Society became nurses, one of the most famous being Neti Munk. From 1920-41 Jelena Demajo was the President. She introduced new spirit: an artisan school for women was opened, and soon it became the first Junior Crafts School in Belgrade. The Society opened Carmel, nursing home for children, in Prčanj, Boka Kotorska, at the Adriatic coast, in 1926. Home for Children and Counseling Office for Mothers was opened in 1938, together with the health center for mothers and a kindergarten, a dining room and shelter for children. [54] This modern building was designed by architects Miša Manojlović and Victor Azriel. At the beginning of June 1941 this building became the Jewish hospital with Dr Bukić Pijade as its director. [55] The first deadly trip of the gas van – dušegupka – towards Jajinci, started from this place in the morning of March 18h 1942. [56]

La belle époque of Belgrade Jewry abruptly came to its end.

Bond for the building of Ashenazi Synagogue, Belgrade 1920ties. Photo: Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade

Bond for the building of Ashenazi Synagogue, Belgrade 1920ties. Photo: Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade

Samuel Sumbul, Home of the Sephardic Community, Kralja Petra Street 71, Belgrade, 1928. Photo: Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade

Samuel Sumbul, Home of the Sephardic Community, Kralja Petra Street 71, Belgrade, 1928. Photo: Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade

Leon Talvi, Palace Hotel Belgrade, Topličin Venac 23, 1924. Photo: Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade

Leon Talvi, Palace Hotel Belgrade, Topličin Venac 23, 1924. Photo: Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade

Samuel Sumbul, Oneg Shabbat, Gemilut Hassadim Society Building, 1923. Jewish Street 16, Belgrade. Photo: Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade

Samuel Sumbul, Oneg Shabbat, Gemilut Hassadim Society Building, 1923. Jewish Street 16, Belgrade. Photo: Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade