Bridging the ethnic gaps

Bosnia's remaining Jews hope new synagogue will make a difference

Posted: Friday, October 12, 2001

MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzego-vina -- Amid the rubble of Mostar's war-wrecked main square, Zoran Mandlbaum caresses the cornerstone for a new synagogue -- a temple of hope he prays will help reunite this ethnically divided city.

Bosnia's Jews didn't take part in the 1993-94 war that raged here between Muslims and Roman Catholic Croats, but they know firsthand how devastating ethnic violence can be. Before World War II and the Holocaust, there were 16,000 Jews in Bosnia. Today, there are just 975.

Mindful of its own tragic history, the country's smallest ethnic group is determined to do what it can to restore the proud multiethnic tradition that Mostar enjoyed before the war by building just the nation's second synagogue.

''This scene of tragedy will become a scene of peace,'' whispered Mandlbaum, the head of Mostar's 45-member Jewish community, his fingers tenderly tracing the Hebrew letters carved into the synagogue's recently laid cornerstone.

The inscription reads: ''For mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.''

Before the war, mosque minarets and church towers mingled across the skyline of Mostar, about 50 miles south of Sarajevo, the capital.

Just 15 miles away lies Medjugorje, where six youths claimed to have apparitions of the Virgin Mary beginning in 1981 and millions of pilgrims have visited since.

Except for Jerusalem, Bosnians used to boast, no other place in the world had mosques, synagogues, Catholic and Orthodox churches standing next to each other for centuries in harmony. Now, in postwar Bosnia, Muslims and Croats live segregated lives.

There are no barricades or border crossings along the street in Mostar which divides the Croat and Muslim parts of town. Instead -- perhaps accidentally, perhaps not -- every building that's gone up on the Croat side since the war ended is concealed behind a high wall facing the Muslim sector.

Although the walls have different shapes and colors, looking down the street they all melt together into one dividing line, and it's clear who lives where.

Several minarets rise elegantly from one side. The other side is dominated by the bell tower of a new cathedral and a giant cross on the hill overlooking the town.

The 1995 Dayton peace accord that ended Bosnia's bloody war divided the country into a Bosnian Serb ministate and a Muslim-Croat federation, loosely linked by a three-member presidency and other federal institutions. Despite efforts to ease ethnic tensions, Bosnian Croat nationalists are still pushing for a ministate of their own -- a move that would carve up the country along ethnic lines.

That's where Mandlbaum's new synagogue comes in.

It soon will rise from what was a front line during the war, on a site about 100 yards from a mosque and even closer to the cathedral. Ignoring the trend of throwing stones at a rival group's houses of worship, Mostar's Jews will build their temple in glass as a symbol of trust.

''We can see our future here and we feel safe here. That's why it will be made mostly of glass,'' Mandlbaum said.

Scheduled to open by the end of 2002, the synagogue will include a museum and a library. It will be shared by Bosnia's two Jewish groups, the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi, who normally don't have many interactions.

It will be Bosnia's second synagogue -- the other is in Sarajevo -- replacing Mostar's old synagogue, which was damaged during WWII and turned into a puppet theater by the Communists in 1952.

There used to be 36 Jewish communities in 21 cities, and each had its own rabbi and temple. That was before the Holocaust wiped out 10,800 Bosnian Jews, including entire families. The names on the tombstones at Mostar's Jewish cemetery -- the Cohens, the Levis, the Laufers -- are a sad testimony of their extermination.

''The synagogue will foster multiethnicity,'' said Zadik Danon, 66, a member of the Mostar Jewish community. He lives nearby with his mother in a 150-year-old family house. The rest of the wider family has dispersed all over the world.

''I want to stay here where generations of my ancestors lived,'' Danon said.

When he was elected mayor of Mostar, Neven Tomic, a Bosnian Croat, promised to restore hope and dignity to the city.

''This house of worship is one more piece of stone in the mosaic of our community,'' he said.

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