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U.S. Commission Urges Sarajevo Cemetery Restorationby Samuel Gruber

The restoration of the Jewish cemetery of Sarajevo, Bosnia, which was heavily damaged and subsequently mined during the long siege of Sarajevo, is the goal of an international effort now underway. A meeting on how to proceed on the project took place in Washington in April, 1999, organized by the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad. Bosnian government representatives presented new information about the condition of the cemetery, which was de-mined last year.

The Sarajevo cemetery, located outside the town on Mount Trebevic, is one of the most famed Sephardic burial grounds in the world. Founded in 1630, when Rabbi Samuel Baruch rented the land, it is the oldest intact burial ground of any religious group in Sarajevo and is known for its age and beauty. Rabbi Baruch's gravestone existed until the recent fighting. Unfortunately, the fate of this grave and so many others is uncertain since access to the cemetery has been limited due to the danger, and a full assessment of the damage caused by the war is still underway.

During the siege of Sarajevo, the Jewish cemetery was in the front line of fighting and was used as an important artillery position by Bosnia Serbs. The damage to the cemetery and nearby buildings was mostly caused by returned fire from the city below. The Bosnian Serbs extensively mined the cemetery before their withdrawal. Last year, Yechiel Bar-Chaim, representative of the Joint Distribution Committee, reported that "undoubtably there was considerable destruction due to exchange of fire. But the cemetery is so extensively mined that one can only look from the outside which isn't very satisfactory." From below, you could see the extensive damage to the buildings surrounding the cemetery, including enormous holes in apartment buildings, etc. Jacobo Finci, head of Benevolencija, the local Jewish social services organization which was among the most respected humanitarian aid societies during the siege, described the recent history of the site: "unfortunately, in recent years the cemetery gained worldwide fame as the place from which Sarajevo was attacked the most and from which snipers killed innocent citizens as a part of daily routine."

This was the situation until April, 1998, when the Bosnia-Herzogovinia Mine Action Center which was responsible for prioritizing de-mining tasks, asked the Norwegian People's Aid (NPA), an international group assisting post-war reconstruction in Bosnia, to de-mine the cemetery because of its historic significance, as well as its proximity to inhabited areas.

As a result, the NPA began clearing 32,000 square meters of land, removing 60-70 land mines and approximately 100 pieces of unexploded ordinance, mostly artillery shells. The cemetery clearance ended in August, and on September 15, 1998, the cemetery was officially returned to the Jewish community for reopening. The cemetery walls and much of the site, however, remain badly damaged.

The cemetery is on a steep hill, which rises even more just beyond it. The site, flanked by clusters of what were family houses, occupies a square area approximately 200 x 200 meters in size, and is surrounded by a masonry wall surmounted in places by a metal fence. It is entered through a triple arched gateway that leads to the modern section, at the lower left level of the site. Older stones are in the other sections, mostly set away from the walls. In the front area is the large, elaborate ceremonial hall, reportedly built between 1926 and 1930. Photojournalist Edward Serotta, reports witnessing the burning of this building in 1994.

Sarajevo Cemetery in its present state, showing pre-burial hall/chapel.

Like many centers of the Ottoman Empire, Sarajevo provided a haven for Jewish refugees from Iberia after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and the subsequent persecutions and forced conversion to Christianity in Spanish and Portuguese lands throughout the world. Spanish-speaking Jews settled in Sarajevo in the 16th century and the ruling pasha built a Jewish quarter for them by the end of the century, including a synagogue, a great courtyard and housing for the poor. This was not a ghetto, as Jews had freedom of movement and also lived elsewhere, but the congregation of Jews into one quarter was in keeping with historic patterns from Spain, and also the custom of segregating "nationalities" in cities of the Byzantine and subsequently Ottoman empires. The Jewish quarter, known as El Cortio, burned down in 1879, but the Old Synagogue was rebuilt and after World War II, it became the Jewish Museum. Before World War II, about 12,000 Jews lived in Sarajevo. Of these, approximately 8,000 perished in the Holocaust.

Before the recent war, approximately 1,000 Jews lived in the city. Today, about six hundred Sarajevans identify themselves as Jewish, including Dr. Igor Gaon, the mayor of the Central City of Sarajevo. During the siege of Sarajevo, he was in charge of Benevolencija's medical services.

In her guidebook to Jewish sites in Eastern Europe, Jewish Heritage Travel, journalist Ruth Ellen Gruber described the site this way: "[The] big, slightly rounded blocks with Hebrew inscriptions on one face, thrust out of the ground on the hillside like miniature pillboxes, making an eerie, unforgettable site. This type of tombstone in fact resembles the medieval Christian stecaks, big blocky grave markers shaped like sarcophagi and often featuring vigorous relief carving that are particularly common in Bosnia and Herzegovina."

The stones were quarried in a stone-pit near the cemetery and carried to the site. Most are almost identical in size and form, giving the hillside a patterned look. Only the gravestones of prominent rabbis and scholars were larger or more lavish. The older stones are only inscribed in Hebrew. Later stones are in Hebrew and Spanish.

For more information about the proposed restoration of the cemetery or to make tax-exempt donations, contact the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, 1101 15th St., NW, suite 1040, Washington, DC 20005.

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last update: 1/25/00