Starting Over

On March 22, Aca Singer, 70, thin and silver-haired, picked up the telephone in his Belgrade office and dialed a number in Budapest, where he was connected with Gusztav Zoltai, a man 10 years his junior.

Speaking in Hungarian, Singer told Zoltai that the plan they had laid out the previous October was ready to be implemented. Zoltai jotted down a few details, hung up the phone, and set the plan in motion.

When the history of the war in Kosovo is written, the plan these two men initiated will barely earn a footnote. Still, Singer and Zoltai have written a short, remarkable chapter in post-Holocaust Jewish history.

For the first time in half a century, a Central European Jewish community has taken the lead in helping to rescue a neighboring Jewish community in desperate need.

The work was spearheaded by two Holocaust survivors, both of whom had lost their entire families. These men wanted to be sure the words “Never Again” had meaning in their communities.

The first bus rented by the Serb Jewish community pulled up to the Hungarian border at Szeged just after noon on March 23 and found a representative from the Budapest community waiting for them. More buses came in the days to follow, transporting a total of 160 Jews by week’s end. By mid-April, that number had doubled again.

Jews say that they are not fleeing Serbia because of anti-Semitism. They say it is simply a matter of self-preservation during the constant NATO bombings.

In Budapest, the entire Balint Jewish Community Center on Revai Street had been turned into makeshift dorm rooms, a soup kitchen and lounges in anticipation of the Serbian Jews’ arrival.

But as the numbers grew, the facilities were strained, and a hotel on the outskirts of town was used. It, too, proved inadequate. Now the Serbian Jews, most of whom are children, women and elderly, are being housed in the Park Hotel in the central part of the city.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has been working with the Hungarian community and the Yugoslav Jewish Federation to care for the Serbian Jews.

“We’ve set up kindergarten and school classes for around 50 children,” said Israel Sela, the JDC’s country director for Hungary. “Many of them — especially from border cities like Subotica and Novi Sad — already speak Hungarian, so they fit in rather easily.

“Two of these parents are teachers from Serbia, and they are creating a curriculum that will keep these children current at home as well as translate for them on a daily basis.” Jewish youth in Budapest who speak Serbo-Croatian are volunteering to take families for shopping and visits to doctors.

B’nai B’rith International is providing fresh fruit every day, along with city transport and telephone cards.

British Jewish organizations such as World Jewish Relief and Connections have also made substantial contributions, much of monies earmarked for health insurance and health care. The European Council of Jewish Communities is also helping, and the European Jewish Congress transferred $20,000 to the Hungarian community to help.

While the younger children are settling into their temporary living arrangements, the college-age youth are having a more difficult time.

“I was three weeks away from my degree in theater,” Stefi, a Belgrade university student, said in mid-April as she sat softly playing jazz on the piano in the Balint center.

“Now I’m considering my options. It isn’t likely that I’ll be going home.”

Whether Stefi will go to Israel remains open. The Jewish Agency for Israel has quickly processed between 15 and 20 Jews who have already emigrated to Israel, said Joszi Croitoru, a Jewish Agency representative.

He said that 80 young Serbian Jews are taking a complimentary 12-day “pilot trip” to Israel, and another 80 have signed up.

Still, many of these university students are anguishing about their choices.

Students such as Olga Izrael said, “Don’t call us refugees. We are just here visiting.” She paused. “And thinking about our future.”

While they’re thinking, they watch CNN’s coverage of NATO’s bombing runs. They wring their hands while they lay awake at night and try to come to terms with the fact that, for many of them, the lives they led in Serbia are over.

Milica Afar and her sister-in-law, Lydia Afar — they married brothers — sat calmly as their children, David, Sara, Theo and Michael, scrambled around them, playing.

“My husband is a biochemist, and Milica’s is a property manager for a film production company,” Lydia said. “But thinking about the future for our children, I think Israel becomes more and more attractive.”

A week later, the two women and their families had already left for Israel.

All this began to take place in Budapest during the first days of Passover. In 1992, several of these Jews had opened the Belgrade community center’s seder to Sarajevo’s Jews, who were fleeing that war. Now they themselves are on the run, or at least waiting out what history will bring them.

One thing is clear: The post-Holocaust Jewish community of the former Yugoslavia was small and poor, yet these 6,500 Jews created one of the most lively small communities in Europe.

Beginning with the war in Croatia, in 1991, and the war in Bosnia, in 1992, many of the younger Jews in each of these communities made their way to the United States, Canada, Israel and elsewhere. Sarajevo’s Jewish youth will never return.

Now it appears as though Belgrade’s Jewish community is beginning to empty out as well.

Jews Thrived in Belgrade

Before WWII

Before the Holocaust, Serbia served as a European crossroads, and its Jewish population, with a mix of Sephardim and Ashkenazim, reflected this fact.

Belgrade’s community swelled to nearly 11,000 in the 1930s — around 5 percent of them refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Serbia’s Jews were always tied to its cities. Indeed, in a country where 40 percent of the population lived in small villages or on farms, more than 70 percent of the Jews lived in major cities.

Jews gravitated toward the professions in Serbia and made up a large percentage of Belgrade’s intellectual elite.

During World War II, Yugoslavia was quickly overrun by the Germans. Croatia became a Nazi puppet state, set up its own concentration camps and killed a great many Jews as well as Serbs.

The vast majority of Serbia’s Jews were killed by Germans, who found no friends in the Serb government of Gen. Milan Nedic.

After the Holocaust, 15,000 Jews were left in all of Yugoslavia from a prewar total of 76,000. Many who survived left after the establishment of Marshal Tito’s one-party state, leaving some 6,500.

The community was not particularly religious, but after the 1967 Six-Day War, many younger Jews reclaimed their Jewish connections and communities.

When Yugoslavia disintegrated into war in the 1990s, the Jewish communities in the successor states remained in contact as best they could.

Serbia’s Jewish community long had a reputation for generosity — having helped German Jews in the 1930s and Sarajevo’s Jews in the 1990s — and worked hard to stay out of politics. — Edward Serotta