Passover Refugees

It was March 31, the first night of Passover, and his native Yugoslavia was again convulsed by war.

So it was fitting, perhaps, that young Ismael chose melodies from the repertoire of the old Sephardic rabbis of Bosnia and Kosovo while leading his first seder.

In Bosnia, during the Yugoslavian civil war earlier this decade, and now in Kosovo, the policy of ethnic cleansing had prompted the mass exodus of entire local populations. Yet any parallels with the Exodus recorded in the Haggadah were lost on Ismael’s audience — Yugoslav Jews who are now into their second week as refugees in Budapest.

They were preoccupied with thoughts of family and friends back home, where NATO’s intensifying air assault is aimed at ending Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s repression of 2 million Albanians in the southern province of Kosovo.

All of which made for a pretty gloomy seder. Despite the glittery Christmas decorations hung by their well-meaning Hungarian hosts, the 150 Yugoslav Jews were crammed shoulder to shoulder in a dimly lit hall and eating with plastic cutlery and off paper plates. Fortunately, someone had the foresight to bring three Serbian-language Haggadahs with them from Yugoslavia.

Since he is studying to be a cantor, Ismael was pressed into service.

“It’s the first one I’ve led, but I’m not really in the mood for it,” said the amiable 22-year-old, who asked to be identified by his Hebrew name rather than his Serbian one. “We’re all tired, and everyone’s nervous.”

Indeed, the seder underscored the pain of people separated from their families. Olga, her parents and two older sisters traditionally celebrate Passover with the local Jewish community in Yugoslavia. But when NATO began shelling on March 24, her father didn’t take any chances. He sent away his wife and youngest daughter.

The Nazis had killed his father in 1941, when they invaded Serbia.

“After his experience with World War II, this frightens him,” said Olga, a 23-year-old sculptor. “People are confused and panicked, and the sirens are on most of the time. So tonight, he’s not celebrating Passover. He’s in a bomb shelter.”

As the war heats up, it’s unclear how many more Jews will head north to Hungary. Some 250 to 300 of Yugoslavia’s 3,000 Jews are now waiting out the conflict in quiet Budapest. Most are teen-agers and twentysomethings. But the Yugoslav government has now ordered all men 16 to 60 years old to stay put — in case they are needed for combat if NATO sends in ground troops. Women and children are freer to go.

Nothing epitomizes the disruption of the lives of Yugoslav Jews more than the story of Branka and Stephane. Branka, a single mother from Yugoslavia, was slated to marry Stephane, a Frenchman, on April 8 in her hometown of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. When missiles began raining down, Stephane insisted that Branka take her 5-year-old, Brian, by train to Budapest; he flew from Paris to meet her.

This week, however, they failed to get the requisite permission from Hungarian and Yugoslav authorities to marry in Budapest. The only bit of luck was that they didn’t plan a lavish wedding. Few people even knew about it.

“I was so superstitious, I only told a few friends,” said Branka, a university Hebrew teacher. “And I guess I was right.”

Like the others here in Budapest, they are in limbo. But at least the Yugoslav Jews are welcomed with open arms, unlike the Kosovo Albanians, who are pouring into the neighboring countries of Macedonia and Albania each day with nowhere to go.

“What we are doing is nothing more than Jewish solidarity,” said Gusztav Zoltai, executive director of the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities.

The Yugoslav Jews are indeed grateful, but they are anxious to get home. Some are concerned for the security of cars and apartments they left behind. Most of them, though, are anxious to resume their lives.

“We have so many problems with our lives, with our futures,” said Olga. “What the Hungarians have done for us is great, but we want to go home. This is not a solution.”

Others are actually looking for a fresh start. Even before the NATO campaign, Yugoslavia’s economy was already in ruins, and Milosevic had cracked down on most forms of freedom. One Jew already found her way to England, another to Italy. Seven have made aliyah to Israel, including a family from Kosovo.

Ismael, also a theater student and talented pianist, is looking toward Israel as well. He may accept a one-year offer to continue his cantorial studies there.

“Even if the bombing is over in a few days,” he said, “Yugoslavia was a rough place before. Now it’ll be even rougher.”

Kindness for Kosovo

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles made a special $10,000 donation to the Kosovo Refugee Relief Fund of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “As the largest representative body of the Los Angeles Jewish community, the Jewish Federation wishes to show its deep concern for the men, women and children who are suffering as a result of this conflict,” said Federation Executive Vice President John Fishel.

Donations can be made to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee at:

Kosovo Mailbox, 711 Third Ave., 10th Floor, New York, N.Y., 100017;

or to UJA Federations of North America,

111 Eighth Ave., Suite 11E,

New York, N.Y., 10011.