Ronen Shnidman

Finding a Place for Zemun in Holocaust Memory

A crowd gathers as the Zemun Jewish community unveils a plaque commemorating WWII era Holocaust victims from the Serbian municipality. (Credit: Jugoslav Rakita)
A crowd gathers as the Zemun Jewish community unveils a plaque commemorating WWII era Holocaust victims from the Serbian municipality. (Credit: Jugoslav Rakita)

The Jewish Community of Zemun commemorated on Sunday the 575 community members it lost to the Holocaust with a memorial plaque outside where the Serbian municipality’s Sephardic synagogue once stood. The event held on September 3, the European Day of Jewish Culture as declared by the Council of Europe, concluded with a project on the identity cards used by Holocaust survivors during the war held in the old Ashkenazi synagogue at 5 Rabbi Alkalai Street.

Some 90% of the Jewish population of Zemun was killed during the Holocaust under the rule of the Independent State of Croatia, known as the NDH, a collaborationist government that ruled today’s Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and parts of Serbia with the support of the Nazis. Today, Zemun’s Jewish community numbers roughly 130 people.

Zemun Jewish community leader Nenad Fogel dedicating the plaque to the all the Jewish Holocaust victims from the municipality. (Credit: Jugoslav Rakita)

“[The plaque] is important to help local people in Zemun, Belgrade and Serbia to better understand,” said Nenad Fogel, head of the Jewish Community of Zemun. “People don’t know much about the fate of Jews throughout World War II. It’s an opportunity to provide them with facts about what happened to the Jews in Zemun, who were killed in Jasenovac by the NDH.”

The Sephardic synagogue itself was destroyed in aerial bombing in 1944. The Ashkenazi synagogue, which survived the war and was eventually returned to the local Jewish community after serving a variety of periods of different use. It currently functions as a restaurant, as the local Jewish community tries to scrape up the money to renovate the building and return it to its original purpose as a Jewish communal center.

“[The event] is very important for us because we have support from the Ministry of Culture, the City of Belgrade and the Municipality of Zemun,” said Fogel. “Israeli tourists come often and visit the wall where this [Sephardic] synagogue used to stand. Now they have a memorial plaque with more explanation of what used to be there.”

Jewish community leader Nenad Fogel prepares to unveil the plaque with the assistance of Tomislav Žigmanov, Serbian human rights and minority affairs minister and Gavrilo Kovačević, mayor of Zemun. (Credit: Jugoslav Rakita)

Local dignitaries in attendance at the dedication event included Tomislav Žigmanov, minister of human and minority rights and social dialogue, Dr. Dragoljub Acković, an MP, Holocaust expert and Roma activist and Gavrilo Kovačević, mayor of Zemun.

Zemun’s significance to world Jewry

While not a major metropolis like London or New York, Zemun played an outsized role in modern Jewish history as the home of Rabbi Alkalai, one of progenitors of modern political Zionism and as the original home of the Herzl family before the birth of Zionist leader Theodore Herzl. Indeed, Herzl’s grandfather Simon was a member of Rabbi Alkalai’s synagogue and many historians believe he transmitted some of Alkalai’s ideas to his grandson, who went on to popularize them far and wide. In a sense, the Zemun Jewish community was the cradle of modern Zionism.

However, World War II decimated the local Jewish community, most of whom were murdered in the Jasenovac death camp run by the collaborationist Croatian Ustashe regime. In the Jasenovac camp, inmates from Zemun would have been subjected to 57 different methods of torture and death. Their chances for survival would have been miniscule. For this reason, Jasenovac was later dubbed the “Auschwitz of the Balkans.”

Among those murdered there were 13 members of the Herzl family.

The Herzls were not the only family of a world-renowned figure to die in Jasenovac. Some 14 members of the Orthodox Serb family of the famous inventor Nikola Tesla were murdered in Jasenovac. Indeed, a majority of the victims of the death camp were Orthodox Serbs, which makes it stand out in relation to all the other death camps that existed during the war and were operated by the Ustashe’s allies, the Nazis.

In general, the Holocaust in the Balkans receives much less attention than the events experienced elsewhere in Europe. Maybe Sunday’s commemorative event will help in some small way to put Zemun on the map of Holocaust memory.

About the Author
Ronen is a freelance journalist as well as an experienced Hebrew-English translator. He has also written for Buzzfeed, Haaretz, JTA, JNS, The Forward and The Jerusalem Post.
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