First 120 years
Our story is both old and well known. To be exact, long ago in 1492, when the Spanish kings Ferdinand and Isabel decided to expel all the Jews from Spain, the exodus began. Some followed Colombo to America and some headed to Balkans and came to Bosnia. Jokingly we say that it is not still clear who went the wrong way.
At that time Bosnia was a newly conquered territory and the Ottoman Empire tried to fill it with population which included the arriving Jews. This means that it is possible to find here traces of Jewish presence going back to the beginning of the sixteenth century and we know that The Jewish Community was established in 1565. One of the first tasks was the construction of a synagogue which was opened in 1581. It houses today The Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina Jews.
Under the millet system in the Ottoman Empire religious communities were allowed to rule themselves under their own system, so that the Jews had the same status as the other non-Muslims. It was heaven in comparison to the rest of Europe – the ghettos for the Jews, pogroms and all the other problems. The synagogue was almost leaning against the neighbouring mosque, the old Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. The only other place where you can see something like this within an area of 200 sq. m. is in Jerusalem; it is no wonder then that in Jewish jargon Sarajevo is referred to as “Small Jerusalem”.
Then, under the Berlin Congress of 1878 Bosnia came under the jurisdiction of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Sarajevo Jews were confused a bit, because it is difficult to say what a change of authority might bring with it. Some of them even fought together with Hadzi Loja to prevent the entrance of the Austrians but as they were stronger, the Austrians managed to occupy the whole country. They brought with them their government officials, among them quite a number of Jews from Austria, but also from the Czech Lands, Hungary, Poland and other parts of the empire. It meant a new shock for the local Jews. It was clear that these were Jews, but they did not know the language, because for God’s sake the Jewish Language was Ladino.
Sure enough, the next year an Ashkenazi Jewish community was formed in Sarajevo and there were never any conflicts between these two communities. In 1940 they integrated into one hoping that it might save them from genocide and Holocaust. Sadly, more than 80% of our Jews perished. Indeed, the two communities tried to outwit one another; a story from that period mentioned that “these Ashkenazim might or might not be Jews, but anyway we shall accept them as the best friends of Jews”. Some other forms of that joke exist even today.
Sarajevo Jewish business community soon realized that it was not enough to have their stores open and go on trading on the market place, because without education they would never ascend the state hierarchy.
At a meeting which took place as early as January of 1892 a group of prominent people decided to establish the La Benevolencija society. Its purpose was to provide scholarships for poor but talented Sephardi young men (gender was not as popular at that time as it is today) to be educated in various trades or at universities that did not exist then in Bosnia but there was a number of them at various places in the Empire. Late in 1892 Annual Assembly was held, the leaders were elected, the rules were passed and La Benevolencija started to operate.
Just ten years later impressive results were achieved with a dozen of Jewish students in Vienna, Budapest and Prague; with almost 400 of journeymen, many of whom became skilled craftsmen, because La Benevolencija organized literacy courses for the apprentices, to be followed by training in the trade, some correspondence, some arithmetic and bookkeeping, or as we would put it today it was a course in management.
The society was supported by permanent donators making it possible to buy the site in Miss Irby Street and build the La Benevolencija head office. In 1908 La Benevolencija ceased to be a society providing scholarships for Sephardi young men and became Jewish Society for education and culture, thus removing completely the boundaries between the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim, although even before that Ashkenazim young people were awarded scholarships. The activities expanded to the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina and students’ canteens in Vienna and Zagreb were also financially supported.
First World War slowed down the activities because many of the scholarship holders went to army, but after the war La Benevolencija resumed its operations with full speed in the new Kingdom. Subcommittees were formed in all the major Jewish centres in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Banja Luka, Bijeljina, Tuzla, and Mostar) and in smaller places agents were appointed who made every effort to make things run smoothly.
There is no need to mention the cooperation with Jewish Communities in Zagreb and Belgrade where La Benevolencija scholarship holders were studying.
La Benevolencija library with more than 100,000 books became one of the largest if not the largest in the town, and there was good cooperation with other similar societies.
Gradually, La Benevolencija became an umbrella organization for all Jewish activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina; but also for many activities in the whole of The Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
It has always been a well-organized, economically run and transparent organization, with no problems or bad reputation.
Unfortunately, all good things do not last long. The threat of a new war hang over Europe, and Yugoslavia became a refuge for Jews fleeing Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany. Almost all the funds available to the organization were spent helping this wave of both legal and illegal refugees.
Then the war started in Yugoslavia as well. Soon after that Sarajevo became part of the Independent State of Croatia. Same as for all the other Jewish institutions, an agent was soon appointed for La Benevolencija who did not lose time to demolish everything that could be demolished, starting with the library that was carried away, as were the documents and the little cash that was still left on the account and in the safe. Everything we had was systematically destroyed, so that nothing was saved from the period immediately before the war because it was not removed from the files and the shelves. Scattered in some houses it was possible to find La Benevolencija Commemorative Volumes issued in 1924 on the fortieth anniversary of the Society. It is interesting to mention that the articles were printed in alternating order in both alphabets – one was printed in Latin alphabet and the next one in Cyrillic. The Bosnia and Herzegovina Archives hold papers that Austria started collecting so many years ago – all the official documents authorising the beginning of activities, confirming The Society Rules; and from later on La Benevolencija Bylaws, some business reports and that is all.
In 1945, after the liberation almost all the surviving Sarajevo Jews came back home. America was far away and closed, Europe was closed, and the State of Israel did not exist yet. One of the first tasks was to restore La Benevolencija, but at that time it was suggested that it might be better to rename it to “Sloboda” (Freedom). Thus it happened that for a short time Benevolencija tried to operate under another name but then in 1948 its activities terminated as did the activities of all the other ethnically oriented societies and organizations.
Sarajevo Jewish community took over the operations of La Benevolencija; this involved also the cultural activities and the help for the needy, but all that was not Benevolencija.
Then the so called “democratic changes” took place, together with the free elections of November 1990, and as soon as early 1991 La Benevolencija was registered as a Jewish Cultural, Educational and Humanitarian Society. The objectives were to preserve and present the Jewish culture brought with them to these parts of the world as well as the culture created by them while in Bosnia and Herzegovina thus certainly enriching this country; but also the humanitarian work.
Early in 1992 we marked 100 years of Benevolencija activities in the packed hall of The National Theatre: that same year during the Sarajevo Winter event we presented a seven-days programme under the title : Shalom Sarajevo – Jews to their beloved city.
This did not help. In April of 1992 the war started in which La Benevolencija had a role to play. Actually, even before the war started and after the siege of Dubrovnik (that seems short to us now – only 90 days as compared to 1425 days of Sarajevo siege), we learned that the most important thing is to have enough medication for the elderly and people with chronic illnesses. We gathered Jewish doctors and pharmacists and in no time they made a long list of medicines needed for the survival of 1,500 mainly elderly people over a period of three months. JOINT bought for us those drugs we could not find on our local market. We used the rest of the money to buy non-perishable food: oil, flour, salt, sugar, rice, pasta, beans and tinned food. It was decided that it might come in handy in case of war, and in case that it would remain peaceful we would distribute it as “winter support” to the needy.
Evacuations from Sarajevo were organized with the help of JOINT, Sohnut and Belgrade and Zagreb Jewish Communities. The first three were by plane to Belgrade, and later on land to Croatia - to Split and Pirovac and later to Makarska. More than 2,500 people were evacuated, out of which 1,000 Jews.
Some 500 Jews remained in Sarajevo and we started with the activities of La Benevolencija. The first job was to open the pharmacy because everything, including pharmacies was looted (except for bookshops – interesting). The neighbour who had a shop across the street gave us his space for our pharmacy and so the Humanitarian Pharmacy of La Benevolencija firm name appeared. It was not easy for everybody to pronounce it so that we were immediately nicknamed as The Jewish Pharmacy and very soon after it became known that “if you need something go and look for it in The Jewish Pharmacy and if you cannot find it there – you will not find it anywhere”. There were always long queues in front of the pharmacy; then people started objecting saying that it was too dangerous to get to our pharmacy because it meant crossing the bridge over Miljacka River, and bridges were always targets for the snipers on the hills. Then we opened another pharmacy across the street from the National Theatre. The place became so popular that a commercial pharmacy stands there even today.
However, we are also a cultural and educational society. Since nobody was working we started other activities as well. We organized courses in foreign languages: Hebrew, English, French, German and Arabic (because the best professor of Arabic is a Jewish lady). This immediately started the joke that optimist learn English and pessimists Arabic.
In September of 1992 we marked 500 years of Jews expulsion from Spain by a three days long event of round tables, concerts and exhibitions; this was mentioned even in New York Times. Suddenly the world realized that beside the Muslims, Serbs and Croats there are also Jews living in Sarajevo and so we became the targets of foreign journalists and TV crews covering our unfortunate war. Those news and reports initiated the creation of Friends of La Benevolencija organizations in Europe, who started to collect and send us humanitarian aid. La Benevolencija thus became the first and the only local humanitarian organization that signed an agreement with UNHCR and received number plates and association cards to the largest international humanitarian organization. As a consequence the only question asked when distributing aid was: “What do you need?” and not the usual: “Who are you? What is your name?”
Under our organization we received in and sent from Sarajevo hundreds of thousands of letters; Sarajevo was linked by radio with Belgrade and Zagreb, and by telephone through Zagreb it was connected to the rest of the world. Every day in the year, except for Yom Kippur we prepared in our kitchen 320 – 350 meals and distributed them. We even managed to print two bilingual bulletins about our life and work (not in Latin and Cyrillic alphabet this time, but in Bosnian and English). This would be done of course when everything coincided and we had electric power, paper and printing ink all at the same time.
The war was finally over. Some 40% of the evacuated Jews came back. That is the highest percentage of any ethnic group that had left the city. There was no more need for humanitarian pharmacies; the humanitarian kitchen became a small restaurant, but a number of dishes are still being distributed for the needy; until recently the English language course was running but even that stopped because there is no more interest for it, but we are involved in other activities.
Instead of giving our clients a fish a day, we have taught them to catch the fish. Namely, we organized a course in small businesses. They are given 60 lessons during which time they learn the basics of bookkeeping, marketing, legal regulations, preparation of business plans and other things needed to start. We tell everybody that it is not a guarantee that they will become Bill Gates, but also that traffic accidents are caused by those who learn how to drive in 20 lesson and not only by those without licence. In this way we helped to create almost 3,600 jobs and to make as many self-supporting families. We went even a step further forming the Microcredit funding association Melaha (after the name of the first Jewish Savings Bank in Sarajevo) which offers to these people credits to start their businesses with. The level of credit return is 97%.
We take care of the elderly who stayed in Sarajevo, while their offspring living dispersed worldwide remembers to call them once a month to hear whether they are still alive. Almost 400 people expect to have two or three times a week visits by carers from La Benevolencija who help them with housework, food and medication shopping but in majority of cases they are happy to have somebody to talk to and share a coffee, because this is the only human voice they hear. It is difficult to talk to a TV screen.
We pay our utmost attention to the children and the young people, because they are the future. We want them to become good people, aware of the fact that they are Jews without looking at it as an advantage but also not considering it a handicap or a burden. In the Pirovac and Sarvas summer camps they started creating a network of friends from former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
It is possible to go on about our activities, work, successes and why not failures which, sure enough, do exist. But let us stop here at the first 120 years, and although it is the targeted end for Jews, we hope that La Benevolencija will live to at least 120 more and beyond.
Everything we achieved we did so thanks to our friends, one of them is reading these lines now, and all those that helped us in the past; we believe that they will go on doing so because it is not easy to live without Benevolencija (good faith).
Sarajevo, August 2012
28th of Av, 5781
August 6, 2021Jevrejski kalendar
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