Jewish Heritage Tours
CONTACT: 202.244.3975 RAH Productions P.O. Box 11398 Washington, DC 20008 robynhelzner@verizon.net
Robyn Helzner Jewish Heritage Tours
Kreplach & Burekas Jewish Heritage Tour to the Balkans June 2018

Rovinj

Pula

Zagreb

CROATIA

Plitvice

Lakes

BOSNIA &

Herzegovina

Sarajevo

Split

Mostar

Dubrovnik

 agnificent, breathtaking, 
 eye-opening, heartbreaking . . .
 We would need all of these M
words, , and more, to describe our recent Jewish Heritage Tour to the Balkans. Our trip took us to Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, part of the former Yugoslavia. Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century, were welcomed in the Ottoman Empire and found a home in the Balkans. Our journey took us to six synagogues, five Jewish cemeteries, a spectacular National Park, several ancient, walled cities, a brutal concentration camp, and more. We celebrated Shabbat in an historic synagogue in Split, built by Sephardic Jews in 1510. We visited synagogues in Dubrovnik, Rijeka,
Zagreb and Sarajevo. We met with Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Luciano Moše Prelević of Zagreb, the first Croatian rabbi since 1941, and learned about each city’s significant Jewish history and their struggles to remain vital today. We marveled at the turquoise waters of Plitvice Lakes National Park, one of the most beautiful parks in all of Europe, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We visited one of the world’s best preserved Roman amphitheaters on Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula and learned about Italy’s influence on the Croatian coastland. We wandered the winding alleys in Rovinj, Split and Dubrovnik, where motorized vehicles are prohibited. We walked along the ramparts of Dubrovnik and were awed by the sparkling Adriatic Sea juxtaposed against the red roofs within the fortress walls that have repelled invaders for centuries. When we crossed the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina, we encountered evidence of the 1990’s Homeland War. We passed through villages that had been ethnically cleansed and viewed remnants of structures destroyed by mortar shells. We visited the capital Sarajevo, a cultural crossroads between east and west. For centuries, Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics lived together, peacefully. During the Homeland War, Bosnian Serbs kept the city under siege for three years, from 1992-1995. Today, many buildings still show signs of pockmarks from gunfire. We met Mr. Jakob Finci, the President of the Jewish Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and heard about the heroic efforts of the Jews of Sarajevo during the conflict. The Jewish community organized a benevolent society, operating out of the Ashkenazi synagogue that provided food, medical assistance and comfort to all of their neighbors, no matter their religion or ethnicity. We visited the historic Jewish cemetery that sits high on a hill, with a perfect view of the city. During the siege, Serbian snipers fired indiscriminately from behind the tombstones, on the innocent civilians below. At the National Museum, we were thrilled to see the original Sarajevo Haggadah on display. The illuminated Haggadah was created in Barcelona, Spain around 1350. Over the centuries, it would mysteriously disappear and re-surface until it was sold to the National Museum in 1894. During both World War II and the Homeland War, the priceless Haggadah was hidden and protected by Muslim employees of the Museum. Upon our return to Croatia, we were escorted through the Jasenovac concentration camp by Bishop Jovan Cilibrk, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in this diocese. Bishop Cilibrk spent eight years as a fellow at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center. While all physical evidence of the camp was thought to have been eradicated, Bishop Cilibrk brought us to a recently discovered building that had once served as a hospital for the Croatian Fascists. Jewish doctors, held prisoner at Jasenovac, were forced to treat the cruel Ustashe officers and guards. We were the first Jewish group to enter the hospital’s infirmary and see the large Magen David, a Jewish star that had been painted on the wall by the inmates as proof of their presence. The Bishop pointed out an area, not far from the camp, where Jewish poet and paratrooper, Hannah Senesh had parachuted into Yugoslavia. She was cared for by the Yugoslav partisans until she crossed into Hungary where she was captured, tortured and murdered by the Nazis. We conducted a memorial service at the camp to bear witness to the close to 100,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists who were murdered at Jasenovac We began our ceremony with Hannah Senesh’s poem, “Eili, Eili.” As soon as we started to sing, the skies erupted with rumbling claps of thunder and wild flashes of lightning. We will never again recite Hannah’s words, “barak ha-shamayim,” “the crash of the heavens,” without thinking of our experience at Jasenovac. The members of our group agreed that this region, rich with Jewish history and cultural life, deserves to be better known. While we were broken-hearted to witness what seems to be the end of Jewish life in the Balkans, we came away determined to tell others about these communities, so they will never be forgotten.