The Together Plan is a UK charity working in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Currently, the charity is focusing its work in Belarus, building a Jewish Cultural Heritage Route and helping to bring support and attention to Jewish communities, long-forgotten Jewish heritage sites and cemeteries some of which have been totally destroyed. Sadly this is a story true to so many regions of the former Soviet Union and countries within Eastern Europe and it is critical to know how these sites of such vital historic, heritage and personal importance were ravaged, ransacked and now stand neglected. We would like to thank Jasna Levinger-Goy for bringing her story of the Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo to The Together Plan so that we could share it with you here:
The Old Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo 
We often judge how civilised a society is by gauging the way it treats its dead. My family and I lived in Sarajevo most of our lives. Some of my ancestors are buried at the old Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have recently learned that today the condition of that cemetery is beyond shocking. The aim of this article is to shed some light on the devastation that has been wreaked on the cemetery. The subject is close to my heart but unfortunately by no means unique. Burials at the cemetery ceased, I believe, in 1966 or thereabouts and it was declared a national monument. Much later, if I am not mistaken, UNESCO considered listing it as a World Heritage site.
I fled Sarajevo (not by choice) by the end of the summer of 1992. My family and I had always identified as Yugoslavs, but we had also been members of the Sarajevo Jewish Community. And that very Jewish Community enabled us to escape the hell that Sarajevo turned into during the Civil War in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is interesting to mention that in that War the Jews were seen as “privileged”; they had some food, medicine and the opportunity to leave Sarajevo. The connection with the Jews meant opening a path to salvation, but at the same time, this would cause envy too. Understandably. Our new neighbour who had just arrived from the Bosnian hinterland, for example, saw us off with the words that “Jews were always lucky.” Unfortunately a historically incorrect fact. Significantly, at that time, the Jewish community together with numerous Jewish organizations helped not only Jews in Sarajevo but also all other ethnic groups. However, that is not the topic of this text.
My entire extended family fled Sarajevo in 1992 and no one returned. I personally do not go to Sarajevo even to visit, nor would I like to go there any time soon. Memories are still very painful and depressing.
In the meantime, my parents died and I live in Cambridge, UK. I have recently written a memoir about the period of ten years, starting in 1992. Since the publisher wanted to include some photographs, I searched the internet for pictures of Sarajevo before and during the Civil War. While doing this, I came across the website of the Sarajevo Centar Municipality dedicated to the Jewish cemetery. I froze. It states that “about 95% of the tombstones in the cemetery are damaged.” I was horrified when I read it and long-forgotten events emerged from my memory.
But first, the quote referring to the condition of the old Jewish Cemetery from http://www.centar.ba/stranica/536:
“The Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo was devastated several times:
- in 1967, 15 monuments were demolished;
- On 24th November 1970, 16 graves were damaged and 5 monuments were destroyed. Also in order to make a foundation for the transmission tower, 11 graves were destroyed, without exhumation of the bodies. On that occasion, a poplar tree was felled, which damaged 15 additional tombstones, as well as the stone wall of the complex in the length of 8-10 m. A total of 200 m of the wall was damaged;
- in 1971, about 100 more recent tombstones were overturned;
- On 21st November 1975, about 200 tombstones were damaged on the plot of the “Hevra Kadisha” funeral cooperative;
- On 13th February 1983, the devastation of the cemetery was also recorded;
- In 1985, an improvised football pitch was built within the cemetery complex, during which several tombstones were moved and damaged, the chapel was damaged, benches were broken, etc.
- in 1987, due to unprofessional felling of trees and without the consent of the protection agencies several tombstones were damaged;
- During the 1992-1995 armed conflict, the cemetery was on the front line of combat operations. During that period large areas inside the complex were mined. At the same time, a large number of tombstones and monuments that were erected more recently were damaged during the fighting. The chapel, the entrance gate and all the other parts of the site were also damaged during the war;
- In November 2000, a number of tombstones were overturned, during which a total of 36 tombstones were either overturned and/or damaged.”
This report compelled me to put my thoughts on paper. The paragraphs below are a kind of emotional review of events rather than a registering of facts. I did not check the data, because I believe the general picture is important. Details, although significant and indicative, do not have a place here. I leave data research and detail analysis to historians. My intention is to talk only about that which I know and that which I personally remember. Memories fade over time, but impressions remain. Yet, those truly deeply etched memories cannot be erased. So, I will start with my memories regarding Jews and Judaism in Sarajevo.
Having shared the horrific destiny of many a European Jew in World War II i.e. having been through the Holocaust, my parents were eager to realise the “bright” future that communism promised in that period. They readily accepted the idea of “brotherhood and unity” and Yugoslavism as their identity. I followed suit. For most of my life, I lived with the belief that there was no institutional antisemitism in Yugoslavia. I was aware of individual cases and experienced them personally. However, I suppose, I tried to comfort myself by claiming that prejudices were a fact of life and unfortunately always would be. When I think about it now, I can see that it was sheer denial. The kind of denial that was probably necessary for survival. People prefer not to see the evil around them. I certainly was one of them. At the same time I also truly believe that good prevails and that ultimately evil does not win. Yet evil has a tendency to be much louder and more visible than good. That’s why it is often clearly remembered and that is why I am writing these lines.
I do remember 1967, the time of the war between Israel and Egypt, and I remember that “the prominent Jewish individuals” had to declare publicly whose side they were on. And only Jews. What I have discovered now is that at that very time the cemetery was damaged. I didn’t know that then. I also remember the rise of nationalism in Yugoslavia in the 70s, I remember the appearance of “maspok“, etc., and the Ustashi incursion in Bosnia in the region of the town of Bugojno if I remember correctly. I now read again on the website that vandalism at the Jewish cemetery was recorded in the 1970s. It could hardly have been a coincidence. I also remember that in the 1991 census it was not possible to declare oneself either a Yugoslav or a Jew. Jews and Yugoslavs were then classed as “other”. So, my family and I suddenly became “other” in the country in which we were born and lived. I somehow pushed that to the back of my mind. I had never paid much attention to it. I should have done. Yet it remained deeply ingrained in my memory.
Visiting the cemetery was not the custom anybody in my family followed, so we were unaware of the condition of the old Jewish Cemetery at any given time. There had been rumours of the Cemetery being in poor condition, but I convinced myself that the only problem was “their” negligence. Namely, the Jewish Community had gifted a large synagogue in the centre of the city to the city authorities with the proviso that in return the city, i.e. their funeral company “Pokop“, maintained the cemetery. And so, I held onto an explanation that those obscure they were not fulfilling their promises, they were not maintaining the cemetery properly. On the other hand, since the synagogue had been turned into the “Djuro Djaković Workers’ University“, an institution where cultural events took place, I considered that a reasonable and fair solution. I didn’t want or I couldn’t think any further or deeper.
In the late 1980s, I took an Israeli poet to visit the Jewish Cemetery and we were both horrified when we saw the horrendous devastation, including the demolition of the chapel with doors gone, graffiti everywhere and human faeces along the main chapel wall. I couldn’t easily ignore that, but again, I only aimed my anger at the irresponsibility of the authorities. Of course, again I didn’t want to or couldn’t see the reality. It was too scary and horrible. But I was deeply hurt. It was difficult to watch the neglected, half-destroyed cemetery, to step over rubbish on the way to the graves of my Albert, Emilia and Nikola, to watch the boys play football in the oldest part of the cemetery (from the 16th century) turned into a football pitch. I was hugely upset by the fact that the terrible condition of the cemetery was not publicly known and that no one was doing anything, including myself, although my grandmother and two grandfathers were buried there. Shame! I had a bitter taste in my mouth, but I postponed the ‘action’ for better times. Better times never came. Only much worse times came.
Now, as I have read the website of the Sarajevo Centar Municipality, I can see all these appalling non-coincidences. Vandalism in the cemetery in 1967, vandalism in 1970 and 1971, 1975 etc., etc. Those incidents were not publicly mentioned. The fact that the people building houses in the neighbourhood “helped themselves” to the “stones” from the cemetery was also never publicly mentioned. We knew it anecdotally but I don’t think we really believed it. In fact, it does beggar belief. I find it incredible that every antisemitic incident was explained as an “act of outrage of few individuals” and we unquestioningly accepted it. We comforted ourselves with this delusion, I suppose. But it was much more than just an act of outrage of a few individuals. We had put our heads in the sand until we were almost buried in it.
Now, in 2021, I can clearly see and register that apparently about 95% of the tombstones in the cemetery are damaged. It’s hard to accept, but now it’s easier to believe. A friend who personally recently visited the cemetery told me that some parts of the cemetery were so thoroughly destroyed that it was not even possible to find traces of some of the graves. And it has been a long time since the end of the Civil War. Some things have been fixed with foreign aid. The Norwegians apparently helped clear the mines and the Germans helped with land subsidence. The chapel was apparently restored with the help of the United States. But the presence of my family including my ancestors, for example, in the life of that city is now all but eradicated, we have become less than “other”. It seems that instead of the “other”, we have now become the “vanished”.
In the Sarajevo Jewish Community they still talk of coexistence and friendship between peoples, “brotherhood and unity”, but the fact that the Jewish Cemetery is in such a ghastly condition, that apparently 95% of the monuments are missing or damaged, in my opinion, negates that thesis. The maintenance of cultural monuments, the recognition and appreciation of different cultures and the acknowledgement of their participation in the life of a community are one of the most convincing and visible proofs of the respect given to the life of coexistence. In the post-Civil War period in Sarajevo, many monuments were erected, many mosques were built, but the old Jewish Cemetery still remains devastated. Actions speak louder than words, it is said. Even if one ignores the sporadic appearance of swastikas (which is all but impossible), the condition and neglect of the old Jewish Cemetery is a stark reminder of the harsh reality the Jewish people are faced with in Sarajevo and beyond?
 The cemetery was founded in the 16th century when the first Sephardic Jews arrived to the Ottoman Empire from the Iberian Peninsula and it stopped being operational in the late 1960s.
 In author’s translation.
 This seems to refer to those erected in the 20th century.
 The Croatian Spring or Maspok took place in Croatia in 1967–1971. It was a period of conflict between reformist and conservative factions of ruling communist political parties.
 A town in central Bosnia.
 Maternal grandfather Albert Danon.
 Paternal grandparents Emilia and Nikola Levinger.