“Immediately connected to Dorćol, which […] had a completely oriental look, there was a Jewish mahala [district], which was mostly inhabited by Jews from Spain (…). However, even though next to Solunska [Thessaloniki street], whose name reminds us Serbian pretensions, we find Jevrejska [Jewish], Mojsijeva [Moses] and other streets with names from the Old Testament, there is no ghetto in Belgrade. The Serb, who was a victim of religious fanaticism for centuries, is very tolerant, so Jews have temples, elegant houses and rich shops even in the most distinguished parts of the city. It is just a matter of choice if the old-style Jew will prefer to live close to his schools and temples in Avramova, or if he will go to the Dorćol synagogue, built in 1820, but even in that place there is a sign of the new times; in 1896 its large nave and its octagonal altar chandelier have been adapted to be electrified; only in the old Turkish bath, owned by Sonante family, are the doors bared for any progress; it only accepts women during the day”
– Felix Kanitz, Serbia (1904)
This was the description of Jalija, the Jewish part of Dorćol, which was roughly located in the rectangle drawn by Dušanova, Tadeuša Košćuška, Mike Alasa and Dubrovačka street. Since the Ottoman conquest of Belgrade in 16th Century, Jalija was spread between the old merchant port on the Danube and the quarter where the Catholic merchants from Dubrovnik lived. Sadly, there is little that remains from this historic part of town. The Holocaust, which led to the murder of over 8o% of Belgrade’s Jews and the decision of many of the survivors to move to Israel after World War II, left Belgrade’s Jewish community shrunken and without means to resist the “modernisation” of this part of town in the Socialist times.
The most prominent victim of post-war rebuilding was the heart of this old Jewish quarter: Kal Viejo, “Old Synagogue” in Ladino, the language of Sephardi Jews who settled in Jalija. It is this synagogue that Kanitz mentions as “Dorćol synagogue” is his description, where it stood since 17th (or maybe even 16th ) Century when Jalija was founded. Rather than built from scratch, It was completely renovated in 1819 and was located around the present day intersection of Viskog Stevana and Jevrejska. This architecturally simple, but historically invaluable building, survived WWII, but was then levelled as the area was turned uninspiring concrete flats.
The age of the old synagogue, was not the only inaccuracy in Kanitz’s account. Although the rights of Jews in Belgrade were better than in many parts of Western Europe, especially in the Ottoman era, the attitude of the newly formed Serbian state towards its Jews in 19th Century was not always fair.
When Karađorđe’s troops entered Belgrade during the First Serbian Uprising in 1806, many Jewish shops and businesses were looted and the old synagogue was torched; some Jews were forced to convert to Christianity, while others fled to Zemun, which back then was separate city, firmly in Habsburg hands. The situation remained unstable after the Uprising failed and the Ottomans returned, as many of the Jews who collaborated with Karađorđe faced persecution in Ottoman hands.
The situation in Jalija improved drastically when Prince Miloš Obrenović took power after the Second Serbian Uprising in 1815. The ruler of increasingly autonomous Serbia, insisted on religious tolerance and equality for his Jewish subjects. His tolerant attitude towards the Jews also left a mark on the Serbian music. Prince Miloš hired Jožef Šlezinger, the son of the cantor from Sombor synagogue, to form the first official military band and introduce brass music to Serbia. This meant that to this day, Serbian brass bears resemblance to klezmer, which in turn has a lot of Balkan insfluence itself (to see for yourself, best go and hear it at festivals like Guča).
However, when Prince Aleksandar Karađorđević took over in 1842, restrictions were placed on Jews and they were not allowed to live or work outside Belgrade. Similarly, after Prince Miloš’s son, Mihailo came to power in 1860, he issued a short-lived decree to expel Jews from central Serbia and there were typical anti-semitic scares appearing in the Serbian press. It was only after Serbia became a kingdom in 1878, that Jews were guaranteed equal rights in Serbia.
In those tumultuous years, Jalija waxed and waned, as Jews from around Serbia were often fleeing to Belgrade to escape persecution in smaller Serbian towns like Smederevo and Šabac, while others decided to leave for better life elsewhere, especially during more violent clashes between Serbs and the Ottomans, like in 1862, when the city was bombarded from the Ottoman garrison in the Belgrade Fortress. Despite this, the area remained culturally vibrant: Ladino was spoken alongside Serbian, and there were several schools in the area, which meant that the area was on average, one of the most educated ones in the whole city.
After Jews were given equal rights, the life in Jalija started booming. A new synagogue, which did not survive WWI was built and the first Serbian-Jewish Choir (named Braća Baruh) was formed in 1879, which makes it the oldest Jewish choir in continuous operation in the world.
It was not all smooth sailing however. There were spates between the indigenous Sephardi population and the Ashkenazis who moved to Serbia from across the Danube in search of business opportunities. This eventually led to the founding of an Ashkenazi synagogue in Maršala Birjuzova (former Kosmajska) in a building that originally housed the National Theatre, close to where the only functioning synagogue in Belgrade still stands.
Soon it was not only the Ashkenazi who were leaving Jalija’s winding alleys.
In late 19th and early 20th Century, many of the Belgrade’s Jews rose to prominence in society, whether in business and politics (like Bencion Buli, the first Jewish MP in Serbia, banker and founder of Belgrade’s first Department store), or in arts and sciences. Serbian rulers provided support to the growing Jewish community, as patrons of societies and synagogues.
As the Jews were more integrated in the Belgrade and Serbian society, the rich moved away from the small houses in Jalija. The new neo-Moorish Sephardic Syangogue, Bet Israel, was built in 1907, in the more salubrious upper Dorćol (called Zerek) while the headquarters of the Jewish (still predominantly Sephardi) community moved to a majestic building in Kralja Petra, which to this day houses the Jewish museum and many other Jewish institutions.
Unfortunately, all of this progress was undone in WWII and the near complete destruction of Belgrade’s Jewish community. The gleaming Bet Israel synagogue was badly damaged by the Nazis during WWII, and rather than restoring it, the new authorities decided to demolish it after the War. Needless to say, the old, ramshackle houses, old baths and shops in Jalija were completely destroyed, and as their owners were taken to their deaths there was no one to return to restore them.
Apart from the names of Jevrejska and Braća Baruh streets, only two structures in old Jalija remain as reminders of its past.
The first is the monument to the victims of the Holocaust on the bank of the Danumber, “Burning Menorah”, designed by Nandor Glid, himself a survivor and author of many haunting memorial sculptures, including the one in Dachau.
The second is the building in Jevrejska 16, which was built for Jewish societies which were dedicated to taking care of the elderly members of the community. Its evocative inscription in Serbian and Hebrew, “Don’t abandon me to old age, when my strength falters, do not leave me”, may as well apply to Jalija, whose stories are, much like its houses and synagogues have been almost erased from Belgrade’s collective memory.
Want to know more? Here are some useful links (in Serbian):
A site with many resources on Jewish history in Serbia http://haver.rs/
Belgrade’s Jewish Municipality http://savezjos.org/blog/jevrejska-opstina-beograd/
Ars Magine’s document on the history of Belgarde’s synagogues (incl. those outside of Jalija) http://arsmagine.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Sudbina-beogradskih-sinagoga.pdf