Yugoslav Jews ask: Should we go home

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BUDAPEST — With peace coming to Yugoslavia, now comes the tough part for many of the roughly 500 Yugoslav Jews who fled the country during the three-month conflict over Kosovo. Should they return home or settle abroad?

For some of the 130 refugees in Budapest, the decision was a no-brainer.

Once it became apparent that peace would indeed stick, 40 headed back to Yugoslavia last Friday — most aboard a rented bus, others on their own. They were desperate to check in on their families, their property — and to return to their normal routines.

Their decisions came despite concerns about the country's tense political climate and dire economic situation.

"We wanted to see if peace had really been established, or whether it was for one day and would change overnight," said a woman from Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital.

"After all we've been through, we wanted to feel some sparkle of certainty. No one's talking about politics. We're just emotionally tied up with going back to our homes."

As for the remaining Yugoslav Jews still in Budapest, both the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee are urging them to go home by the end of the week.

The JDC has covered most of their costs in Budapest, including accommodations at the $37-per-night Park Hotel.

"The Joint's basic position is that the bombing has stopped, and unless there is a very good reason for staying, they shouldn't," said Yechiel Bar-Chaim, the Paris-based JDC representative for Yugoslavia.

Of the remaining 90 refugees, another busload of 40 was slated to leave for Belgrade in the coming days. Thirty-five more are scheduled to fly this week to Tel Aviv, where they will begin new lives.

Meanwhile, 35 to 40 Yugoslav Jews already in Israel have decided against aliyah. They will fly back to Budapest this week, then go on to Belgrade. Israel had taken in up to 250 Jewish refugees during the crisis.

Only a handful of those now in Budapest have asked the JDC to stay on longer, mostly to arrange for visas.

The JDC's priority now, said Bar-Chaim, is relief for the 3,000-plus Jews in Yugoslavia.

The JDC plans to provide cash grants for the elderly, maintain the community pharmacy, operate soup kitchens and possibly create a small-business development project.

The JDC will also pay for 100 Yugoslav Jewish children to attend the Szarvas summer camp in Hungary, giving preference to those who endured the 78 days of NATO airstrikes.

Then there's the coming winter, and the likelihood — for Serbs, Albanians and Jews alike — of confronting harsh conditions with insufficient heating, electricity and water.

However, among all the uncertainties facing Yugoslavs, one is specific to the Jewish community: Will there will be a backlash of domestic anti-Semitism for the role in the U.S.-led airstrikes played by American policy-makers of Jewish origin, such as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen, whose father is Jewish, although Cohen is not.

Jews in Yugoslavia and Macedonia — another country profoundly affected by the conflict — fear there will be a backlash.

While Yugoslav Jews report no official anti-Semitism, they note a tendency to blame all Americans, or all Britons, for the air campaign spearheaded by their governments.

So it wouldn't be surprising, they say, if all Jews were blamed for the actions of Albright and her colleagues.

"It's possible that Serbs and others would make that connection because everyone knows they're Jewish," said one Yugoslav Jewish woman, who arrived in Budapest earlier this month.

"It's something my parents and I have talked about a lot, though my mother may be a bit paranoid about it because she was in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.

"People in Yugoslavia are angry, they want to blame someone."