Croatias census forces Jews to confront identity crisis

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ZAGREB, Croatia — When Croatian Jews receive their census questionnaire this year, they'll faced a dilemma: Which nationality are they going to mark down?

In the country's 1991 census, fewer than 600 out of about 2,000 registered members of the nine official Jewish communities in Croatia formally declared themselves as Jews. The rest said they were either Croats or Serbs; some even declared themselves as Chinese or Eskimo.

Since 1945, most Jews in Croatia declared themselves as Yugoslavs. But since Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia, they preferred to remain ethnically uncommitted rather than officially declare themselves as Jews.

Jews now have the official status of a national minority, equal to the status of Czechs, Hungarians and Slovaks, for example — the minorities who moved to Croatia in the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As an official minority group, Jews are eligible for aid from the state, including money for a kindergarten, retirement home, newspaper and a variety of Jewish cultural projects.

Jewish leaders here are worried that their status with the government could be lost as fewer declare themselves as Jews. Ognjen Kraus, president of the Zagreb Jewish Community, wrote a letter appealing to Jews to mark "Jewish" on their census questionnaires.

The issue becomes complicated because more than 80 percent of the 1,500 members of Zagreb's Jewish community were either born in mixed marriages or married a non-Jew.

Indeed, many grandchildren of Holocaust survivors have just one Jewish grandparent.

Many Jews feel strongly attached to both their Jewish and Croatian identities, but their Jewish identities stem primarily from family memories of the Holocaust.

From 1945 until 1990, in Communist Yugoslavia, atheism was official state policy — there was no rabbi in Croatia for more than 50 years.

Now there is a rabbi in Zagreb and a growing number of younger Jews attend synagogue.

Most community members, however, think of religion in terms of Jewish tradition and culture: They attend family Shabbats organized by the Jewish community's social club and they make Purim cakes at home.

Kotel Dadon, a young Orthodox rabbi who was born in Israel, came to Zagreb two years ago.

In a recent discussion about the upcoming census, Dadon said: "How can a Jew be a Jew if he declares himself as a Croat and an atheist? I find it is a joke."