Croatian city without Jews to restore its synagogue

ZAGREB, Croatia — Why should a city without Jews want to restore its synagogue?

For Vukovar, Croatia, the idea stems from a desire to make the synagogue a symbol of tolerance and the renaissance of a demolished city.

The idea is the brainchild of Darko Fischer, the president of the Jewish community of Osijek, and is supported by Charles David Tauber, a Dutch Jew who heads the Society for Work with Psychotrauma in Vukovar.

Fischer admits that the project may sound utopian, as the wounds from the 1992 Balkan wars have yet to heal. Serbs and Croats in Vukovar today live in separate communities, and their children study in separate classes in school.

Vukovar, which borders Serbia, had 45,000 inhabitants before the Balkan war began in 1991. Now it has 30,000.

For Croatians, Vukovar is a symbol of resistance and suffering. The town was besieged for more than three months in 1991 by Yugoslav Army forces and Serbian paramilitaries until it was completely destroyed.

In November 1991, Croatians left Vukovar en masse. Some males were taken prisoner, and several hundred were slaughtered.

The war crimes committed in Vukovar are part of the indictment against former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who is being tried by the International Criminal Court for War Crimes in The Hague.

The 1990s were not the first time that Balkan ground was stained with blood.

In the late fall of 1941, most of Vukovar's 500-member Jewish community was deported to concentration camps, with many going to Jasenovac, the largest camp in Croatia. Not more than 10 survived.

Such tragic events are exceptions to the hundreds of years that Vukovar stood as a model of tolerance and multi-ethnic harmony, says Fischer, himself a Holocaust survivor.

The synagogue could help mediate between the peoples of Vukovar as they attempt to rebuild some form of tolerance, he says. Some 25 ethnic groups — representing about 10 different religions — live in the region today.

Vukovar's synagogue was built in 1891. Standing high above the Danube River and dominating the scenery, it demonstrated the prosperity of Vukovar's Jews. It was partly demolished in World War II.

In 1958, with money tight and the Jewish community dwindling, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia in Belgrade sold the building's materials and had the building taken down.

The 2001 film documentary "A Story from Vukovar" chronicles the search for treasures from the synagogue, which were buried in a cellar dug out of the hillside clay just before the German army arrived in 1941.

In October 2001, with the support of Croatia's Ministry of Culture, an excavation was begun into the stone-hard clay. The filmmakers recorded the dig, but nothing was found.

Under one plan, the rebuilt synagogue would house a center for interethnic and interreligious dialogue, would host workshops on human rights and would have a trauma institute focusing on victims of the Balkans war.

There also would be a Holocaust museum and a library dealing with the 1991 war and the region's ethnic conflicts.

So far the idea has been supported by Vukovar's mayor and county authorities, and also by some Croatian government ministries. The cost of the project is still unknown, and fund-raising has not begun.

Help is expected from the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the local Islamic community and various Protestant churches in the region, as well as from Jewish sponsors, Fischer says.