Bosnian Town Sees Building Of First Synagogue Since WWII

By Beth Kampschror | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Sarajevo ( - The reconstruction of a synagogue and Jewish cultural center in one of Bosnia's most war-ravaged towns symbolizes hope and peace, a Bosnian Jewish community leader said here.

"This building, [which will be built using] a lot of glass, will show that the future will be peaceful," said Mostar Jewish Community president Zoran Mandlbaum.

The glass-sided building's cornerstone was laid April 24 in the southern Bosnian town of Mostar, the scene of heavy Muslim-Croat fighting in 1993-94. The synagogue was on the front line then, and the area is still a no-man's-land of wrecked apartment buildings and stray garbage nearly six years after the war.

"It was the place where there were the most victims [during the war], only because they weren't of the same faiths," Mandlbaum said.

The center is part of the town's $15 million World Bank credit that will also reconstruct a destroyed Serbian Orthodox church and a Croat cultural association building. Also slated for reconstruction is Mostar's namesake, Stari Most (Old Bridge), a medieval Ottoman bridge destroyed by Croat shelling in November 1993.

"In that place, in the center of the city, within 100 meters there will be a synagogue, a Catholic church, an Orthodox church and a mosque," Mandlbaum said, adding that Mostar will be only the third city in the world, after Jerusalem and Sarajevo, with such a layout when the synagogue is finished late next year.

The synagogue is the first to be built in the former-Yugoslav region since 1945. Post-World War Two Communist leaders shunned religion, because it meant divisions in a country whose motto was "Brotherhood and Unity." The Mostar synagogue was turned over to the authorities in 1952 and used as a puppet theater.

The building was handed back to the Jewish community when Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, but was badly damaged when the nearby Orthodox church was blown up during the war.

Fighting took its toll in other ways as well. More than 100 Jews in Mostar were killed, and many fled. Only about 1,000 Jews remain in Bosnia, around 50 of them in Mostar.

Mandlbaum said the cultural center on the first two floors, which will include a small auditorium, a library and a museum, would serve the entire town. Its purpose was both to mark the presence of the Jewish community and to bring Mostar's citizens together.

"It's so that no one will forget that we existed," he said. "And all four peoples can attend the cultural manifestations together."

Mostar's physical scars of war underscore the still-tense political situation in the town. The former front line marks the de facto border between Mostar's Muslims and Croats, who have been in a shaky federation since 1994.

The synagogue's peaceful cornerstone ceremony last month came two weeks before violent riots in Serb-held towns scuttled two similar ceremonies marking the rebuilding of mosques destroyed during the war.

Mandlbaum said the difference is that Bosnian political leaders support the Mostar Jewish community. He praised the Muslim and Croat Bosnian presidency members for attending the cornerstone ceremony, and called Mostar Mayor Safet Orucevic "a man who has struggled from the first days to make Mostar a unified city.

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