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Jewish Journal

Jewish Croatia: Through the Looking Glass

The director reaches back to his youth to complete his film quartet

by Gene Lichtenstein

December 2, 1999 | 7:00 pm

This past October I found myself, along with four other North American Jewish journalists, flying business class -- a wonderful way to fly -- to Croatia on Lufthansa Airlines. The Croatian Tourist Office in conjunction with Lufthansa had generously put together a 12 day guest package, hoping we would like what we saw (after all, parts of Croatia, especially the Dalmatian coast on the Adriatic Sea, are quite beautiful). The thought was we would combine descriptions of the famous tourist sights with a report to our readers on the life and times of Jewish Croatia.

There was a certain disarming lunacy about the whole enterprise. Certainly a journalist can discover interesting and important stories to recount about Croatia -- its politics, its recent history, and its estrangement from the West; reportage about Croatia's dying, autocratic President Franja Tudjman and the likelihood of his party's (the HDZ or Croatian Democratic Union) success in the elections scheduled for Jan. 3; accounts of the high levels of unemployment (nearly 20 percent) along with the moribund tourist trade; or the way in which modern life continues to persist (with energy) in this strange isolated land: from urban Central European Zagreb, the capitol city, all the way to the Dalmatian Coast on the beautiful Adriatic, with its Italian and Mediterranean ambiance looming out of the sea in such lovely port cities as Split and Dubrovnik.

Despite the generosity of the Croatian Tourist Bureau towards me and the other journalists, these are not Jewish stories and have little to do with what might be called Jewish Croatia. Ironically, the outcome in all these political matters -- Tudjman's successor, unemployment, tourism, relations with the U.S. and Western Europe -- will determine the fate of Croatia's 2,500 Jews just as it will the rest of the nation's near 5 million population.

Jewish Croatia to all intents and purposes is a statistical blip. More than half the Jews, 1,500, live in Zagreb which has a population of about one million. Split, a jewel of a city (population about 200,000) on the Dalmatian Coast, contains about 150 Jews, but not all are participants in the community. In Dubrovnik, with its marvelous old walled city, there are 44 Jews. Bruno Horowitz the leader of the community, explains that services are held infrequently; only "when there are enough tourists to have a minyan." Carefully he traces through the list of each Jewish family in Dubrovnik: he's a dentist; she's a teacher; he's a photographer; and on through all 44.

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