History of Zagreb Jews
The Republic of Croatia, or Croatian lands have historically been subject to various external influences and foreign rule, so the development of Croatian Jewry was effected by these different influences. Simply put – the continental part of Croatia, where Zagreb belongs, was for the greater part of its history influenced by Hungarians, Austrians or Austro-Hungarian Empire, while the coastal part, or Dalmatia as you might now it, was largely under Italian control or influence. The consequence is a different historical development of the Croatian Jewish communities, who lived in those areas and were subject to the laws and customs that existed there. In parts of Croatia under the Hungarian and Austrian influences, Jewish settlement has been forbidden until the end of the 18th century, with the exception – during a brief period in the 14th century, several Jewish families lived in Zagreb, in the part known as Gradec.
At the end of the 18. century, Joseph II, Emperor of Austria issued the Edict of Tolerance, which gave the Jews equal civil rights, and this is when the Jews officially began settling in the cities of Continental Croatia. First Jews settled in Zagreb in 1787., and already in 1806. founded the Jewish Community. Its first president was a trader Jakob Stiegler, whose descendants were known builders of elevators, and even today there are buildings in the city center with those elevators. In those years, Stiegler in Zagreb was a synonym for an elevator, and people would say that the building has a “Stiegler”. Stiegler and the story of his family, symbolizes the development of Jewish life in Zagreb, since the first generation of Jews who settled here were mostly traders, then small tradesmen, who have invested in their children’s education, as seen in the rapid development and prosperity of Jews in Zagreb.
It took them a mere 60 years since the founding of the Community, to build a great and beautiful synagogue in the center of Zagreb, near the main square. It can be said that development and prosperity of the Zagreb community follows the development of Zagreb, which in these years was experiencing a boom. At the heart of Zagreb’s Jewish religious life is, of course, the synagogue, a beautiful building in the center, in today’s Praska street, built in 1867., by the architect Franjo Klein. The synagogue was neolog, with a gallery for women and an organ, and at the same year it was built, rabbi Hosea Jacobi arrived to Zagreb, and introduced the Croatian language in the liturgy.
There was a small Orthodox community, which sometimes had its own synagogue, and sometimes shared it with the larger neolog community, according to the laws of the Monarchy, which sometimes led to disagreements about halakhic issues, or caused conflicts ( in accordance with the Talmudic tradition). It is interesting that local community sided with the neolog majority, and the church leadership with the orthodox minority. Before the construction of the synagogue, Zagreb Jews were praying in houses that were either rented or bought for that purpose. They were located in present-day Petrinjska, Gajeva or Djordjiceva street. With regard to the country of origin, most of Zagreb Jews are traditionally Ashkenazi, and so was the community and the synagogue. With Austrian occupation of Bosnia, a small number of Sephardic Jews settled in Zagreb, and founded their community, and some members of Zagreb and Croatian Ashkenazi communities went to Bosnia, where they founded Ashkenazi communities.Even today, the Sarajevo Jewish Community is situated in a former Ashkenazi synagogue.
Zagreb of that time was very open and tolerant environment towards all its members, including the Jews, as reflected in the fact that immigrant Jews, who mostly came from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary, and carried the corresponding names and surnames, soon in large numbers gave their children Croatian names and surnames, and many changed them, mainly by translating them into Croatian. Schwartz become Crnić, Stern Zvijezdić, Fuchs Lisinski, etc. Also, due to close and open contact with the residents of Zagreb, mixed marriages were not an uncommon thing. This, however, led to conversions, mainly by women, since the civil marriage at that time wasn’t recognised.
One of the things that accelerated or helped this process was the fact that at that time the Croats were going through a period of national revival, and many Jews began to identify as Croats of Mosaic faith. Moreover, at that time most of the cases of resistance or hostility toward Jews came because of the Jewish use of Hungarian, German and other languages of countries where they came from, and which became a symbol of the foreign authority and rule, so we are not talking about traditional anti-Semitism, but of Jews as representatives of foreign rule in Croatia during the times of Croatian national revival. At that time, the European Jews, somewhat later than larger nations, went through a period of national revival, with the emergence of the Zionist movement, which was very strong in Zagreb.
We can say that Zagreb was the center of Zionist activity in this part of Europe, almost from the beginning. Parents of the father of the modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, were born in Zemun, which was then part of Austria-Hungary and his grandparents are buried there. The interwar period was marked by disagreements between the Zionists and assimilationists, neologue religious life, but also accelerated progress of the Zagreb Jewish community. They lived all over the city, employed in various professions, but there was a noticeable shift from trade to guilds towards professional occupations (doctors, lawyers, architects). At the turn of the century, Secessionist style became very popular in Zagreb, whose admirers were very often Jewish architects, as was the case throughout the Monarchy. The fall of the community was caused by the Second World War and the Holocaust, where some 80 % of Jews of Zagreb perished.
Most were killed in the first year of the war, primarily in Jasenovac, and the other killing fields, while the rest were deported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland, after the 1943. After the war, about half of the surviving members left mainly to Israel and the United States, and the remaining members revived some of the former Jewish communities. Despite the difficulties, including separation from the Jewish world, due to the political situation in Yugoslavia, the community continued to work and even grow. In 1998 first rabbi since the Second World arrived to Croatia, when the revitalization of Jewish religious life began, regular services are held in the synagogue, and there were also four Jewish marriages since.
There are three Jewish communities in Zagreb today. Considering the numbers, some 1500 members of the Jewish communities in Zagreb, Zagreb Jews are extremely active. Today in Zagreb there is The Department of Judaic studies at Zagreb University, a Jewish elementary school, 2 Jewish kindergartens, several Jewish cultural societies, a Jewish film festival, several periodicals are published and a number of cultural activities, which testifies to the creative energy and desire to preserve the Jewish identity, develop it and transfer to the future generations, and to share the story of the community with the visitors.