From: The Maccabean - Your Voice in Our Community
Newspaper of the Jewish Community of Perth, Australia
26 May, 2006
Article and photos by SHANE BRADDOCK
Tucked away down a small back street, called Zidovski Prolaz, or the Jewish Passage, and up aset of dim stairs, only just around the corner from the building guidebooks trumpet as being the oldest building in the world used as a Christian Church, is hidden the second oldest continuously used Sephardic Synagogue in the world.
Its more famous neighbour, the Cathedral of Saint Dominus, was completed at the beginning of the 4th Century AD as a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who had constructed his retirement palace around it,and was converted into a church during the 8th Century. Today it anchors the city both visually and spiritually - Croatia being one of the most staunchly Catholic societies.
Split’s Synagogue was established during the early 16th Century into the western wall of Diocletian’s palace, followed by Jews escaping the purges in Spain and Portugal.
It’s amazing that the small city of Split,Croatia, with a population of less than a quarter of a million, contains both these religious relics. However, the two communities, Christian and Jewish, have lived together in a complicated relationship for much longer than 500 years.
Jews in Roman Dalmatia
Jews arrived in Dalmatia, the region of Croatia of which Split is the main city, in the early centuries of the Christian era, with the conquering Roman armies. The Romans established the city of Salona just behind Split, in the 1st Century, and there Jewish traders and craftsmen settled.
Archaeological excavations have discovered artefacts of Jewish origin dating from this period. Jewish fortunes varied depending on the political whims of the emperor of the time; Emperor Diocletian had a good relationship with Jews while feeding many early Christians to the lions, while later Emperors weren’t always as friendly.
The Pre-Sephardic Community in Split
When Salona was overrun by Avars in the 7th Century, the Jewish community escaped with the other inhabitants to nearby islands before finally settling inside the walls of Diocletian’s Palace.
The adapted palace became the seed for today’s town of Split. Within the last 50 years, archaeologists have discovered numerous menorahs carved on the limestone blocks of the basement walls in the southeast quarter of the palace. These, combined with several historical texts, lead them to believe that the pre-Sephardic Split Jews inhabited this section of the old town.
The Spanish and Portuguese pogroms against their Jewish communities at the end of the 15th Century were a disguised blessing for Split.
The fleeing Sephardim were quick to grasp the possibilities Split’s location between the Orient and Western Europe provided.
The large number of refugees, or Ponentini, banned from living in many other Adriatic ports,transformed the local Split Jewish community.
They established the still-used synagogue attached to the western wall of the Palace (the Torah actually sits inside the Roman wall), in the early-16th Century, and settled in the northwest quarter, shifting the Jewish focus of Split. This area later became the Jewish Ghetto in the late-18th Century and is still today called the Get.
On arcadian Marjan Hill, with its commanding view of the town, permission was given to create a Jewish cemetery in 1573. It is one of the oldest and largest in Europe.
The Sephardim constructed the gravestones in their tradition, with them lying horizontal instead of standing vertical, many with Sephardic double-curved Hebraic text.
The tolerant attitude of the Splicani to Jews became further genial after the completion of the lazaretto, a building complex constructed on the waterfront, by Ponentino Daniel Rodriga, in 1572. The lazaretto’s role was two-fold - to facilitate trade as well as to quarantine goods and people.
It was the second such quarantine constructed after Dubrovnik in the world. Rodriga convinced eastern traders that it was safer to caravan their products from the Ottoman Empire overland to Split rather than using pirate-vulnerable maritime routes.
As a result of the increase in economic traffic, Split boomed. Jews became a vital link in the trade chain between their coreligionists in the east and those in Venice. Within a short time the lazaretto was extremely important to Venetian commerce. So much so that when, during the 17th Century, Turks threatened the city, and military engineers recommended transferring Split’s population and demolishing the town because its poor defensive position, Venetian authorities ignored them and instead constructed new fortifications to protect the town and its important asset.
Split’s Jewish community helped save the city more than once. Another time, with the Turks attacking Split’s walls, Jews defended the northwest tower of Diocletian’s Palace. Locals have called it the Zidovska Kula, the Jewish Tower, ever since.
World War Two until Today
Like the rest of Europe, Jews in Split suffered during World War Two. The Italian Fascists,who controlled the city from 1941 until 1943 destroyed the Synagogue and burnt records and artefacts in the main square. But there were no deportations until the German Nazis and their Croatian nationalist cronies, the Ustashe, arrived in 1943.
Over fifty percent of the 300 person prewar Jewish population died during World War Two, either in concentration camps or fighting with the Partisans.
After the war, Yugoslavia became a socialist republic but it was never as authoritarian as the Warsaw Pact countries and it was possible to hold a passport which allowed Jews to travel to Israel or other countries easily. Yugoslavia violently exploded during the early 1990s.
The newly formed Republic of Croatia quickly found itself in trouble with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and the Israeli Government because of comments made by its first president, Franjo Tudjman, and the re-naming of streets for former Ustashe war criminals.
During the war against the Serbs, Ustashe symbols reappeared, as graffiti on walls or in more official locations. But this was a result of a minority of nationalists seizing power during the tensions of war. These attitudes have disappeared in the 15 years since the fighting finished as Croatia has become more a part of the international community and attempts to join the European Union.
Anti-Semitism is now possibly less of a concern in Croatia than in most Western European states. The Split Jewish community is going through a revival with its 100 members. At the moment no rabbi lives in the city but this doesn’t stop regular activities being held. After around 2000 years Jews are still a strong essential part of life in Split.
For those thinking of visiting Split, groups can visit Monday - Friday 10am-2pm and ask for permission to pray at the Synagogue.The office can be contacted on +385 (0)21 345 672 or at email@example.com . There are no specifically kosher restaurants in town, but at the local macrobiotic restaurant food is prepared correctly. Local restaurants will prepare fish on the grill in aluminium foil if requested. Currently no airline offers direct flights between Split and Tel Aviv but Croatia Airlines, Sundor and Israir offer them between Zagreb or Dubrovnik and Tel Aviv in the summer.
Thanks to the Split’s Jewish Community for their time and Snjezana Perojevic for providing her master’s thesis on the Lazaretto.
Editor’s Note Many thanks to Shane Braddock who supplied the photographs and organised the article on the Jewish connection in Split. Shane and his partner Julie run tours from Split specialising in adventures, including kayaking.
When I caught up with the young couple late January they mentioned the old Jewish cemetery and shul, and I asked if they would take some photographs and perhaps write a short article. Shane and Julie don’t do things by halves so if you are planning a trip to Croatia you might want to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org