THE JEWISH COMMUNITY NIŠ

CONTACT: jasnacir@eunet.rs

The Program of the Jewish Community Niš for March 2009

  • 2 March – lecture by Prof. dr S. Strahinjić
  • 9 March – Purim celebration
  • 11 March – commemoration in Skopje
  • 13 March – commemoration in Pirot
  • 29 March – pre-Passover in Osijek
  • 30 March – lecture by Prof. dr E. Maričić

ABOUT THE JEWISH COMMUNITY NIŠ

The Jewish Community Niš
Tržni centar Kalča, Lamela B, premises number 61, first floor
Working hours: Mondays and Thursdays from 18 to 20 PM

The article by the Rabbi Avram Daniti, Nisan 5659, published in Vesnik” issue 5, 1939:

Niš, a natural crossroads, has seen many nations. The Avars, the Huns and many nameless tribes of ancient history have passed through Niš on their way to Europe, while others came to Naisus as refugees, because Naisus was a developed and attractive city thanks to its favorable geographic position. The residents of this ancient city of Constantine have changed over its long history. One would drive out the others and it is quite possible that these frequent changes of the population had forced the Emperor Constantine to establish Constantinople and move the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire there (330 BC), whose constant population would be a certain guarantee for the Emperor. This made Niš even more accessible and open to members of those nations that were either driven out by more powerful ones, or those who were forced for economic reasons to look for new territories for settlement. Among others who sought and found refuge in Niš, there were Jews as well, who came to Niš as early as the Roman times, on their way to pursue their commercial links with the Orient and the Thessalonica. And refugees from Spain, on their way to the Orient, came on their way upon many Jewish communities. Thus they came upon the small Jewish community in Niš which, although small was string enough to provide support to their unfortunate Jewish brothers, and assist them in finding livelihoods there. In modern day Niš there is no longer trace of the many ancient peoples and tribes (Pechenesi, Cherkesi, Greeks, Armenians, and Turks), however the Jews have survived and developed in this romantic place on the banks of the peaceful Nišava river until the present days.

Searching for first information about the Jewish Community Niš, I have come across in the old books of the well known Niš Yeshiva some records of anonymous writers. One of such records includes a brief historical review of the existence of a Jewish community in Niš. The author was lucky to see and note a receipt by Rabbi Eliakhim Geron, the shaliah from Erez Israel, dated the year of 5477 (1717). The same anonymous writer mentions also the old community books, protocols and archives, among which he had found some receipts of different shaliahs, dated 5514, 5518 and 5525 (or 1754, 1758 and 1765, respectively). The current Jewish religious community in Niš no longer has its old books or protocols. It seems that the excessive zeal has buried these important historical records, and thus it is only a few historical records that I have fortunately found that serve as our guide to the initial times of this community.

The Literatura Responza has significantly supported the research of the history of our people. Of use in our research of the history of the Niš community, it is the book Petah bet David by Josef David, Thessalonica, 5496 (1736) that can be of use. On page 81, article 86, we find this report:

„In Tammuz 5483 (1723) a rabbi from Niš, where as of recently many Jews have settled, asked me …“ There is also mention of Niš in some other books: Meleh Shalem by Šemuel Šalem, Thessalonica, 5529 (1769), and Devar Moshe by Aaron Moshe Amario, Thessalonica, 5561 (1801).

The Jewish cemetery in Niš can not shed light on the date of the foundation of this community because, again according to the note by an anonymous writer, the current cemetery is the third cemetery in Niš. The first was located in the place where the current city centre is located, the second near the site of St. Pantheleimon. We should certainly note that this anonymous writer has managed on this third cemetery to locate the monument of the rabbi Rahamim Naftali Gedalje, whose inscription read as follows: „Rav akolel šel Niš, niftar levet olamo be 19 Tišri 5541“ (1781). It has been five years since I have been searching for this tomb stone and I have not yet managed to find it.

Based on the above data it can be concluded that the Jewish community Niš dates back to Roman times, although there is no written evidence of it. We can also claim that Spanish refugees settled in Niš, although here again there is lack of written evidence. But, if we take a look at the ashkavot list, which was once read in Niš on Yom Kipur eve, than we find out that this community must have been numerous and strong and its first rabbi was Hajim Geršon Levi, supposed to be a strong religious authority highly respected in the Jewish world, as evidenced by the titles assigned to him: „Marana verabana, adajan amecujan kevod morenu arav“ (Our rabbi, an excellent judge and our distinguished teacher). It is certain that the community which was founded at the beginning of the 18th century could not have been so big and advanced as to engage such a prominent rabbi. The next community rabbi, after him, was Jakov de Majo. (In a more recent ashkavot list I have found that the first rabbi Hajim Geršon Levi was either active in Niš or died in the year 5455.)

In 5525 (1765) the Niš rabbi was the already mentioned Rahamim Naftali Gedalja, whose tomb stone is supposed to be in the Niš cemetery. The arrival of a new rabbi in the Niš community marked a new ear in the spiritual life of Jews in Niš. An energetic and wise scholar who, according to another record, ran his own yeshiva „full of books“, managed during the 16 years of his diligent and versatile work to develop his community and put in place sound foundations for its spiritual and cultural development. Thus, during his time, foundations were laid for the new synagogue, which was sanctified in 1801. The new Yeshiva educated generations of very religious Jews. Special emphasis was placed on religious education. During his time, there were a number of religious teachers in Niš. Thus, Nisim Eli was teaching the beginners, Bible studies were taught by Avram Eli, and Talmud and Codex by Jeošua Teva. He was the first who put an end to the practice that the hazan is at the same time the shohet. The hazan had to pay much attention to his hygiene and protect himself from cold in order to be able to serve to the pleasure of all. This illustrates the size of the then community which, apart from the rabbi and hazan, had engaged three more teachers and a sholet, and it is clear that there were also more shamashim and other religious persons.

The names of the old Jewish families from Niš stand out. I will try to divide them in two groups. The families with characteristic Jewish names and those with Spanish names.

Anav, Azriel, Alfandari, Beraha, Ben Adon, Carfati, Eli, Eškenazi, Hazan, Hason, Haravon, Kalev, Mevorah, Nisim, Saltiel, and Pesah.

Alkalaj, Arueti, Almuli, Adanja, Alhalel, Albahari, Almozlino, Arditi, Benvenisti, Daniti, De Majo, Geron, Karijo, Konfino, Katarivas, Kalderon, Kazes, Konforti, Kapon, Mandil, Ninju, Nahmijas, Pinu, Ruso, Semo, Varon.

And finally, the names of Jewish families originating from the Bible: Abenšoam, Ašer, Elazar, Geršon, Ovadja, Simon, Reuben, Tov, and Zaharja.

Jews in Niš have always lived in relative peace. They engaged in different professions and crafts. Thus, there are records of Jews who engaged in leather craft, shoe making, traders, tobacco, fruits and vegetable trade, dairy products trade, speculative financiers investing in cereals, sarafs and meat traders. They were traditionally highly religious and their first interest was always the temple and religious services. They spent much time in Yeshivas reading religious books and listening to sermons, which until the present time has preserved strong religious affiliation in the community.

SYNAGOGUES IN NIŠ

The first Niš synagogue, or prayer home, is believed to have been established in Niš in 1695, the same year as the year of first written documents of the Jewish community. The rabbi of Niš as of 1765, Rahamim Naftali Gedalja, a wise and energetic person, made a great contribution to the development of the religious and cultural life of this small Jewish community. He is believed to have had his own yeshiva where he raised generations of religious Jews. He served as rabbi for 16 years. His tomb stone is believed to be in the current Jewish cemetery in Niš. The first synagogue was built in 1801, during the service of this rabbi, and it was sanctified the same year.

In Turkish times, in between the two old bridges on the Nišava river, a Jewish quarter “mahala” was built. The Turkish government who gave permission for its development, called it the “Čivutana” (the Jewish quarter). “Mahala” had a Yeshiva, a synagogue, the rabbi’s home, and a number of one-floor homes. The big fire which broke out on 15 August 1879 destroyed the complete Jewish quarter.

At the end of the 19th century there is mention of the big synagogue „El Kal Grande“ and the small synagogue „El Kal Čiko“, in what used to be the David Street. There si also evidence that at that time in Niš there were 11 rolls of Sefer Tora, nine rolls of Tore in the Big Temple and two rolls in the Small Temple. At the beginning of the 20th century, one Tora was declared „pasul“- unfit for use.

After WWI it was decided to build a new synagogue, as the old one was prone to collapsing. In the meanwhile, the old temple was strengthened and it served for quite some time to come. The construction of the synagogue began in April 1924. The foundation stone was ceremoniously laid down on 18 May 1924, but an explosion of the unexploded German explosive device interfered with the construction. The construction was funded from contributions made by Jews of Niš, on a site owned by the Jewish Religious Community in David Street 2. It is believed that it was designed by the architect Jaša Albala from Belgrade, although it is also possible that it was designed by architects Milan Kapetanović and Viktor Azriel, also from Belgrade. The synagogue was spacious, with an open gallery for women. It was completed in spring 1925 and it was only then that the old synagogue could be pulled down.

Above the entrance of the synagogue, next to Magen David, was an inscription: „This a Door to God, Let the Righteous Come In“.

Until the onset of WWII, the synagogue was used for its original purpose. During the war, the German forces used it as a warehouse, and after the war it was no longer used for its original purpose. None of the Jews who used to live there had returned to their homes. Until he left for Israel in 1948, Majo Mevorah cleaned and maintained the synagogue building, and afterwards it was closed.

In 1970 the Jewish Community was conditioned to either sell the synagogue building, or t would be seized due to non use. It was sold the same year to the national Museum in Niš, under certain conditions. The buyer undertook to preserve it, use it exclusively for cultural purposes and to maintain a memorial plate on it as memory of Jews who lived there.

Due to its architectural and historic value, the synagogue building was placed under national protection in 1986.

In autumn 2001 works began to rehabilitate and renovate the dilapidated and collapsing synagogue building. The works are now in the final stage and the opening ceremony is expected to take place in spring 2009.

THE JEWISH CEMETARY

The Jewish cemetery, occupying an are of one hectare, dates back to the 18th century, possibly earlier. In it is the tomb stone of the Niš rabbi rahamim Naftali Gedalja. A great number of Jews have been buried in the cemetery, Jews not only from the city of Niš, but from the surrounding region as well. There are records that Jews from Prokuplje were buried there, as the number of Jews in this town was small, and they did not have in Prokuplje their synagogue or cemetery, and were therefore buried in Niš.

The monuments in the present day Jewish cemetery have the shape of a stone sarcophagi, placed in inclined rows, next to each other. All of them have long inscriptions written in Hebrew, some in plastic letters. They do not have artistic value, but they do have stone-masonry value. Some of the tomb stones also have the text in the Serbian language, mostly those of the 20th century (1913, 1915, 1935, 1936), while those originating from before the 19th century do not have either the year of translation in Serbian. There is not much in terms of ornamental plastics in the stones, and if there is, it is modest and of no special artistic value. There are ornaments in form of small semi-spheres, placed in the corners of stone plates in groups from four to ten.

There was also “Geniza”

This cemetery was used for burial purposes until the beginning of WWII. It was expropriated in 1948, and in 1965 the Niš City Assembly banned burials. During those years many families exhumated their buried members and transferred them to the Jewish cemetery in Belgrade.

The Jewish cemetery in Niš today is in a dilapidated state. One part of it was cleaned in 2004 and became accessible to the public. The other part is a shame on the city of Niš, as in it there is an illegal Roma settlement. The homes of the residents of this settlement are built on foundations consisting of tomb stones of this cemetery, and many tomb stones were used as a part of the house structure. The road between houses is paved with tomb stones, and tomb stones can also be found in the stables of the Roma settlement. Sewers for waste water and fecal waters are paved by tomb stones. This part of the Jewish cemetery can not be analyzed.

The cemetery has a Jewish chapel, in front of it is the rabbi’s grave. Roma people live in the chapel. A part of the Jewish cemetery has been abused for use by different commercial businesses, thus desecrating the cemetery by building their structures on it.

Just before WWII, there were 360 Jews living in Niš. During the WWII, about 1,100 Jews were executed in Niš, including all the Jews from Niš, complete families. Their graves are unknown, they have no relatives, no one remembers them any longer. There is no memorial of their persecution, the tragic destiny for their “neighbors who are no more”.

The Jewish cemetery in Niš was declared as a cultural value in December 2007.

MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE ECTIVITIES IN THE JEWISH COMMUNITY NIŠ AT www.elmundosefarad.eu