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Ermanos Sefardim

The History of the Sephardi Movement in the Balkans


There is a folder entitled »Esperanza« in the archival collections of the Jewish Historical Museum in Belgrade, containing two group photographs that together make up important testimonies of the Sephardi movement in Southeastern Europe. This movement, which was at first solely cultural and then also political, strived for autonomy and representation for Sephardi Jews both within Jewish communities and society more broadly. In the Balkans, university-educated youth stood at the core of the movement. The first photo, taken in Zagreb in 1927, depicts the members of the student society Esperanza (Hope). All twenty-eight of the depicted individuals, twenty-two men and six women, are dressed smartly, the men in elegant suits and the women in collared shirts and delicate dresses. They seem aware of the significance of this moment, which marked the peak of the Sephardi movement in the Balkans.

Members of Esperanza, Sephardi student society at the University of Zagreb (1927), Jewish Historical Museum (Belgrade), Folder Esperanza, Reg. N. 5412.
Members of Esperanza, Sephardi student society at the University of Zagreb (1927), Jewish Historical Museum (Belgrade), Folder Esperanza, Reg. N. 5412.

Esperanza’s history started at the end of the nineteenth century with a group of young students at the University of Vienna. In 1897, Esperanza, sociedad academica per los judios espanoles en Viena (Esperanza, Academic Society for the Spanish Jews in Vienna) emerged as the first modern transnational organization of Sephardi Jewry. The student society was dedicated to assembling Sephardi students and reaffirming Sephardi culture. Moreover, these young enthusiasts convened with the aim to nurture their mother tongue, which they called »Spanish,« as well as to facilitate their scholarly and literary education. Even though this student society approached the Sephardi diaspora as an entity, its outreach was essentially limited to those Sephardim living in Vienna.

At first, the society renounced any political claims, but in 1904 Esperanza became a Zionist student organization. Still, the society was reluctant to give up its Sephardi orientation, which set them apart from the rest of the Zionist scene in Vienna. Moreover, critique came from the Zionists from the Balkans, who claimed that this exclusivity hindered the advance of Zionism as it distanced Sephardim from Ashkenazim. After a decade of balancing between their Sephardi-focused program and Zionist politics, Esperanza organized the First Sephardi Conference in Vienna in autumn 1913. This was an opportunity to present their standpoints, gain wider acknowledgement for their language and culture, and institute Sephardi representation within the Zionist Organization. Before a diverse audience, the students and alumni advocated for an organization that would represent Sephardim within the Zionist movement, cultivate a cultural program, and promote the »Spanish« language as a means of spreading Zionism among Sephardim. No final conclusions nor moves were made, however, as this first attempt to organize Sephardim was cut at the root with the outbreak of World War I.

The renewed pursuit of mobilizing and uniting Sephardim within and beyond the student body came about in the changed political setting of the interwar period. From 1918 onward, a significant number of the Balkan Sephardim (around 26,000 individuals) lived in one political entity, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (Kingdom SCS). The Sephardi cultural and political center was Sarajevo, while the people themselves lived predominantly in the territories of today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and North Macedonia. There was no organizational structure to bridge the distances between the dispersed Sephardi communities until students finally organized a new Yugoslav-based society in 1924 at the University of Zagreb. This new Esperanza was envisioned as a sister organization to the Viennese original, but it had soon taken over primacy in Sephardi circles in the Balkans. Not only had the center of action moved from the old Habsburg residential capital to Zagreb but had notably also begun to involve female students.

The new Esperanza was formed in the light of the announcement of the Second Sephardi Conference scheduled for the summer of 1925 in Vienna, under the umbrella of the Fourteenth Zionist Congress. Following the precedent of the First Sephardi Conference held twelve years before, Sephardim from all over the world gathered in Vienna. The result of this event was the foundation of the World Sephardi Confederation in Jerusalem, an official representative body for Sephardim in both Palestine and the diaspora. Moreover, the Confederation was envisioned as a provider of political and cultural guidance for Sephardim. Esperanza’s alumni and Sephardi youth in the Kingdom SCS welcomed the new institution and enthusiastically offered support.

As a part of this larger endeavor of the Confederation, the Sephardim in the Kingdom SCS organized a number of social events to promote the ideas of the movement throughout the country. Esperanza’s members published a letter directed to Sephardi youth, calling them »Ermanos Sefardim« (Sephardim brothers) and asking for their further involvement in the movement. However, enthusiasm for the World Sephardi Confederation soon started to wane. By 1928, it had already become obvious that the Confederation was focusing primarily on supporting and improving the status of the Sephardim in Palestine. Thus, the Sephardim in the diaspora had to rely on their own efforts, without guidance from Jerusalem. Despite the lack of a worldwide Sephardi cooperation, the devotion to local activities continued to thrive in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia installed in 1929. The Confederation gave the tailwind and provided legitimacy to the Sephardi claims for political and cultural autonomy.

Members of Esperanza during a visit to the Sephardi community in Niš, Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1938), Jewish Historical Museum (Belgrade), Folder Esperanza, Reg. N. 5412.
Members of Esperanza during a visit to the Sephardi community in Niš, Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1938), Jewish Historical Museum (Belgrade), Folder Esperanza, Reg. N. 5412.

The second photograph in the archival collection, from winter 1938, is a tribute to Esperanza’s efforts and perseverance. It was taken in Niška banja, a small but well-attended spa center in the south of Yugoslavia. In this photo, around eighty people are standing in front of a bust of Alexander I (1888–1934), known as the Unifier of Yugoslavia. While the student association was the architect of these meetings, the gatherings had evidently started attracting an ever-wider age group. Those assembled are mostly young men and women, but also a couple of children and a few older people. The photograph testifies to Esperanza’s dedication to gather and represent Sephardim and encourage exchange amongst each other, if not worldwide, then at least within the framework of the Yugoslav Kingdom. After decades of work and earnest devotion to the cause, these meetings were meant to be a mere beginning of Sephardi organizational activity in this region. However, these vivid plans were about to be brought to an end. Only a year and a half later, Yugoslavia was occupied and divided among the Axis powers. Still, in 1938, though their gazes are focused on the camera, the people seem to be looking into the future, their smiles disclosing glimpses of hope, as if acknowledging the organizer of these meetings with the programmatic name Esperanza.

Željka Oparnica is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Her doctoral thesis deals with the politicization of the Sephardi diaspora in the Balkans between 1897 and 1940 | z.oparnica(at)yahoo.com

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