Slain Serbian P.M. Served as Symbol Of Multiethnic Era

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Published March 14, 2003, issue of March 14, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

ROME — When the news came that Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic had been gunned down on Wednesday by an assassin in Belgrade, I pulled out a stack of photographs I had taken of him almost a year ago to the day.

It was March 17, 2002, and Djindjic was in the northern Serbian city of Subotica, making his first official visit as prime minister to a Jewish community.

It was a visit that mixed pageantry, politics and optimistic pledges to foster a democratic, tolerant future for the town, for the country and for Subotica’s 220 Jews, the third-largest Jewish community in Serbia.

Djindjic’s meeting with local Jewry was an hour-long encounter sandwiched between other engagements in the city. Still, the atmosphere was festive and excited.

A year and a half earlier, many Subotica Jews had bucked the official apolitical line of Yugoslav Jewish leaders, and had taken enthusiastic part in the mass demonstrations that led to the ouster of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and brought Djindjic to power.

During the dark years of Milosevic’s rule in the 1990s, Djindjic had been one of the most prominent leaders of the opposition. Subotica itself was something of an opposition town. It has a large ethnic Hungarian population, and its municipal administration was led by political forces opposed to the Milosevic regime.

I myself was in Subotica for a board meeting of a new foundation, SOS Synagogue, that had been recently established to promote and oversee the restoration of Subotica’s marvelous synagogue, an art nouveau gem built in 1902 that had long stood derelict.

The synagogue is owned by the city, and once restored it should serve as a cultural center and a memorial to the 4,000 Subotica Jews killed in the Holocaust, as well as a symbol of the town’s multicultural identity.

The head of the foundation, Jozsef Kasza, is a former mayor of Subotica. He served as one of Djindjic’s deputy prime ministers, and it was clear that his boss’s visit was aimed at generating political capital.

Accompanied by Serbia’s religion minister, Djindjic met with community leaders and members of our board at a crowded table in the Jewish community headquarters.

He welcomed our efforts to restore the synagogue, and he pledged government help in obtaining the detailed plans, blueprints and cost evaluations needed before restoration work could commence.

The next day, newspapers ran pictures of Djindjic striding purposefully outside the synagogue’s distinctive domed and buttressed silhouette, and walking side by side with the then-community president with his beard and yarmulke.

Inside the building, photographers and cameramen pushed forward to catch every move, as Djindjic stood with Jewish community leaders and other VIPs to watch a presentation of Jewish history and song performed by pupils from the Subotica Jewish Sunday School.

He peered forward and smiled as the children used pale blue satin ribbons to form a Star of David on a white sheet laid out on the synagogue floor.

It was freezing in the heatless building, and the kids and most of the audience were bundled up in winter coats and jackets.

Djindjic, though, was dressed casually in an open-necked shirt and dark blazer.

With his shock of silver hair and boyish good looks, he cut a charismatic figure as he towered over Mira Poljakovic, the diminutive vice president of the Jewish community, and Belgrade Rabbi Yitzhak Asiel.

From time to time, he gazed upward at the ruined splendor of broken stained-glass, peeling paint and crumbling plaster, and seemed visibly moved by the sadly ravaged sanctuary.

“This building is so beautiful,” he murmured. “I look forward to coming back here for the inauguration ceremony when the restoration work is complete.”

Sadly, an ambush in Belgrade a year later has made that impossible.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.