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.