Sarajevo, 1941: The Great Synagogue and Its Destruction

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After the German army occupied Sarajevo on April 15, 1941, the first actions they took were to remove the 1930 Gavrilo Princip plaque located at the site of the 1914 assassination and to destroy the new Sephardic synagogue, the Il Kal Grande, known as the Great Synagogue.

All the leading historians of the Holocaust have documented and substantiated the role of Bosnian Muslims in the destruction of the synagogue. Bosnian Muslims burned and looted the synagogue.

A book on Sarajevo during World War II by American historian Emily Greble, however, falsifies and distorts this event. Greble maintained that it was the Germans who destroyed the synagogue, omitting the fact that the Bosnian Muslims participated in its destruction.

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Bosnian Muslims looting the Sephardic synagogue. Yad Vashem.

In Sarajevo 1941-1945: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Hitler’s Europe, Cornell University Press, 2011, Greble described the destruction of the synagogue:

“The Jews kept a low profile while the Germans destroyed the new Sephardic Jewish synagogue, burned its libraries and archives, and seized prime Jewish real estate to house the German military and administration.” Chapter 2, “Autonomy Compromised: Nazi Occupation and the Ustasha Regime”, page 55.

She described the collaboration by Yugoslav Volksdeutsche but omitted any reference to Bosnian Muslim or Croat collaboration:

“The first troops of the German army (Wehrmacht) arrived in the city on April 15. … Sarajevo’s small community of Volksdeutsche eagerly met the arriving German troops and joined them in pillaging the city. Serbs looked on with alarm as the Germans haughtily removed the plaque commemorating Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, a gift they sent to Hitler.”

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Bosnian Muslims looting the Sephardic synagogue. Yad Vashem.

Both Leni Yahil and Sir Martin Gilbert, the leading historians on the Holocaust, have described how the Sephardic synagogue in Sarajevo was destroyed by the Germans, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims.

In The Holocaust Chronicle, 1941 Timeline, page 227, published by Publications International, Ltd. in April 2000, the role of Bosnian Muslims is described:

“April 16, 1941: German troops and local Muslims loot and destroy the main synagogue in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.”

In The Farhud, Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance During the Holocaust, Edwin Black described the Ustasha-Muslim alliance during World War II that aided the Nazi genocide:

“Muslims plundered and decimated the Great Sephardic Synagogue in Sarajevo and the centuries-old synagogue in Dubrovnik.”

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Bosnian Muslims looting the Sephardic synagogue in Sarajevo, 1941. Yad Vashem.

In Jihad and Genocide, Rowman and Littlefield, Plymouth, UK, 2010, page 92, Richard L. Rubinstein documented the role Bosnian Muslims played in the destruction of the synagogue:

“On April 17, 1941, a Muslim mob burned down and looted Sarajevo’s Sephardic synagogue.”

Leading Holocaust historians have documented the fact that Bosnian Muslims participated in the destruction and looting of the Great Synagogue in Sarajevo. Greble, however, omits this fact. What are the possible motives?

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Bosnian Muslims looting the Sephardic synagogue in Sarajevo, 1941. Yad Vashem.

The admission that Bosnian Muslims participated in the destruction of the synagogue would undermine and challenge the post-1992 civil war perception or image of the Bosnian Muslims as victims in a simplistic, black and white Manichean dichotomy which was manufactured by the media, historians, and scholars. The Muslims are passive victims that are acted upon, that have things done to them. They never perpetrate acts themselves, they commit no crimes. In short, the factual falsification here is meant to perpetuate a stereotype or myth that has been manufactured since the 1992 civil war in Bosnia. This is the key explanation for why the documented fact of Bosnian Muslim participation and complicity in the destruction of the synagogue is suppressed and omitted.

Second, it maintains the illusion that all the major groups in Bosnia during World War II, the Orthodox Serbs, the Bosnian Muslims, the Roman Catholic Croats, the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, and the Roma were all in the same relation to the German occupation. This is not true. Some actively aided and joined the German forces. Others opposed them. Some were perpetrators of crimes. Still others were victims. The Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian Muslims were allies of the German forces. The Orthodox Serbs, the Jews, and the Roma were their victims. The former were the perpetrators of genocide and mass murder. The latter were victims. By omitting the fact that Bosnian Muslims or Bosnian Croats participated in the destruction of the synagogue, Greble is able to obfuscate or dilute this fact. It is a glaring omission that creates an inaccurate and misleading picture. As German newsreels show during the occupation, Bosnian Muslims were overjoyed and jubilant that the German troops had occupied Bosnia. As were the Bosnian Croats. Bosnian Muslims welcomed and fraternized with German troops. Why was this so? They saw the German occupation and the NDH Ustasha regime as empowering them and in realizing their national aspirations. They would achieve autonomy at the very least. At best, they would achieve nationhood and statehood. It would be a Bosnian Muslim Bosnia, a Bosnia run by Bosnian Muslims, a Bosnia which would be a recreation or restoration of the Ottoman Turkish Bosnia.

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The destroyed interior of the Sephardic synagogue in Sarajevo. Yad Vashem caption: “Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, 1941, The Great Synagogue after its plundering. The Great Synagogue was plundered by the Muslims shortly after the arrival of the Germans.” Yad Vashem Photo Archive.

In this respect, the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Serbs, Jews, and Roma was seen as the price that had to be paid to attain Bosnian autonomy or nationhood. At first, most Bosnian Muslim leaders were wholeheartedly in support of the Nazi and Ustasha regimes in Bosnia precisely for this reason, they would allow Bosnian Muslims to achieve their nationalist aspirations, self-rule in Bosnia.

Any power that advanced Bosnian Muslim nationhood was supported by Bosnian Muslim leaders. Germany, the NDH regime, was supported in 1941. In 1992, it was the U.S. and NATO that became allies. Bosnian Muslim leaders were not neutral or innocent bystanders. They supported those powers that advanced their interests. And in 1941, those powers were Nazi Germany and the Ustasha regime.

It quickly became evident that the NDH regime of Ante Pavelic did not support Bosnian Muslim autonomy or a Bosnian Muslim state or nation. The NDH relegated or subordinated the Bosnian Muslims to secondary status as a subgrouping of Croats, Croat Slavs who had converted to Islam. Once it became clear that the NDH would not support their nationalist ambitions, Bosnian Muslim leaders distanced themselves from the NDH regime and took a more active role in criticizing the policies of genocide conducted by the regime. But on the whole, most Bosnian Muslim leaders remained committed to the NDH Ustasha regime. Instead, they focused their political activities on Adolf Hitler and took a more active role in gaining German support for their agenda. Bosnian Muslim leaders personally wrote a Memorandum to Adolf Hitler requesting that they be granted a much more significant role in the New Order. The tradeoff for them would be a higher status within the Order and a payoff in the form of autonomy, or even nationhood. Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler became a sponsor and supporter of the Bosnian Muslim “autonomists”, or nationalist leaders. One tangible result of their request to Adolf Hitler was the formation of the two Bosnian Muslim Waffen SS Divisions formed in 1943 and 1944, the Handzar and the Kama Divisions made up primarily of Bosnian Muslim recruits. Another result was closer cooperation between Bosnian Muslim leaders and the Reich. Bosnian Muslim leaders would assist the Axis powers in achieving their goals, genocide and domination of Europe, if they would in return be granted autonomy or statehood. The Bosnian Muslim leaders remained committed to the NDH regime and to the Third Reich. The omission seeks to conceal this fact.

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The wreckage of the Great Synagogue in Sarajevo.

The omission seeks to present an inaccurate picture of tolerance in Bosnia. Bosnian Muslim leaders clearly sought to create a Bosnian Muslim state or at the very least an autonomous Bosnian Muslim region of the NDH. This new Bosnian Muslim state would be a state for and by Bosnian Muslims. It was not a multi-religious or multi-ethnic state. There was no role for other religious or ethnic groups. Just as with the 1992 Bosnian Muslim government of Alija Izetbegovic, the new state or autonomous region would be a Bosnian Muslim or Bosniak state. Other ethnic groups and other religious communities would not be part of the make-up of the state. It would not be a multi-ethnic or multi-cultural state, but a Bosnian Muslim state. The Bosnian Muslim leaders wanted to create their own state or nation, not a multi-ethnic community such as Yugoslavia was. Greble obfuscates this fact by implying that Bosnian Muslim national identity was based on a multi-religious and multi-cultural basis. This was not the case. Bosnian Muslim nationalism was just as viable and dominant as Croatian or Serbian nationalism. The manifestations of Bosnian Muslim nationalism would appear during the German occupation.

Bosnian Muslims were perpetrators of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The media image created following 1992 is that the Bosnian Muslims were passive victims with no agenda or interests of their own. They were always acted upon. They never acted themselves. The reality is that they had a nationalist agenda and sought to maintain their self-interests throughout World War II and the German occupation. Bosnian Muslims joined all the NDH Ustasha regime military and police formations and paramilitary groups. They participated and were actively involved in the crimes and attacks committed against Bosnian Serbs, Jews, and Roma. To be sure, not all Bosnian Muslims allied with the NDH or with Germany. But to claim that no Bosnian Muslims perpetrated any crimes is also misleading. The simplistic, Manichean dichotomy is grossly inaccurate. There was a spectrum from opposition to collaboration, as was the case with all the groups in Yugoslavia during World War II. The omission, however, creates the illusion that Bosnian Muslims committed no crimes during the Holocaust. They were just passive bystanders, innocent victims.

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“A Celebration of Hitler’s Birthday in Serajevo. Serajevo, Yugoslavia. … In this Balkan town where the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand started the First World War German troops pass in review before their general in celebration of Hitler’s fifty-second birthday on April 20th. Passed by German censor. c-5/19/40.” Wide World Photo. May 19, 1941.

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Sarajevo Ashkenazi synagogue damaged by German bombardment, April, 1941. Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Greble, Emily. Sarajevo 1941-1945: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Hitler’s Europe. Cornell University Press, 2011.

In “Wartime Sarajevo (1941-1945): Experiences, Identities, Communities”, IREX-IARO Scholar 2004-2005, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia Research Report, Emily Greble Bali? admitted:

“In 1941, most Catholic and Muslim elites in Sarajevo supported the Independent State of Croatia.”

Two key points emerge from an analysis of wartime Sarajevo:

1) most Bosnian Muslim leaders supported the Ustasha and Nazi occupation regime; and,

2) Bosnian Muslim leaders backtracked and distanced themselves from the NDH only when their own self-interests were threatened.

In Sarajevo, 1941-1945, Emily Greble examined Sarajevo in the 1941-1945 period. All the leading historians on Bosnia agree that the Bosnian Muslims burned and looted the synagogue or at the least took part in its destruction.

She argued, however, that it was the Germans who destroyed the synagogue. This contradicts Leni Yahil, Sir Martin Gilbert, Yad Vashem, the ultimate Holocaust authority, and all of the historians who have studied and written on Bosnia.

Robert J. Donia, in Sarajevo: A Biography, Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2006,page 169, conceded that the Germans were helped by “local vandals” in the destruction of the Sephardic synagogue. These local vandals were Bosnian Muslims, but Donia is careful to omit this fact.

The effect and end result is the falsification, distortion, and manipulation of Sarajevo’s history through a subtle instance of omission. There is no question that she was aware of the historical literature of Sarajevo during World War II and the Holocaust. Why the deception? Why does she leave out the fact that Bosnian Muslims looted and burned the Great Synagogue in Sarajevo? She goes out of her way to castigate Volksdeutsche but omits any reference to Bosnian Muslim collaborators (or Croatian collaborators). This is a blatant and egregious attempt to falsify the history of Sarajevo and the role of Bosnian Muslims in the Holocaust.