Synagogue Sunday: Dubrovnik, Croatia
I don’t have too many opportunities to see synagogues in this part of the world, so imagine my surprise when I realized that Dubrovnik hosted Europe’s second-oldest synagogue on the very same street we were staying on.
The synagogue and our apartment were on Zudioska Ulica (Jewish Street), which served as Dubrovnik’s Jewish ghetto. There are reports of a Dubrovnik Jewish community in the 13th century, but the numbers swelled after Spain’s 1492 decree for Jews to convert or leave. That year, the first Jewish refugees arrived on Balkan shores. The ghetto was formed in 1546, when the population grew to about 10,000.
The synagogue and accompanying museum are lovely, but unfortunately there was not much information in English. It was purportedly built in 1352, but many people presume it was built in 1408 when Jewish people were granted legal status in Dubrovnik. Since the synagogue is on the second floor of a residential-looking building, I’d presume that a low-profile congregation could have held services there before 1408. The current building on the site dates from 1652 and was renovated after the 1667 earthquake, World War II, and 1992 war damage.
Whichever date you consider to be accurate, the building site is quite old. In fact, it’s the oldest active Sephardic (Spanish/Middle Eastern Jewish) synagogue standing in Europe. The oldest active Ashkenazic (Eastern and part Western European) synagogue in Europe is in Prague.
While the Dubrovnik synagogue is technically still active, the Jewish community has significantly declined. The Jewish community numbered 23,000 before World War II, but the subsequent German invasion and rise of the Ustase movement forced the Jewish (and Serbian, and Roma) community to flee or perish in concentration camps. Today, Dubrovnik has 17-40 Jewish residents. The synagogue is active on high holy days only.
Jewish history in Croatia is complicated, to say the least. The community was denied and granted status throughout history. I’m glad that there’s a museum and synagogue to enlighten random tourists like me. Hopefully they’ll be able to offer more information in the future. Even with the limited signage in English, it’s a peaceful place to visit and learn something new.