Read, Write, Run, Roam

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.


7 responses

  1. Srdjana

    Surely you know about the famous Sarajevo Haggadah? Directions in Sarajevo are typically something like: “cross the river to the Mosque of the Seven Brothers, turn left and continue until you see the Synangogue across the river from you, turn right and walk until you arrive at the Catholic church”

    Sarajevo has its own complicated religious relationships, to be sure, but they seem to take pride in that.

    As a New Yorker, I’ve seen far too much anti-semitic graffiti and defaced Jewish monuments in Croatia – definitely more in Split, though. Where a once-strong Jewish community is also almost non-existent now.

    May 2, 2011 at 11:44 pm

  2. The graffiti is a jarring sight, for sure. I haven’t seen the Haggadah yet. When I went to the museum it was closed and I hear they only display it a couple of times a year. I hope to return to Sarajevo and check it out. Even if someone doesn’t have an interest in history, how can you resist seeing a billion dollar book?

    May 3, 2011 at 6:55 am

  3. I have a friend who is a Cantor (jewish clergy) and will be on a cruise with one day in Dubrovnik. Who should she contact about seeing the Synagogue and meeting the members of the Jewish community? Thanks for your suggestions!

    September 8, 2011 at 7:17 am

  4. It’s quite easy to see the synagogue–I just walked in. (It’s more a museum now.) Meeting with members will be more difficult. The Jewish community, as I understand it, is quite sparse. I think less than 20 Jewish people live there now. They have a rabbi but he’s based outside of Dubrovnik (probably Zagreb). You might want to give the synagogue a call (+385 20 321 028) and ask them if there are any community events happening while your friend is there.

    September 8, 2011 at 3:46 pm

  5. The synagogue is a museum now, so it’s simple to walk in. Meeting members of the community is harder, as there are less than 25 members now. There is no resident rabbi. However, you might want to call the synagogue/museum (+385 20 321 028) and ask if there are any community events while she is there. If she’s there during high holidays there may be services.

    September 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm

  6. Anonymous

    My husband and I and another Jewish couple are planning a trip to Croatia in Sept. and we may be there on Rosh Hashanah. Do you think a non-member can attend High Holiday Services at the Dubrovnik Synagogue?

    June 5, 2012 at 5:40 am

  7. I’m not sure they even have services, even then–best to call and ask. Lots of English spoken there, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Enjoy your trip!

    June 15, 2012 at 4:47 am

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