The Zemun Synagogue was home to a rock and live music club during the 60s.
Few traces are left of the Jewish synagogues that were present in Belgrade before the outbreak of World War II.
There is only one operating synagogue in Belgrade today; the Sukat Salom Synagogue - or Belgrade Synagogue – on Marsala Birjuzova street. The other, in the Zemun neighbourhood of the city, is currently home to a kafana, a traditional Serbian restaurant.
Before the war broke out, there were four synagogues in Belgrade. Today, however, traces of the Jewish population and culture are scarce, as more than 95 per cent of the Serbian Jewish population either perished or fled Serbia during the war.
The Zemun Synagogue is at 5 Rabina Alkalaja street, not far from the centre of Zemun. The street is named after the Sephardic rabbi, Judah Alkalai, who lived and worked in Zemun where he became a rabbi in the 1820s. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential pioneers of modern Zionism.
Built in 1850, the Zemun Synagogue is the oldest, while construction of the Sukat Salom Synagogue was only completed in 1929.
A house of prayer until 1962, the synagogue was then sold to the Zemun local municipality by the Jewish Community of Zemun, JOZ. Since the sale, the synagogue has functioned as a cultural centre, rock club and restaurant.
Today, it is a kafana that goes by the name Sac - referring to a large metal or ceramic lid which are used while cooking or baking over live coals or wood.
According to one of the restaurant’s waiters, the owners called the restaurant Sac as this is the method they use to prepare the food. The ethno-restaurant has been operating here since 2005.
Green umbrellas bearing the Montenegrin Niksicko Pivo beer brand dot the outdoor space of the former synagogue, as the aroma of barbequed food hangs in the air.
However, the contract between the restaurant owners and the local municipality will end in September 2018. JOZ told BIRN the synagogue will once again be under its ownership from that date.
Petar Stanisic, the owner of Sac, told BIRN they will respect the decision, underlining they have always had very good relations with JOZ, which is based on the same street.
However, Stanisic noted they have been leasing the site for 12 years now and that 14 people are currently living off the restaurant’s earnings.
Still, he remains philosophical, saying: “We will see what we will do next.”
Two jewish communities were active in Zemun before World War II, the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities. According to historical sources, between 500 and 600 Jews were recorded as living in Zemun before the war.
Before the allied bombing of Belgrade in 1944, there were two Jewish synagogues located in Zemun in close proximity to one another – one serving the Sephardic community and located in Dubrovacka street, whilst the other one, still standing today, belonged to the Ashkenazi community.
The Sephardic synagogue, founded by Rabbi Alkalaja, was located in Dubrovacka street, 40 metres from the remaining Zemun Synagogue. It was almost completely destroyed during allied bombing.
The Zemun municipality eventually demolished what was left of the building in 1957.
While it is not clear exactly why the building was demolished, some academic studies suggest that, as the Jewish population had declined to such a degree, the remaining synagogue in Rabina Alkalaja street – the Zemun Synagogue - was considered sufficient to meet the needs of those Jews who stayed in Zemun after the war.
Prior to March this year, when the Jewish Community of Zemun celebrated the Purim holiday, no prayers had been held at the Zemun Synagogue since it was sold to the Zemun municipality.
Newspaper articles published at the time raised questions over whether the sale was forced, as the building was apparently sold way below market price. In a story published by the daily Politika, Aca Singer, then president of the Jewish Communities Union of Yugoslavia, claimed the sale was a result of pressure from the then Belgrade mayor, Branko Pesic.
It was then home to the rock and live music club during the 60s. According to news portal Zemunske Novine, the famous writer David Albahari often dj-ed in the club.
The sale was subject to an agreement that the synagogue would serve as a cultural centre. That understanding came to an end after Vojislav Seselj became president of the Zemun municipality in 1996.
According to Nedeljnik magazine, Seselj firmly believed that as the synagogue was the property of the local government, the municipality should choose how it was used.
As a consequence, the municipality began leasing the former synagogue to private catering companies.
Ria Beherano, JOZ secretary, told BIRN that the organisation plans to ensure the synagogue once again opens a cultural centre that will organise various events. As the scheduled take over date is still one year away, Beherano said that no concrete plans have yet been agreed.
JOZ began fundraising in 2005 in order to buy the property back from the Zemun municipality. However, according to Beherano, they weren’t able to raise enough cash.
Instead, she said, they managed to agree a deal with the municipality that the building would be returned to them once the Sac restaurant lease expired with the help of the Serbian Agency for Restitution in May 2016.
The agency is in charge of property restitution and compensation claims, and the synagogue was returned according to the Serbian Law on Restitution of Property to Churches and Religious Communities.
Beherano said that other buildings in the area, including a Jewish school in the centre of Zemun, were also once the property of JOZ but were also sold to the Zemun municipality in the aftermath of the war.
She said the synagogue was returned on the understanding that JOZ would not lodge any further property claims.
If everything goes according to the plan, Sac will be operating here until the building is in 2018 once again a cultural centre; but this time in the hands of JOZ.
This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight.