April 26, 1997 Vreme News Digest Agency No 290

The Synagogue in Zemun

Synagogue, Restaurant, Shooting Range

by Dejan Anastasijevic

The decaying synagogue in central Zemun has become the subject of a fierce argument between the Union of Jewish communities and the new Zemun authorities

When Zemunske Novine newspaper recently published an ad for the rental of a former synagogue at 4 Rabbi Alkalaj street in Zemun, few people thought that seemingly harmless business offer would turn into the first-rate political problem which has now engulfed representatives of the Jewish community, the leaders of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and Democratic Party (DS). The man who answered the ad wants to turn the synagogue into a cafe and gallery and has the support of Zemun Mayor and SRS leader Vojislav Seselj. They are opposed by the Union of Jewish communities headed by Aca Singer and Belgrade Mayor Zoran Djindjic.

VREME reporters found Sinisa Petrovic, owner of the MNS trade company and the man who wants to rent the building, overseeing the final stages of interior decoration work in the synagogue. "This is a political issue that is breaking over my back and I have nothing to do with politics," he said and added that about 20 others answered the ad but only his offer included culture and art. "I drafted an offer on several pages, explaining what I intend to do: a gallery with a stage will be on the ground floor along with a cafe and I want to rent the six offices on the first floor to publishers and similar companies. I won’t change a thing on the facade but I will replace the dilapidated window frames," he said. "This will be the best outdoor restaurant in town."

Petrovic’s problems began on Friday, April 17 when Aca Singer, the president of the Union of Jewish communities, appeared at the site with camera crews. "I tried to explain that this won’t be a bar but a place for jazz concerts and exhibitions and I thought he understood," Petrovic said. That impression was wrong. The Union continued protesting, claiming that the opening of a bar there would be an insult to the memory of one of the most important monuments in the city. "Not even the fascists managed to destroy that synagogue although they killed almost all the Jews in Zemun," Singer told VREME and added that it was important because Rabbi Alkalaj, one of the founders of the Zionist movement, lived in Zemun. "I’m sorry for Petrovic. I saw that he’s not one of the newly rich businessmen but we can’t allow a bar in what was once a temple, even if there are pictures hanging on its walls. My impression is that he’s actually planning to open a disco."

Singer says his organization lodged a protest with Seselj early in March, as soon as the ad appeared. He says Seselj received them politely and promised not to hurry with the rental of the synagogue. Three days later another ad said the building had been rented as "a restaurant and culture facility". "I won’t say Seselj lied to us but he definitely did not stick to our agreement," Singer said and added: "Since then we’ve sent him letters and faxes but he never replied or agreed to see us. Instead we hear he’s offering to rent or sell the synagogue to us through the newspapers. We won’t talk to him in that way."

Spokesmen for Seselj’s municipal authorities in Zemun said there’s nothing to discuss since the Jewish community sold the building to the municipality 35 years ago and added that there were no conditions set in the contract for the use of the building. "Since 1962, it hasn’t been a synagogue and doesn’t belong to the Jews. The Jewish community can’t tell me what to do with something that isn’t theirs," Seselj says.

Sources in the Union of Jewish communities agree that the synagogue belongs to the municipality but they invoked a verbal agreement with the former authorities. "Those were different times," Singer said explaining that in 1962 (under Belgrade Mayor Branko Pesic) the authorities needed the synagogue as a kind of culture center. "The Zemun theater hadn’t been built at the time and they pressured us into selling the synagogue. I can’t say they put a gun to our heads but it was an offer we couldn’t refuse."

Singer said his organization will continue opposing Petrovic’s plan. "We feel that it’s not right for our appeals to get the response they did from Seselj although we never tried to raise the problem to a political level and there was cause for that in the nature of his political activities." He recalled Seselj’s links with Russian radical Aleksandar Zhirinovski, a self-confessed anti-Semite.

Now everything depends on the readiness of political circles, primarily the Belgrade city assembly, to support Singer and the extent to which Seselj is prepared to defend his right to do what he wants with municipal property.

One solution the Jewish community is prepared to discuss would be the return of the synagogue to the Jews in return for several buildings they still own.