Nearly all of Serbia’s Jews were killed during the Holocaust, in what was one of the swiftest murder campaigns in all of Europe. The region was declared “Judenfrei” in 1942, after just 13 months of Nazi occupation. Yet the Serbian-Jewish Singing Society—one of the oldest Jewish choirs in the world, today known as the Baruch Brothers Choir—has prospered, despite having been silenced during World Wars I and II. Today, having survived genocide, Communism, the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, and a dwindling Jewish population, the group is larger than at any time in its history—even though less than 20 percent of its members are Jewish.
But that doesn’t seem to bother anyone—not the Ministry of Culture, which requests the choir’s presence at important commemorations; not the Jewish community; and not the singers. Synthesis and harmony have been the driving forces behind the choir since it was first established.
When the group was founded in 1879, said the group’s 31-year-old conductor, Stefan Zekic, “It was to cherish Orthodox Jewish and Serbian music, and create some kind of bridge between two people—Serbian and Jewish people.” That sense of shared purpose will be marked on May 10, when the choir will perform at an official ceremony marking the liberation of Staro Sajmiste, a concentration camp on the outskirts of Belgrade believed to be where half of Serbia’s Jews perished.
The positive connection between Jews and Serbs that the choir had helped foster from its inception was reinforced during WWI, when the two groups fought alongside each other.
“There are a lot of similarities between Judaism and Eastern Orthodoxy,” said Jasna Pecarski, a Serbian-born, American Jewish doctor who retired to Belgrade a few years ago for its affordable lifestyle and who sings in the choir with her son. “There are no instruments in the church, no organ or piano, only voice, usually a choir. We, the Slavs, Serbians, have a big vocal tradition. We sing all kinds of music: Jewish Orthodox, secular music, Serbian Orthodox, everything from famous composers like Mozart to popular arrangements and jazz.”
Yugoslavia provided a haven to Austrian Jews escaping Hitler after the Anschluss in 1938. Serbia’s Jewish population swelled to 35,000—before it was almost entirely wiped out. Most people were sent to nearby concentration camps, in Belgrade and other parts of former Yugoslavia, including Croatia. Many never made it to camps and were shot on the spot.
After Serbia was liberated, 5,000 surviving Serbian Jews returned to Belgrade. Their first stop was the choir rehearsal hall, which became a center for locating family and friends.
“There were many orphans after the war,” said choir President Branka Cvejic-Mezei, herself a Jew. “The Jewish community had no means for a normal life. Many Jews left the country. However, the survivors wasted no time in trying to rebuild the community. Directly after the war, the Jews who survived returned to the choir. Members of the Jewish community wanted to reconnect; the easiest way to do that was through the choir.”
Some Jews survived thanks to Serbia’s 131 “righteous gentiles,” more than from any other Balkan nation. Others became members of the Yugoslav resistance. To commemorate the fight against the Nazis, the chorus changed its name to the Baruch Brothers Choir. The three brothers, all partisans from a prominent Belgrade family, were killed during the war and became a symbol of the resistance. A street and a local school were named after them. Their home, a Belgrade landmark, made headlines last year when it was torn down by a private developer.
The choir performed its first postwar concert in 1948, but it wasn’t until it was invited to sing in Jerusalem four years later that the group really found its feet again. Concert pianist Andreja Preger conducted the performance; at 103, he is the group’s oldest member. Preger survived the Holocaust as a partisan and later became one of a substantial number who met future spouses at rehearsals. The choir has a history of producing marriages, with 30 wed in just the last 15 years. But, reflective of the choir’s membership, many of the unions are mixed.
“The observance in the community is not so strong,” explained Ruben Fuks, head of the Serbian Federation of Jewish Communities. “The minority of the community is very observant. You have to remember the development after the Second World War was not in favor of religious life, so the continuation of the life of the community was more secular than religious.”
Zekic, the conductor, says that under Communism, Judaism was seen as both a religion and an ethnicity. “Our ethnicity was fully accepted with no discrimination,” he said. “It’s very different comparing the Soviet Union, where you have official anti-Semitism. In former Yugoslavia and Serbia, that kind of anti-Semitism wasn’t present.”
The choir, members say, did not face obstacles under Communism. On the contrary, it became a source of national pride. The choir was free to sing whatever songs the members liked—in whatever language. The singers even enjoyed increased freedoms, with permission to travel to festivals and competitions around the region at a time when it wasn’t easy to do so. In 1978, the group even made it to New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
Choir member Gordana Rutar, at 75 one of the group’s older members, fondly remembers traveling to Israel three times, and to England, Greece, Switzerland, and other parts of Europe to perform. Though not Jewish herself, she regards the group as her second family. “I love singing Jewish music,” she said. “I don’t have trouble with the Hebrew or Yiddish at all, because I’ve been singing it for 30 years. I don’t understand it, but I can sing it. I was raised in a family that liked and respected the Jews. Everybody in this choir knows what happened to the Jewish people.”
Aleksandra Pusica, a 23-year-old medical student, auditioned and was accepted into the choir at 18. “I’m not Jewish, but my friends all sing in choirs and I wanted to try something new,” she said. “I was very welcomed and accepted.”
Even today, with anti-Semitism on the rise across Europe, Zekic claims that in Serbia it comes in small doses. Yet Serbia’s Jews are fighting to keep their community alive. After the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the conflicts that followed, there came a fresh Jewish exodus. Many went to Israel and the United States, while the elderly moved primarily to Hungary.
Serbia’s Jews are thought to number 3,300, with around 2,000 living in Belgrade. According to Fuks, the choir—which sings dozens of concerts a year, locally and regionally, for state ceremonies, humanitarian events, and at festivals and competitions—is the most visible part of the community; but it, too, faces hurdles. Government support is limited. Zekic, who is a full-time conductor for the National Theater, works for the choir on a volunteer basis. Still, he has enjoyed one perk: He met his girlfriend at rehearsals. She documents the choir’s history through its official Facebook page.
Like many others, Fuks has thought long and hard about how to preserve and cultivate Serbia’s Jewish community. One effort has focused on public schools. Photographs gathered from survivors of the war are part of a traveling exhibition and workshop, touring seven different Serbian cities. The concert marking the liberation of Staro Sajmiste next month will offer another chance to make the community and its traditions accessible.
But, as American expat Jasna Pecarski points out, it’s not all somber. For Hanukkah, they sang to a standing-room-only crowd of over 200 people. “We sang Jewish songs,” she said, “but at the end we sang an Abba favorite, ‘Mamma Mia.’ ”
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