Navigate to Community section

The Invisible Synagogue: Facing Jewish History—and My Own—in Croatia

In her memoir ‘The Pat Boone Fan Club,’ Sue William Silverman recalls where she and her Christian boyfriend went their separate ways

Sue William Silverman
March 03, 2014
The synagogue in Dubrovnik.(Jennifer Boyer/Flickr)
The synagogue in Dubrovnik.(Jennifer Boyer/Flickr)

My boyfriend, Graham, and I weave—weave because we’re slightly drunk after a breakfast of plumy slivovitz, brandy fritules, and Turkish coffee—along the Stradun, the main commercial street of Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. I wear an embroidered peasant blouse with jeans. My hair sways in a braid down my back. Silver filigree earrings, which I bought in Israel, pierce my ears. My leather sandals, the same ones that wandered the Old City of Jerusalem, now tramp Dubrovnik cobblestones, which must still carry the stain of centuries-old ethnic wars from before Tito…all the blood of Venetians, Turks, Serbs, Habsburgs, Montenegrins, Italians, Germans.

Graham also wears jeans, as well as wire-rim glasses, his hair the length of the Beatles’. We look like the clean, well-behaved, suburban-raised hippies we are. According to Graham, we’re supposed to be serious, earnest. During the five years we’ve dated off and on, we’ve attended movies like Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee, Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal—foreign films, serious films, films with a message. We eat at inexpensive ethnic restaurants. We read the Sunday New York Times. We march in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, but peacefully, would never get arrested. Rather than be drafted or flee to Canada, Graham joined an army reserve medical unit.

Now Graham reads aloud from a tour booklet: “Inside the thick stone walls surrounding Dubrovnik are fourteen quadrangular towers and a fortress, Sveti Ivan. The most monumental is the tower, Minceta.”

Graham wants to circle the full two kilometers of walls, see everything. He has come here for all of this. But not I.

I want to take Graham to the beach, hold hands, as if decisions about our relationship will be revealed in all this sun, stone, blue sky, azure water. Should we part or marry? Won’t decisions clarify if, together, we sip iced smreka, juniper juice…or if we lovingly browse shops selling lace tablecloths and silk pillows? Shouldn’t we at least pretend we’re shopping for our first house together? I don’t want to visit historical sites. What answers for my future can be found on the grounds of ancient battles or on altars of musty churches? But I love Graham, so I follow along, behaving like the girl I think he wants: industrious, committed to causes—and Christian.

We pass a Renaissance church where, according to the tour book, the women of Dubrovnik, both peasant and patrician, carried stones for its construction. They also strengthened the mortar with milk and egg whites, causing, according to legend, the church to withstand the 1667 earthquake, which destroyed more than three-fourths of the city. Women’s Lib or slave labor? The booklet doesn’t say.

We reach Luza Square. It features Orlando’s Column, a fifteenth-century statue of a knight. Here all announcements and proclamations, as well as public punishments, took place. I should proclaim, confess all my imperfections to Graham. But then I know he’d leave me. After all, to him, my most glaring imperfection—being Jewish—is imperfection enough.

Last night in the hotel, I was unable to sleep. I lay beside a drowsing Graham after an endless flight from National Airport, with a stopover in Paris, for this Easter vacation from our jobs on Capitol Hill. I hoped this trip might have led (dare I say it) to a honeymoon. Except Graham’s parents convinced him not to marry me because I’m a Jew—even though Graham’s father, himself, is half Jewish. Very few people know this, his father’s secret.

Graham’s parents live in a WASPy suburban neighborhood in Connecticut. They attend Presbyterian services.

Lying awake, I wondered, Why would I love someone afraid to marry me? Would marrying into his family prove that my being Jewish doesn’t matter? Doesn’t matter to him, or to me? Had I hoped Graham would love me more, see me differently, less Jewish, here in Yugoslavia than at home…here, far away from his parents?

Outside the open window of our hotel room, below the fortress walls, an oarlock rattled, droplets of the Adriatic trailing from the oar back to the sea. The comforting rhythm finally lulled me to sleep, wafting on a mistral breeze of lemons, almonds, stone pines.

Now Graham wanders away from me at the entrance to the Sponza Palace. He searches for the gold-plated statue of St. Blaise. I sit on a bench, the air cool, shadowed. Soon, even as I grow accustomed to the dim light, I barely see him. He’s a vague form, faint as the scent of crumbling parchment and candle wax.

I know he’ll take his time, so I walk back outside. I follow Peline Street past the Minceta tower to Zudioska Street. I pause, looking around. The word “Zudioska” sounds familiar. Shingles of light fade as the street descends (I soon discover) to the Jewish ghetto. In the sunless alleyway the stones grow cold, almost mossy and damp. At the bottom of the alley hangs a small sign on a door. I can’t read it but, again, the word “Zudioska.” It is a plain, nondescript, three-story stone building. A narrow flight of tiled stairs leads to a small office. Inside, the walls are adorned with old photos and documents: a picture of the Wailing Wall, a memorial plaque for victims of the Holocaust. A woman, who speaks almost no English, sells tickets. “Synagogue,” she says, pointing. “Synagogue.” I climb more steps into the sanctuary.

I’m unfamiliar with Jewish religious objects; this is one of few temples I’ve ever entered. I scan a pamphlet, even though it’s poorly written in English. A partition, pierced by three wide arches, divides the room and the oversize bimah. A white sat- in parokhet covers the inlaid doors of the aron kodesh, which holds several Torah scrolls. The ark is decorated with woodcuts mounted on gold-painted Corinthian pillars. In Sephardic fashion, bronze Florentine lamps hang from chains like chandeliers, containing glass oil cups. My sandals scrape the wood floors, unlike the sandy floors in the synagogue in St. Thomas.

Constellations of golden stars float across a cobalt-blue ceiling.

In 1600 fifty Jews lived in Dubrovnik. Three hundred and eight Jews in 1815. In 1939, 250. Today, 30 Jews reside in Dubrovnik.

Counting me, 31. Thirty-one and one-quarter, counting Graham. The synagogue, the second oldest in Europe, existed as early as 1352. Now, however, it’s more a museum. No rabbi. No congregation. No prayers.

It’s almost like the Museum of an Extinct People, proposed by Hitler in Prague, where future generations of Aryans would have paid a few coins to tour exhibits of Torahs, menorahs, ceremonial shawls, mezuzahs. Airless exhibits. Absent of people.

No one has ever seen me as anything but Jewish, I think.

Stick to your own kind, my grandmother always hissed.

In 1815 Dubrovnik Jews needed permission from Austria to marry. In 1941 Italians confiscated Jewish property. In 1942, under German instructions, the Italians interned Jews on the nearby island of Lopud. Between the fall of Italy and the German occupation, many Jews were transported by partisans to liberated territory on the mainland. The rest were sent to camps.

Is this why the exterior of Dubrovnik’s synagogue is plain, unobtrusive, nearly invisible—all of its beauty hidden inside?

From Dubrovnik, Graham and I travel by boat up the Dalmatian coast to Rijeka. Here we rent a car to drive to Sarajevo and Montenegro, where we spend the night in a farmhouse. Before dinner, I sit outside and the elderly farmer, in peasant clothes and cap, approaches me. He holds out a gnarled, work-worn hand. At first I think he means to shake mine, so I extend it, smiling. But he, grinning with absent teeth, places three colored eggs in my palm: blue, green, pink. Today is Easter. I have forgotten. He speaks to me in Croatian, so I don’t understand his words—yet I feel them, like a warm egg in my hand.

Hvala!” I say. Thank you!

I hold up the eggs to admire. The dye is uneven, in places barely a transparent tint, white shell peeking through. I nod my head, still smiling. “Hvala.”

I long for more words but have few in his language. He motions toward the eggs, toward his mouth. Yes, I nod, imitating him. I will eat them, yes.

He smiles, satisfied.

In our room in the farmhouse, I hold one out to Graham. He refuses. They might be spoiled. We might get sick, he says. I sit on the straw mattress peeling blue, green, pink. I take a bite of egg. Speckles of colored shell fall to the rough floor.

On our final evening in Yugoslavia, back in Dubrovnik, I stand by the railing on the hotel balcony overlooking the Adriatic. I want to hear the oarlocks from our first night, just to know someone’s out there: Croatian, Serb, or Jew. The stars in the cobalt-blue sky seem to shine through a film of night…as if there is only a thin membrane between me and the realm of pure light.

It will still take me several more months to see that, after all, ancient feuds and warring ethnic and religious factions do predict the future. I will see that Graham’s father was right. His son and I are not meant to marry each other. Our cool, hip, 1970s accoutrements only mask how different we are—mask the fact that, although earnest, Graham is not brave.

But tonight I long to tell him about the 31 1/4 Jews, that I will always be a Jew. I want to tell him I am beginning to lose my desire for his love, which is deficient by 1⁄4, or perhaps 3/4. Which means it is entirely deficient. Which means I am beginning to peel away his beautiful shell.

Excerpted from The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew by Sue William Silverman by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2014 by Sue William Silverman.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Sue William Silverman is the author of three memoirs. She teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Sue William Silverman is the author of three memoirs. She teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts.