On April 9 and 10, Jewish Heritage Europe coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber joined Ivan Ceresnjes of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem, Jasna Ciric, President of the Nis Jewish Community, and Ruben Fuks, President of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia, on a visit to the Jewish Cemetery in Nis, southern Serbia, to assess its condition and threats to its preservation. She and Ceresnjes later continued on to Pirot, to assess the condition of a ruined mikveh and a new Holocaust memorial. Photos in this post (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
Ivan and I were met in Nis and driven to Pirot by Dragan Jankovic, a photo-journalist in Pirot who is also an amateur local historian who has become the repository of knowledge about the Jewish history of the town. Our aim in Pirot was to examine the ruined mikveh there – which Ivan says is the only remaining mikveh from the Ottoman period in the Balkans. We were joined, too, by a young architect from Belgrade, Jelica Jovanovic.
The mikveh is a small brick building that stands at the edge of what was once the Jewish compound, hemmed in behind new metal garages. The site of the synagogue is now occupied by a modern apartment house. The Jewish cemetery was destroyed in the late 1940s, so this is the only physical trace of a communal or ritual Jewish building – though one pre-war house stands on “Jewish Street” in the surrounding pre-war Jewish quarter, and Dragan showed us evidence of how a current photographic shop in town was once Jewish-owned.
People have been aware of the existence of the ruined mikveh, but recent actions by Jasna Ciric, Jelica and Dragan have brought it to more public attention and have initiated discussion at an official level in town about what can be done to preserve/restore it.
The small building is considerably ruined, but the interior is largely intact. You can see where the heater was, where the water channel was, and other even decorative features. If funds are found, there is hope that the building could be restored, as local officials seem quite willing to do so. The current Mayor has been to Israel twice and is eager to encourage local cooperation with Israeli investors. (On the other hand, elections are in a month, so the current administration may not be in power…)
Already the municipality has created and funded the installation of a Holocaust monument to the destroyed local Jewish community on Jewish Street in the former Jewish quarter. It is in the shape of a Star of David sinking into the earth (very similar to a memorial in Usti nad Labem, in the Czech Republic), and a memorial plaque that had been affixed to a nearby building has been moved to form the centerpiece of the monument. The Israeli ambassador attended the dedication a few weeks ago in March. Also, a new plaque/information panel has been erected nearby.
Pirot’s Jewish cemetery was destroyed soon after World War II — one gravestone is preserved at the local museum. We found it standing in an outdoor terrace area, along with other fragments of local stone carving — and a spent rocket fired during the NATO bombing in 1999….