For Aca Singer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, preparing for the seder this year is the least of his worries.
“Only a very few people will have seders at home this year,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital. “The seder is not our main concern. We have a bigger problem — the war.”
Although he said many people are afraid to go outside because of the massive bombing campaign launched last week by NATO, Singer, 65, said he and his wife planned to walk a half-hour to the Jewish Community House for a communal seder. Five hundred Jews usually attend, but this year Singer said he hoped 200 would show up.
A retired rabbi, Cadik Danon of Belgrade, was expected to lead the seder. And Singer said the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had sent enough supplies of matzah and other kosher-for-Passover food to Belgrade to take care of the city’s 2,000 Jews.
But because of the bombing campaign — which is designed to convince Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to stop Serbian acts of genocide and “ethnic cleansing” of Albanians from Serbia’s southern province of Kosovo — Singer said it was unclear whether Passover services would be held this year.
He spoke prior to NATO’s announcement Wednesday that its war ships would be escalating its attacks, possibly aiming at military command offices in the heart of Belgrade itself. British Defense Secretary George Robertson declared: “Nowhere is immune [in Yugoslavia] to these attacks.”
The war’s intensification came after NATO dismissed Milosevic’s offer to resume negotiations if the bombing stopped. NATO maintains that the bombing will continue until Milosevic stops the ethnic killing and forced evacuation of Albanians, and withdraws all Serbian military and para-military forces from Kosovo.
Meanwhile, Israel’s top leaders issued conflicting responses this week to the NATO campaign. One day after Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon refused to endorse it or to condemn Serbia, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only supported the action but also condemned the Serbs and “anyone else” involved in mass killings.
“We, as Jews, cannot sit for a minute without being shocked by the actions,” Netanyahu said.
But opposition leader Ehud Barak, head of the new One Israel Party, displayed no hesitancy in stating his position. He called in Yugoslav Ambassador Miro Stefanovich and reportedly condemned “what appears to be the systematic murder of innocent people and the creation of a huge refugee problem” He went on to say, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, that the government of a “Jewish state, which arose after the Holocaust, cannot remain silent and should have been fully behind the free world’s negotiation efforts.”
Israel’s plans to ship medical and humanitarian supplies to the area were delayed because air space in the Balkans was closed before of the air assault. But Foreign Ministry officials said they hoped the plane would be cleared to fly to Albania early next week. In the first three days of this week, more than 80,000 ethnic Albanians fleeing their homes in Kosovo poured into Albania, straining the resources of the beleaguered county.
Since Serbian oppression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo began a year ago, more than 500,000 of them have fled their homes — many of which have then been torched allegedly by Serbians. Yugoslav officials insist, however, that NATO bombs actually set some of the homes on fire.
The JDC said there are about 30 Jews living in Kosovo — mostly members of one extended family — and that they were content to remain there for the time being. They live in Pristina, the Kosovar capital, which is about 25 miles from the Macedonian border. Should they seek to leave, arrangements have been made with the Macedonian Jewish community to house them.
In the meantime, a family of four and a 16-year-old high school student from Pristina were slated to arrive in Israel Wednesday. They, along with a family from Budapest, were scheduled to join Netanyahu at his seder.
Just before the NATO air strikes began on March 24, the Federation of Jewish Communities in began sending Jewish women, children and young adults 400 miles to the safety of neighboring Budapest, Hungary. Steven Schwager, associate executive vice president of the JDC, said they traveled there in buses as tourists. There were about 200 there on Monday and more were expected by the end of the week. At first cared for by the Budapest Jewish community, it found itself overwhelmed and requested and received assistance from the JDC, he noted.
“The JDC will make sure they have a place to sleep, food to eat and a place to live their lives for as long as it takes,” said Schwager.
One woman from Belgrade, who arrived March 23 with her two grown children, said: “We are not refugees, we’re still tourists who crossed the border legally with our passports. The plan was just to come for a couple of days until things settle down, then go back. But we’re still waiting.”
“I’m here because my mom made me,” said Iva, 23, a university student who on Monday sent her first e-mail back home. “She said, ‘Go, while you can. You can always come back.’ But I have just a few more exams before I graduate, so now I don’t know what to do.”
Other arrivals include a handful of families, a few elderly people and several young children.
The visitors are spending their days gathered at the Balint Jewish Community Center in downtown Budapest, the adults sitting on wooden chairs, chain-smoking, nervously talking about the war. About 150 of them are living in dormitories reserved for 40 Hungarian Jewish students from the provinces. The students went home for Passover and the visitors are sleeping on foam mattresses, seven to 10 per room.
The other Yugoslav Jews are sleeping at a Jewish high school in town, the Sandor Seibor School, which lacks shower facilities. By the end of Passover, new lodgings will have to be found.
Community officials are trying to come up with activities for the children — such as arts and crafts and basketball games — especially for those separated from their parents. And the JDC is providing counseling for the visitors and is trying to find better housing accommodations. One possibility is the Szarvas international Jewish camp, located two hours from Budapest.
Because of the large number of Yugoslav visitors in Budapest, the JDC is making arrangements for a communal seder for them, Schwager noted.
He said that of those who have come out so far, only a handful have sought to make aliyah.
In another development, two rabbis were sent to the Balkans to run seders. And the rabbi of Belgrade was released this week from the Yugoslav army after the intervention of Jewish groups and the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch.
Rabbi Yitzhak Asiel, who had been drafted a few days ago, was released so he could spend the Passover holiday with his family and the community in the Serbian capital.
In addition, arrangements were made for more than 800 Jewish personnel serving in the U.S. Armed Forces — most of them in the Balkans and the Persian Gulf — to have personal seder kits this year. As in the past, the kits consist of two cans of gefilte fish, a can of tuna, two bottles of grape juice and matzah. The kits were prepared by the Jewish Chaplain’s Welfare Committee in New York, under the direction of Rabbi David Lapp.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.