Visiting Jewish Dubrovnik, pearl of the Adriatic

Dubrovnik, and its many sites of interest – should not be missed by any adventurous traveler.

Dubrovnik (photo credit: Arthur Wolak)
(photo credit: Arthur Wolak)
DUBROVNIK – A UNESCO World Heritage site situated in the south of Croatia along the coastline of the Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik is among the most prominent tourist resorts in the country. Its breath-taking panorama, best viewed from high above the city, is unparalleled.
What few may know, however, is that in the heart of Dubrovnik’s well-preserved medieval Old Town stands Europe’s oldest functioning Sephardic synagogue.
After passing through Dubrovnik’s Pile Gate – separating the suburb of Pile (pronounced ‘Pee-lay’) from the walled city of Dubrovnik – one is transported into a breathtaking medieval world of ancient streets lined with stone palaces, Venetianstyle buildings, bell towers, marble-paved squares, monasteries, and fountains.
The surrounding fortifications, first begun in the eighth century, reflect a powerful metropolis with considerable historic economic importance, derived mostly from maritime and commercial trade. After gaining independence from the republic of Venice in 1358, Dubrovnik remained a self-governing free city until Napoleon’s forces marched through the Pile Gate in 1808, ending 450 years of independence.
While the small Jewish population of Dubrovnik traces back to the 14th century (if not earlier), the number had grown significantly following the Spanish expulsion in 1492. Of the Sephardic Jewish families passing through on their way to Turkey, several decided to settle in Dubrovnik, helping to solidify a modest but strong Jewish community in the city.
However, after Napoleon’s reign, Dubrovnik fell under various jurisdictions – the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1815-1918); the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes; a pro-Nazi independent Croat State during World War II; and a communist Yugoslavia under General Tito for much of the 20th century.
Over the course of these transfers, the Jewish population of the city dwindled to about 87 prior to the Second World War. Of this number, about 27 perished in the Holocaust or as partisans who fought the Nazis. Today there are just 44 registered Jews in Dubrovnik, with about 19 of them residing in the United States.
Yet, the synagogue continues to function with services conducted by members of the local community, with tourists often helping form a minyan.
A rabbi visits occasionally from Zagreb, the Croatian capital.
Life had not always been idyllic for the Jews of the independent Republic of Dubrovnik. There were many episodes of persecutions (most notably in 1502, 1515, 1571, and 1622), which led to false accusations and even executions. By the mid-18th century, as Dubrovnik’s economic position declined, the small community of Jews was prohibited from engaging in commerce, and was confined to live in the ghetto.
However, French rule – lasting from 1808 to 1815 – gave equality to the Jews of Dubrovnik, annulling all prior restrictions. Although Austrian rule brought in new laws regulating their lives, full emancipation would occur towards the end of the century.
Yet, in the years of Dubrovnik’s independence, the Jews – given their broad knowledge of languages – had fit well in Dubrovnik’s highly developed economy. Many served as interpreters. Others became merchants and importers of materials, such as wool and spices from the East, and textiles and paper from the West.
Beyond commerce and maritime trade, many Jews served as insurers and owners of ships. Although prohibited from owning land or buildings, the Jews were allowed to invest in ships that served Dubrovnik’s trade routes. Many also served as a significant number of the city’s physicians.
In 1546, the growth of the Jewish population had led Dubrovnik officials to allow Jewish settlement within the city, establishing Ulica Udioska (‘Street of the Jews’) as the Dubrovnik Ghetto. A few buildings were allocated for newcomers to settle within the fortified walls. Other houses were leased, while the rest of the Jews lived outside of Dubrovnik’s fortifications.
By the mid-17th century, this situation had led to the establishment of the synagogue on the second floor of one of the 14th-century buildings, at Ulica Udioska 3.
The synagogue is a highlight of any visit to Dubrovnik. To get there, pass through Pile Gate and head east down the main street of Placa (also known as Stradun), an impressive pedestrian promenade which extends to the Clock Tower and Small Onofrio Fountain at the other end of town.
Next, make a left at Ulica Udioska, just a couple of blocks before the Gothic and Renaissance-styled Sponza Palace. There, just a short walk up the narrow stair-lined road, stands the small but ornate synagogue (and Jewish museum) on the left side. Not only is this Europe’s oldest functioning Sephardic synagogue, but it is Europe’s second oldest synagogue (after Prague) in continuous use. The Jewish community was also able to purchase land for a cemetery just outside the city fortifications. In the 19th century, during Napoleon’s rule, a new site was established for the cemetery in nearby Boninovo, where it remains to this day.
The Dubrovnik synagogue, carefully constructed in 1652 in the Italian Baroque style, retains the elegance of the original workmanship. The main sanctuary, featuring an elaborate chandelier, colorful fabrics, and gold work, is divided by three arches. The bimah is located under the central arch while the aron kodesh, surrounded by two large wooden arches, stands along the eastern wall facing Jerusalem.
Although the synagogue survived the major earthquake of 1667, it suffered serious damage to its roof after being hit twice during the Yugoslav shelling of Dubrovnik in 1991. Repairs were completed by 1997, and the synagogue was again fit for use.
In 2003, the first floor was converted into a museum by Dubrovnik’s small but determined Jewish community.
It became the first Jewish museum in Croatia. To preserve the memory of the many centuries of Jewish presence in Dubrovnik, the museum contains a number of small exhibits: archival documents; a Holocaust memorial; and a collection of religious objects, including several elaborate Spanish, Italian, and French Torah scrolls, each created between the 13th and 17th centuries. Also on exhibit are various Torah covers made from silk and decorated with 17th-century golden embroidery.
Exiting the walled city, just outside the Pile Gate entrance to Dubrovnik, remains a little-known but unique Jewish site – a modest water fountain that serves the local population.
Before Napoleon’s arrival to fortified Dubrovnik, Jews were not allowed to drink water from the other two fountains in the city. They were restricted to the “Jewish Fountain,” as it is still called today. When Napoleon granted the Jews equal rights, all fountains were now accessible to them, and the Jewish Fountain was removed from within the Old City’s walls, but not from the area. It was kept in Pile as a permanent monument.
Today, just like the other fountains – and the rest of the public spaces of contemporary Dubrovnik and its suburbs – the Jewish Fountain is accessible to everyone.
Indeed, the pearl of the Adriatic – Dubrovnik, and its many sites of interest – should not be missed by any adventurous traveler.
Arthur Wolak is a freelance writer in Vancouver. The article first appeared in the ‘Vancouver Independent’ newspaper.