Split’s a smash hit!
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Split’s a smash hit!

Zaki Cooper is struck by the beauty of Croatia’s coastal city and discovers more about its centuries-old ties to the Jewish community

Split waterfront and Marjan hill aerial view, Dalmatia, Croatia
Split waterfront and Marjan hill aerial view, Dalmatia, Croatia

A stroll through the beautiful Croatian coastal city of Split on a baking hot day bears more than a passing resemblance to somewhere more familiar.

It’s not just the architecture of the old city of Split that looks as if it has been made from Jerusalem stone. The hustle and bustle of the vendors on the narrow streets are also very reminiscent of the Old City.

As we walked through the ancient street, we almost expected to turn a corner and see the Kotel, but instead we came across a small synagogue, dating back to the 16th century.

Split Synagogue was built on the site of an earlier one from Roman times, which had been destroyed in a fire in 1507. It is dwarfed by the nearby Cathedral of Saint Domnius, completed in the 4th century and considered by some to be the oldest building in the world used as a church.

Split Synagogue

The new synagogue followed Sephardi customs, since the bulk of the community here came from Spain, Portugal and Italy following the Inquisition.  At its height, the community numbered several hundred, and one of its leading figures, Daniel Rodriguez, established a free port in the city.

Today, the synagogue is described as the second oldest continuously used Sephardi shul in the world, with the oldest, dating back to 1352, located in Dubrovnik.

Climbing sets of stairs with my family, we eventually reached the strikingly beautiful small sanctuary, which features an ornate Sefer Torah, a gift from a former Israeli ambassador.

Nowadays, services are held intermittently when a rabbi visits from another city. Split’s Jewish population totals around 100, although we are told there is active Jewish life within Dubrovnic and Zagreb.

Split Synagogue is located near to the People’s Square, an attractive area dating from the 15th century.

Other popular tourist sites in the city include Diocletian’s Palace, a well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site and Game of Thrones location, as well as a gallery named after Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia’s most celebrated artist.  There’s also a fascinating Archaeological Museum with more than 150,000 items on display.

Ancient ruins in Diocletian Palace – Split, Croatia

We took a lunchtime stroll across the seafront of Croatia’s second largest city, which offers spectacular views.

Split oozes charm and there is plenty to do and see. We stayed 40 minutes’ drive away from the city, in a small town called Trogir, itself conveniently located not far from the airport.

Our flat had access to a swimming pool, and was under 10 minutes from a beautiful beach.

To discover a semblance of Jewish life in Croatia is uplifting considering its appalling war-time record.

The Italian fascists held the city until 1943, but the situation deteriorated further when control passed to the Nazis and their Croatian nationalist allies, the Ustaše. More than half of Split’s 300 Jews were killed, either being deported to the camps or fighting with partisans. Wartime prejudices lingered for decades after and were evident in the renaming of streets after Ustashe leaders in the 1990s.

National Park Krka (Croatia, Dalmatia)

However, since Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the small number of Jews in the country have lived relatively freely, and the ugly antisemitism of the previous era has seemingly disappeared.

Alongside this, Croatia has forged a friendly relationship with Israel since full diplomatic ties were established in 1997, and successive leaders have expressed remorse for their wartime record, including Croatian President Ivo Josipovic on a visit to Israel in 2012.

Croatia may be a small country with a population of under five million, but it is among the top 20 most popular tourist destinations in the world and, having reached last year’s World Cup final, has attracted global attention.

One of the most attractive features for visitors are the beautiful national parks. We visited Krka National Park, near Split, and enjoyed long walks, admiring the lakes and waterfalls.

Zaki’s travel tips 

For more about Split’s Jewish life, visit www.zost.hr or The Bet Israel Jewish  Community of Croatia, http://bet-israel.com

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