Osijek Donji Grad Jewish Cemetery
The Jewish cemetery of the Donji grad was established in 1860. In 2009, it had 70 to 100 tombstones remaining with inscriptions in Hebrew, German and Hungarian. The oldest tombstone dates back to 1855 and the latest to 1959. A small cemetery chapel was built in 1900s and has not been in use since the 1950s. The chapel was slightly damaged during the wars of the 1990s but it has since been repaired.
Osijek is the largest economic and cultural center of Slavonia, located on the right bank of the Drava River. A Roman settlement named Mursa existed on the present-day site, yet it was destroyed and abandoned in the 6th century. Osijek was first mentioned in 1196 and for a long time, the city was the feudal property of the Kórógyi family. Thanks to its location on the Drava River, Osijek, a crossing point from Slavonia to Hungary, turned into an important market town during the Middle Ages. During the struggle against the Ottoman invasion, the city was completely destroyed in 1526. The Turks built a huge fortress in Osijek, but in 1687 the Turkish army left the town under pressure from the Austrian troops.
Under Austrian rule, Osijek developed into a large trading and industrial city. The city was divided into the Gornji grad (“Upper Town”) in 1692, the Donji grad (“Lower Town”) in 1698 and Tvrđa (a castle and a fortress) in 1720. In 1809, Osijek became a free royal town and the three parts of Osijek were united into one. Yet even during the 19th century, development of all parts of Osijek was not equal. The industrial development of Donji grad made Osijek one of the most economically developed cities in the Empire. The city was famous for its silk, tannery, furniture and ironwork industries. In 1910, there were 25 factories with 2,000 workers in the Donji grad. The Gornji grad became the administrative and business center of Osijek. The population of the city grew from 23,750 inhabitants in 1880 to 34,412 in 1921. Most of the inhabitants were Croats, Germans and Serbs.
The first Jews came to Osijek at end of the 17th century, but only in 1746 did a few Jewish families receive the right of temporarily settling in the Lower Town. Most of the Jews came to Osijek from Austria, Slovakia and Galicia. When the Jewish population counted about 160 families, around 1847-1849, the officially recognized community was founded. The first Jewish school was established in 1856 and the “Hevra Kadisha” in 1864. There were two Jewish communities in the city and two synagogues. Most of the Jews lived in the Gornji grad. Their synagogue was designed by the architect Theodor Stern in 1869. The Jewish community of the Donji grad built their synagogue in 1903. It was a freestanding neo-Romanesque and neo-Moorish building. At the beginning, the Jews worked as retailers and wholesalers but during the 19th and 20th centuries, most Jews worked in the free professions and as government employees. In the 1880-90s, the community of the city was the biggest Jewish community in Croatia. The community life of the Osijek Jewish population was very active in both the social, religious and cultural spheres. In 1910, there were 2,370 Jews living in Osijek. Many members of the Jewish community belonged to the elite social class, living on Osijek’s most beautiful avenue. One of the most famous leaders of the local community was R. Samuel Spitzer, the author of a few religious, cultural and historical books. His son, Hugo Spitzer, became a Zionist pioneer in Yugoslavia at the turn of the 20th century.
The relationship of the Jewish community to the non-Jewish population was amicable until the beginning of the Second World War and the subsequent German occupation. The Croatian nationalists immediately began their terrorist actions against the Jewish population. They ruined the Gornji grad synagogue in 1941, robbed Jewish property and forced the community to pay 20 million dinars. In June 1942, all Jews in Osijek were deported to several concentration camps built near Osijek. All of them perished in the death camps at Auschwitz and Jasenovac. After the war, the Jewish community was reestablished. In 1968, there were about 220 Jews living in the city. The synagogue of the Gornji grad was completely destroyed in 1950 and the building of the preexisting Donji grad synagogue was sold to the Pentecostal church.