The Oneg Sabat and Gemilut Hasadim Society Building

According to Ignjat Slang, the author of the book “Jews in Belgrade,” this building was erected in 1923. It was designed by Samuel Sumbul, an architect, and built by H. Isakovic, a civil engineer. According to documents in the Belgrade City Archives, the building works began in 1922. The building housed a nursing home, and thus needed a space to accommodate its workers; in 1929, an application was submitted for a permit to construct a one story building for that purpose.

The land where the house was built belonged to the Jewish Sephardi municipality, which, in 1938, engaged the architect Isak Azirel to build another small facility for storage of building materials in the same court-yard. The two-story building was built in a very decorative, eclectic style that was supposed to stress its purpose. The facade carried two inscriptions. One of them, at the level of the second story, was written in Hebrew and Cyrillic script: Oneg Sabat and Gelimut Hasadim. The other inscription was in Hebrew, placed in the medallion above the entrance, and read: “Do not discard me in the old age, do not leave me when strength gives up on me.”

The ground floor included two halls, while apartments were on the upper stories. The grand hall was used for all sorts of public gatherings and occasionally as a synagogue. The premises were also used for humanitarian purposes as well as for the activities of numerous associations of the Belgrade Jews.

The new building was intended to offer the Jews of the Dorćol borough a pleasant place to gather in large numbers and perform religious ceremonies. As Saturday or Sabbath was the most important religious festivity, Jews were enabled primarily to perform the customs of Saturday festivities there (more religious Dorćol Jews gathered at Oneg Sabat for Seuda Slisi–the Third Meal).
The building was also used for some other festivities that were not wholly restricted to home. Thus for the Hamis festivity Asar Bisvat — or, as it was locally dubbed, Frutas — children were given bags with fruits and candies prepared by the members of women’s associations. For the festivity of Hanukah, the building housed amateur performances about the courageous Maccabees. For the festivity of Lag Baoumer, the festivity of pupils, exams in religious teaching were held and excursions for pupils organized. The merriest celebration was that of Purim, when fancy dress parties were organized. On the evening of Purim, performances were staged in honor of Princess Esther. One of these plays was written by the headmistress Estira Ruso, who performed it with the help of her students at the building.
The 1930’s saw a considerable change in the kind of festivities held at the building. Instead of traditional festivities, the preservation of Sephardi culture gained importance as well as the promotion of new national ideas. The grand hall of the building was used for all sorts of family festivities, from birth to death. Families gathered here to celebrate thirteen-year-old boys becoming of religious age, bar mitzvahs, and the hall was also rented for weddings.

During the occupation, part of the Jewish hospital was located in this building, and many old Jews spent their last days there before being taken to the concentration camp at Sajmište. Part of the patients and staff were taken first to the Jewish hospital, from where they were taken in the first mobile gas trucks in March 1942, at the time of the start of the implementation of the “final solution” in Serbia. After the war, 2,300 of the 12,000 Belgrade Jews remained, half of whom immediately emigrated to Israel.

In the post-war period, the premises were “nationalized” and thus taken away from its owner the Jewish Community. At the first the building was used by OZNA (Department for People’s Protection) and then it was a cinema called “Rex”.

In 1994, a cultural center Rex was opened in this space and this center was the initiator of new forms of art and initiatives from cultural experiments to media literacy.

In 2016, the building was returned to the Jewish community of Belgrade, unfortunately in a very bad condition, and then it was left to further decay. In October 2021, Stefan Sablic, current director of the Jewish Cultural Center, initiated the idea of reopening this space as a Cultural and spiritual center for the Jewish Community as well as for the wider public. Stefan gathered enough funds from donors to make this happen and after a year of work on the renovation and acquiring the necessary technical equipment, we celebrated the opening of the Jewish Cultural Center, which once again bears the former name “Oneg Shabbat”.