The Jewish Traveler: Macedonia
A new, 30-ton bronze statue of Alexander the Great towers over Skopje’s central square. The statue is part of Skopje 2014, a $102-million project that includes a triumphal arch, some 20 new buildings and about 20 statues and monuments.
On one side of the square a round, glass-faced office tower echoes the shape of the statue’s pedestal. On the other side is the colonnaded neoclassical Museum of Archaeology, rebuilt as it was before a 1963 earthquake leveled most of the city. On the third side, narrow lanes wind through the old Turkish bazaar where souvenir stores have replaced artisans’ workshops and where a traditional Turkish coffeehouse faces the Bourbon Street pub. The fourth side is the Vardar River, which cuts through Macedonia from north to south.
The jumble of past and present and the ambitious cultural project reveal Macedonia as a country trying to forge a modern national identity by reaching into the distant past. This small, landlocked republic, ringed by mountains and only slightly larger than Vermont, was once part of the Macedonian Empire. But its name—identical to that of a neighboring region in northern Greece where Alexander the Great was born—and its claim to Alexander as its own national hero have generated a dispute between the two countries that is threatening Macedonia’s entry into the European Union.
This year, the Jewish community marked the 70th anniversary of the deportation of nearly all Macedonia’s Jews to Treblinka, from which none returned.
Jews lived throughout the Balkans in antiquity, so it is no surprise that evidence of Jewish life has been found in Macedonia. Philo, the 1st century C.E. philosopher, mentions their presence there, and the apostle Paul preached in their communities.
An inscription and two synagogues found in the ruins of Stobi, 50 miles southeast of Skopje, attest to a Jewish community from at least the third century C.E. Stobi, and later Bitola, were important cities on the Via Egnatia, a trade route that connected the Albanian port Durazzo (Durres) with Thessaloniki and Constantinople.
Until 1492, most of Macedonia’s Jews were Greek-speaking Romaniotes. In Bitola in the 12th century they were artisans and traders; they also lived in Skopje, Ohrid and Struga. The first-known synagogue in Skopje dates to 1366. From 1389, the Ottomans started developing Skopje as a commercial center; by the 16th century, a Jewish cemetery existed and the inhabitants of the Jewish quarter were tanners, smiths and exporters of wool.
Jews expelled from Hungary came to Bitola (called Monastir under the Ottomans) in the 14th century, and refugees from Asia Minor came in the 15th.
In the 16th century, Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal swelled the communities in several Macedonian cities; and, in the 17th century, Marranos from Holland and elsewhere settled in Skopje. In 1689, Skopje had 3,000 Jews. Jews from Thessaloniki settled in Shtip.
From the 14th century to the early 20th, Jews took an active part in commerce as importers and exporters in Bitola, which in the late 19th century was the second-largest city in the southern Balkans. They also worked in trades, including tanning and as silversmiths. But in Skopje in the 19th century, newly arrived Serbs elbowed the Jews out of commerce, causing a drastic economic decline in the community.
In 1910, 7,000 Jews lived in Bitola. They suffered starvation and bombardment during World War I, when that city was on the frontline, and many left after the war because the economy deteriorated; those who remained were very poor, but they had a rich culture that included the Judeo-Spanish language. Intensive Zionist activity began in the 1930s.
On the eve of World War II, some 3,350 Jews remained in Bitola, about 3,800 in Skopje and 550 in Shtip. In March 1941, Bulgaria agreed to let German troops enter its territory to attack Yugoslavia and Greece; in return, the victorious Germans gave the Bulgarians Thrace and Macedonia, which had once been Bulgarian provinces. Bulgaria enacted anti-Jewish measures, passing laws modeled on the Nuremberg laws, confiscating property, levying a heavy tax, denying Bulgarian citizenship to Jews in the provinces, forcing Jews into ghettos and slave labor camps and, in February 1943, agreeing to deport 20,000 Jews to death camps in Poland. Protests by the public, politicians and the church saved the Jews in “old Bulgaria,” but was too late to save the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace.
Of more than 600 Macedonian Jewish applicants, the partisans accepted only 69, 14 of whom fell in battle. In March 1943, the Bulgarians concentrated the Jews of Shtip, Bitola and Skopje—half of them under the age of 18—in the Monopol tobacco factory in Skopje, near a railroad line, where they were held without sufficient food, water or sanitation facilities. Within three weeks, 7,144 Jews were deported to Treblinka. The two percent who escaped deportation had fled, hidden, joined the partisans, held Spanish or Italian citizenship or were doctors or pharmacists.
Today, the only Jewish community is in Skopje, and it is a tiny fraction of a country of about two million that is two-thirds Slavic (Orthodox Christian) and nearly one-third Albanian (Muslim).
Traditionally, the Sefardic women of Macedonia received their guests with homemade preserves of seasonal fruits: apricots, plums, peaches, quince, watermelon peel and, on Rosh Hashana, white cherries to ensure a bright year. Sefardic cuisine is still prized by Macedonia’s Jewish community, which numbers about 60 families, mostly Sefardic, with some 50 children. Jews are well-educated and work as doctors, lawyers, teachers and professors, businesspeople and in high tech.
On Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Passover and Hanukka, a cantor comes from Sofia, and sometimes a rabbi comes from Thessaloniki to lead Sabbath services. Several times a year families gather for a communal Sabbath meal at the Jewish center, which has a kosher kitchen.
Children attend Sunday school, where they also learn Hebrew, and Jewish summer camp. Other activities include weekly meetings of Isha, the women’s club, whose members make crafts and cook holiday meals; a children’s club; a young adults’ club; athletics under the auspices of Maccabi; Hebrew classes for adults; and a choir, whose main goal is to preserve the Sefardic romansas.
The best way to contact Skopje’s Jewish community is through it secretary-general, Jana Nichota (011-389-75-210-235; email@example.com).
The Beit Yaakov Synagogue, the only Jewish house of worship in Skopje to survive World War II, succumbed to the 1963 quake. In the new Beit Yaakov, in the Jewish community center’s three-story building on a quiet side street, an embroidered red velvet curtain from the old synagogue covers the Ark. Stars of David ornament the dark wooden pews, and the stained-glass windows have traditional motifs, such as a Hanukka menora. Stars of David also decorate the fence surrounding the building, and a large eight-branch menora stands in the courtyard (24 Borka Talevski; 011-389-2-321-4799; firstname.lastname@example.org).
The past looms large in the community’s identity, as is evident from the $23-million stone-and-glass Holocaust Memorial Center that opened in 2011. It is about a mile north of Beit Yaakov, near the city center and in the heart of the old Jewish quarter, which lay between the Stone Bridge and the fortress. It faces the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle and stands on what is today prime property on the Vardar River.
In an installation in the entrance, dozens of digital frames display some 3,200 photographs, many of them recovered from the Nazi registration book in Bitola. In the central atrium, a light sculpture inspired by the Burning Bush has 7,144 strands, one for each deportee. A boxcar of the Bulgarian National Railway along which Jews were transported to Treblinka stands in an adjacent room. The center also displays urns containing ashes from Treblinka.
An exhibition on the second floor tells the pre-Holocaust story of the Sefardic Jews who were the majority of Macedonia’s communities. Visitors can see two films, one on the Jews of Macedonia and the other about the Jewish partisans, especially Beno Russo and Roza Kamhi, who married after the war. Russo became the head of the anti-Fascist underground in Bitola and was a general by the end of the war. In 2014, the museum plans to open a new, traveling exhibition incorporating a section for children.
Groups of Macedonian pensioners, schoolchildren and university students as well as tourists visit the center, which also sponsors art colonies in which artists of all religions create works about the Holocaust. The gift shop sells crafts made by local Jewish women, books, Judaica and amulets.
A building connected to the memorial center is scheduled to open in the next few years as an arts center or institute of Sefardic Jewry (Goce Delchev Boulevard; contact Maja Susha for tours, 389-71-399-005; email@example.com).
Every year on March 11, the day the Bulgarians rounded up Macedonia’s Jews, the community holds a memorial service at the Monopol tobacco factory (today Imperial Tobacco). A plaque on the building, placed by the (anti-Fascist) Fighters Union of the National Liberation Movement, commemorates the Jews held there. In a garden in the compound, a stone memorial erected in 2004 holds two plaques, one in Macedonian and the other in Hebrew (125 11 Oktomvri Street; visits must be coordinated by the Jewish community).
After laying wreaths at the factory, community members proceed to the Jewish section of the Butel municipal cemetery, about five miles to the northwest, where a small structure with four Ionic columns and a gabled roof holds a plaque commemorating the deportees and those whose bones were moved from the old Jewish cemetery. The area in front of the structure is paved with broken tombstones rescued from the old cemetery after World War II. Community members also lay wreaths at the partisans’ memorial, in another section of the cemetery.
An hour’s drive southeast of Skopje, Stobi was populated mainly from the first century to the sixth, when it was destroyed by an earthquake. The large site contains a theater, palaces, homes of wealthy families and beautiful fourth-century mosaics with animal motifs that were part of a baptistery.
A third-century inscription describes construction work on a synagogue. The donor was Klaudios Tiberios Polycharmos, whose family home was apparently adjacent to that synagogue, which had frescoed walls. In the fourth century, a synagogue with geometric-design mosaics and frescoed walls was built above the earlier synagogue, and in the fifth century a church was built on the later synagogue. According to guide Toshe Baleski, the columns visible at the site were part of the church; the fourth-century synagogue’s mosaics, which are undergoing conservation, can be viewed in the outdoor exhibition space at the far edge of the site.
Before World War II, Bitola, five miles west of Stobi, had six synagogues and two kosher butchers. Dozens of Jewish businesses lined the main commercial street, now a pedestrian mall officially called Marshall Tito Street but known by locals as the Korzo or by its Ottoman name, Sirok Sokak (wide street). At 24 Ruzveltova (Roosevelt) Street, off Sirok Sokak, stands the building that housed the Zionist left-wing youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, many of whose members joined the partisans.
Every March 11, a community delegation and the mayor lay wreaths at the memorial monument in the park that was once the center of the Jewish neighborhood and at the statue of fallen partisan Estreja (Mara) Ovadija, erected by the city near the local hospital, on the site where the Aragon Synagogue stood until it was destroyed during the war. Ovadija, noted for her courage, determination and endurance, was the only Jewish woman declared a national hero in Yugoslavia.
The former Monastir Military Academy, where Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk studied, is now the NI Institute and Museum Bitola (389-47-233-187; www.bitolamuseum.org. The site features a photo gallery with a collection of images titled Jewish Ethnic Identity Bitola, under permanent exhibitions). One wing dedicated to Ataturk displays a love letter to him from Eleni Karinte, who spent but one day with him and loved him all her life. In the archaeological exhibition, which contains altars and interesting pottery from 5500 B.C.E., a case displays objects from a Bitola synagogue: parts of a Torah scroll dating to the 15th century, a silver Torah finial and a votive hand. The museum also exhibits a partial list of the city’s deported Jews, an urn with ashes from Treblinka and photographs of partisans, including Estreja Ovadija and Josef Mordo Nachmijas.
The cemetery, in the Ushitçi neighborhood, has an ornate, Moorish-style entrance, with a pointed arch; stars of David ornament the fence. The elaborate tomb of Avram Aroesti, who died in 1939, is visible near the fence.
No trip to Macedonia is complete without a visit to the resort town of Ohrid, on Lake Ohrid, near the Albanian border. Both the lake and the town, known for its multitude of churches and summer festivals of music and dance, are Unesco World Heritage Sites. Be sure to take the boat trip to the lagoons of Sveti Naum. Cyril and Methodius, two brothers who became Christian missionaries in the 9th century and were later canonized, are credited with having created the Cyrillic and Glaogolitic alphabets, the first script for the Slavic languages.
And Shtip, 60 miles southeast of Skopje, also has a memorial monument.
The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon (Random House) portrays the seven-year teacher-student relationship between Aristotle and the young Alexander, son of Philip II.
Zamila Kolonomos describes Jewish holidays, life-cycle customs and other aspects of Sefardic Jewish life in Sparks of the Macedonian Sephardim, which also includes more than 170 recipes (published by the Jewish community and sold at the Holocaust Memorial Center).
Empty Boxcars is a documentary by Ed Gaffney on the survival of the Bulgarian Jews and the mass murder of the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia (available from Kehila Kedosha Janina synagogue in New York; www.kkjsm.org).
In The Third Half, directed by Darko Mitrevski, set during World War II and based on two true stories, a young woman from a wealthy Macedonian Jewish family is saved from deportation by eloping with her lover, a poor soccer player. Meanwhile, a soccer team coached by a German Jew becomes the champion of the Fascist-controlled Macedonian league. The film was shot in Skopje, Bitola, Shtip and Ohrid, and the last scene is set in the Holocaust Memorial Center.
Ohrid-born Judah Leon Moskoni was a 14th-century philosopher and scholar who stated that to understand the Bible one must know grammar. He is known for his edition of the Hebrew Josippon, a popular 10th-century chronicle of general and Jewish history; his edition is still in use.
Nathan of Gaza was the key promoter of false messiah Shabbetai Zevi. Born in Jerusalem around 1643 to a respected rabbinical scholar with kabbalistic leanings, he married a woman from Gaza and moved there. Nathan died in Skopje and his grave became a pilgrimage site for Sabbateans. The tombstone was destroyed in World War II.
Macedonia’s climate is the most inviting in late spring and early fall. Major European airlines connect to Skopje’s Alexander the Great Airport, and an inexpensive shuttle will bring you into the city. Skopje can also be reached by bus from some European cities, for example, Sofia and Thessaloniki (www.simeonidistours.gr).
For information on touring general sights, check the country’s official tourism Web site (www.exploringmacedonia.com) or call 389-2-3080-111.
In Skopje, Hotel Ani (5 Borka Taleski) and Hotel Bimbo (63 29 Noemvri; www.hotelbimbo.com.mk) are within easy walking distance of Beit Yaakov Synagogue.
Macedonia has no kosher restaurants, but many restaurants offer vegetarian dishes, including delicate deep-fried zucchini flowers, cheese-stuffed red peppers, the ubiquitous shopska salad and various kinds of pasta as well as locally farmed trout. In Skopje you can find them on the menu of Skala, which has live music and faces City Park (88b Naum Naumovski Borce; 389-2-312-7095). Here you can also taste T’ga Za Jug, a fruity red wine named for a song of longing for the homeland written by a Macedonian abroad.
One of the loveliest places to relax is the Popova Kula winery (www.popovakula.com.mk), along Macedonia’s wine route, 16 miles south of Stobi. Vineyards and rolling hills surround the wine shop, restaurant and comfortable hotel. Take the Demir Kapija exit from E75 and follow the signs.
And in Skopje take a short drive into the forested slopes of Mt. Vodno to the St. Panteleimon church, which is famous for its unusual Byzantine frescoes that portray dramatic emotion. Next to the church is a restaurant with a terrace, where you can sip the local Skopsko beer and enjoy a view of the city.
Esther Hecht blogs about her travels at https://estherhecht.wordpress.com.