Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 4
31 January 2000

 M A C E D O N I A: 
Remembering the Past
Jewish culture battling for survival in Macedonia

Zhidas Daskalovski

Although there are documents that refer to the presence of Jews in Macedonia from the sixth century BC onwards, today Jewish people are virtually non- existent in this country. Macedonia was in fact the first European country to have a major Jewish settlement. During the time of Alexander the Great and later during the Roman Empire Jews, also known as Romaniots, moved to Macedonia from the east.

But the most significant immigration of Jews to Macedonia occurred during the Ottoman period , when a great number of Jews arrived in the Balkans after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1492. Cities like Bitola, Skopje and Stip were the main Jewish centers in the period of Ottoman rule of the Balkans. Macedonian Jews prospered in the fields of trade, banking, medicine, and law. Some Jews even became administrators for the Sublime Porte. Under the millet system their relations with the local population were considerate if not always cordial.

On the eve of the Balkan wars, in 1910, some 10,000 Jews lived in what is now Republic of Macedonia. In Aegean Macedonia, nowadays Northern Greece, Salonika (Thessaloniki) was a great Jewish city. The percentage of Jews in this city was so high that Ladino was spoken everywhere and the city virtually shut down on the Shabbat.

After the Bulgarian invasion

Just before the Second World War, there were nearly 8000 Jews in Bitola (Monastir), and some 3000 Jews in Skopje. However, the relative harmony the Jews enjoyed in Macedonia came to an end after Bulgaria invaded in the winter of 1941. Though Bulgaria is lauded for protecting its own Jews during the Second World War, it didn't spare those in its occupied territories. Almost all of the Macedonian Jews together with the Jews from Northern Greece and Thrace were arrested by the Bulgarian Army on 11 March 1943, and transported to the Nazi camps in Treblinka and Auschwitz (Poland) where they were exterminated.

Only a handful few of the Jewish community in Macedonia survived, most of those were in hiding or with the partisans. The Bulgarian authorities also appropriated Jewish assets (real and personal estate, money, deposits, insurance, gold, and other valuable belongings). Experts from the National Bank of Republic of Macedonia estimate (only for the Jews of Vardar Macedonia) on the basis of available, but not complete, documents (some of them are in the Archives in Bulgaria, some in the Republic of Yugoslavia) that the total amount of appropriated Jewish assets was USD 16.5 million. In total more than 50,000 Jews from Salonika were killed during the Nazi occupation.

What the future holds

Today in the Republic of Macedonia only a tiny, but tight-knit group, of about 190 Jews remains. Most Macedonian Jews live in Skopje, the capital, but there are also a handful of Jews in Stip. This Jewish community includes 52 families, though there are estimates of some 200 to 300 unaffiliated Jews live elsewhere in Macedonia.

Two years ago the then Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov promised that Macedonia would build a Holocaust museum in Skopje to commemorate the fate of those Jews that perished during the war. The Jewish cemetery in Bitola was also supposed to be renovated. "We must not forget them," said Dr Ivan Dejanov, president of the Macedonian-Israeli Friendship Association on that occasion. Not much has been delivered since though. Neither has the memorial been build, nor has the cemetery been renovated.

Macedonia's economic troubles have significantly impeded governmental efforts for fulfilling Gligorov's promise. Macedonian Jews, on the other hand, lack the resources and the political influence to do something about these projects themselves. There are no functioning synagogues in Macedonia and there is little religious life. Recently however, the Jewish center in Skopje has been renovated, with plans to build a synagogue on the top floor.

Macedonian Jews maintain close contacts with the Jewish communities of Belgrade and Salonika, and there are occasional cultural and religious events. Unfortunately, the emigration of many young Jews from Macedonia is threatening this embryonic Jewish revival. This is a great pity as the long lasting Jewish presence in Macedonia is now in danger of being forgotten.

Zhidas Daskalovski, 25 January 2000



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