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Macedonia’s Jewish Community Commemorates the Holocaust, and Embraces the Future

March 14, 2007

Story and photos by Christopher Deliso

On Sunday, March 11, Macedonia’s small Jewish community held its annual Holocaust commemoration in Skopje, in honor of the approximately 7,200 Macedonian Jews who lost their lives after being deported to Treblinka by the Fascist Bulgarian occupying forces. In little over a week in 1943, some 98 percent of the country’s total Jewish population thus disappeared forever, and with them a unique, centuries-old culture.

Two Millennia of Jewish History in Macedonia

The Jewish presence in Macedonia is a very ancient one. At the archaeological site of Stobi, an ancient Roman city in central Macedonia, traces of a synagogue dating back to the first century B.C. have been discovered. The Jewish community of Macedonia, therefore, ranks among Europe’s oldest. Trade, commerce and travel within the Roman Empire would have brought together peoples from all over the empire, and it appears that the Jews who came then remained intact during the waves of Slavic migration in the 6th and 7th centuries, when the Western empire was moribund, as references to the Jews of Macedonia are made in later Byzantine sources.

However, it was the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century that brought a new Jewish population — the Ladino-speaking Sephards — to Macedonia and elsewhere in the Ottoman-held Balkans, most famously Thessaloniki on the Aegean coast to the south. The prejudices of the Spanish king turned out to be the Turks’ gain; historians have shown that Jewish refugees used their commercial and technical knowledge to improve the Ottoman economy and the Sultan’s military technology.

During the Ottoman centuries, the Sephardic Jews in the Balkans largely flourished, living side by side with their Christian and Muslim neighbors. Elderly Jews recall pleasant times in the first third of the 20th century, when rival Ladino-language newspapers were published in Thessaloniki and Jewish music rang out in social clubs in towns like Bitola. And, while many shared the same general poverty of rural Balkan society, some members of the community were quite prominent merchants and businessmen.

This happy existence came to an abrupt end in 1941, however, with the invasion of the Bulgarian army, intent on recovering its “lost’ territories in the west. When it came time for the “Final Solution’ to be carried out, the Bulgarians were compelled to pay the price of alliance with Nazi Germany: the deportation of 20,000 Jews from areas that their armies controlled in Macedonia, northern Greece, south Serbia and Bulgaria itself.

In the latter, popular disapproval prevented the Fascist government from deporting the Jews. Instead, the quota was to be fulfilled in the other places under Bulgarian control. Whole communities, such as the 7,200 from then-Yugoslav Macedonia, were swiftly uprooted and deported to the death camps. In German-controlled Greece, 48,000 Jews from Thessaloniki were deported at the same time to the concentration camps. The very few Macedonian Jews who survived did so either by fleeing the country, blending in with the Christian population, or by joining the Partisan resistance, led by Josip Broz Tito, the future Communist Yugoslav president.

Bulgaria’s Jews were saved in the end because the Fascist government capitulated to the Allies in September 1944, one month before the deadline Hitler had given them for fulfillment of the 20,000-person quota.

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The commemoration began at Tutunski Kombinat, where those to be deported were held in 1943

After World War II, the new Communist Yugoslav government sought to recognize Jewish losses, and the Jewish contribution to armed Partisan units, with employment in state enterprises, government and diplomacy.

However, despite the fact that a post-war trial prosecuted some war criminals, Tito’s desire to preserve “Brotherhood and Unity’ meant that some serious offenders were left alone.

Remembering the Holocaust in Skopje

Sunday’s three-part ceremony began inside the facilities of the modern-day Tutunski Kombinat tobacco factory, where the Jewish prisoners were gathered and held for several days before the deportations of March 1943. Following commemorations there and the laying of wreaths, the entourage of diplomats, Jewish community members from Macedonia and other Balkan countries, journalists and friends of the community continued to the site of Skopje’s former Jewish quarter, on the River Vardar opposite from the city center, where a Holocaust Memorial Center is under construction.

Set to open next year, the Center will have a museum, traditional Jewish room with furnishings, cinema, place for musical and other performances and research center with computers. Aside from serving the community, therefore, the Center will become an important stop for local visitors and tourists seeing the sites in the most historic part of Skopje, and thus make a notable contribution to increasing the city’s cultural offerings.

After showing attendees the progress workers have made over the past year, the delegation moved on to Butel City Cemetery, where important historical figures and leaders such as the late President Boris Trajkovski have been buried. There, the main monument to the Holocaust in Macedonia, a stone menorah in an open temple, was laden down with flowers from different delegations, including the Israeli government, Greek and Serbian Jewish communities, World War II veterans, the diplomatic corps and more.

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The US Embassy’s Paul Wohlers pays his respects at Butel Cemetery

One day after these ceremonies, the annual rite of remembrance was capped off in a Monday evening concert at the Army Hall, in which the Jewish Community’s choir and instrumentalists performed a rousing series of songs that included sonorous, operatic Ladino-language tunes hearkening back to life in Macedonian towns like Bitola 80 years ago, as well as classical compositions vigorously performed on violin and piano.

Among the capacity crowd were government leaders, diplomats and the heads of the major religious groups in Macedonia. The concert was followed by a cocktail party at which a large-screen 3-D presentation of the coming Memorial Center was presented.

The Holocaust Memorial Center

Slowly but surely, the Center is becoming a tangible reality. Yet while work is now progressing well, it has not been an easy road. Most of the 200 or so remaining Jews in Macedonia are over 50, and as a group comprise less than one percent of the population.

With larger and more vocal minorities demanding attention, primarily the Muslim Albanians, Macedonia’s Jews are often forgotten. While they do not suffer discrimination and there is little anti-Semitism to speak of, unlike in Western European countries, it has taken huge efforts for Macedonian Jews to preserve their traditions and push for their needs to be addressed.holocaustcenterskopje1balkanalysis.jpg

Early stages: the Holocaust Memorial Center in late December 2005

Nevertheless, successive Macedonian governments have been sympathetic to Jewish concerns, and Jewish organizations in America and the Israeli government have also proved great benefactors. Support from Jewish groups abroad, such as the American-Jewish Joint Relief Committee was critical during the early years of post-Communist transition, and the Israeli government offered political support.

Despite suffering from poverty and a brief war in 2001, Macedonia has an admirable record — even compared to more developed European neighbors — in passing progressive legislation for survivors of the Holocaust, and thus for safeguarding the community.

The major problem encountered concerned Jews who had died in the Holocaust and left no heirs. The Macedonian government addressed this issue in 2000 by granting the Community bonds worth 150 million euros, and by establishing a Holocaust Fund- hailed then by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s director, Yechiel Bar Chaim, as the most comprehensive such law in any former Communist country.holocaustcenterskopje2balkanalysis.jpg

Early goings: when the foundation concrete was still being poured

Indeed, a US State Department comparative study of post-Communist countries in April 2006 also notes that in Macedonia “almost all property used for religious purposes has been restituted,” while referring favorably to the Holocaust Fund law.

Compare this to countries like Hungary, which has “no law governing heirless property,” or Croatia, where the “pace of private property restitution remains slow” and “communal properties remain unrestituted.”

Although Jewish claims in Macedonia involve approximately 1,700 properties nationwide, the single most important is the one stipulated by the heirless property restitution law- a 2,700 square meter parcel of land in Skopje’s former Jewish quarter — “Evrajsko Malo,’ right on the Vardar across from the city center — the site of the Holocaust Memorial Center, a work in progress which leaders pledge will be finished in time for next year’s Holocaust commemoration ceremony.

The Community was especially happy that the center will be located on the precise site of Skopje’s old Jewish quarter, on the northeastern bank of the River Vardar that divides the city, and beneath the medieval fortress walls of Kale. While the Holocaust eliminated the inhabitants of the Jewish quarter, it was a massive earthquake in 1963 that toppled its buildings.

After the quake, Skopje underwent an experiment with Communist concrete that has left it marred by monotonous grey apartment blocks and Yugoslav architectural oddities. The erstwhile Evrajsko Malo itself became the “temporary” site of a loosely-held-together city bus station which was only modernized a couple years ago, when it was moved to the quarters of the Skopje train station.

The Memorial Center will include a museum with archives and photographs, an exhibition hall, and a 200-seat amphitheater. Exhibitions of Jewish arts and crafts from Macedonia will be featured, as will a 3-D representation of the Jewish quarter as it once looked.

The center’s exhibition hall will also include a traditional room, with antique bed, bedspreads and chandelier. A planned hotel on the premises might be sold to help fund the museum in future. While not all community members agree on ideas such as the hotel (“where there are two Jews, there are three opinions,’ as an old saying goes), all in all these measures go a long way to safeguarding the heritage of the Jewish community and providing it a tangible revenue fund.

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Progress: the Center as it is coming along now (March 11, 2007)

Despite the Macedonian government’s strong support, in building the memorial center, the Jewish Community encountered two major difficulties. The first was political, drawn-out negotiations with civic bureaucrats in order to ensure compliance with Skopje’s urban development plan, a process which lasted 18 months- especially ironic, considering that few others today seem to be following the plan.

Indeed, the second and more serious problem involved Skopje’s rampant construction mafia. In the past few years, garish apartment blocks painted in various off-tones and sporting bent balconies have been sprouting up like mushrooms across the city. A major scandal in late 2006 involving a company that had illegally sold the same new apartments to multiple individuals prompted the prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, to declare war against the urban mafia. However, it is a big task and one that risks incurring the ire of dangerous individuals.

After dismantling the bus station, an inviting, empty expanse of prime riverfront real estate was left open. It had been promised to the Jewish community, but leaders feared that it might tempt such unscrupulous contractors. The board of the Holocaust Fund thus decided to start construction, even though it hadn’t raised all the money to build it, to prevent others from building on the site. Otherwise they could have ended up tied up in the courts for years trying to recover the property.

And so, in early September 2005, the cornerstone of the Holocaust Memorial Center was laid. As that year turned into 2006, one could see but a concrete floor and a blooming field of wire wall supports, with fleets of workmen manning cranes. Today, just over a year later, the fruits of their labors can be seen in the form of large walls and a multi-floor interior with curving stairways and windows. The workmen are keeping up a vigorous pace to ensure the facility will be opened as planned. Speaking before a gathered throng in front of the building site on Sunday, Holocaust Fund chief Zdravko Shami pledged to have the center finished to open “365 days from now,” in exactly one year, on March 11, 2008, and stated that he looked forward to inaugurating it with the prime minister.

According to Shami, one of the key reasons for keeping memories of the darkest chapter in Jewish history alive is “to make sure these things will never happen again, not to anyone.”

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Macedonian veterans were among those honoring the Jewish tragedy

Visitors from Afar, Extraordinary Stories

The importance of the March 11 commemoration event to community members, Holocaust survivors and friends of the community could be seen by the variety of people who attended- some traveling significant distances to get there. Among these was retired US Army Brig. Gen. Harold “Mike’ Goldstein from Colchester, Vermont. Mr. Goldstein first became acquainted with Macedonia over a decade ago, while working with NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.

As is the case with many international visitors, the place simply grew on him and he has been coming back ever since. “I love Macedonia,” said the former general, offering some sentences in Macedonian. “I have been coming here for this date for 11 years now.” Mr. Goldstein, who is active with a local group documenting the Jewish heritage of his corner of northern Vermont, takes inspiration from the long history and courage in the face of great adversity depicted by the Jews here, half a world away in Macedonia.

Also making the annual trip was Bijenvenida Ezoory, a woman with a particularly remarkable and harrowing story to tell. Born in 1939 in Skopje, but having lived in Israel for over 50 years, Mrs. Ezoory is a Holocaust survivor who lost both her parents during the Bulgarian occupation. When they came to round up the Jews, her parents hid the then four-year-old girl with a Macedonian Orthodox Christian family.

“My father and that man were co-workers,” says Mrs. Ezoory, “and they loved me like their own daughter.”

The Macedonian family took great risks to protect the little girl, moving her around the city and to adjacent villages. Punishments for hiding a Jew could be severe, though other Macedonian Christian families also took the same risk to help their Jewish neighbors. The young Bijenvenida’s saviors were visited from time to time by the Bulgarians, who suspected that the girl was really Jewish.

Mrs. Ezoory laughs when she recounts the ruse devised by her Christian “mother’ to account for the little girl: “she told them that she had had a fling in Bulgaria before she was married, and I was the illegitimate daughter sent back from there.” However, she attests, the Macedonians also had to pay bribes to the Bulgarian commander in order to ensure her safety.

Near the end of the occupation, Mrs. Ezoory recounts, the Bulgarian commander came and finally asked directly whether the little girl was Jewish. “My Christian mother admitted, “yes, she is.’ And then she asked the commander whether he had children of his own. He said that he did. And she said, “so you have children also. If you can have the heart to take her away, then take her!'” Thus shamed, the Bulgarian left in silence.

holocaustcommemorationskopjewreathbalkanalysis.jpgIsrael‘s support for Macedonian Jews has been strong since independence in 1992

Amazingly, the young girl had no recollection of these events as she grew up in post-war Skopje. “The family raised me as their own, I was wearing a cross every day going to school,” she laughs.

They did not want Bijenvenida, who they had come to love as their own child, to have to know the terrible truth about what had happened to her parents. It would only be a random event — a derogatory statement made to her at the age of 12 by someone in the street, accusing her of being “really’ Jewish — that changed the course of her life.

“It was a very big shock,” recalls Mrs. Ezoory. “But I didn’t tell my family that I had been told this.” Interested to find out whether it was indeed true, the young girl visited the renewed Jewish center in Skopje.

“I had cut that [early] period of my life from my memory,” she says, “but I remembered having once gone there before, right after the war; one day my Christian father had given me a little money and said, “go to that place and give this to them, for the children who have no parents- and if anyone asks you who you are, don’t say anything!’ Then there was a story in the newspaper: “who is this little girl?’ they were asking. I had no idea about anything.”

Later, however, when she saw a photo of her father, Bijenvenida recognized him- though only faintly.

After some time, Bijenvenida’s adoptive mother caught on. Someone had told her that they had seen the girl frequenting the Jewish community. “She was a clever woman. She asked me, “where were you this morning?’ when I should have been in school. And so I told her, “I know you are not my real mother.”

It was a very emotional moment, and it became more difficult for Bijenvenida’s adoptive mother when the girl, only 13 years old, took up the Jewish community on its offer to resettle her in the fledgling state of Israel. “I looked on the map, it seemed nice, why not,” she laughs. “And after six months, I went to Israel, to a kibbutz where were many other children from Europe, especially the Yugoslav republics.”

Relocated to an entirely new country, in which she knew no one, the young Macedonian Jew soon became fully integrated into Israeli society. She learned Hebrew, and went on to serve two years in the army as a nurse. In 1961 she married an Israeli businessman and had two children, a girl and a boy.

In her purse, she carries their photograph; on the other side, wrapped in clear tape, are age-worn black-and-white photos of her as a young girl with her father and smiling mother. Although they could not countenance telling the young girl the truth about her parents’ terrible fate, her Macedonian family also could not part with these irreplaceable reminders of their onetime existence.

holocaustcommemorationskopjeezoorybalkanalysis1.jpgThe story of Holocaust survivor Bijenvenida Ezoory (with glasses), pictured with friend Jelena Sekerinska, is a miraculous one

Mrs. Ezoory’s son learned about his dark family history in the same dramatic and unexpected way that his mother had. As had her adoptive Macedonian mother, Mrs. Ezoory had sought to shield her children from the harrowing story of what befell their grandparents.

However, “when the kids are around 11 or 12 years old in Israel, they begin to research their family tree. My son asked me, “mom, I have to make a project for school about the Holocaust, what stories can I tell?’ Well, I said that we didn’t have anything special, but that I had heard a story about someone else- about a little girl who came to Israel from Macedonia when her parents died in the Holocaust. Of course, that was my story, but I did not tell him that.”

Indeed, Mrs. Ezoory was not planning to tell her son, until her sister-in-law inadvertently asked her, “go on, tell us the story about how you were saved!” — and this during his Bar Mitzvah luncheon, no less, with the Christian Macedonians he thought to be his grandparents in attendance. The symbolic convergence of events could hardly have been more dramatic. “I said to my son, “you know that story you read in school last year on Holocaust Day? That was my story!'”

The New Generation: Building the Future, Buttressed by the Past

In Macedonia today, there are only around 30 young people in the Jewish community. Indeed, it has had to count on conversions rather than new births to make slight gains. However, the third generation of post-war Jews in Macedonia is optimistic about keeping traditions alive. In a spacious old building near Skopje’s center that hosts office, synagogue and kosher kitchen, young volunteers laugh and enjoy each others’ company while performing the day-to-day tasks that keep the Community going.

Like their ancestors, the young generation has managed to preserve two time-honored traditions: a singular Jewish identity and integration in the country as a whole (their primary language is Macedonian). This is perhaps another reason why the Jews have always been treated favorably here; unlike others, they have always sought to help, not harm the country.

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Retired US Brig. General Mike Goldstein, coming all the way from Vermont, was proud to make his eleventh appearance at the Holocaust memorial day

The resurgence of the community today is intriguing because it is following patterns of the past.

As is still the case today, Macedonia’s Jewish community was always smaller than those of neighboring Balkan countries, meaning mixed marriages have always played a greater role. And as for most people in this ethnically-mixed region, family legacies have many interesting twists and turns.

The great-grandfather of 26 year-old Viktorija Sarkisian, for example, was an Armenian Christian who fled the Ottoman massacres of his people a century ago. He went to Thessaloniki, later marrying a Macedonian woman in Skopje. Their son fought for the Partisans in World War II. This man, Viktorija’s grandfather, married a Jewish woman from Kumanovo, a small city in northeast Macedonia which had only two Jewish families.

Another young member of Macedonia’s Jewish community, Miriam Sadikario, has a Jewish father originally from Belgrade in neighboring Serbia, and a mother from Stip. Miriam’s grandparents met in the Partisans, as did those of Zaklina Mucheva, now Secretary of the Jewish Community.

Zaklina’s mother was Jewish, the daughter of Benjamin Samakovlija, a Jew originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia. He came to Macedonia as a Partisan fighter, but was captured and sent to a camp for Communist soldiers in Thessaloniki. However, he escaped and returned to the Partisan ranks.

Zaklina tells how her Jewish grandfather and Christian grandmother — both fighters — met. “At that moment, he was working as a cook for the other soldiers, and my grandmother asked for some food,” recalls Zaklina. When he shouted, “back of the line!’ in his native Serbian, my grandmother retorted, “why do you Serbs think you can come in Macedonia and make order?’ It was love at first argument.”

Mr. Samakovlija later became a longtime president of the Macedonian Jewish Community. Zaklina, now 40 and married to a Macedonian man, rediscovered her Jewish identity with the birth of daughter Rebeka. “Before marriage, you think only for yourself,” she says. “But I wanted my daughter, now almost 12, to feel a Jewish identity.”zdravkoshamibalkanalysis.jpgPresident of the Holocaust Fund Zdravko Shami believes the new Holocaust Memorial Museum will promote peace and tolerance, while preserving the Jewish legacy in Macedonia

This desire to reconnect with roots manifested in 2002’s Giyor ceremony in Skopje, in which Zaklina, Viktorija and 24 year-old Avi Kozma (along with 12 others from Macedonia and Serbia) renewed their vows to Judaism. Avi, who has trained as a Hazan since then, speaks earnestly about his Jewish heritage. “I feel like these are my people, like I belong to them,” he says.

Avi’s great-grandparents were Jews from Budapest, Hungary but their daughter, upon marrying a Serb, moved to Belgrade. In 1941, with Serbia under German occupation, she and her four-year-old son were imprisoned. After pleas from her husband, the Germans consented to release the two in exchange for all the family’s gold, and just in time; the camp leaders had already penned their death certificates. Both mother and young boy — the future father of Avi — were spirited out and sheltered in a Central Serbian village.

Being a small community, Macedonia’s Jews must all make contributions. Wisdom and stories come from the elders, while guidance comes from leaders like Zdravko Shami, and younger members like Avi, Viktorija, Miriam and Zaklina provide a lot of energy and enthusiasm for passing on the living tradition to the children. The Jewish Community choir, started in 2005, has become a very professional group in a very short time. And in addition to the public celebrations of Jewish holidays, there are community-building educational opportunities for the young. “Every Sunday we work with kids, aged 7-17,” says Viktorija. “We do creative things, like a movie about Jewish history from Abraham to Moses for this year’s Passover.”

Zaklina, meanwhile, has revitalized Isha, the women’s club. Until recently, it was basically inactive: “the ladies were just meeting in the kitchen upstairs, drinking coffee and exchanging recipes- there was nothing Jewish about it!”

Zaklina thus convinced the Community’s board to establish an art course two years ago for traditional glass painting, and now Isha can boast five trained artists. So far, the Community has sold their creations only at seminars, lacking enough help to keep up with demand. But they’re working on it. The women also make candles, traditional terra-cotta plates and kippah.

Macedonia‘s Jews have not forgotten the support they have received from individuals and groups both inside and outside of Macedonia. Despite being small and facing its own challenges, Macedonia’s Jewish Community has sought to give something back to a country whose people have always lived and worked besides them and, in cases like that of Bijenvenida Ezoory, saved them.

The Jewish Community and related organs have donated to primary schools and secondary schools, in some cases supplying whole computer centers, as well as libraries, desk and chalkboards. Welding equipment in technical schools and equipment for an Islamic madrassah are among the wide-ranging gifts of the Jewish Community to Macedonia.

Further, the Skopje Geriatric Center, and medical centers in cities and towns like Skopje, Tetovo, Bitola and Ohrid, as well as centers for the handicapped, have all benefited from Jewish donations.

In a country of only two million, for such contributions to be accomplished by a minority numbering little over 200 people is remarkable, as are the Community’s dynamism in promoting cultural activities, musical events and a constant rapport with Jewish groups across the Balkans. The great accomplishments of this little community, forged out of tremendous adversity, are testimony to what can be achieved with the right amount of tenacity, inventiveness and courage.

Editorial note: parts of this article were adapted from prior interviews and an earlier article by the author published in the October 2006 issue of Moment Magazine.

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