The Jews of Macedonia

The largely unknown story of these lost communities is being told by poet Hava Pinhas-Cohen.

Hava Pinhas-Cohen (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hava Pinhas-Cohen
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hava Pinhas-Cohen, a Jerusalemite poet and literary scholar, is haunted by the Balkans.
More precisely, she is haunted by the story of the Jews of the Balkans, their story and their fate throughout and after the Holocaust.
Pinhas-Cohen says that though she can understand the reasons behind it, she feels somewhat betrayed by the fact that their story is almost unknown by the public, and to this day has remained in the shadow of the mainstream Jewish Eastern European communities that went through the Shoah.
Born in Israel to a family that emigrated from Bulgaria before the war, she admits it took her being sent as a counselor to a Jewish youth summer camp in Yugoslavia to become aware of the Balkan part of contemporary Jewish history. She was then a 23-year-old student, back in the ’70s, but since that summer the story of the Jewish communities of Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria and the countries of former Yugoslavia have become part of her life, and part of her major aim is to tell their story.
Pinhas-Cohen is a major poet in Israel, with 14 books published; her two last books were translated into English and Slovene. While she is a frequent guest at several prestigious international poets festivals, Pinhas-Cohen is also the funder and artistic director of Kisufim, a biannual festival of Jewish poets, authors and translators from around the world, held in Jerusalem.
Before that, she was one of the first culture critics to identify a new voice and new trend arising from among young religious writers, who for the first time were moved to a more personal expression both in literature and poetry, in contrast to the usual collective tone of the generation that preceded them. Many of them took their first steps thanks to her and to her ability to identify this turning point.
It was not only about young, religious men and women, but included first and foremost those living in the settlements in Judea and Samaria, as she gave them a large and inclusive stage in the Dimuy literature journal she edited.
In one of her recent visits to the Balkans, as guest of a poetry festival in Macedonia, Pinhas-Cohen discovered the plight of Macedonia’s Jews. Since her return home a few weeks ago, she says she cannot rest and feels the urge to go and tell their story to Israelis, to writers and literature critics, to the world. In Macedonia, where practically the entire Jewish community was exterminated by the Nazis and their supporters, nothing has remained of this great community, the origins of which date back to the Jews of Spain, immediately after the 1492 expulsion.
To the most basic question, as to why the story of the Jews of the Balkans is not well-known in Israel, Pinhas-Cohen says this is firstly the result of these Jews’ own feelings: “Those that were not sent to the death camps felt that, by comparison to what happened to the Polish Jews sent to Auschwitz, they were not really in the Shoah,” she explains, adding that moreover, the major and most dreadful reason is that “in some of these communities the extermination of the Jews was so total, like in Macedonia, that there was simply no one still alive to tell the story.”
The Jews from Thrace, Macedonia and Thessaloniki were almost totally exterminated, while the Jews of Bulgaria were saved simply because the war ended on time.
Pinhas-Cohen discovered the story of those lost communities, and focused on the very special story of Bitola, Macedonia, whose 5,000 Jews were killed.
At the center of the city, a massive restoration of the Jewish cemetery is taking place. The cemetery’s first grave dates back to 1497, only a few years after the Spanish Expulsion, after which the Jews of Spain moved in large part towards the Balkans to live and prosper there for centuries under the Ottoman Empire.
The rehabilitation has been going on since 2015, with the participation of Israeli experts and with the support of Ambassador to Macedonia Dan Oryan.
An incident in 2000 where antisemitic graffiti desecrated the cemetery spurred the Macedonian government to undertake the project. Most of the work is done by volunteers, locals and Israelis, under the professional supervision of the project’s director, Maria Gras Duceska.
Today, 73 years after all the Jews of Bitola were sent from the Macedonian capital of Skopje, where they were held in an old tobacco factory for 10 days in horrible conditions, and then to Treblinka, something is beginning to take shape to save their memory.
In Skopje, a Jewish museum was built just three years ago, and for the first time the story of what happened to Macedonia’s Jews is being told. It was at the initiative of the last few surviving Jews of Macedonia.
“And what do we see in this museum?” asks Pinhas-Cohen, who visited a short time ago. “We see, for example, photos of people. These are the photos of the Jews of the Macedonian community, who were asked by the authorities who collaborated with the Nazis to bring their photos with their full names and identifying details. When the day came to take the Jews to the death camp, it was the easiest thing in the world to find them – their names, addresses and pictures were ready to use and their fate was sealed.
”I read this as a story of which I am part, as a literature critic and not as a historian,” she continues. “I am doing research on the Jewish writers of the Balkans, those I have discovered over the years, those whose fate could have been mine – being safe here thanks to my parents who came here before the war.”
“These are the writers of my generation or a little older, who were there during wartime and wrote after it. I learn their story and read their work as a poet, a Jew and an Israeli whose family came from there, from the same neighborhood of Jewish life and communities, but with a totally different fate. I understood at some point that this could have been my own story, that it was pure chance that my life took another turn... I was born here and grew up here not being aware of this whole aspect of my life and my family’s life, because my parents, who were Bulgarian, came here and saved their own lives,” she says.
“In fact,” adds Pinhas-Cohen, “the Ottoman sultan, [who ruled] the entire Balkans, issued an ironic thank-you to Queen Isabella of Spain for the expulsion of the Jews, stating that under the Ottoman Empire, Jews were welcome and would benefit the empire’s economy.”
All these Jews spoke Ladino, and established their own Jewish institutions for their religious and communal needs. They lived under a regime that was not egalitarian but was very tolerant towards religious minorities, and enabled these Jews to flourish – until the war.
Now, Pinhas-Cohen is trying to help their story live on.