Macedonia’s Jewish heritage

Jews first arrived in the country during Roman times

Photographs of headstones in the restored Monastir cemetery (photo credit: YAEL UNNA)
Photographs of headstones in the restored Monastir cemetery
(photo credit: YAEL UNNA)
The State of North Macedonia has recently featured prominently in the international headlines. Not to be confused with the Greek province of Macedonia, the country has just been accepted as the 30th member of NATO. Formerly part of Yugoslavia, its official name, The Republic of North Macedonia has now been ratified by the UN. This followed a long and bitter dispute with Greece whose government objected to the name of Macedonia being “stolen” by the fledgling state.
But what of Macedonia’s Jews? I only recently became aware of the country’s rich Jewish heritage through our Israeli friend, Yael Unna. Yael, who traces her matrilineal descent to the Jewish community of Monastir (present day Bitola), now heads up an organization in Israel whose purpose is to preserve, honor and commemorate the Jewish heritage of their antecedents.
“One morning whilst cooking, I was listening to Israel Radio, when suddenly I heard a woman talking about her family’s rich heritage. She came from Štip (pronounced Shtip), one of the three places where substantial Jewish communities existed in the country. I managed to get in touch with the woman and thus my ‘roots journey’ began. I always remember my late mother talking about her origins. She always used to tell me that she was privileged to have belonged to a very special and unique Jewish community.”
Yael explained that her mother was born in British Mandate Jerusalem but that her mother’s father and grandfather emigrated from Monastir in about 1897.
“Palestine was still under Ottoman rule and it was relatively easy for Jews to move about the Ottoman empire. Some 500 Jews purportedly left because of a fire that raged through the town and destroyed almost everything in its wake. They came to live in Jerusalem and settled in the Old City. The great Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch assisted them, thus allowing them to fulfill the dream of many generations.”
I asked Yael how far back Jews could trace their origins in Macedonia. She told me that Jews first arrived in the country during Roman times. As always, they were fleeing persecution from other Roman territories. In a letter to the Emperor Caligula by Agrippa, there is clear evidence that Jews were living there. In a place called Stobi in 165 CE, a certain Tiberius Polycharmus converted his villa into a Synagogue. He was known as “father of the Synagogue”.
Much later on, a massive wave of Jewish emigration to Macedonia began with the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal. At that time Sultan Bayezid II welcomed Jews who were able to escape from the Iberian peninsula and make their way to the lands that he ruled. They were granted rights to an autonomous existence including the ability to purchase property, build synagogues and engage in trade throughout the Ottoman Empire.
Thus the wealthy merchant cities of Skopje (present day capital), Monastir (present day Bitola) and Štip attracted many Jews who prospered in the fields of trade, banking, medicine and law. Some Jews even reached positions of prominence and power. In 1497 a Jewish cemetery was established in Monastir. This burial ground is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Macedonia if not in the entire Balkans territory. Thus began the golden age of Jewish Macedonia. At one time there were 9 synagogues in Bitola, 3 in Skopje and 2 in Štip. Several notable philosophers and scholars were born or lived in Macedonia. Some of these illustrious personalities included Samuel de Medina, Josef Ben Lev, Shlomo Koen to name but a few. The community was almost entirely Sephardic and most spoke a very pure form of Ladino.
The majority of homes in Monastir were built out of wood making them vulnerable to fire. Following the great fire of 1863, things began to change irrevocably for the city’s inhabitants. It was a later fire that eventually prompted Yael’s ancestors to emigrate to Palestine. Despite these setbacks, the rest of the community survived and continued to live there quite peacefully until the First World War when the city sustained heavy shelling, forcing many to flee to Salonika. In the early 1920s, under the influence of the local Rabbi Shabetai Djain and Zionist leader Leon Kamchi (an unusual collaboration in those days), the Jews learned to speak and write Hebrew. Jewish schools were set up and their yearnings for Zion eventually resulted in further migration.
The train station in Macedonia from where Jews were deported to Treblinka (ROBERT HERSOWITZ)The train station in Macedonia from where Jews were deported to Treblinka (ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
In March 1941 Bulgaria became an ally of the Axis Powers and the demise of the Jews began. Bulgarian soldiers executed the orders of their German masters to round up the Jews from Monastir, Skopje and Štip. The Bulgarians went about their work meticulously. Unlike any other part of Europe where Jews were deported, the Monastir community were forced to register their personal details together with passport photographs for every single individual. Their assets were confiscated. In all 7,215 Jews were taken to Skopje and herded into the warehouses of the Monopol tobacco factory which had been modified for the purpose. They were kept in filthy starving conditions.
Between 4 and 6 a.m. on March 11th 1943 on an ice cold morning as snow flakes fell from dark skies, the first deportations began and continued until the 29th March. Within the space of just a few weeks the Jews of Bitola (Monastir), Skopje, and Štip were herded into cattle cars and sent on their last journey to be murdered and burnt in the crematoria of Treblinka. Thus eighteen centuries of thriving Jewish life in Macedonia were brutally extinguished.
Soon after Yael Unna reconnected with her Monastir roots, she decided to join a tour organised by Rachel-Shelly Levy Drummer who was born in Skopje. She is currently the academic secretary of Bar Ilan University. She and the Israeli Ambassador to Macedonia, Dan Oryan initiated a project to restore the ancient Jewish cemetery of Monastir together with the local project manager in Bitola Maria Geras Dochovska.
Because there were enough people engaged in this project, Yael focused her attention on the living descendants of Monastir and began a painstaking campaign to rebuild it’s Jewish heritage. She engaged in intensive research visiting libraries and archives and ordering books on Monastir’s history. One of them by British traveler Mary Adele Walker published in 1864 contains beautiful descriptions of the Jewish women of Monastir sitting outside their houses crocheting items made of silver and gold thread. Through various leads, she began contacting people in Israel who were descendants of Monastir and the wider Macedonian Jewish community.
“I got in touch with dozens of people by phone and together with other interested colleagues, organized an event in Jerusalem.” She told me.
“People came from all over the country and in the end we managed to accommodate 140 people at a venue in Jerusalem. It was an incredible evening of memoirs, pictures, stories and reconnections. It was then that I realized that we had uncovered a community of people yearning to connect with their rich heritage.”
Yael took over the Monastir Facebook site and in a very short space of time, membership went from 700 to 2700 friends. She then began to assemble materials including documents, photographs and artefacts which will be soon made available on a special website.
In 2017, taking her granddaughter Hadar with her, Yael went back to Monastir to attend the 75th anniversary memorial commemorating the deportation of the Jews. In front of a large crowd and in the presence of young German Christian volunteers who travelled from Germany, Yael spoke about the town’s Jewish heritage and her organization’s commitment to educating and enlightening future generations.
Today she heads up the Association of Descendants of Macedonian Jewry. She has made contact with many Jewish descendants of the region who live in Israel and abroad.
“Together we are salvaging our lost heritage. We are even trying to restore the original Synagogue of the Monastir Jews in Jerusalem. It was founded by Yagel Yaakov in the Old City in1888 and rebuilt and restored to its former glory in the New City neighborhood of Mekor Baruch in 1932.”
Knowing how much time and effort Yael devotes to the organization, I asked her what motivated her to become so intensely involved in this project.
“The more I learn about the life of this special old Sephardic community, the more I want its story to be told and it’s legacy preserved.” She explained.
Judging by the tremendous success of the project so far, Yael and her volunteer colleagues are well on their way to achieving their goals.
Further information please contact the Association of Descendants of Macedonian Jewry in Israel,