Behind the Headlines: Macedonian President Fulfills ‘obligation’ to Country’s Jews
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Behind the Headlines: Macedonian President Fulfills ‘obligation’ to Country’s Jews

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A president. A doctor. And a developer. The non-Jewish trio — which includes Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov — is striving to fulfill the country’s “moral obligation” to commemorate the approximately 7,300 Jews from this small Balkan nation who perished in Treblinka.

On March 11, 1943, Bulgarian fascists occupying Macedonia rounded up its Jews and delivered them by train to Nazis awaiting next door in Serbia.

Two memorials to the victims are now planned: a Holocaust museum in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, and farther south, in Bitola, the restoration of a 500-year- old Sephardi cemetery.

“We must not forget them,” said Dr. Ivan Dejanov, president of the Macedonian- Israeli Friendship Association.

Dejanov, 65, and other Macedonians recall with fondness their Jewish classmates, neighbors and colleagues. They remember the joint business ventures, the shared Passover seders.

They speak of the parallel fate and undying spirit of Jews and Macedonians – – “brothers in misfortune, suffering and destiny.”

The drive to honor the memory of local Jews, they say, is motivated partly by the ignorance among today’s youth of the Jewish chapter in Macedonian history and partly by the polarization among ethnic groups within the former Yugoslavia.

Macedonia broke free of Yugoslavia in April 1992, just as Bosnia descended into a civil war among Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

Keenly aware of this continued ethnic polarization, the surviving Macedonian Jewish community — a tiny but tight-knit group of 182 — has endorsed wholeheartedly the plans for the memorials.

“Here in the Balkans, where these problems are especially acute, we have an obligation to show what happens when people try to destroy each other,” said Viktor Mizrahi, president of the Macedonian Jewish community.

At their peak, in 1910, some 10,000 Jews lived in what is now Macedonia.

The first are said to have arrived at the time of Alexander the Great some 2,500 years ago. Sephardi Jews began trickling in after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.

They settled primarily in three areas: Bitola, Skopje and Stip.

The relative harmony Jews enjoyed in Macedonia came to an abrupt end after Bulgaria invaded in the winter of 1941.

Though Bulgaria is lauded for protecting its own Jews during the war, it did not spare those in its occupied territories.

Gligorov, then working for a Jewish banker in Skopje and active in the resistance movement, recalled that in early March 1943 he learned from a contact within the Bulgarian forces that Jews in Skopje would be rounded up.

Gligorov warned his Jewish friends, helping several obtain fake documents to flee through Albania to Italy.

But others refused to heed his warning.

On March 11, the Bulgarians went door to door to round up Jews. From his second-floor office, Gligorov drew back the curtains and watched his friends file past, bags in hand, toward the train station.

“I didn’t know their fate, but I knew things would not go well,” Gligorov, 80, said in an interview.

Meanwhile, a similar scene was unfolding in Bitola.

Despite Bulgarian pronouncements that anyone sheltering Jews would share their fate, Boris and Vaska Altiparmak took in four Jewish teen-age boys.

After hiding them for a month, the Altiparmaks gave the four peasant garb and sent them to join the partisans in the mountains.

Overall, only 167 Macedonian Jews are said to have survived the Holocaust.

Boris and Vaska Altiparmak were honored in 1991 by the Israeli Knesset as Righteous Gentiles.

Boris Altiparmak, 84, is now honorary chairman of the Jewish cemetery restoration committee; his son, Vladimir, a real estate developer, is board secretary.

Like most Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe, the one in Bitola is unkempt, with many headstones overturned and scarred with graffiti.

Vladimir Altiparmak believes that Bitola, and its vanished Jewish community, deserve better.

“When we lost so many Jews, we lost as a town. It is our duty to restore it, because this would have been their wishes.”

Plans for the restoration first surfaced 10 years ago, when the local city council discussed building new apartments on the burial ground.

Last month, the cemetery committee made its first improvement. It installed a wrought-iron gate, replete with Jewish stars, to keep out vandals.

Funding is of course a challenge. But so far, several services, such as the architect’s design, have been donated free of charge.

“We can’t expect the government to take on such an issue, with so many other issues to deal with,” said Zdravko Sami, vice president of the Macedonian Jewish community.

Sami, of Skopje, is a Bitola native whose entire family is buried in the cemetery, save for the two dozen killed in Treblinka.

As for the Holocaust museum in Skopje, things are moving more slowly.

The Macedonians aren’t sure how large they want it and whether to combine it with a Jewish cultural center.

A site, however, has already been chosen — in the old Jewish quarter where a synagogue once stood, adjacent to the historic, cobblestone Turkish bazaar.

But the local mayor still needs to be dissuaded from using the lot for a new hotel.

Gligorov is expected to weigh in on the issue, as the museum has become a pet project.

“Macedonia truly lost a great deal with the loss of its Jewish community,” he said. “We need a memorial to their life and death here.”

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