BITOLA, Macedonia (Apr. 7)
It can be easy to miss, tucked away on the outskirts of the town whose 70 grand mosques pay more obvious testament to its Turkish past.
But plans are under way to revive this key symbol of Macedonia’s Jewish past — its 500-year-old Jewish cemetery.
Sadly, the burial site, together with a single memorial to Holocaust victims, is all that remains to pay homage to Bitola’s vibrant prewar Jewish population. Like its Jews, the five synagogues and Jewish school all disappeared as a result of the Holocaust.
Decades of socialism left the grass growing over the graves — and Jewish culture buried — in a country where ethnic tensions have recently flared.
All that could soon change, however. An ambitious $190,000 plan is in progress to restore the cemetery, which contains approximately 2,000 graves and is one of the oldest in the Balkans, and turn the site into a memorial park. It is to contain 3,200 plants, one for each Bitola Jew deported to Nazi death camps.
Organizers hope that by next March, the 60th anniversary of the deportation of the town’s entire Jewish population to Treblinka concentration camp, the restoration will be complete.
A new pavilion housing a tiny museum to the town’s former Jewish population has just opened at the cemetery and a second room will recreate a typical Jewish home in Bitola in the 1940s. The museum contains text and photographs of the city’s former Jewish residents.
Much work remains to be done, however. Just a handful of the cemetery’s gravestones are legible, the hilly area is unkempt and goats and stray dogs roam the site.
A key part of the project will be replacing the 500 tombstones removed by Bulgarian fascist soldiers during World War II.
“There is a lot of work to do and we still have to raise enough money but restoring the cemetery remains our main goal,” says Bojan Sarpunov, secretary of Macedonia’s tiny Skopje-based Jewish community.
Funding has already been committed by the Macedonian government and private enterprise and individuals, and organizers are hopeful of receiving funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and Phare, the European Commission’s funding program for countries seeking European Union membership.
For Mois Benjakoz, perhaps more than anyone, the project is all-important. Mois, 68, is the sole surviving Jew in Bitola, the second largest city of this former Yugoslav republic, which lies along the border with Greece and which in the early 1940s had a thriving Jewish community.
On March 11,1943, the town’s entire Jewish population — except for Mois and his mother, Arnesta — were rounded up by Bulgarian fascists occupying Macedonia and sent by train to Nazis in Serbia. They were briefly kept in a tobacco factory where they were tortured before being sent to Treblinka concentration camp in Poland. No one returned.
In all, more than 7,000 Macedonian Jews perished in the Holocaust.
Today, 59 years later, Mois still must cope with the physical damage and mental trauma he suffered.
Holding up an X-ray, he points to the bullet still lodged in his spine, fired from the gun of a Bulgarian soldier who realized Mois, a 9-year-old boy at the time, was Jewish.
He also still bears the result of leg muscle injuries inflicted by a bayonet butt and a knife, and his mental distress left him unable to work.
“The soldier asked me my name — I was too young to lie. So I told him and he immediately realized that I was Jewish, so he attacked me,” he recalls.
Mois owes his life to his widowed mother, who quickly arranged a wedding to a Turk and claimed her son was Turkish, dressing him that way. Their non-Jewish neighbors and friends also backed up their story to fascist soldiers.
When their situation became precarious, Mois and his mother escaped to the hills surrounding Bitola, living with partisans and tending goats until after the end of the war.
“I thank God that I am alive, and it’s only due to my friends and neighbors that I did not die,” he says, his voice shaking. “Even I do not know why exactly I survived when thousands didn’t.”
Mois, who laments the lack of interest in Macedonia’s rich Jewish history, believes the cemetery is a key monument.
“I am delighted that the cemetery will be restored to its former self; it is very important to do this and acknowledge the past. I remember going there to lay flowers at my grandparents graves and how beautiful the site was,” says Mois.
Tomislav Simjanovjski, the retired lawyer leading efforts to restore Bitola’s cemetery, is equally determined that the city remember its Jewish past.
“No one, from the authorities to ordinary people, really knows or cares about the Jewish past. Children don’t learn about this in school,” he says.
Simjanovjski, who is not Jewish, plans to tour schools raising awareness among today’s youth about the country’s rich Jewish past.
He together with several other businessmen and individuals from the town has personally donated a total of $13,500 to the restoration project.
“Until a couple of years ago the government had no interest in Jews. Only in 1997, the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Portuguese Jews in Bitola, did the authorities start to take an interest,” says Simjanovjski, chairman of the Bitola Jewish Cemetery Restoration Association.
That’s a sentiment Mois shares. “Macedonians today are just not interested in the Jewish past,” he says.
On his return to what was formerly the Jewish ghetto after the war, Mois says he felt totally alone, an isolation he still feels today. “I learned Hebrew and would love to speak it, but have no one to speak it with,” he says, regretfully. He is also bitter that his minimum state benefits of $60 monthly barely cover the drawer-full of medication he has to take.
Mois says he decided not to raise his three children as Jews because of widespread discrimination. He was prevented by the authorities from burying his mother in the cemetery due to its dilapidated state.
Of the $190,000 cemetery renovation cost, some $15,500 has been met by the Macedonian Ministry of Culture with a similar amount from private donations. Completion in time for the planned deadline of next March is entirely dependent on securing remaining funds.
With just 207 members, Macedonia’s Jewish community remains a shadow of its former self. Although Jews have been present since Roman times, a major immigration to Macedonia occurred during the late 15th century under the Ottoman period, when Jews arrived in the Balkans after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal. Bitola, which was formerly known by the name Monastir, enjoyed the largest Jewish population in Macedonia but the cities of Skopje and Stip were also flourishing Jewish centers. At its peak, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were approximately 8,000 Jews in Bitola alone.
Macedonia’s present-day Jewish community, which is now focused in the capital city Skopje, has been growing, but only slightly, in the past couple of years. “Although babies are being born bringing new members to our community, many Macedonian Jews are moving away, particularly to Israel and Canada,” Sarpunov says.
Two years ago, the first new synagogue since the end of World War II opened in Skopje and a rabbi from Belgrade visits to conduct services once a month, as well as during holidays.
In recent months, the country that has always prided itself on the lack of anti-Semitism, has begun to see the first signs of the problem.
Gravestones in Bitola’s cemetery have been recently daubed with neo-Nazi symbols. “It is very sad that we are now facing this problem and that is why it is vital to educate Macedonians about their Jewish culture,” Simjanovjski says.