SKOPJE, Macedonia (Mar. 11)
In an enormous tobacco factory, a small group somberly gathered to recall the day exactly 60 years ago that almost all of Macedonia’s Jewish population was rounded up to be sent to Treblinka.
It was here, in one room of this faded brown building, that 7,148 Jews were kept in brutal conditions — without water or any facilities for two weeks — before being sent in three transports to Treblinka by the Bulgarian Fascists who had seized the country.
None of the Jews returned.
The ceremony was one event during a three-day program commemorating the 60th anniversary of the roundups in three Macedonian cities and towns — Skopje, Bitola and Stip — that had vibrant Jewish communities before World War II.
Macedonia’s Jewish population was one of the most devastated in the Holocaust, with 98 percent of the country’s Jews murdered. But Viktor Mizrahi, president of Macedonia’s Jewish community, urged people to remember Holocaust victims everywhere.
“We must never forget the lost Macedonian Jews,” he said, “but when we pay our respects to them we must remember the millions around the world who also died.”
Mizrahi also spoke earlier at the opening event, the launch of an exhibition of Jewish culture in the city museum of Skopje, the capital.
“This is a terrible reminder of what the Jewish community once was,” he said. “But it is important to ensure that people never forget the Jewish population of Macedonia, which lived in harmony with non-Jews for thousands of years.”
Mizrahi is widely credited with keeping the country’s Jewish community and culture alive — a difficult task, since the present-day community of just 200 people is scattered in several towns across the country.
The U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, Lawrence Butler, who attended the commemorative events, said the loss of so many Macedonian Jews was relevant to today’s standoff with Iraq.
“If we had done to Hitler what we are prepared to do in Iraq, Europe would be a richer place today,” he told JTA. “No one will ever know what these men, women and children would have done for humanity if they had lived.
“I can not even begin to imagine what that day was like 60 years ago, or to comprehend how large thriving communities were reduced to almost nothing,” he continued. “The consequences of what happened back then are reflected in Macedonia in a big way. The memory of the Jews who lived here and what was allowed to happen to them has to be remembered, as it cannot be repeated.”
Butler praised Macedonia for finding ways to resolve political differences between its Slavic Macedonian majority and Albanian minority, after the country “came close to another tragedy” when it approached the brink of civil war almost two years ago.
Jews and non-Jews alike have gathered every year in Macedonia to mark the anniversary of the roundups. This year their numbers were swelled by visitors from America and Israel, as well as representatives from Jewish communities in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Greece, and the ambassadors of Israel, the United States and Germany.
“The terrible events of March 1943 here in Macedonia are a sad event for the whole of the Balkan region, and we come here as a sign of our friendship with the Macedonian community,” said Zoran Mevorah, a bookkeeper with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Serbia.
In the southern town of Bitola, which boasted a prewar Jewish community of 3,200 that has dwindled to just one Jew today, around 50 people gathered at the Jewish cemetery to say kaddish led by Rabbi Yitshak Asiel, rabbi of Serbia and Macedonia.
Poignantly, the events were attended by just as many non-Jews as Jews.
Despite the bright sunshine and clear blue skies, the mood was somber. In an emotional speech delivered next to the overgrown sloping graveyard, Emilian Vilos, founding president of the Bitola Cemetery Renovation Project, emphasized the lost young generation.
“The martyrs of Treblinka still live among us in our hearts. We will never forget them,” he said. “There are many tragedies in history, but that of the Jewish people is a tragedy and shame for all humanity. On that day they left behind their houses, their hearts and their unfulfilled wishes and desires.”
The cemetery on the edge of town is dilapidated, though plans are under way for the Jewish community and the cemetery renovation association to renovate the site.
A full day of events in Bitola, the former capital and once one of the two main centers of Macedonian Jewish life, also included a reception at the town hall, the laying of flowers at a monument to the town’s Holocaust victims and the screening of a documentary film.
In the small town of Stip, which today is home to just one Jewish family, flowers were laid at a monument to Holocaust victims.
Jews have been present in Macedonia since Roman times, but a major immigration occurred during the Ottoman period, when Jews arrived in the Balkans in the late 15th century after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal.
Yehuda Alboher, whose ancestors took their name from the Spanish town they left in 1492 before arriving in Macedonia, came from Israel to mark the anniversary, as he has done each year for the past five years.
Alboher, who moved to Israel with his parents when he was 6, lost 100 relatives in Treblinka.
“This is the most sorrowful day in my life, but I wanted to be here,” he said.
Yechiel Bar-Chaim, director of programs in the region for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, highlighted the strong involvement of non-Jews in commemoration events.
“I am always impressed by how much Macedonians believe that these events don’t only concern Jews, but that they are an expression of the deep-felt sadness and loss on the part of all of society,” he told JTA. “From someone coming from the West, that is quite unusual to see.”
JDC sponsors several programs in Macedonia, and helps fund the Belgrade-based rabbi who serves the community.
For Macedonian Jew Moric Romano, 81, the events were a sad reminder of lost loved ones and of his own brush with death.
The former minister of finance and trade and a former ambassador to Chile, Romano lost his parents, Lela and Avram, and his younger brother David in Treblinka.
Moric escaped death because he was being held in a Bulgarian prison after being caught fighting in a partisan band against the fascist regime, as many of the country’s young Jews did.
“I should be dead, too, but I was saved because I was away in prison,” he said. “The authorities planned to deport me but the Red Army arrived just as they were preparing to send me to Treblinka, and would not allow it.”
But he added: “We must never forget those who were not so lucky as me.”