North Macedonia Virtual Jewish History Tour
The Jewish presence in Macedonia dates back to the first century BCE, where the ruins of an ancient synaogue can be seen in the city of Stobi. Today, there remain but 100 Jews in what is now North Macedonia.
Early Jewish History
Early Jewish History
The Jewish presence in Macedonia dates back to the first century, B.C.E., where the ruins of an ancient synagogue can be seen in the city of Stobi. Jews began to migrate to Macedonia during the Roman (Second Temple) Period. Persecution forced many Jews to flee from the lands controlled by the Romans, and a small number of Jews chose to make their home in Macedonia. The Jews of Macedonia were, and are, of Sephardic descent, and spoke the medieval language of the Sephardim, Ladino.
The largest migration of Jews to Macedonia took place during Ottoman rule, and under the sultans, the Jews prospered. The Ottoman period was also the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Jews came mainly from Spain and Portugal after having been expelled from their native countries. In cities such as Bitola, Skip, and Skopje, Jews were able to prosper in trade, medicine, and law. Jews depended more on agricultural products and less on trade.
Shabbetai Zevi, a self-proclaimed Messiah, had a major influence on the Jewish population in Salonika during the 17th century. Zevi was an inspirational speaker and he had the ability to unite the Jewish community. Head rabbis forced Zevi to leave the city when he began to claim that he was the Messiah. For a few centuries, the Jews of Macedonia thrived and enjoyed peaceful relations with the rest of the population.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, religiosity declined among the Jewish population. Only the mystical study of Kabbalah remained a central part of Jewish practice in Macedonia.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the Muslim Turkish government required all non-Muslims to join the Turkish army. Many Jews emigrated from Salonika to the United States to avoid army service. Still, the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century became a time of great prosperity for the Jews in the main city of Salonika. Jews took part in many aspects of the society including agriculture, trade, and professional fields such as law and medicine.
More than 90,000 Jews lived in Macedonia in 1910 with Salonika (now Thessaloniki of Greece) being the most heavily populated Jewish city. In fact, there were so many Jews in Salonika that all of the citizens (including the non-Jews) were fluent in Ladino (a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish). Also, Shabbat was observed throughout the city. The Greeks took over the city of Salonika in 1912 and Jews were prohibited from residing in certain parts of the city. This led to another mass migration to the United States and other European countries.
World War II & the Holocaust
Even with the heavy migration, more than 100,000 Jews were still living in Macedonia when the relatively calm atmosphere changed. The Bulgarians (under the Nazi regime) invaded Macedonia in 1941 and brought with them a hatred for the Jews and a mission of genocide. The large Jewish community of Salonika appointed Rabbi Dr. Zvi Koretz as president of the city. Rabbi Koretz spoke fluent German and the community believed him to have the ability to negotiate with the Nazi regime. Koretz was misguided in his negotiation tactics. He consistently appeased the Germans, believing that if he followed Nazi commands, Salonika would be spared. In March 1943, Koretz actually gathered a number of Jews in Salonika and sent them to camps in Poland.
Jews in Macedonia faced “racial laws” of segregation and were forced to wear identifying yellow stars. The Messagero (the Jewish newspaper in Salonika) was quickly shut down by the Nazi regime. By 1943, most of the Jews in Macedonia had been either arrested or killed by the Nazis. On March 10, 1943, the entire Jewish population of the city of Bitola in southern Macedonia was deported. Those who were arrested were brought to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Many Jews who were not arrested in their towns were killed over the course of the war.
Fifty thousand Jews were killed from the city of Salonika alone. The jewels, gold, and earnings of the prosperous Jews of Macedonia were also confiscated by the Nazis, leaving any surviving Jews to return in poverty. Altogether, about 98% of Macedonia’s Jewish population at the time perished in the Holocaust.
After World War II, many of the surviving Jews in Salonika and Macedonia immigrated to Israel. Very few Jews returned to Macedonia. The Jews that did survive did so by either fleeing the country, blending in with the Christian population, or joining the partisan resistance led by Josip Broz Tito, who would later become the Communist President of Yugoslavia.
At the end of the war, Macedonia was carved up between Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, and Serbia. It became a republic of the communist federation of Yugoslavia in 1945, under President Tito. The Jews that returned to Macedonia settled in the city of Skopje, and fared well under the new secularist regime, which discourages religious expression, Jewish or otherwise. However, after 1945, the presence of Jews in Macedonia was almost nonexistent.
Macedonia gained its independence in 1991, after Yugoslavia broke apart. The majority of Jews who live there today still reside in the city of Skopje. There are approximately 100 Jews living in the country at present. The other members of the Jewish community of Macedonia were either killed during the war or they chose not to return. Because of its tiny population, the Jewish community in Macedonia has lost many of its traditions. There is no synagogue in Macedonia and there is very little religious practice among the Jewish residents. There are approximately 200 unaffiliated Jews in Macedonia today. Assimilation and inter-marriage became more popular within the community after the end of World War II, and today it continues to be the main cause of the diminishing population.
Efforts are being made to build a Jewish community center and a new synagogue, but as of now, the community is financially unable to do so. They heavily rely on financial assistance from Israel and the United States, and from such organizations as the American Jewish Joint Relief Committee. Rather than trying to rebuild the community, many young Macedonian Jews are choosing to move to other countries. This migration, of course, is contributing to the further decline of the Jewish population in Macedonia.
But many young Jews, either born to one Jewish parent or one Jewish grandparent are starting to reclaim their Jewish heritage but participating in discussions at the local Jewish community center in central Skopje, which hosts a synagogue, a kosher kitchen and hosts a Jewish women’s club. The community also boasts an arts club, featuring arts courses that teach traditional glass painting and other crafts, and whose creations include candles, traditional terracotta plates, and kippahs (head coverings).
Macedonia, also, has been at the forefront in passing restitution legislation to Holocaust survivors. About 1,700 properties across the nation have been identified as once belonging to Jewish citizens, and in 2000, the Macedonian government passed an heirless property restitution law. A new Holocaust Memorial Center is slated to open in Skopje in 2008, complete with a community center, museum, and exhibition space.
From Macedonia to North Macedonia
For nearly three decades, Greece and the Republic of Macedonia have been feuding. North Macedonia borders the region of Greek Macedonia, which administratively is split into three peripheries (one of them comprising both Western Thrace and a part of Greek Macedonia). Citing historical and territorial concerns resulting from the ambiguity between the then-Republic of Macedonia, the adjacent Greek region of Macedonia and the ancient Kingdom of Macedon which falls within Greek Macedonia, Greece opposed the use of the name Macedonia without a geographical qualifier such as “Northern Macedonia.”
Since millions of ethnic Greeks identify themselves as Macedonians, unrelated to the Slavic people who are associated with North Macedonia, Greece further objected to the use of the term Macedonian for the neighboring country’s largest ethnic group. North Macedonia was accused of appropriating symbols and figures that are historically considered parts of Greece’s culture (such as Vergina Sun, a symbol associated with the ancient Kingdom of Macedon, and Alexander the Great), and of promoting the irredentist concept of a United Macedonia, which would include territories of Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, and Serbia.
In June 2018, the two countries reached an agreement ratified by the Macedonian and Greek parliaments in late 2018. In February 2019, Macedonia was officially renamed the Republic of North Macedonia. The decision was opposed by many citizens, most of whom did not vote on a referendum about the name and who feel humiliated by the compromise.
One of the most significant consequences of the name change was that it removed Greek objections to North Macedonia joining NATO, one of its long-sought goals.
The name change will also create challenges as Macedonian authorities will have five years to alter the country’s name both domestically and internationally. “Everything from official documents to passports will be changed,” said Athens’ deputy foreign minister, George Katrougalos.
Original article written by Stephanie Persin.
Sources: Central Europe Review;