Letter from Macedonia: A Vital Jewish Heritage

By Chris Deliso

Moment Magazine (2006)

Once a year, in March, Moritz Romano returns to his hometown of Bitola in southern Macedonia. There he walks up the Sirok Sokak, the old Turkish name for the grand pedestrian avenue lined with open-air caf├ęs and neoclassical edifices. At 84, his hearing is weak and his gait slow, but his dark, melancholic eyes have no difficulty seeing the Bitola of his youth: The Jewish world that vanished forever on March 10, 1943, the day the city’s entire Jewish population was deported. Today, there are only a few Jews left in Bitola and only 200 in this entire southern Balkan nation of two million, bordered by Serbia to the north and Greece to the south.

“I still recognize every house-which one belonged to this Jewish family, which to another,” says Romano, who, like most of the country’s remaining Jews, lives in the capital city of Skopje. He speaks hesitantly at first, but warms to his subject. “I see the great sports club, the club for Jewish women, the music clubs where our traditional Latin rhythms were played, the dance hall and the orchestra.

“We had six synagogues; my father was rabbi in the biggest and most beautiful one, Aragona,” he adds. Romano grew up speaking Ladino-the medieval language of Sephardic Jews-and Macedonian. In those days, Bitola was a cosmopolitan place and the sounds of Ladino, Macedonian, Greek, Serbian and Bulgarian rang through the city.

In those days, the rich resided on lovely streets, while the poor lived in cramped houses huddled along narrow, muddy alleys. Though not wealthy, the majority of the city’s Jews managed to live with dignity. Horses laden with watermelons, tomatoes, red peppers and more carried goods into the city, inspiring Jews to prepare such Mediterranean dishes as dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), spicy Spanish rice and zucchini stuffed with minced beef. Eggplant dishes, fried and baked, were mainstays of the Sephardic diet, according to Yamila Kolonomos, author of Sparks of the Macedonian Sephardim. “There was no Jewish house where they were not used in different ways,” she recalls. Two local butchers sold kosher beef-and-lamb sausages seasoned with garlic and hot pepper. Thick bunches of aromatic wild teas, thyme and oregano, picked from nearby Pelister Mountain, adorned doorframes. On hot summer afternoons, children raced to the Turkish sweet shop for baklava, cakes and ice cream.

Despite the rich bounty of Macedonia’s soil, frugality with food was the rule among its Sephardic Jews, a trait honed over centuries of dislocation. Kolonomos says her mother made use of every bread crumb and that baby girls posed a lifelong hardship- the work required to earn the money for their dowries began immediately after birth. A wry saying of the time was a wish for “neither Pesach without matzot, nor an unmarried daughter.”

Among the Roman ruins of Stobi, in central Macedonia, lies a synagogue dating to the first century B.C.E. Macedonia’s Jewish community is one of Europe’s oldest, but it was the massive influx of Sephardic Jews who fled here during the Inquisition that most defined it. The Jews prospered under the Turkish sultans who ruled the Ottoman Empire, but the empire’s decline and resulting Balkan Wars foreshadowed the bad times to come. In 1941, Bulgaria, Hitler’s main ally in the southern Balkans, invaded Macedonia. While Bulgaria famously saved its own Jews, it was willing to sacrifice those living in the territories it occupied. In March of 1943, Bitola’s Jews were sent to Skopje, then shipped to the Treblinka extermination camp and killed along with the rest of Macedonia’s Jews. Altogether, some 7,148 Macedonian Jews-98 percent of the country’s Jewish population at the time-perished.

That Moritz Romano was among the surviving two percent was due to pure luck. Most Macedonian Jews who avoided death did so either by fleeing the country, blending in with the Christian population or joining the partisan resistance led by Josip Broz Tito, the future Communist Yugoslav president. But Romano and four young comrades had been arrested before the deportation, accused by the Bulgarian army of being Communist sympathizers. As punishment, they were sent to a prison in far-away Varna, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, where they were held until the Soviet army entered from the east, signaling Hitler’s defeat in the South Balkans.

They came home to find that the vibrant Jewish world of Bitola gone. With other survivors, they regrouped in Skopje and began the painful process of resuming lives without friends and family. Romano credits intermarriage with saving what was left of the country’s Jewish community. He laughs as he recalls his own romantic fate and that of his fellow Jewish prisoners of Varna: “Within one year after the war, all five of us guys had gotten married to five Macedonian Christian women, from five different towns!”

In the war’s aftermath, Macedonia was carved up by Greece, Bulgaria, Albania and Serbia, which itself became part of Yugoslavia in 1945. Macedonia was now a republic of the new communist federation and Romano settled in Skopje, eventually serving as a government minister, a parliamentarian and an ambassador to Chile. A small and politically obedient community, the Jews fared well under the iron-fisted Tito, who struggled to keep a lid on the ethnic tensions among Serbs, Bosnians and Croats that would turn violent in the 1990s. Tito’s secularist regime discouraged religious expression-Jewish or otherwise-so Romano kept in touch with his Sephardic roots mostly through his love of Ladino music. A skilled pianist and guitarist, he has created over 90 compositions and last year released a music CD.

Macedonia gained its independence in 1991 as Yugoslavia broke apart. As befits their numbers, Jews were bit players in the overall drama of new nationhood as the country’s Orthodox Christians (70 percent of the population) and Muslim Albanians (25 percent) competed for power.

Since independence, Macedonia’s Jews have relied on financial and political assistance from Israel and U.S. Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Joint Relief Committee. “The community probably would have dissolved without their support,” says 50-year-old Zdravko Shami, its current leader. Shami’s father was one of the five Jews, including Romano, who survived the Holocaust by being jailed in Varna.

The local Jewish community center near central Skopje is located in a spacious old building that hosts a synagogue and kosher kitchen. It is filled with youthful laughter and conversation, belying the fact that there are only around 30 young Jewish people in the entire country, a source of serious concern for a community that now relies on conversions rather than births in order to grow.

A few of these young people- like 26-year-old Miriam Sadikario- have a Jewish parent. Others, like 26-year-old Viktorija Sarkisian or 24-year-old Avi Kozma have a Jewish grandparent or great-grandparent. The fragility of their broken lineages has prompted many of Macedonia’s young Jews to renew their vows to Judaism.

Kozma lost members of his family to the Holocaust in Croatia, while his infant father and grandmother nearly died in a Nazi camp in Serbia. These painful memories fueled his interest in Judaism; although young, he is already a trained hazan. “I feel like these are my people, like I belong to them,” he says.

Zaklina Mucheva, the secretary of the Jewish community, is married to a Christian Macedonian. Only after the birth of her daughter did she decide to reclaim her Jewish roots. “Before marriage, you think only for yourself,” she says, “but I wanted my daughter to feel her Jewish identity.”

Mucheva is credited with revitalizing Isha, Skopje’s long dormant Jewish women’s club. “The ladies were just meeting in the kitchen upstairs, drinking coffee and exchanging recipes-there was nothing Jewish about it!” she says. Mucheva convinced the community’s board to establish an art course two years ago, teaching traditional glass painting and other crafts. Today, the community has five trained artists whose creations include candles, traditional terra-cotta plates and kippahs.

Anti-Semitism in Macedonia is rare, and successive governments have been sympathetic to Jewish interests. The country has an admirable record, even compared to Western Europe, in passing progressive legislation for Holocaust survivors. Approximately 1,700 properties nationwide have been identified as having belonged to Jews, most of whom left no heirs. In 2000, the government approved an heirless property restitution law that was hailed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee as the most comprehensive such law in any former communist country.

Zdravko Shami, the community president, has led the quest to reclaim Jewish property, the largest being a 29,000-square-foot parcel of land on which the Jewish Quarter of Skopje once stood. It’s now prime waterfront property along the River Vardar, which winds through the city. While the Holocaust eliminated most of its inhabitants, a massive 1963 earthquake demolished its buildings. They were replaced with monotonous gray apartment blocks and other Yugoslav architectural oddities, including a bus station, “a temporary location that lasted 40 years,” says Shami.

The bus station has finally been torn down and will be replaced with a Holocaust Memorial Center-complete with community center, museum and exhibition space-scheduled to open in 2008. “The Jewish community is overjoyed,” says Shami. “We want to focus on the future, not on the horrors of the past. But at the same time we need to show how things can turn out,” his voice trails off, “when people stop paying attention.”