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North Macedonia

The Jews of North Macedonia

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Skopje’s Jewish community survives despite near annihilation during the Holocaust

June 20, 2019

SKOPJE, North Macedonia – Like many countries in Eastern Europe, North Macedonia offers visitors wanting a glimpse of Jewish history and culture a bittersweet experience.

Skopje Holocaust Museum


The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia

There are remnants and artifacts of a once-thriving community, which dates back to Roman times and ultimately reached a peak of nearly 12,000 Jews before World War II.

There are inspirational signs of survival and a modest rebirth, namely in the form of the newest synagogue in the Balkans, Beit Yaakov, a Sephardic-style synagogue with beautiful stained-glass windows designed by local artists.

There also is a deeply disturbing and moving museum chronicling the virtual destruction of Macedonia’s Jewish community during the Holocaust, when more than 7,000 Jews were transported to their deaths at the concentration camp in Treblinka, Poland.

I recently spent six weeks teaching at North Macedonia’s largest university and had an opportunity to learn more about the roller-coaster existence of the region’s Jewish community.

Macedonia, as the locals call it, was officially renamed the Republic of North Macedonia in early 2019 to resolve a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece, which had long laid claim to the name of Macedonia.  It’s believed the move will pave the way for the country to eventually join the European Union and the NATO military alliance.

Skopje synagogue

Inside Skopje’s Beit Yaakov synagogue

Skopje, a city of a half-million people, is the capital of this landlocked country about the size of Vermont.  Macedonia gained its independence when Yugoslavia imploded in the early 1990s.  The country’s Macedonian majority is mostly Eastern Orthodox; however, ethnic Albanians – many of whom practice Islam — constitute about 25 percent of the country’s population.

Today, the country’s Jewish population has dwindled to about 200.  Virtually all of them live in Skopje.

On my second day in the city, I visited the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia, a $23 million state-of-the-art and tastefully designed museum located in the heart of what once was the city’s Jewish quarter.  It’s just a stone’s throw from two of Skopje’s most famous sites – the historic Stone Bridge that takes pedestrians across the Vardar River, and the old Turkish Bazaar.

Inaugurated in 2011, the Holocaust museum was built with money raised from a 2002 law providing for the return of heirless Jewish property to the Jewish community, a law that is widely recognized as one of the best in Europe.

Inside Holocaust museum

The Holocaust museum chronicles the prosperous history of Jews in the region

Inside the museum, I learned that the first-known synagogue in Skopje dates back to 1366.  Many Jews came to the region following the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions.  The Jewish community was almost entirely Sephardic, and most spoke Ladino at home.  When Macedonia was part of the Ottoman Empire, Jews prospered in the fields of trade, banking and medicine.  They also enjoyed fairly good relations with the non-Jewish population.  At one point, there were 14 working synagogues in the country, nine of them in Bitola, a city in southern Macedonia that is close to the Greek and Albanian borders.

The museum has a number of multimedia exhibits depicting Jewish life in Macedonia and the Balkans through the centuries, including historic Jewish religious and cultural artifacts. Most of the exhibits are in English.

In 1941, the Bulgarian army entered what is now Macedonia in an effort to reclaim the region, which it believed was part of its own homeland.  During its occupation, the Bulgarians implemented anti-Semitic laws and began to force the Jews into ghettos and slave-labor camps.  In 1943, under orders from Germany, Bulgarian troops deported most of Macedonia’s Jews to the Yugoslav border with Romania, where they ultimately were transported in cattle-cars by Germans to the death camp in Treblinka, Poland.

Holocaust train

One of the original wagons used to transport Macedonia’s Jews to Treblinka

To Bulgaria’s credit, its government succumbed to public and political pressure and refused to hand over the Jews in its own territory to the Germans.  Sadly, the Jews of Macedonia were not so fortunate.  None of the more than 7,000 men, women and children survived the deportation to Treblinka. 

The World Jewish Congress has noted that no Jewish community in Europe suffered a greater degree of destruction than the one from North Macedonia.  Less than 2 percent of the country’s Jewish population survived the Holocaust.  

Perhaps the Holocaust museum’s most haunting and impactful exhibit is a German cattle-car that transported the Jews to their deaths.  Stepping inside the dark, wooden structure, one can only imagine the inhumane conditions and sheer horror the Jews endured before being murdered by the Nazis in the gas chambers.

Outside the museum stands a powerful and evocative statue of two young Jews, heads bowed in grief, next to packed suitcases and shoes.  In the process of being uprooted from their home, they are seemingly on their way to a ghetto or concentration camp.

While few of the country’s Jews survived the Holocaust, the community somehow managed to endure.  The rebirth culminated in the construction of a new synagogue in 2003, the only Jewish house of worship in North Macedonia.

Holocaust monument

A haunting monument remembering the Jewish victims outside the Holocaust museum in Skopje

A 15-minute walk from the museum, Beit Yaakov is located on the top floor of a non-descript three-story building that also houses the Jewish community’s administrative offices and rooms for a small religious school and community events.

During my visit to the synagogue, I met with Jana Nichota, the secretary general of the Jewish community.  She told me that while Skopje’s Jews strongly embrace their history and culture, they aren’t particularly religious.

It’s a symptom of Jewry throughout Eastern Europe, where Jewish communities, decimated by the Holocaust, became less observant during Socialist times, mainly because religion — of any type — was largely frowned upon by ruling governments.

Indeed, the Skopje synagogue has no rabbi and rarely holds services.  Normally, a rabbi is brought in from Belgrade or another location to lead High-Holiday services.  But this past year, Jana said, there just wasn’t enough interest. However, the community did host a Passover Seder in April, with about 30 attendees.

North Macedonia has largely been spared from the wave of anti-Semitism that is creeping across Europe.  The small population of Jews gets along well with its Christian and Muslim neighbors.  The country’s president and prime minister — along with leaders of the Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim communities — attended the inauguration of the Holocaust museum.

“If you build it, they will come,” goes the line from the movie “Field of Dreams.”  With a beautiful 21st-century synagogue and a Jewish museum that outshines exhibitions in much larger European cities, Skopje’s Jewish leaders hope their once dormant community will continue to regain its footing and attract visitors to learn more about Jewish life in a little-understood part of the world.

                                                    © 2019 Dan Fellner

Skopje: Statue City

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North Macedonia’s capital offers visitors unique and plentiful sculptures

The Arizona Republic — May 5, 2019

SKOPJE, North Macedonia – If a city’s beauty can be gauged by the number, size and sheer uniqueness of the statues it showcases, then this capital city in southeastern Europe – and Tempe’s Sister City – makes Paris, Rome and London look prosaic in comparison.

Skopje square

The main square — bookmarked by two huge statues — in Skopje, North Macedonia

Walk through the heart of Skopje (pronounced Skow-pee-yeh) and you’ll see well more than 100 statues, most of which were erected in the past 10 years in a government effort to boost tourism and build national pride.  The statues depict Macedonian military heroes, politicians, literary and religious figures, and people going about their daily lives.

Some of the sculptures are massive and majestic, showing courageous sword-wielding warriors perched atop regal steeds.  Others are just plain over the top and quirky, earning Skopje the nickname in some circles as “the Capital of Kitsch.”

The statues are part of Skopje 2014, a government-funded project that financed the construction of museums, government buildings and monuments to give the downtown a spiffy new look.  Skopje, leveled by a 1963 earthquake, had long been in desperate need of a makeover.

The odd mix of statues has attracted the most attention and made the city a bonanza for selfie-shooting tourists.

Skopje, a city of about a half-million people and the capital of North Macedonia, is an eclectic blend of Christian and Islamic cultures.

Vardar River

The Vardar River cuts through the heart of downtown Skopje

Formerly part of socialist Yugoslavia, Skopje became Tempe’s Sister City in 1971, a groundbreaking relationship that endures nearly a half-century later.  At the time, it was the first partnership between an American city and a counterpart in Eastern Europe’s socialist bloc.

As Yugoslavia was disintegrating, Macedonia gained its independence in 1991.  In February 2019, the country was renamed the Republic of North Macedonia to resolve a decades-old conflict with neighboring Greece, which had previously laid claim to the name Macedonia.

In terms of its name, at least, this landlocked nation on the Balkan Peninsula is the newest country in the world.  The resolution of its dispute with Greece is expected to pave the way for North Macedonia’s entry into the European Union and NATO in the coming years.

In the Balkans, where national, ethnic and religious rivalries simmer for centuries with occasional flareups, names matter.

That’s certainly the case with Skopje’s most famous – and controversial – statue, an eight-story-tall sculpture of Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus.  To avoid offending the Greeks, who claim Alexander as one of their own, the statue is officially named “Warrior on a Horse,” even though everyone here knows it’s really Alexander.  There’s even talk of taking it down to further ease tensions with the Greeks.

Alexander the Great statue

The statue of Alexander the Great rides high above downtown Skopje

On one bridge, the Bridge of Civilizations that leads pedestrians to the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, I counted 31 statues of historical figures.

On the lighter side, there are whimsical statues of a shoeshine man, a beggar, a funky-looking fish and a bikini-clad swimmer about to dive into the Vardar River, under Skopje’s historic Stone Bridge.  Another swimmer just a few feet ahead of her – feet protruding above the water – has already made a splash.

Just five yards from the entrance to my apartment building overlooking the city’s main pedestrian street sits a large bronze statue of a bull.  It resembles the famous statue on Wall Street in New York.  But the artist has said there is no connection to America or the stock market; the bull symbolizes the strength and fertility of the Macedonian people.

The bronze bull was installed 10 years ago.  Somewhere along the line, someone chopped off the beast’s tail.  Nevertheless, the statue is a useful landmark for me to find my apartment building after dark, in case my senses are dulled by a bit too much Skopsko, the country’s most popular beer.

Skopje swimmer statue

One of Skopje’s many unique statues, in which a bikini-clad swimmer prepares to dive into the Vardar River

Skopje 2014 cost an estimated $700 million, a large chunk of change in one of Europe’s poorest countries.  Many Macedonians feel the money should have been spent on education, infrastructure and feeding the poor, instead of on monuments and statues.

“No, it was definitely not worth the money,” says Emilija S. Georgievska, an associate professor in the Department of English Language & Literature at Saints Cyril and Methodius University, the country’s largest university.  Georgievska spent a semester at Arizona State University in 2001 in an exchange program between the two universities.  “Most people do not even know who these historical figures were and what was their legacy.  Unfortunately, they cannot relate to them.”

Still, the statues offer an interesting glimpse into the art, religion, history and political divisions in this part of Eastern Europe, which is still struggling to find its economic footing in the post-Yugoslavia era.

About 50 yards from my apartment is a memorial to Skopje’s most famous native, Mother Teresa, a sainted Catholic nun who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work.  The ethnic Albanian was born in Skopje in 1910.

Mother Teresa Museum

The Memorial House of Mother Teresa, a Skopje native and Catholic nun who was baptized at this site in 1910

At the site where she was baptized as an infant now sits the 10-year-old Memorial House of Mother Teresa, which includes a small museum and Catholic chapel.  The site attracts 80,000-100,000 visitors a year, including Pope Francis, who visited the site in May of 2019. There are only about 15,000 practicing Catholics in the country and it was the first time any Pope had visited North Macedonia.

Not surprisingly, there is a large statue of Mother Teresa – hands clasped in prayer – in front of the building to greet the tourists.

In Skopje, a leading attraction without a statue on the premises just wouldn’t seem proper.

                                                    © 2019 Dan Fellner