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Tuesday, 05 October 2010

Jews in Macedonia


Up to the 16 c. the Jewish community of Skopje was rather insignificant. The first synagogue was built in 1361. It was only the arrival of the Sephardim that increased both the number of Jews and their impact. Henceforth Skopje was one of the major crossroads in the Balkans for tranzit trade between Turkey and the countries of Central and Western Europe. It is assumed that a Sephardic Community was established at the beginning of the 16 c. together with a Hevra kadisha, followed by the institution of cultural and humanitarian societies over the next centuries. Connections  with the Jewish community of Salonica were uninterrupted, and lively relations were maintained with Jews of Constantinople. Owing to trade relations with Dubrovnik, the Historical Archives in Dubrovnik have preserved information on the numbers and occupations of  Skopje Jews. The temporary Austrian occupation of Skopje inflicted much trouble of Jews. The Jewish mahalla was largely destroyed, houses burnt down, many Jews harrassed and even killed, their wives and children taken from the country so that ransom could be demanded for them from Jewish communities in Central Europe, and all their property plundered. Skopje had about 1,200 Jews in 1890. Their numbers went up when at the beginning of the 20 c. Bitola lost its importance in trade, and even more so when, after World War I and the unification of Yugoslav lands, Skopje became the centre of the Vardar Banovina. Before World War II Skopje had 3,795 Jews, of whom less than 10% survived the Fascist occupation.

The Jewish community of Bitola, one of the oldest in Vardar Macedonia, grew through the influx of Sephardim in the early 16 c. into a strong Community on the trade route between Salonika und the Albanian port of Durazzo (Durres). The strong membership tied by tradition to the provinces and towns from which it had come, built five synagogues: Kal Aragon, Kal Portugal, Kal di la Havra, Kal Ozer dalim and Kal Solomon Levi and established  cultural and charitable societies. Bitola had three Jewish schools, one of which – the French-Jewish school – was established by Alliance Israelite Universelle in 1895. The school remained open until 1916. In the early 20 c. Bitola lost much of its significance, and even more so after World War I when the town was destroyed by bombs. The population was reduced to poverty, not sparing the Jews, who emigrated in great numbers. Of  the 7,000 Jews living there in 1910, only 3,350 remained at the beginning of World War II, of  whom no more than 89 lived to see the end of the Fascist occupation. Bitola Jews lived in threee mahallas: La Kaleze, Tabana and Ciflfik, all of them situated in the centre of the town. The 1931 census lists most of them as artisans – 556 dealing in 22 crafts (mainly shoe-repair, gardening, tailoring); there were 330 merchants, of whom only about 50 befter-off, and the others werw small grocers or sold small articles.
The most educated people in Bitola were rabbis, who encouraged even the poorest to have their children educated. The famous Rabbis of Bitola were Josef Ben Lev and Slomo Avram in the 16 c. and Smuel de Medina in the 17 c. Bitola Jews took an active part in liberation movements and wars that shook Macedonia, in the Ilinden Uprising of 1903, the Young-Turks Revolution of 1908, both Balkan wars and both world wars.
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