To honor the Jews of Bitola

SUN JOURNAL

Park: A cemetery is being restored as a memorial to a Macedonian town's prewar Jewish population of about 3,200 people - all but two of whom were wiped out in the Holocaust.

May 30, 2002|By Katka Krosnar | Katka Krosnar,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BITOLA, Macedonia - It can be easy to miss, tucked away on the outskirts of this town, where 70 grand mosques pay more obvious testament to the Turkish past. But plans are under way to revive a key symbol of Macedonia's Jewish past - its 500-year-old Jewish cemetery.

The burial site, together with a single memorial to Holocaust victims, is all that remains to pay homage to Bitola's vibrant prewar Jewish population. Bitola's 3,200 Jews, its five synagogues and its Jewish school disappeared as a result of the Holocaust.

Decades of socialism left the grass growing over the graves and the Jewish culture buried. Today, ethnic tensions between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians largely dominate life. The country's 2 million residents remain largely unaware of their rich Jewish culture, and of the 7,000 Macedonian Jews who died in the Holocaust.

All that could soon change, however. A $190,000 plan is in progress to restore the cemetery, which contains about 2,000 graves and is one of the oldest in the Balkans, and turn the site into a memorial park. It is to contain 3,200 plants, one for each Bitola Jew deported to a Nazi death camp.

For Mois Benjakoz, perhaps more than anyone, the project is all-important. Benjakoz, 68, is the sole surviving Jew in Bitola, the former Yugoslav republic's second-largest town, which borders Greece and in the early 1940s had a thriving Jewish community.

On March 11, 1943, the town's Jewish population of 3,200 - except for Benjakoz and his mother, Arnesta - were rounded up by Bulgarian fascists occupying Macedonia and sent by train to Nazi authorities in Serbia. They were briefly kept in a tobacco factory where they were tortured before being sent to the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland. No one returned.

Today, 59 years later, Benjakoz still demonstrates the physical damage and mental trauma he suffered. Holding up an X-ray, he points to the bullet still lodged in his spine, fired from the gun of a Bulgarian soldier who encountered the boy, then 9, and realized Mois was Jewish. He also bears the effects of leg muscle injuries inflicted by a bayonet butt and a knife.

"The soldier asked me my name. I was too young to lie, so I told him, and he immediately realized that I was Jewish, so [he] attacked me," he recalls.

Benjakoz owes his life to his widowed mother, who had arranged a wedding to a Turk and claimed her son was Turkish, dressing him like a Turk. Their non-Jewish neighbors and friends backed up their story.

When their situation looked precarious, the child and his mother escaped to the hills surrounding Bitola, living with partisans and tending goats until after the end of the war. "I thank God that I am alive, and it's only due to my friends and neighbors that I did not die," he says, his voice shaking. "Even I do not know why exactly I survived when thousands didn't."

Benjakoz laments the lack of interest in Macedonia's Jewish history and sees the cemetery as a means to change the situation.

"I am delighted that the cemetery will be restored to its former self; it is very important to do this and acknowledge the past," he says. "I remember going there to lay flowers at my grandparents' graves and how beautiful the site was."

Organizers say they hope that by March, the 60th anniversary of the deportation of the town's Jews to Treblinka, the restoration will be complete. "There is a lot of work to do, and we still have to raise enough money, but restoring the cemetery remains our main goal," says Bojan Sarpunov, secretary of Macedonia's tiny Jewish community, based in the capital, Skopje.

A new pavilion housing a tiny one-room museum of artifacts about the town's former Jewish population has just opened at the cemetery, and a second room will re-create a typical Jewish home in Bitola in the 1940s. The museum contains photographs and text about the town's former Jewish residents.

Now, only a handful of the cemetery's gravestones are legible, the hilly area is unkempt, and goats and stray dogs roam the site. A key part of the project will be replacing the 500 tombstones removed by Bulgarian Fascist soldiers during World War II.

Funds have been committed by the Macedonian government and private enterprise and individuals, and organizers are hopeful of receiving financial support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and from Phare, the European Commission's funding program for countries seeking European Union membership.

Tomislav Simjanovjski, a retired lawyer leading efforts to restore Bitola's cemetery, is determined that the city recall its Jewish past.

"No one, from the authorities to ordinary people, really knows or cares about the Jewish past," he says. "Children don't learn about this in school."

Simjanovjski, who is not Jewish, plans to tour schools and teach the young about the country's Jewish past. He and several other businessmen and individuals from the town have donated a total of $13,500 to the restoration project.

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