Over the course of 75 years, very little has been said and taught in Israel about the fate of the Sephardic communities in the Balkans. Very little has been said about the end of the Jewish community of Belgrade, Zagreb or Sarajevo, and still less is known and said about the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia. Who has heard about the complete disappearance of the community of Bitula, Skopje or Niš? After 75 years the moment has come to break the silence.
On Sunday, March 11, beginning at 10:30 a.m., the main streets in Bitula were closed. Many hundreds of people gathered in the square in front of the local hospital, whose name has recently been changed to “Haim Abarbanel,” after the last Jewish doctor who headed the hospital; he later made aliyah. In the square in front of the hospital there is an inconspicuous monument in the shape of a tree stump, and on it a few words in Cyrillic letters.
The gathering included groups of Israelis whose families were connected to the Jewish community of Bitula; youth groups; a group of German Protestants; and most important, the felt presence of the mayor and of local Macedonian groups that had studied the subject. There were diplomats and heads of Jewish communities from former Yugoslavia. They had all come to lay wreaths in memory of the 3,144 Jews of Bitulia, an ancient Sephardic community that was annihilated.
On March 11, 1943, at 4:00 a.m., the Bulgarian police rounded up the Jewish families and transported them to the Monopol tobacco factory in Skopje, where they joined the communities of Skopje and Niš. On the 29th of March, 18 days later, they were sent to Treblinka to be murdered. Not one survived.
After the reading of the names of the victims and the laying of the wreaths and the speeches, a “March of the Living” set out. We walked through the streets of Bitula and the park to the train station from which the Jews had departed for Skopje in freight cars.
On the following day we again set out on a “March of the Living,” this time in the capital city, Skopje. Starting from the old train station from which the Jews were sent to Treblinka, we walked toward the Monopol factory. The streets of the capital were closed to traffic, and an impressive parade with many participants filled the streets leading to the factory, which is located in the heart of a residential neighborhood. There is no doubt that the residents of the city at that time were witness to the strange presence of more than 7000 Jews, from infants to elderly people. Did they not hear the cries for help, the screams for water and bread?
At the head of the parade walked the prime minister of Bosnia; the prime minister of Macedonia; Israel’s Deputy Minister of Security, Eli Ben Dahan; and the Israeli ambassador to Macedonia, Dan Orian. The most significant event occurred when, at the junction in front of the Monopol factory, a procession of cars halted and the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov, got out and joined the parade. The question hanging in the air was whether he had come to apologize in the name of Bulgaria for the persecution and murder of the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia.
But no. After 75 years he did not say a word about the responsibility of Bulgaria. Every Israeli citizen ought to know and remember, alongside the name of Adolf Eichmann, that of Alexander Belev. A member of the Bulgarian parliament, Belev drew up the “Law for the Protection of the Nation,” which paralleled the Nuremberg laws; established the Commissariat for Jewish Affairs; and drafted laws limiting the Jews’ movements and requiring them to wear a yellow button in the form of a Star of David. On February 22, 1943, Belev signed an agreement with Eichmann’s representative, Danker. The agreement stipulated that in the first stage, 1200 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia and 8,000 Jews from Bulgaria would be deported. In the second stage, all the Jews of Bulgaria would be deported. The Bulgarian police received the order and carried out the agreement with great efficiency. They set up the benches in the halls of the Monopol factory and kept the Jews imprisoned there until they were transferred to Treblinka. Has the time not come for us to know this, and for the Bulgarians to take responsibility and ask forgiveness of the Jews?
But the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, who joined the March of the Living, did not apologize. Ironically, at the time of writing a conference is being held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the rescue of the Jews of Bulgaria by the Bulgarian people. A pity that the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia were less fortunate.
Published in the “Opinion” section of Israel Today, March 15, 2018
Translated by Esther Cameron