Macedonia plans to commemorate thousands of Jews killed at Treblinka

SKOPJE, Macedonia — A president, a doctor and a developer comprise the non-Jewish trio — which includes Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov — now striving to fulfill the country's "moral obligation" to commemorate the approximately 7,300 Jews from this small Balkan nation who perished in Treblinka.

On March 11, 1943, Bulgarian fascists occupying Macedonia rounded up its Jews and delivered them by train to Nazis in Serbia.

Two memorials to the victims are now planned. One of these is a Holocaust museum in Macedonia's capital, Skopje. Farther south, in Bitola, a 500-year-old Sephardi cemetery is earmarked for restoration.

"We must not forget them," said Dr. Ivan Dejanov, president of the Macedonian-Israeli Friendship Association.

Dejanov, 65, and other Macedonians fondly recall their Jewish classmates, neighbors and colleagues. They remember the joint business ventures, the shared Passover seders.

They speak of the parallel fate and undying spirit of Jews and Macedonians — "brothers in misfortune, suffering and destiny."

The drive to honor the Jews' memory, they say, is motivated partly by how little today's youth know of the Jewish chapter in Macedonian history, and partly by the polarization among ethnic groups within the former Yugoslavia.

Macedonia broke free of Yugoslavia in 1992, just as the Bosnian civil war began among Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

Keenly aware of this continued ethnic polarization, the surviving Macedonian Jewish community — a tiny but tight-knit group of 182 — has endorsed wholeheartedly the plans for the memorials.

"Here in the Balkans, where these problems are especially acute, we have an obligation to show what happens when people try to destroy each other," said Viktor Mizrahi, president of the Macedonian Jewish community.

At their peak, in 1910, some 10,000 Jews lived in what is now Macedonia.

The first are said to have arrived at the time of Alexander the Great some 2,500 years ago. Sephardi Jews began trickling in after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.

They settled in three main areas: Bitola, Skopje and Stip.

The relative harmony Jews enjoyed in Macedonia came to an end after Bulgaria invaded in the winter of 1941.

Though Bulgaria is lauded for protecting its own Jews during the war, it didn't spare those in its occupied territories.

Gligorov, then working for a Jewish banker in Skopje and active in the resistance movement, recalled that in early March 1943 he learned from a contact within the Bulgarian forces that Jews in Skopje would be rounded up.

Gligorov warned his Jewish friends, helping several obtain fake documents to flee through Albania to Italy.

But others refused to heed his warning.

On March 11, the Bulgarians went door to door to round up Jews. From his second-floor office, Gligorov drew back the curtains and watched his friends file past, bags in hand, toward the train station.

"I didn't know their fate, but I knew things would not go well," Gligorov, 80, said.

Meanwhile, a similar scene was unfolding in Bitola.

Despite Bulgarian pronouncements that anyone sheltering Jews would share their fate, Boris and Vaska Altiparmak took in four Jewish teen boys.

After hiding them for a month, the Altiparmaks gave the four peasant garb and sent them to join the partisans in the mountains.

Overall, only 167 Macedonian Jews are said to have survived the Holocaust.

Boris and Vaska Altiparmak were honored in 1991 by the Israeli Knesset as Righteous Gentiles.

Boris Altiparmak, 84, is now honorary chairman of the Jewish cemetery restoration committee; his son, Vladimir, a real estate developer, is board secretary.

Like most Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe, the one in Bitola is unkempt, with many headstones overturned and scarred with graffiti.

Vladimir Altiparmak believes that Bitola, and its vanished Jewish community, deserve better.

"When we lost so many Jews, we lost as a town. It is our duty to restore it, because this would have been their wishes."