Headstones reveal history of Bitolan Jews 

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Headstones reveal history of Bitolan Jews 

Activists working on a cemetery in Macedonian for four years have so far unearthed around 40 percent of its estimated 10,000 headstones

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

The Jewish cemetery in Macedonia
The Jewish cemetery in Macedonia

 A major clean-up operation of the Jewish cemetery in Bitola, the Macedonian city once known as Monastir where Jews are said to have lived since the third century CE, has revealed some poignant memories for the few descendants of  its Jews.

Nazis killed 98 percent of Macedonian Jewry and the remaining community was almost wiped out in the 1963 earthquake which devastated Skopje, now the capital of North Macedonia.

Rachel Shelley Levi-Drummer, who left for Israel with her grandparents after the earthquake, has joined Israel’s ambassador to North Macedonia, Dan Oryan, to work on cleaning up the Bitola Jewish cemetery.

They have been working on the cemetery for four years and have so far unearthed around 40 percent of its estimated 10,000 headstones – some dating back to the 15th century, and placed flat on the ground in the Sephardi tradition.

The Bitola headstones contained rich descriptions and even poems about the deceased. Bela Balashnikov, 76, learned the only information she has about her great-grandfather, Matityahu Shmaya Zarfati, from a stone uncovered in the clean-up.

“I was so moved to learn he was a donor to communal causes, that he cared about the poor, that he was a learned man. Before the clean-up, I knew only his name.”


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