The Holocaust in Macedonia, 1941-1944
By Carl K. Savich
From 1941 to 1944, over 7,000 Macedonians Jews were killed during the Holocaust in Macedonia, rounded up and deported by German, Bulgarian, and Albanian forces. Macedonia was annexed and divided between Greater Albania and Greater Bulgaria following the invasion and occupation of Yugoslavia in April, 1941 by Germany and Axis allies Italy, Hungary, Albania, and Bulgaria. The Tetovo, Gostivar, Struga, Kichevo, and Debar districts of Western Macedonia were annexed and incorporated into an enlarged Albanian state, or Greater Albania, sponsored by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Eastern Macedonia, including the capital Skopje, Bitola, and Shtip, were annexed to Greater Bulgaria. Western Macedonia was occupied by the Italian Army and was under Italian administration until the Italian surrender in 1943 when it was re-occupied by Germany. In conjunction with the Balli Kombetar, the Italian occupation forces formed the fascist Albanian Ljuboten battalion which the German forces retained after 1943. In 1944, Germany formed the Albanian Skanderbeg Waffen SS Division which occupied Kosovo, Southern Serbia, Montenegro, and Western Macedonia. The Macedonian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Roma, and Macedonian Jewish populations were the targets or victims of genocide and extermination. The Macedonian and Serbian nationalities were de-recognized by the Bulgarian occupation forces. The Bulgarian occupation regime categorized the Macedonian Slav population as Bulgarian. In the Greater Albania region of Western Macedonia, the Macedonian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Roma, and Jewish populations were similarly targeted for elimination and deportation.
The Jewish Population of Macedonia
The total Jewish population of Macedonia in 1941 was approximately 7,800-8,000, concentrated in the Macedonian cities of Skopje, Bitola, and Shtip, which were in the Bulgarian zone of occupation, Eastern or Greater Bulgaria. There were also 300 Jewish refugees in Macedonia from Belgrade, Serbia, who had escaped to Skopje. The Bulgarian police and military forces rounded up over 7,000 Macedonian Jews who they then turned over to the German forces who deported them to the Treblinka concentration camp in railroad cars in March, 1943. During World War II, over 7,000 Macedonian Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
Jews have lived in Macedonia since Roman times. A Greek inscription on a pillar of a church which had been a former synagogue in Stobi near Bitola showed evidence of Jewish settlement in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This historical record is preserved in the national museum of Belgrade, Serbia. In the medieval period, Jews lived in Bitola, Skopje, Ochrid, and Struga. During the reign of Serbian Tsar Stephen Dushan, Jewish farmers are mentioned as living in Macedonia. Stephen Dushan conquered Macedonia in 1353, when Macedonia was incorporated into the medieval Serbian state. Skopje would become the capital city of Serbia. During the 14th century, the Jewish grammarian Judah Moskoni lived in Ochrid. During the 16th century, Jewish communities are known to have existed in the Macedonian cities of Skopje and Bitola and the Serbian cities of Nish, Smederevo, and Pozarevac.
During the medieval period as part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Skopje (known as Uskub in Turkish, Skupi in pre-Ottoman history) became a major commercial and trading center located on the trade route from Constantinople and Salonika to Serbia and Bosnia. Ottoman Uskub was inundated by Turkish Muslim settlers. Skopje was on a strategically important military route. Jewish merchants in Skopje were involved in various trades such as manufacturing wool clothing, commerce, and the production of kachkaval cheese. Commerce was transacted between Salonika and Constantinople in Skopje.
Mass Jewish migrations to Macedonia occurred following the Spanish Inquisition and Reconquista or Reconquest in Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century. Many of the Spanish Jews were craftsmen and entrepreneurs and spoke their own language, Ladino, and were of the Sephardic sect of Judaism. These Spanish and Portuguese Jewish refugees settled in Salonika (Thessalonika) in Greece, Skopje, Bitola, Ber, Kostur, Serres, Shtip, Kratovo, and Strumica. By the middle of the 16th century, 3,000 Jewish households were established in Salonika, which was called “the mother-city of Israel”. In the 17th century, the Jewish quarter of Skopje had its own schools, two synagogues, and walls that surrounded it. The Jewish population of Shtip had its origins in Salonika. During the march of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I’s forces on Skopje in 1689, the city was burned and destroyed. The Jews of Skopje were forced to flee the city, while synagogues were burned down and the wall surrounding the Jewish quarter was destroyed. Mosques and Muslim and Ottoman Turkish structures and buildings were burned down and destroyed. At the time of the Young Turk revolution, there was another influx of Jewish settlers in Macedonia.
Macedonia and the Holocaust: Greater Bulgaria
Yugoslavia was invaded on April 6, 1941 by Germany, Italy, Albania, Hungary, and Bulgaria in a joint offensive termed by Adolf Hitler Operation Punishment. Southern Yugoslavia was invaded by German and Bulgarian forces which occupied Macedonia. Macedonia came under Bulgarian military occupation on April 18 when Macedonia was annexed into a Greater Bulgaria along with Thrace. Bulgarian King Boris III, who ruled from 1918 to 1943, and his Prime Minister from February, 1940 to September, 1943, Bogdan Filov, had signed a pact with Germany on March 1, 1941 making Bulgaria an Axis partner in the Hitler-Filov Accords.
Bulgarian anti-Jewish measures began on January 21, 1941 when the Law for the Defense of the Nation was promulgated by the Bulgarian parliament in Sofia. The Law for the Defense of the Nation restricted the civil rights of Bulgarian Jews. On October 4, 1941, Macedonian Jews in the Skopje and Bitola districts were forbidden to maintain any commercial/trade/economic business or to transact any business. Jewish businesses were to be closed down and liquidated by the end of the year. On June 28, 1942, a law was passed which mandated that the Bulgarian Council of Ministers implement “all necessary steps to solve the Jewish question and the problems involved.” Bulgaria thus was committed to the implementation of the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem, what became known as the Holocaust or Shoah. Other anti-Jewish ordinances and orders were enacted by the Bulgarian government. On September 4, 1942, Jews living in Macedonia, Thrace, and the rest of Greater Bulgaria were required to identify their place of residence and their businesses. On August 26, 1942, the Bulgarian Commissariat for the Jewish Problem, also known as the Central Commissariat for Jewish Affairs, in consultation with the German officials in Sofia and the Gestapo, passed an order, number 4567, that mandated that Jews wear a yellow badge. All Macedonian Jews over the age of ten were now legally required to wear the “Jewish badge”, a yellow Star of David, the Magen David, or Mogen David, to identify themselves as Jews. Macedonian Jews were further forbidden to frequent movie theaters and cafes. Jews were forbidden to live in the same residence with Bulgarians. Moreover, there was a curfew for Jews forbidding them to leave their homes after certain times or to travel city streets after certain times. Jewish residences and Jewish residents had to be listed. Due to these anti-Jewish measures, Jews were excluded from the social, political, and economic life of Greater Bulgaria which resulted in the ghettoization of the Macedonian Jews.
In the fall of 1942, Macedonians were made Bulgarian citizens, but Macedonian Jews were excluded from citizenship. The Macedonian national/ethnic classification was de-recognized. The Serbian national/ethnic classification was similarly de-recognized. The Orthodox Slavic population of Macedonia was deemed to be Bulgarian. As in the Croatian/Bosnian Muslim Ustasha NDH, the Independent State of Croatia, the Serbian population ceased to exist. So Jews were not the only targets of genocide in Macedonia. Macedonians, Serbs, and Roma were similarly targeted for extermination and genocide. The Bulgarian government implemented a policy of Bulgarization of the Slavic Orthodox population, both Macedonian and Serbian. Pro-Bulgarian security battalions, known as “Ohrana”, were established in Macedonia. For Macedonian Jews, the deprivation of Bulgarian citizenship meant that their property could be seized or “sequestered” and there could be economic discrimination applied to them. As non-citizen aliens, they lacked full civil rights. Their movements could be restricted, and they could be prevented from purchasing goods and services.
On February 22, 1943, Germany and Bulgaria signed an agreement to expel 20,000 Bulgarian Jews, the Bulgarian government agreeing to deport the Jews of the areas annexed to Greater Bulgaria, Macedonia and Thrace. In 1941, Macedonia had a total Jewish population of approximately 7,800-8,000 Jews. Skopje had a population of 3,800 Jews, Bitola had a population of 3,300, and Shtip had a population of 550. In 1910, Bitola (known also as Bitolj and Monastir) had a total Jewish population of 2,000. In 1941, the Jewish population of Bitola was approximately 3,500. On April 5, 1943, the Jewish population of Bitola was deported to the German concentration/extermination camp of Treblinka in German-occupied Poland. By 1952, one or two Jews were left in Bitola. There had been five synagogues in Bitola, none of which remain today. The Jewish presence in Bitola was wiped out.
The center of Jewish life, culture, and commerce in the southern Balkans was the Greek port city of Salonika or Thessalonika or Solun, an important commercial sea port. Many Macedonian Jews had originally come from Salonika. There had been a Jewish presence in Salonika since 140 B.C. In 1935, Salonika had a total Jewish population of 60,000. Thrace had a total Jewish population of 1,250 Jews who had lived there since 1542. In Bulgaria proper there was a total Jewish population of approximately 50,000.
On March 11, 1943, the Bulgarian Commissariat for Jewish Affairs based in Sofia ordered the seizure and detention of the Jewish population of Macedonia and Thrace by Bulgarian military forces, police, and governmental agencies after consultations with the German minister in Sofia, Alexander Beckerle. The Bulgarian government acquiesced to the deportation of the Jewish populations of Macedonia and Thrace but did not relent to the deportation of the Jewish population of Bulgaria proper, due to the pressure exerted by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and Orthodox priests, who opposed the deportations and anti-Jewish policies, and the pressure of public opinion, which likewise opposed the deportations in Bulgaria proper. But there was no such compunction or reluctance in deporting the Macedonian and Thracian Jews, regarded as “foreign” Jews.
A total of 7,215 Macedonian Jews were seized by Bulgarian forces and sent in wagon cars of 50-60 persons per wagon to a transit camp, the Monopol tobacco factory, in Skopje. Eleven days later, 198 of these Jewish deportees were released, those that were foreign nationals. A second group released were 67 doctors, pharmacists, and their families. In the group of deportees, there were 539 children up to three years of age, 602 children between the ages of three and ten, 1,172 children between the ages of ten and sixteen. Thus, 2,313 children under the age of sixteen were deported to Treblinka. None of them survived.
There were 865 elderly Macedonian Jewish deportees over the age of 60. There were 250 severely ill deportees in the group.
The deportees were kept in deplorable conditions. Each room in the Monopol tobacco factory held over 500 persons. The Skopje Monopol tobacco factory lacked adequate sanitation. Food and water were scarce. On March 22, the first transport trains took the deportees to Treblinka. The transport of the Macedonian Jews to Treblinka was supervised by SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Theodor Dannecker. Bulgarian police forces guarded the transports. The second transport was under the direction of German Gestapo personnel. On March 25 and 29, a second and a third transport respectively departed for Treblinka. The third transport consisted of 2,500 persons. Of the 7,144 Macedonian Jews deported to Treblinka, none survived. Of that number, 2,313 children under the age of 16 were killed. 100-200 Macedonian Jews survived the Holocaust in Macedonia. The round-up and deportations were organized by the Bulgarian Commissariat for Jewish Affairs and implemented by the Bulgarian police. The properties, businesses, and financial holdings of Macedonian Jews were seized by the Bulgarian government which allocated these assets to Bulgarian organizations, institutions, and private citizens.
Macedonia and the Holocaust: Greater Albania
Macedonia was divided between a Greater Bulgaria and a Greater Albania during the Holocaust. The Tetovo, Gostivar, Struga, Debar, and Kichevo regions of Western Macedonia, termed Illirida in the Greater Albania nomenclature, were annexed to an enlarged Albanian state sponsored by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. The Western Macedonia/Illirida sector of Greater Albania was occupied by Italy with Albanian proxy forces and an Albanian administration until September, 1943, when Western Macedonia was occupied by German forces after the Italian surrender. During the Italian occupation, the Albanian nationalist Balli Kombetar (BK, National Union) was formed, a militant and radical Greater Albania movement based in the Greater Albania ideology established with the 1878 Albanian League of Prizren, that sought the extermination and deportation of the non-Albanian populations of Kosovo-Metohija, Western Macedonia, Montenegro, Southern Serbia, and Chameria in Greece. The Serbian Orthodox, Macedonian Orthodox, Roma, and Jewish populations were the targets for elimination/deportation of the Greater Albania ideology/movement. The Italian/fascist Albanian Ljuboten battalion was formed in the Tetovo region made up of Albanian troops. In 1944, when Germany occupied Western Macedonia, an Albanian Waffen SS Division was formed, the 21st Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS “Skanderbeg”(Albanische Nr.1). The Skanderbeg Division occupied Western Macedonia with a base in Tetovo. Remnants of the Skanderbeg Division later were deployed in Skopje during the German retreat from the Balkans. On August 29, 1944, Bulgaria signed an armistice with Russia and switched sides in the war following the advance of the Russian Red Army in the Balkans and the defeat of the German forces. The The 1st and 2nd Bulgarian Armies attacked the retreating German forces which included the Albanian Skanderbeg Waffen SS Division.
The first action of the Skanderbeg Division was the round-up of Kosovo Jews in Pristina. The Kosovo Jews seized by the Albanian Skanderbeg SS Division numbered 400 who were transported/deported by German forces to the Bergen-Belsen concentration/extermination camp where 300 were killed. The Albanian Skanderbeg SS Division was instrumental in making Kosovo Juden-frei, free of Jews. The Skanderbeg Division targeted the Serbian Orthodox population of Kosovo-Metojiha for extermination and deportation. Albanian troops in the Skanderbeg SS Division indiscriminately massacred Serbian civilians in Kosovo and deported over 10,000 Kosovo Serbs, their land being taken over by Albanian settlers from Albania proper. Thus, the Kosovo Jewish populations and the Kosovo Serbian populations were victims of genocide during the Greater Albania period. The Skanderbeg Division occupied Macedonia in early September, 1944, moving into the Skopje and Kumanovo area.
Albania proper had a total Jewish population of 300 in 1930. Following the Italian invasion and occupation of Albania on April 7, 1939, Albanian Jews were deported to Italy. But most of the Jews killed during the Holocaust in Albania were in the Greater Albania or “New Albania” region of Kosovo-Metohija. Italian forces deported Jewish refugees in the Pristina prison in Kosovo to the German concentration camp in Belgrade where they were subsequently executed by the German forces.
The Italian occupation forces in Western Macedonia installed ethnic Albanian Dzafer Sulejmani as the president of the Tetovo District, while Husein Derala was made the commander of police in Tetovo. The Italian forces relied on local Albanian proxies and an Albanian civil administration. Italian forces sponsored the nationalist Balli Kombetar movement, and established Vulnetara, Albanian proxy police forces, and the Albanian Ljuboten battalion, a military formation recruited by Italian intelligence, OVRA.
As in Greater Bulgaria, the Macedonian Jews were not the only targets of genocide and extermination. The Macedonian and Serbian Orthodox populations were targeted for genocide and deportation. The Roma of Macedonia were targeted as well. The Albanian High Commissioner for Western Macedonia, Feyzi Alizoti, called for and advocated publicly the extermination and deportation of non-Albanians in Western Macedonia. Alizoti gave a speech in Tetovo in which he argued for the annihilation of the non-Muslim communities of Macedonia. He called for the expulsion and deportation of the Orthodox Macedonian and Serbian populations, creating a pure, ethnically homogenous Illirida, an integral part of Greater Albania.
Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler became a sponsor of the Greater Albania ideology. Himmler sought to create two Albanian Waffen SS Divisions. The German-sponsored 1943 Second Albanian League of Prizen sought to realize the objectives of the Greater Albania ideology, to unite Albanian-inhabited areas into an ethnically pure Albanian state. Himmler supported Greater Albania because the Albanian Ghegs were purportedly of pure Aryan origins, i.,e., were part of the herrenvolk or master race. Moreover, Himmler perceived the Waffen SS as functioning as a liberation army for oppressed/repressed minorities and nationalities seeking independence/freedom/secession/annexation. Himmler would thus sponsor Greater Albania.
The Jewish population of Western Macedonia/Illirida, of the Macedonian sector of Greater Albania, was not deported until September, 1943, when German forces occupied the Italian zones. The German occupation forces in Western Macedonia rounded-up and deported several groups of Macedonian Jews to the concentration/extermination camps. Thus, the Macedonian Jews of Greater Albania, Western Macedonia/Illirida, and those of Greater Bulgaria, Eastern Macedonia, over 7,000, were deported and killed during the Holocaust.
During the Holocaust in Macedonia, 1941-1944, over 7,000 Macedonian Jews were killed. Bulgarian military/police forces in Eastern Macedonia, part of Greater Bulgaria, rounded-up the Macedonian Jews and turned them over to the German occupation forces who deported them in railroad cars to the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland in March, 1943. None of the deported Macedonian Jews survived. In Western Macedonia/Illirida, a part of Greater Albania, the German occupation forces deported groups of Jews to the concentration camps. During the Holocaust, 90% of the Macedonian Jewish population was killed by German, Bulgarian, and Albanian forces. There is a total Jewish population of 100-200 living in Macedonia today, out of a total Macedonian population of 2 million, most of whom live in the capital city of Skopje. Shtip has several remaining Jewish residents. There are no synagogues in Macedonia anymore. The Jewish community of Macedonia maintains contacts and links to the Jewish communities in Belgrade, Serbia, and in Salonika, Greece. The Holocaust in Macedonia from 1941 to 1944, implemented by German, Bulgarian, and Albanian forces, resulted in the destruction of the Jewish population of Macedonia.
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