In 1941, some 78,000 Jews lived in Yugoslavia, including about 4,000 foreign or stateless Jews who had found refuge in the country during the 1930s. Although Yugoslavia had reluctantly joined the Axis alliance with Germany, the Yugoslav government was toppled by an anti-German military coup on March 27, 1941. Nazi Germany invaded the Balkan nations of Yugoslavia and Greece in early April 1941. Supported militarily by her Axis allies (Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania), Germany quickly subdued the Balkans. Yugoslavia was partitioned among the Axis allies. Bulgaria annexed Yugoslav Macedonia (the area including the cities of Skopje and Bitola in southern Yugoslavia).
On October 4, 1941, the Bulgarians enforced an extraordinary measure that prohibited the Jews of Macedonia from engaging in any type of industry or commerce. All existing Jewish businesses had three months to transfer ownership to non-Jews or sell their assets and close down. In addition, a law that barred Jews from certain areas of town was enforced in Monastir in late 1941. Jews who lived in the more prosperous part of Monastir, located on the east side of the Dragor River, were forced to move to a poorer part of town located near the traditional Jewish quarter on the west side, and this area became the ghetto.
With Monastir's Jews forced into a ghetto and registered, it became easier to carry out the theft of their property. On July 2, 1942, the Bulgarian government demanded that all Jewish households hand over 20 percent of the value of all assets, including property, furniture, cash, and household items. Committees were established to assess the value of the Jews' property. The possessions of those who did not have the money to pay the tax were sold at auction.
All of these degrading, restrictive measures halted normal Jewish life in Monastir. Zamila Kolonomos, a local Jewish woman, lived through these years of occupation in Monastir. She wrote, "Ansina la vida si truko i no avia mas ni enkontros, ni fiestar, ni bodas, ni aligrias" (Thus life was so greatly changed and there were no more get-togethers, no festivals, no weddings, no celebrations).
Though allied with the Germans, the Bulgarian government refused to deport Jews residing in Bulgaria proper. Bulgarian authorities did, however, deport Jews without Bulgarian citizenship from the territories of Yugoslavia and Greece which Bulgaria occupied. They deported the Macedonian Jews in simultaneous actions that began in the early morning of Thursday, March 11, 1943. In Monastir, Skopje, and Štip, where there was a tiny population of Sephardic Jews, several hundred police and soldiers, as well as cart drivers with their carts, gathered at municipal police stations at 2 a.m. to receive instructions for the removal of the Jews and their belongings. In Monastir, the Bulgarian military established a blockade around the city to prevent escapes.
Between 5 and 6 a.m., groups fanned out into the ghetto to bang on doors and order the residents to leave their homes in one hour. The Jews were told that they were being transferred to other parts of Bulgaria and that after the war they would be returned to their homes, but this did little to ease the terror and confusion of this massive eviction. Advance rumors of this action convinced Kolonomos to hide, and that night she and four others sat in a windowless room in a shop and listened to what was happening to their community. Kolonomos wrote,
At dawn we heard the uproar of groups of police. In a moment there was the sound of horses' footsteps and the noise of carts. Then all was calm. Then came a noise like thunder….We asked each other what it could be? Then we were able to discern the sound of voices, shouts, the crying of many people, of babies, of women! We were able to distinguish the words of the Bulgarians who shouted: 'Quickly! Quickly!' The prayers, moans, curses, the crying was clear… They were taking all the Jews, old and young, not just the youths who could work…. A river of people passed alongside us.
At around 7 a.m. the Jews were forced to walk to the railroad station, where a train was waiting to take them away to neighboring Skopje; a temporary detention center had been established at the state tobacco monopoly warehouse known as Monopol. The Monopol was chosen for its ability to hold thousands of people, and also because it was served by a railroad. Albert Sarfati survived the war, and he gave this eyewitness account:
They loaded us into cattle wagons, fifty to sixty people per wagon, including luggage. There wasn't enough space and many had to stand. There was no water. The children were crying … A woman in one wagon was giving birth… but there was no doctor. We reached Skopje at midnight. Night. Darkness. They opened the wagons and in the darkness pushed us into two large buildings. Cars carrying the Jews from Shtip had been added to our train. Stumbling over one another in the darkness, dragging our luggage and continuously being beaten by the Bulgarian soldiers, the children, the aged and infirm tried to squeeze into the building. When the sun rose, we realized we were in Skopje in the building of the Monopoly, and that all the Jews of Macedonia had been rounded up that same day.
For the next 11 days the Monastir Jews, together with Jews from Skopje and Štip, approximately 7,215 in all, lived in crowded, filthy conditions in four warehouses at Monopol. The weather was cold, there was little food and few blankets, and the Jews were continually searched, beaten, and humiliated. Women and girls were raped. Elena Leon Ishakh, a doctor from Monastir who was released from Monopol to work for the Bulgarians, survived the war and left this description of the Monopol:
Hunger pervaded… Only on the fifth day did the camp authorities set up a kitchen, but for over 7,000 of us there were too few stoves. Food was doled out starting at eleven in the morning, and the last ones were fed around five in the evening. Food was distributed once daily and consisted of 250 grams of bread and plain, watery beans or rice… They also gave us smoked meat, but it was so bad that, despite our hunger, we couldn't eat it… Under the pretext of searching us to find hidden money, gold, or foreign currency, they sadistically forced us to undress entirely… In some cases they even took away baby diapers… If anything was found on somebody, he was beaten….
Nico Pardo was one of the few who managed to escape from the Skopje detention center and after the war he described the Jews' despair in Monopol:
We were in a terrible mood. The youngsters tried to sing every so often, but the adults and the elderly people were in deep depression. We did not know what awaited us, but the dreadful treatment we received from the Bulgarians showed the value of the promises given us that we would only be taken to a Bulgarian work camp. Here and there youngsters whispered of the possibility of an uprising and a mass escape, but they never materialized. There was no prospect of it succeeding. The yard was surrounded by a wooden fence and behind that a barbed wire fence. At each of the four corners there was a sentry with a machine gun and other armed guards would patrol the yard. Also, the belief that the worst possible fate did not await us prevented such suicidal acts from taking place.
Three railroad transports took the Macedonian Jews from Monopol to Treblinka. The journey typically took six days, and during this time the Jews were locked in cattle or freight cars. Several Jews died during each transport, and the living had to endure the presence of corpses. On the morning of March 22, 1943, some 2,300 Macedonian Jews from Monopol were forced to board a train consisting of 40 cattle cars. Families journeyed together, and the transport included at least 134 small children no more than four years old, and at least 194 children between the ages of four and 10. The train arrived at Treblinka six days later on March 28 at 7 a.m. Four people died on this transport. The overwhelming majority of these Jews were from Skopje.
On March 25, German and Bulgarian soldiers loaded about 2,400 Macedonian Jews onto a train made up of freight cars. All the Jews from Štip, who numbered 551, were on this second transport, as were about 2,000 Jews from Skopje and Monastir. Sarfati was scheduled to board the third transport, and he watched the Jews board this second train:
Each wagon carried between 60 and 70 people with all their baggage. The people came out of the building carrying their belongings on their backs. Everyone was carrying things, from the oldest person to the youngest. With bowed heads, all approached the black train. In front of each wagon stood a German and a Bulgarian policeman checking off a list. It was impossible to sit down in the freight cars. As soon as the 'livestock' had been loaded into a car, it was locked and sealed. Only heads were visible through the small windows… Those of us in the building were not permitted to watch, and the police waved their machine guns toward our windows to keep us from watching. The train was ready and left about eleven o'clock. Hands were waving goodbye from the small wagon windows and all of us in the building were shedding tears.
The last train carried around 2,400 Jews, approximately 2,300 of whom were from Monastir. The Jews began boarding the freight cars at 6 a.m. on March 29 and by noon the train was full. The departure of this train for the killing center at Treblinka signaled the final destruction of the Monastir Jewish community.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum acknowledges the gracious assistance of the following archives and sources.
Mark Cohen, author of Last Century of a Sephardic Community: The Jews of Monastir, 1839-1943 (Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, New York, NY).
State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia