First came the flowers. Then the cakes. Then the gifts. Then the gifts for my children. In my nearly two decades of performing as a singer and being an advocate for Sephardic culture, I have never been feted the way I was when I visited Bitola, Macedonia, in September 2017—without a single Jew in sight, Sephardic or otherwise.

Macedonians love Jews. In fact, there’s a traditional folk song that cements this theory:

One time I was a bachelor,
Even a job I didn’t have.
La, la, la, la, la, la,
Even a job I didn’t have.

So I left for a stroll,
For a stroll in Bitola.
La, la, la, la, la, la,
For a stroll in Bitola.

For a stroll through Bitola,
Through the Jewish neighborhoods.
La, la, la, la, la, la,
Through the Jewish neighborhoods.

There I met a Jewish girl,
With messy hair.
La, la, la, la, la, la,
With messy hair.

And I told her in Slavonic
For her to become Slavic.
La, la, la, la, la, la,
For her to become Slavic.

Once part of the Ottoman Empire and subsequently Yugoslavia, the Republic of Macedonia is bordered by Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, and Greece. It is the homeland of Alexander the Great, birthplace of Mother Theresa, and land of a once thriving Sephardic Jewish community. Macedonia has maintained a continuous Jewish community since Roman times. In Stobi, Macedonia, archeologists discovered remains of second- and third-century synagogues.

In the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition, Macedonia received an influx of Sephardic Jews fleeing the Iberian Peninsula. These immigrants settled primarily in Monastir (now known as Bitola), Skopje, and Shtip, and lived relatively peacefully with their neighbors for hundreds of years. The Macedonian Jewish community was decimated by the Holocaust when 98 percent were murdered in the Treblinka extermination camp. Many of the surviving Jews made aliyah to Israel or migrated elsewhere after the war. While there are no Jews left today in Bitola, there remains a small but vibrant Jewish community of 225 people in Skopje.

I grew up hearing about Monastir from my grandfather, who was born there. Although his family immigrated to the United States during the Balkan Wars in 1912, he was always proud of his homeland and loved telling stories about his childhood. But Macedonia always seemed very distant and exotic to me. I was confused by the fact that my grandfather referred to his homeland as Greece, called himself a Turk, and said he spoke Spanish. What was this mishmash?

I have spent my adult life sorting this out: The Jewish community of Monastir had a fluid relationship with its fellow Sephardic Jews in neighboring Salonika, Greece; many today still consider Macedonia part of Greece. The Ottoman Empire was Turkish. And the “Spanish” my grandfather spoke was actually Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish.

That much was easy to untangle. What is perplexing now is the Jewish legacy that remains in Bitola, with nary a Jew in sight.

***

I knew before I headed to Macedonia that my family name carried some weight. The Aroesty family (with multiple spellings) had been a large and influential one in Monastir. Over the years, a few citizens in Macedonia got wind of the fact that I had family roots in Monastir, and had written some articles about me in a couple of Macedonian newspapers. I used to joke with friends that, while I was unknown most everywhere else in the world, I was huge in Macedonia. When a few fans from Bitola started befriending me on Facebook, I thought it was sweet. And when they repeatedly asked me to come perform there, I was sure it was just a pleasantry—until it became plausible.

The author’s grandfather, right, in Monastir, early 1900s. (Photo courtesy the author)

I informed my Facebook friends in Bitola that I had been invited to perform in neighboring Bulgaria, and they insisted that I come to Macedonia as well. Over the course of the next couple of months, regular citizens—neither a producing organization nor venue—planned every detail of my time in Macedonia: housing, transportation, sightseeing, meals, and even a concert. I figured that at least some of the people mapping out my itinerary must have been Jewish or had Jewish roots—why else would they bother with such hospitality? But alas, not a single person I had been communicating with was a Jew.

When I first arrived in Macedonia last September, I was whisked away to Bitola’s historic cemetery, where—unbeknownst to me—I was met by a television crew that followed me for the remainder of my trip. At the cemetery’s entrance, a plaque lists by surnames all the Jews who had been taken to Treblinka. I knew many in my extended family had perished, but actually reading off the number of Aroesty names deeply affected me. My every emotion was caught on camera.

I was led through the cemetery and learned about the efforts to restore this landmark site, which was destroyed not by WWII but by neglect because no Jews were left to maintain it after the war. In 2015, the Israel-Macedonian Initiative launched a joint project to uncover, document, and map the cemetery with GPS technology. The head of the initiative and all of the volunteers who lovingly work at the cemetery are gentiles.

For the next 48 hours, locals insisted on treating me for every meal. They took me on walking tours of the Jewish neighborhoods, and strangers invited me into their homes for tea. Elderly people stopped me on the street to relay stories of Jewish friends from childhood. One person proudly presented me with an old book of Ladino songs, and others excitedly showed me dozens upon dozens of photographs of old Monastir. The Museum of Bitola even bestowed me with a certificate of thanks. To top it all off, I performed in Ladino (while a Macedonian interpreter translated my English banter) to a soldout crowd, with not one person in the audience being Jewish.

I was astounded by all the good people’s sensitivity to my family’s history and the protectiveness they feel toward it. They showed me the streets where my grandfather played, and most poignantly, arranged for me to have access to the childhood home of my cousin, Rachel Nachmias. Now 100 years old, Rachel escaped the Holocaust by hiding in the trunk of a car headed for Albania, where she changed her name to Mimi Hussein and pretended to be Muslim while waiting out the war. From her childhood balcony, I sat and read from her diary the memories she recorded after the war ended. Rachel wrote that, after her father had been taken to a forced-labor camp in Bulgaria and her 12-year-old brother planned to join the partisans, her mother commanded her to go to the Albanian Consul, who had taken over their house but with whom they maintained friendly terms, to ask for help. When Rachel arrived, the consul informed her that he had seen a telegram warning that Germans would be coming the next day to take men and women ages 18-25. She was in that group. The consul told her to return that evening for an escape. Rachel ran quickly home to tell her mother the news. This is the entry in her diary recalling the end of that day:

The Last Time I Saw My Mother
March 10, 1943

I told her what the consul had said to me about the Germans, that they were planning on taking men and women of age 18-25. My mother looked at me and said, “Look, it’s almost 5 p.m., you don’t have much time to lose. Now go and don’t think about me. Your father is coming tomorrow, your brother is leaving early in the morning. After your father comes we will come and see you…” She pushed me at the door, I don’t remember if I embraced her. At the door my younger brother came. Where was I going? he asked. My mother answered, “To the neighbor’s.” She figured that she would explain to him after I left. My mother closed the door on me and that was the last time I saw her. The next day, the 11th of March, they took all the Jewish people in one day—young, old, sick. My younger brother didn’t have time to leave. The Germans, they blockaded the city for that day. No stores were open, no people on the streets. That was the last time I saw my mother and brother.

Rachel’s gentile neighbor held on to the mezuzah from her house, so as to return it when she hoped to see the family again after the war. Many years later, the mezuzah was, in fact, returned to Rachel.

I have witnessed the love of the Macedonian people for their Jewish past. It is not because of a sense of historic guilt, but rather a deep, true love of the Jewish culture that helped make up their history. Bitola’s history is inextricably linked with the Jewish culture of its former Monastir. The citizens today want this Jewish culture back. They are committing their professional and volunteer time to make this happen.

Macedonia today is an ethnic mix of Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Romani, Serbs, Bosniaks, Jews, and more. Its recovery from a near all-out interethnic war 17 years ago demonstrates how hard the people are working to accommodate all the cultures that make up this country. Every person who worked so hard to welcome me and to honor my family name wanted nothing in return—except, perhaps, to raise more awareness about their efforts to highlight their city and country’s Jewish past.

That is why I am returning this summer, and bringing a group with me. I need to go back this time to bring more people with me to witness what I have seen and to meet the people who embraced me. Macedonians love Jews. It’s time to return that love.

***

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