Monastir in History
Following is a recap of the town's history, with references to the overall history of the region for context.
I know of two other places with the same name.
- Founded in the Fourth Century BCE as Heraklea Lyncestis (/Lincositis) by Alexander's father, it was historically part of Macedonia, and had strong ties to Jannina/Yoannina, Kastoria and Edessa/Edhessa even into modern times.
- It lay on the Roman Via Agnetia (the Egnatian Way), linking Rome with Thessaloniki/Salonika and Constantinople/Byzantium via southern Italy (Bari/Barium, on the Adriatic coast) and the Illyrian--now Albanian--port of Dores (Durrės/Duraz/Durazzo- also called Epidamnos/Epidamnus in Greek and Dyrrhachium in Roman times), so was along an accessible route of both commerce and conquest.
The passage carved by the Roman road is still the overland link between the Adriatic and the Aegean, passing through Tirana, Ohrid (ancient Lychnidus), Bitola, Edessa, and Pella on its winding route.
- It was a regional capital in Roman times--from around 168bce.
One of the local names applied to the settlement in those days seems to have been Butelion, a precursor of the modern Slavic name--Bitola.
- It was also a local seat for Byzantine (from around 324ce) governance under the name Phlaginia, which reflected its importance as a strategic and commercial town of the adjacent Pelagonian plain, Macedonia's granary.
- In 1097, Crusaders, on their way to the Holy Land by way of the ancient Roman road paused at Phlaginia, and discovering that "heretics" lived there, conquered it, killed all the inhabitants, and razed the city to the ground. The ancient ruin is still visible on the outskirts of the modern city.
- From the eleventh century CE, the locality was called Monastir by the Greeks, due to the many monasteries which had sprung up.
(The Slavic name of the place apparently has the same meaning.)
- Settled and fought over by the local Greeks, Serbs, Bulgars and Albanians—in addition to the ethnic Macedonians, it fell under long Ottoman Turkish rule (1382-1913ce).
During this period it was the seat of the Rumelian Elaet.
- Kemal Ataturk (Kemal Pasha) the Father of the modern Turkish state is said to have attended its military academy, and later made a point of a state visit to the town.
- It had enough activists to be one of the flashpoints of pan-Slavism in the period preceding the Balkan Wars.
(The Ilinden Uprising, centered in the nearby town of Krushevo, in 1903ce, was put down by troops from the Turkish garrison in Bitola--as the Slavic-language Macedonian insurgents called it.)
In 1908-09ce, it was the site of a congress of Albanian intellectuals which adopted a standard orthography (spelling) in the Latin alphabet for the Albanian language.
- The Turkish census of 1904ce counted over 178,000 Bulgarians and over 261,000 Greeks in the "Vilayet of Monastir."
- After WWI, it was officially known by its Slavic name--Bitol; a name dating back to the short period of Bulgarian occupation.
- The official name of the town today is Bitola, and it is so listed in the (US) Holocaust Museum among the Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis and their sympathizers.
- The city of Monastir, Tunisia is big enough to have an international airport.
- In the 1990s, during the long, slow and bloody descent into chaos, and partition of Yugoslavia, the township of Beli Manastir in the Baranja region of Croatia achieved notoriety as the site of ethnic cleansing condemned by the UN.
Monastir in Jewish History
To pay a bit more attention to the Jewish history of the town.
- During the period of Roman rule, the first Jewish communities spread into Macedonia from Thessaly, where they had first appeared during the Hellenistic period (3rd-4th Centuries BCE).
- Direct evidence of Jewish settlement in the region was discovered in 1930ce by a Yugoslav archeologist, Joso Petrovic, who found at nearby Stobi a column from a 3rd century CE synagogue donated by one Claudius Tiberius Polycharmos, Pater Synagogae ("Father of the Synagogue")--the Chief Parnas. The scholar Marmorstein presumes that the ancestors of Polycharmos were freemen of the emperor Claudius who had left Rome for Macedonia around the middle of the First Century CE.
- Nothing is known about Jewish settlement in Monastir in the Byzantine period.
- In the 12th century CE there were Greek-speaking (Romaniote) Jewish artisans and traders in the town.
More Jews arrived after the expulsion from Hungary in the 14th century CE, and at the end of the 15th century, there was an influx of refugees from Asia Minor.
- During the Ottoman period (1382-1913ce), Monastir became a magnet for several waves of those expelled from Iberia and then-Spanish Sicily by the Inquisition, who came up from the Illyrian coast or through Salonika.
- It thus became a major spiritual center for the Sephardic Jews of the entire Empire, second only to Salonika.
In the 16th century CE, Rabbi Joseph ben Lev was head of the yeshivah.
In the 18th century CE, Rabbi Abraham ben Judah di Buton was a rabbi of Monastir.
A fire which swept through the town in 1863ce destroyed over 1,000 Jewish homes and shops.
A blood libel accusation was leveled against the town's Jews in 1900ce.
- The largest synagogue in town, Kahal Kadosh Portugal was destroyed in WW-I.
The second largest, Kahal Kadosh Aragon was destroyed in WW-II, along with most other evidence of previous Jewish life there.
Our family belonged to the Kahal Kadosh Aragon, sometimes known in those days as el k'al de arriba.
- In 1884ce there were 4,000 Jews in Monastir.
In 1914ce, there were over 7,000 Jews--both Ashkenazim and Sefaradim--in Monastir, organized into at least eight congregations;
by 1931ce they were down to only 3751.
Our compatriot, Mark Cohen, has done extensive research into the history of Monastir, and contributes the following outline of significant events in the life of the city.
Contribution by Mark Cohen follows
- 1860 -- Two Monastir Jewish girls attend local French Catholic school. Traditional life begins its decline. (source: Histoire de la Mission Lazariste de Monastir)
- August 14, 1863 -- terrible fire destroys Monastir's Jewish quarter, 600 families made homeless. This calamity was followed by an impressive display of Jewish solidarity. Monastir's rabbis wrote to Moses Montefiore of London for help, and Montefiore arranged for an appeal to be read in all of London's synagogues on Yom Kippur. The appeal was a success. 2,000 British pounds were raised, which was a great sum in its day. (sources:British consular correspondence, London's Jewish Chronicle newspaper).
- August 1864 -- Forces for modernization take the offensive: Group of prominent Monastir Jews found a local committee of the Alliance Israelite Universelle. The French organization, founded 1860, would eventually operate many scores of secular Jewish schools in the Ottoman Empire. Monastir was one of only six Ottoman Jewish communities to found a committee so early. (source: Bulletin of the AIU). Group fails to found Alliance school
- 1870s -- Jews interested in secular education attend French and Scottish missionary schools (Scottish and French mission archives)
- 1880 -- Monastir Jews found Cercle des Intimes, a group dedicated to establishing secular Jewish schools
- 1883 -- Monastir Jews organize first secular schools (AIU Bulletins) However, these were not Alliance schools.
- May 10, 1894 -- completion of railroad connection to Salonica celebrated in Monastir (source: Annales de la Congregation de la Mission)
- April 1895 -- Alliance takes over direction of Monastir's secular Jewish schools. (Cinquante Ans d'Histoire, a history of the AIU)
- Sept. 25, 1896 -- Large, new school building, funded largely by Alliance, officially opens. (see above)
- 1901 -- Monastir Jews organize modern school for girls.(AIU archives)
- 1903 -- Alliance takes over operation of girls' school.
- 1903 -- Alliance gains influence over strictly religious education at Talmud Torah. Teaching of French and other secular subjects introduced.
- 1904-05 -- Madame la baronne Edmond de Rothschild contributes 10,000 francs to build new girls' school. Monastir Jews contribute same amount. New girls' school opens 1905.
- Nov. 19, 1912 -- Serbia takes Monastir in Balkan War. 530 years of Ottoman rule over Monastir comes to an end.
- Dec. 2-5, 1915 -- Monastir falls to Bulgaria during WWI
- Nov. 19, 1916 -- Serbia retakes Monastir
- Nov. 22, 1916 - Sept. 25, 1918 -- Monastir shelled by Bulgarian and German troops nearly everyday for 22 months. Incendiary bombs burn city, gas shells suffocate residents. City virtually destroyed, about 6,000 Jews -- nearly the whole community -- desert city for Salonica, Athens, elsewhere.
- 1919 -- Some Jews return. Jewish population of Monastir is about 3,000.
It's an interesting history. Monastir was not an "old fashioned" place.
As early as the 1850s it was quite sophisticated, European in its
architecture and leadership. Many of our immigrant grandparents were
already quite modern when they arrived here. In 1912, Monastirlis in NYC
staged a performance of a Moliere play in Ladino translation. They were
Contributed by Mark Cohen
- After WW-I, the economic situation deteriorated, along with the escalating ethnic rivalries among the non-Jewish populations of the area, and the Jews of Monastir left in increasing numbers for Chile, the United States and The Holy Land.
- In early 1941ce Yugoslavian Macedonia (the area between Skopje and Bitola) was annexed by Bulgaria together with most of Thrace, in northern Greece.
This was Bulgaria's reward for participating with Hungary, Romania and Italy in the German blitzkrieg to subdue the Balkans after the anti-German military coup of March 1941ce in former ally Yugoslavia.
- On April 5th 1943ce, the Jewish remnant of Monastir (just over 3,000) were deported by the Bulgarian occupation authorities via Skopje (Skoplje/Uskub/Uskup) -- where every man, woman and child was recorded -- to perish in Treblinka; only six escaped alive, of all that host.
Treblinka, about 50 miles from Warsaw, in a region the Nazis then called the Generalgouvernement, was the final resting place of 700,000 - 850,000 deportees between June 1941 and Fall 1943ce, from the Jewish ghettos of Central Poland (including Warsaw, Czestochowa, Radom, Kielce) as well as Lublin, Bialystok, Grodno and as far away as Czechoslovakia, Greece, Yugoslavia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union, and about 2,000 Roma (Gypsies).
- A historical memoir of the pre-WW-II Jewish life of Monastir, highlighting the work of the local Zionist leader Leon Kamhi, was commissioned and published in 1971ce.
(A Town Called Monastir.
Tel Aviv, 1971.)
At that time the author found one old Jew who had returned to the town.
- There is a kibbutz in Israel--Sha'ar ha'Amakim--founded by Manastirlis.
In 1998, Gary Greenberg made a "pilgrimage" to Monastir/Bitola with his mother.
He sent along this description of the visit.
We took the train from Salonika to Florina...on our way to Bitola.
We had hoped to be able to drive, but none of the rental agencies in Greece allowed travel into Macedonia.
The train route was apparently the same one that my grandparents took when traveling between the two cities, but now the last leg was no longer operating.
Most of the area we traveled through was rural and agricultural with many standing stone buildings which were now used as storage areas, but no doubt had been housing in previous generations.
You got the feeling that we were seeing pretty much the same scenery that my grandparents would have seen.
There are two hotels in Bitola.
One is in the city itself and the other in the hills about 20 minutes away.
We chose the alpine one which turned out to be lovely, in an environment much like the northern coast of California.
Since transportation was problematic, the hotel arranged to have taxis pick us up in Greece and drive us across the border and into the city, a distance of about 45 minutes.
On Sunday we took taxis down the hill into the city.
The drivers didn't know [ !! ] of the whereabouts of a Jewish cemetery so they took us to the ruins of a Roman amphitheater which contained mosaics in pristine condition.
While there, an elderly man noticed that we spoke English and asked if he could help.
It turns out he was a Greek who had lived in the U.S. for 8 or 9 years working as a photographer, before retiring in Bitola about 14 years ago.
He took us to the old center of town where he pointed out a building that still contained an ornate iron fence around the balcony with Jewish stars on it.
A few blocks away was the building which had housed the last extant temple.
It had a plaque on it and across the street from it was a small memorial in
memory of the Jews who had died in the Shoah.
He then pointed out the streets which he had been led to believe were populated with Jewish shops before the war.
He said that to his knowledge no Jews were left in the city nor had he seen any in the time he had lived there.
He said that he had made a study of [this] since Jews had helped him throughout his life.
He then took us to the cemetery which he said had just begun to be renovated, presumably
with Israeli funding.
The outside gate, which was ornate, was being refurbished.
Inside, it was a mess with [grave]stones strewn everywhere.
About 90% had the inscriptions ground off of them and had probably been used for paving and such, but many of the others were readable.
We took pictures of as many as possible.
Contributed by Gary Greenberg
In November of 1998, I received a note from Joco Sami. Excerpts below:
My name is Joco Sami (Pronunciation is Yotso Shami) and I am from the Shami and Aroeti families of Monastir - Bitola.
As far as I can see you are not informed of the "old country," yet there is quite an active Jewish community here even though almost totally [destroyed] by the Holocaust.
I immediately recognized many characteristics, recipes and names in your Web-Site and it warms us all that there are more friends and neighbors in the world we have not had the chance to meet.
Many former "Manastirli" (people from Monastir) have returned to the old country to
see the place where they were born.
These are mainly people who left the Balkans because of the promise of a better life elsewhere, leaving mainly for USA in hope for a future.
This was before the Holocaust.
Very few survived the actual Holocaust.
Of course there is a total list of victims as the Bulgarian authorities were so diligent in writing it all out in a very administrative manner.
All these documents have been gathered by one of our older Holocaust survivers and this book has been sent to Yad Vashem.
Our community has managed to print several books and to register at least the basics of a Jewish presence in these regions.
I must say that the list of murdered members of the Cassorla family is much longer in the official books than the one you list on your web site.
This was a big family so I can not know whether you are related to them but they were not only present in Bitola, there were also Cassorlas in Skopje.
The Jewish community in Macedonia numbers a total of approximately 150 people.
We are all in Skopje the capital city of Macedonia, even though there is one Jew in Bitola and one in Stip.
We are a small community yet have managed to keep up the spirit and throughout the past have attempted to create closer ties to all communities abroad, of course the easiest with Israel since we all have friends and relatives there.
It has been a pleasure to read your web-site.
If you know of other sites related to Sefardi Jews of this region, especially in connection with Skopje and Bitola please inform me, I would love to stay in contact with all.
Excerpts from an e-mail 11/98, Joco Sami