Work is under way at the historic Jewish cemetery in Bitola, Macedonia, to create a memorial park there commemorating the large local Jewish community murdered in the Holocaust.
The site will be called the Memorial Park for the Jews from Monastir (another historic name for Bitola).
At a ceremony this week, dignitaries including the Israeli ambassdor, the Macedonian minister of culture and Bitola’s mayor planted trees to symbolically launch the landcaping for the project, which was organized the Israeli Embassy, the city of Bitola and ARHAM (Architectue and Ambiance Association for sustainable urban development.)
“With this park all of us will contribute to the protection of the historical heritage of the Jewish community that existed in this area for more than five centuries,” Culture Minister Elizabeta Kancheska Milevska said, according to local media reports. “The Memorial Park will serve as a permanent remembrance of Macedonian Jews, a monument to their role in building coexistence alongside their fellow Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Vlachs, Roma and others.”
She added that a memorandum of cooperation between the Holocaust Fund of Jews in Macedonia, the town of Stip and the Ministry of Culture foresees the restoration of the Jewish cemetery in Stip.
As we reported earlier, the mayor of Bitola and Israeli ambassador to Macedonia Dan Orian signed a declaration in August to protect and preserve the cemetery, one of the largest and oldest in the Balkans.
“With this agreement, the Jewish cemetery in Bitola will be protected from the effects of time, will be preserved, and will be elevated into a significant cultural and historic monument,” local media quoted Mayor Vladimir Taleski as saying at the time. “A memorial street will be lined with trees, one for each of the Jewish families that once lived in Bitola.”
Bitola was a major center of Jewish life in the Balkans with a large, though in general impoverished, population. Out of about 3,350 Jews who lived there on the eve of World War II, only about 100 survived.
Founded in 1497, the cemetery, located on a steep hillside, was abandoned and left to ruin after World War II. About 1,000 tombstones — horizontal as in the Sephardic tradition — remain in place, but most are heavily eroded and illegible. The cemetery is enclosed by a wall, with a big gate with a arched entrance flanked by two arched windows. A civic campaign to restore it got under way in 1997, to coincide with the 500th anniversary of its foundation, and before the current project got under way, various groups from time to time cleared vegetation and cleaned the stones.