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Title: Last Century Of A Sephardic Community, The Jews of Monastir, 1839-1943

Title: Last Century Of A Sephardic Community, The Jews of Monastir, 1839-1943
Author: Mark Cohen
Publisher: The Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, New York, N.Y.

 

This intriguing volume is really three books in one. The first is a fully comprehensive and annotated history of the Balkan community, so-named for a prominent monastery that once stood here in a crossroads community between Western Europe and Asia. The second is an account of the thousands of lives lost to the Shoah, including a history, and a “Holocaust Deportation” list. Last is a glimpse into the warmth and joy of life in Monastir – with poetry,
songs, folk tales and proverbs representing the spirit of a vital Jewish community that existed for hundred of years.

A number of similar volumes have been published recently; most are dry, soulless records
enumerating names, dates, and places in unknown localities that once existed. Here, in Last Century, Mr. Cohen has put a face on a lost community, whose descendants can only dream of the glory that once was their fathers’.

Monastir, while not a wealthy community, always exuded Yiddishkeit, and in spite of the fact
that the Jews of Monastir were well integrated into the larger non-Jewish community, the communal and religious observances were paramount in their lives.

Almost through a quirk of fate, Monastir, which was formerly a Turkik crossroads city in Macedonia, and was under the control of Bulgaria for many years, fell into the hands of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia resisted Nazi demands for anti-Semitic legislation during the 1930s, but after the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 it succumbed and finally passed anti-Jewish measures. Although the Macedonian portion of Yugoslavia was under Bulgarian control – the Bulgarians never gave up their Jews to Hitler’s machine – the Macedonian and Greek Jewish communities were all deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka in March of 1943. Almost none returned.

Much of the book relates stories of the continuous efforts of the Jews of Monastir to inculcate
religious values among their youth, and the hostility that existed between their elders and the officials of The Alliance, of France, which assisted in building and staffing the schools. The Jews of Monastir were primarily interested in having rabbis and Talmud Torahs providing religious education, while The Alliance wanted to promote “Western” values in order to raise the income and standard of living of the community.

Although the Monastir Jews were mostly “working poor” and tradespeople, when they were
called upon for financial assistance by other Jewish communities in the region or in Eretz Yisrael, they were surprisingly generous. On at least one occasion, the community was visited by the English philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, who came on a fact-finding trip as a representative of the London Kehillah.

Descendants of Monastir Jewry can be found in America, primarily in New York City, as well as Rochester, New York, and Indianapolis, Indiana. Many of these are now associated with the American Sephardi Federation in New York City and are prominent among those who established the famous Sephardic Home for Adults in Brooklyn, New York.

The book’s Deportation List is an amazing record, listing the names and ages of the deportees,
their wives, children, and even their occupations. Each listing is for a head of family, grouping the family members with them. There are 760 names on this memorial to these Jews killed by the Nazis.

The folklore section includes work done by linguists and ethnographers Max A. Luria and
Cynthia M. Crews, who went to Monastir in the ’20s and ’30s to collect oral material. They saved much from extinction, for few Jews in Monastir were literate in any language except Hebrew learned in cheder or spoken Judeo-Spanish (Ladino).

The bibliography is truly remarkable. In it are listed original documents only available in archival sources in five countries on three continents, as well as literally hundreds of volumes, periodicals and secondary sources which, together with a fluid and engaging writing style, help make Last Century of a Sephardic Community interesting reading both for the serious student of history and those interested in vanished Jewish communities of yesteryear.

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