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Bitola - Monastir Jews before World War II

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Monastir Jews before World War II

Although Jews had lived in Monastir from Roman times, the Sephardic Jews, who originally migrated from the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century, became the predominant group in the town by the sixteenth century. They maintained a highly traditional and distinctive lifestyle characterized by residence in a Jewish quarter, attachment to the Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) language and Sephardic folklore, commitment to Jewish religious observance, and allegiance to Jewish communal institutions including synagogues, religious schools, religious courts, and mutual aid societies.

In 1863, after a fire destroyed much of the Jewish quarter, the community turned to the Jewish world's leading philanthropist, England's Sir Moses Montefiore, for assistance in reconstruction. This appeal to the West marked the beginning of the Sephardic community's reorientation toward European culture and the gradual introduction of secular education and values into the population. These changes took place at the same time as new transportation links to Salonika expanded trade and brought economic prosperity to the Monastir Jewish community.

This period of cultural and economic development was cut short by political upheavals in the region, beginning in 1903 with the Macedonia rebellion against the Turkish rulers of the Ottoman Empire. Ethnic violence among Greeks, Serbs, and Bulgarians over the future of Macedonia exposed Monastir to political violence and economic disruption throughout the first decade of the twentieth century. As a result, thousands of Jewish Monastirlis (as the locals referred to themselves) emigrated to North and South America, Jerusalem, and the Sephardic metropolis of Salonika. After the end of the Balkan Wars in 1913, formerly Ottoman Macedonia was liberated and divided between Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece. Monastir, then renamed Bitolj (Serbian Cyrillic: Битољ), became a part of the Kingdom of Serbia. However, the Jewish community continued to call the city by the name it bore during centuries of Ottoman rule: Monastir.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Monastir's Jewish population reached nearly 11,000, but by 1914 years of emigration had reduced the community to just over 6,000. During World War I, Monastir suffered the invasion and two years of bombardment. More than 5,000 Monastir Jews fled their homes and lived as refugees in the surrounding area. When the war was over, Monastir's Jews numbered just over 3,000. Bitolj, along with the rest of Serbia, became part of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929), and in the 1920s and 1930s Zionism emerged as the dominant force among the local Jewish youth. During those years, 500 of these young men and women emigrated to Palestine.