Interviewer: Rachel Chanin Asiel
Date of interview: March 2005
Avram spoke with me in the Jewish community amongst the bustle of the community's preparation for the annual 11th March commemoration of the deportation [see 11th March 1943] , and the delivery of boxes with copies of his wife's new book. Although he is a retired pediatrician and professor, his true love is writing poetry. He struggles to remember the names, stories and faces of his past but endless Ladino songs and poems are embedded in his heart and mind. Avram is also an avid mountain climber and still walks around the Vodno Mountain in Skopje every week.
My family has lived in Bitola since who knows when; since they came from Spain [see Expulsion of the Jews from Spain] . I know [their history] as far back as my grandfather, but they have been there for ages.
Before World War I there were 10,000 Jews in Bitola, after it 7,000 emigrated, leaving only 3,000 behind. [Editor's note: From a peak population of about 11,000 in 1900, the Jewish community dropped to 8,900 in 1912, 3,200 in 1940, 57 in 1945 and 1 in 2002. Source: ‘Last Century of a Sephardic Community' by Mark Cohen]. After World War I, Bitola became a border town. [Editor's note: Bitola became a border town earlier, in 1913 after the Second Balkan War .] An economic crisis began. People couldn't survive there. Everything and everyone became poor including the Jews. Seven thousand Jews moved away. Some went to other towns in [the Kingdom of] Yugoslavia , some to New York, some to Israel [then Palestine] and some to South America, to a town in Chile called Temuco. [Editor's note: Jews from Bitola first arrived in Temuco in 1900, by 1929 there were 40 families from Bitola living there. Source: ‘Plima i Slom' by Zeni Lebl] There the Jews established their own Jewish community, the Jewish Bitola community.
Many left and those who remained were poor. Bitola was especially poor; it was the poorest place in all of Yugoslavia, in all of the Balkans. The poor of the poor. During this period there was a lot of solidarity among the Jews. The friends of the community gave money. My parents helped. They helped a lot. They helped so that others could live. They would have died of hunger, there was not what to live of. The people who were a little richer helped the poor. And we received help from outside Bitola. We received helped from the Belgrade Jewish community. In Belgrade there were a lot of Jews who were rich. There was also help from Skopje, Zagreb, and Israel. What do I know where they got donations from? Rabbi [Sabtaj] Djaen  was a very capable person. He went to America and from America he brought presents – money – a lot of money. And he built that gate at the cemetery. I was little when that happened, but I remember it without the gate. There was some dedication ceremony, but I don't remember it. [Editor's note: When Rabbi Djaen came to Bitola the cemetery, which was established a few years after the expulsion from Spain, was in a terrible state. Many of the oldest and most beautiful stones were being taken away and used for building material in the city. Many times the engravings were not even erased from them before they were used in a construction. In order to address the terrible condition of the cemetery Rabbi Djaen erected a strong stone and iron wall with Jewish stars from funds collected from former residents of Bitola living in America. Built into this gate were two rooms, one on each side of the entrance, which were used for ritual rites. Due to the strong construction of the gate, it survived the desecration and destruction that befell many of the religious buildings in Bitola during the Bulgarian occupation of Macedonia. Today, the Jewish community in Skopje has restored the gate and takes care of the cemetery.]
When I was young Jews were mainly traders of second-hand things, tailors, and cobblers. Jews worked in all trades that existed at the time. All the porters in Bitola were Jews. They carried everything. Today, there are no porters because we have means of transportation, but back then if you had a sack of something they would carry it for you.
We lived in what was called ‘Jevrejska mala' [Jewish district]. It wasn't a ghetto, but all the Jews lived there; there was no mixing between Jews and non-Jews. All of our neighbors were Jews. It wasn't forbidden for Jews to live outside the quarter; it was just like that. The Jewish quarter bordered on the center of town. There were no Ashkenazi Jews in Bitola when I was a kid. The Jews called it Monastir, but it was actually called Bitola. [Editor's note: During the Ottoman period the town was called Monastir, when Macedonia was annexed to Serbia (1913), it was renamed officially as Bitola, the Jews, however, continued calling it by its old name.]
Typical Jewish parts of the city were La Tabane, Il Bustaniku and Los Kortizos [Jewish neighborhoods]. The poorest lived in Los Kortezus. It means yard in Ladino. It was terrible there. One third of the population lived there. The people lived outside in fields. The poorest slept outside in the summer time. During the winter they slept inside. It was tight but they managed. We lived in a middle class section called Il Bustanika. Bustanika is a Ladino expression for a small garden. Another neighborhood was called La Tabane. La Tabane I cannot translate. There were poor people where we lived, as well as in La Tabane, but Los Kortizos was the poorest. Ciflik was another poor neighborhood. The Jewish community built about 15 rooms and one family lived in each room in a yard. This was near Bajir, the northern section of the city. Jews and non-Jews lived in Bajir. So Bajir cannot be considered a Jewish part of the city. Non-Jews didn't refer to these neighborhoods with these names; instead they used the street names: Asadbegova Street, Karadjordjeva. But they did call it Jevrejska mala, the Jewish quarter. One half was poor and one half middle class.
Ten wealthy Jewish families lived in a section called Korzo, outside of the Jewish section. My wife [Dzamila Kolonomos] is from one of these rich families that lived outside. All the rich people lived outside the Jewish quarter, but they came to the quarter. They were Jews but not that religious. My wife's father was the director of a bank. He was a very good man and helped a lot. They lived much better than us.
My family wasn't considered poor. My father had his own store, my brother had his. From my perspective we were middle class.
When I was little the whole city was in ‘kalderma' [Turkish word for cobble-stoned streets], except the main street which was modern.
There were four synagogues in Bitola. Before me there were probably more, but in my time there were only four. I assume that when there were more Jews there were more synagogues. [Editor's note: The other large old synagogue in Bitola, El Kal de Portugal, burned down during WWI.]
The big temple in Bitola was called Aragon. It was very beautiful. It wasn't so big because there weren't that many Jews, but it was very beautiful, especially the interior. One third went to Aragon, about 1,000, and the remaining two thirds went to the other temples. Another synagogue was called Havra [El Kal de la Havra Kadisha]. Everyone chose which temple they went to, but once they chose they only went to that one. Those who lived near Aragon went to Aragon. During the occupation Aragon was used as a pigsty [and slaughterhouse]; they fed pigs there. After the war one idiot, whose name I don't remember, demolished all of Jevrejska mala. [Editor's note: Its remnants were dynamited in 1947.]
Havra was a little further away, close to the border with the Christian neighborhoods. I went to Havra. It wasn't that beautiful, but it was OK. This temple was a special building erected to be a temple. The morning prayers were in the lower part of the temple. Everyone had their own seat on flat wooden benches in rows. The rabbi stood on a raised tevah. They read the prayers primarily in Hebrew. The prayer books were also in Hebrew. Everyone sang together. It was still standing until a few years ago. It was used as a warehouse. And since they didn't take care of it, it started to fall apart and then it had to be destroyed. [Editor's note: According to Mark Cohen this synagogue did not survive the war.]
There were other smaller temples, one was called Hamore Levi, but I don't remember the names of the others. [Editor's note: the names of the other synagogues in Bitola up to WWII were: El Kal de haham Jichak Levi (this was a beautiful temple next to the donor's house; El Kal de Shlomo Levi (this was in the donor's house, it did not survive the war); El Kal de Jahiel Levi (in a space dedicated for this purpose); El Kal de Ozer Dalim (in a special building donated by the Aruti family, this one fell to ruins in 1950); a temple for the youth in a school building and a temple in the Los Kurtizos neighborhood. Sources: Zeni Lebl and Mark Cohen]
Noritas was the place where women went in the temple. Women didn't go to the temple together with men. They sat upstairs by themselves. There wasn't a lot of room up there. There wasn't a lot of room because they didn't go that often anyway, but they went for the high holidays, like Yom Kippur. It was totally separate from the temple, but it looked onto the temple. All temples had them.
Big kids went to the temple but little kids did not.
There was no special rabbi for each synagogue; instead there was one rabbi for the whole city. Each synagogue had two or three hakhamim. There was one rabbi for all of Bitola. The first rabbi I remember was Rabbi Djaen. He was a great man. He was a rabbi but he knew a lot of things. He was very tall and handsome. He wore a robe; he also wore modern dress to formal events. He wrote six or seven dramas in Ladino that were performed throughout Yugoslavia, including Sarajevo. [Editor's note: In 1922 he published three plays, ‘Jiftah,' ‘Deborah' and ‘The Daughters of the Sun.' All of his plays were based on biblical themes or about Jewish life. He gave 10 percent of the proceeds of the plays to Keren Kayemet Leisrael. Source: Zeni Lebl] His plays were performed for Purim and Passover, but I don't know what they were about. He organized the building of the Jewish cemetery in Bitola. He collected money in South America for the Jews of Bitola. He gave it to the community and they distributed it to the poor Jews of Bitola. He was religious or at least he looked like he was.
We children were very sad when he left Bitola. When he walked down the street he used to give the children four or five roasted chickpeas from his pockets. When Rabbi Djaen walked down the street his shammash, the servant of the community, that is the temple, would follow 20-30 steps behind. When he saw someone playing marbles he would say, ‘Shammash, quickly go over there, so that they don't play anymore, they should go and study.' Rabbi Djaen was very authoritative; we all loved him. He was the chief rabbi in Romania after Bitola. When the Jews of Romania were deported he was caught. But the Italians or Spaniards managed to save him. And afterwards he went to South America. My wife, Dzamila, wrote an article about Djaen, but it wasn't published because someone else wrote one too.
After Rabbi Djaen came Moric Romano's father [Rabbi Avram Romano] . He was the opposite of Djaen in all respects. He was very quiet, modest. He didn't yell at people while he was walking down the street. People were not scared of him. Romano was very well-educated and he wasn't religious. He pretended to teach us religious lessons. He did not teach us one thing about religion during these lessons. He never mentioned G-d. When the principal would come to our religion class and ask, ‘what are you teaching,' he would say, ‘Look, prayers and he would sing some song. Not a prayer.' He came to our last class and said, ‘I never mentioned G-d or religion during these classes. Religion is a private thing. It is for you to decide.' He never said it, but he was not a believer. He gave lectures and sermons, but he avoided giving them a religious character. Rabbi Romano's son, Moric Romano, is still alive in Skopje.
It was almost the same shammash for the whole time that Djaen was there. When Djaen left, Romano also had a shammash, but he didn't walk down the streets with him and make a scene. Romano didn't [walk down the streets like that]. He was modest. The shammash's job was to take care of the synagogue. He took care of the things in the synagogue during Sabbath. He made sure all was well in the temple. Then people didn't go to the synagogue only on Saturdays; they went in the mornings and evenings too. The temple was always alive. I don't remember the shammash's name, but I can see his face.
There were two shochetim. You bought living chickens, brought them to the shochet and he slaughtered them. He would look to see if it was kosher. If it wasn't good, he would not slaughter it. The shochet had his place in the city where he slaughtered, but he didn't have a butcher shop.
There was one [kosher] butcher in Bitola near the bazaar. The butcher's first name was Kalev, but I don't remember his last name. He worked there with his three sons. His sons were a little older than me. All the Jews in Bitola that bought meat bought it there. Some people didn't have money to buy meat. More than half the people didn't have [money]. They didn't buy any meat. Only Jews could slaughter the meat; it had to be kosher.
There was this one story that a hakham knew that it was treyf [food], but he ate it anyway. Hakhamim were at the same time hakhamim and shochetim. In Bitola there were about ten hakhamim. There was some school and otherwise I don't know how they were chosen. Rabbi Romano went to school in Sarajevo. They were very highly educated in religious subjects but not in other subjects. There were mohelim among the hakhamim, one was named Ruben and the others I don't remember.
There was no mikveh in Bitola. Sephardim, unlike Ashkenazim, didn't have a mikveh. [Editor's note: Sephardim do use a mikveh and there was one in Bitola.]
There was a Jewish orchestra called Hatikvah in Bitola. Jews were very musical. There was a special choir. It would sing at weddings and make some money.
In our house we had a bag for money for Israel. It was a small bag and underneath it had a small special opening in which we put money for Israel. Then someone would come to empty it. Almost every house that could give something had one of these. Even the poor gave something symbolically. We would fill it up frequently and call someone to come and empty it for us. Keren Kayemet [Leisrael]  existed in Bitola and the money went to them. We were all [participants] in Keren Kayemet Leisrael. There was no membership; it was a Jewish fund.
Jews were against politics. You weren't allowed to be involved in politics. That wasn't for Jews. Jews did vote though.
In Bitola there was no anti-Semitism. There were a lot of different nationalities living in Bitola: a lot of Turks, Vlachs , Serbs, Macedonians, Greeks, Gypsies and others. It was a mixed population that lived well together. Jews had their section, Gypsies had theirs, Macedonians had theirs, Vlachs and Turks had theirs. There was no such thing as a Jew against a Turk, G-d forbid. We all lived very well together.
Tuesday was market day. All the farmers would come and the squares would be full. There were three or four markets in Bitola. The special market for cattle was near where the Jews lived.
The houses were old. All the houses had two floors – a ground floor and an upper floor. Not one house was more than this. Every single house was like this. It was uniform. Our house had a ground floor and an upper floor. It was a typical house. Look, we came from Spain and the houses were typical Spanish houses. When you entered there was a small garden; there were no big gardens. Everyone had gardens but small ones. We didn't grow anything there; it was just a yard. There were trees and grape vines.
We had water of course, but no electricity. Every house had its own well. We lit the house with gas lamps. There was a gas lamp in each room where we lived, ate. Electricity came to the center of Bitola in 1936 but didn't make it to the periphery, where we lived, until much later, maybe 1939. And some didn't get it even then. [Editor's note: The first electrical power plant was opened in Bitola on 24th December 1924. The plant was owned by a Jew named Todor Aruesti. First the main street was lit and later individual households installed electricity. Source: Zeni Lebl] The bathroom was in the yard. It was simple, outside. We didn't have beds; we slept on the floor on mattresses, which my mother would put away in a special closet each morning.
We had two rooms on the ground floor. One room had chairs and a table. We lived in one of those rooms. My mother and father slept in that room. That was where we ate during the day and then at night we took out the mattresses. The kitchen was outside in the yard. Jews all had their own built-in ovens. They used it with a shovel. My mother made the bread; we didn't buy it.
There were two unused rooms upstairs. One room was full with books, the whole Talmud was in there, and the other room was empty. When my older brother lived with us he lived up there, but when he married he moved out. We spent most of the time downstairs.
We had a basement where we kept all sorts of things. For instance, my father bought cheese, flour, beans and lentils for the whole year and it was all kept in the basement. Meat was also stored there. My mother would take meat and fry it and then pack it up and take it down to the basement. There it hung so that it got air since there were no refrigerators. They sold ice back then, but we didn't buy it. It wasn't necessary. The basement was cold enough.
My maternal grandfather [Avram, surname unknown] wore typical Turkish garbs: a red fez; and he didn't wear pants, he wore a robe that was open-legged. He wore the fez in his shop and at home. He only took it off when he went to bed. He was very religious. He didn't have payes but wore a beard down to the middle of his stomach. No one shaved, neither him nor my father. My grandfather had a two-floor house across the street from us, at Asadbegova 7. We lived at Asadbegova 10. When a child married he left his family's house and went to live with his spouse. Children and parents never lived together. And it was a good thing; they had a lot of children: how would they all live together? If my father had lived with his parents, there would have been 30-40 people together.
My grandfather was very strict. I didn't like him very much; he was too strict. I never got a dinar [Yugoslav currency] from him. He had other grandchildren from his son and he lived with them. He gave everything to those grandchildren. Look, they considered female children to be second place. What the son had was important. He gave everything that he had to his son's children, and nothing to us. And I never asked for anything. But spontaneously he never gave me anything.
My grandfather didn't grow or raise anything in his small garden. He didn't have any household help. His wife did all the housework. My grandfather wasn't involved in politics at all. Politics was forbidden among Jews: ‘Politics – no no no!'
I didn't meet my paternal grandfather [Moshe Sadikario], but my father talked about him. He was very religious. On Sabbath they would go to the synagogue in the morning and come back in the afternoon and eat beans. He would go every day, to tikkun and put on tefillin.
I don't remember either of my grandmothers.
Why did my parents have to meet one another? Their parents made a deal and that was it. There was a person who did this [a matchmaker], but I don't remember what that person was called in Ladino. My mother [Vida Sadikario] married when she was twelve years old. The first wife of my father [Josif Sadikario] died during childbirth. There was a tradition: if a woman had a sister, she had to marry the widowed man. [Editor's note: When the interviewee says ‘there was a tradition' he might be referring to the levirate marriage tradition based on Levitucus 25: 5-10. However, this commandment only refers to when a man dies without children and his brother must marry the widow. The Talmud Tractate Jevamot 36:13a states that it is forbidden for a man to marry two sisters, even after one sister has died.] Regardless of the fact that she was young, she had to marry my father. The norm was to marry early, but my mother got married earlier than most because her sister had died. Sixteen, seventeen that was the time when people got married. They married in the temple with the special ritual of kiddushin. There was no civil wedding, G-d forbid a civil marriage. By the time she was 13 or 14 she already had two children: Mirjam, her sister's child, and another one [Mois].
My mother was a housewife. She was a very peaceful woman. She had eight children. She worked only at home. All Jewish women were housewives; they didn't do anything else. Not one woman in my mother's generation was employed. They had kids. There was no limit to the number of kids they had, as many as G-d gave them that's how many they had. My mother had eight children, my sister [Sol] had ten until then maybe she would have had more. My brother [Mois] had three until then; he was young and surely would have had more. [The interviewee means that they would have had more children, had they not been killed in the war.]
My mother was a very good housewife. She knew how to cook and make all sorts of things. She never took us anywhere. She knew an unlimited number of stories, sayings and songs. I cannot remember the stories. I remember but I cannot retell them now. She told us these stories when we were young. She would tell them when the grandchildren came. They would sit there with eyes wide open. She didn't just tell the stories, she told them nicely. She told them so vividly, that I even listened to them when I was older. OK, it didn't interest me that much, but the kids listened.
There was something else about Jewish women, and especially with my mother. She didn't know to speak without adding some saying after every second or third sentence. There was no end to the sayings. No matter what she had to say, she found some saying to embellish it. She had an unlimited supply; there was not one special one. She would speak, speak and pop another saying. When she finished her work around the house, she would embroider. She knew how to make a lot of really nice things. She also made fijdejus [Ladino for small macaronis each about 1-2 cm long]. She took dough and then tak tak tak [with his hands Avram motions cutting off a small piece and turning it and dropping it into something.] In one hour she made a huge amount of them. This was eaten with cheese. It was very nice. When they made these, a bunch of my mother's friends would come over and make them with her. They would talk and make fijdejus. You didn't have to think while making these.
Women got together. Women were always together. My mother was a good cook and young women would come to her to learn. They were very appreciative. She knew this from her mother-in-law.
Young women were dressed regularly, like you and me. But older women were dressed much differently. No woman wore pants; that is a new thing. Older women wore a kerchief. And on special occasions they wore the ones trimmed with ducats.
My father wore regular clothes, not Turkish ones. He wore a hat all the time; he only took it off when he slept. My father had a beard and never shaved it. The way it grew; that was it. Since he was religious he didn't shave, according to the Jewish law. He smoked a lot. My father carried a pocket watch. On Sabbath when he couldn't smoke, he was sleepy. I would ask, ‘What is the matter?' and he would answer, ‘Sabbath, no smoking.' He was smoking one and before he finished, he already had the next one ready. He rolled his own cigarettes. Almost everyone smoked back then. The younger you were the less you smoked. All the old people smoked and rolled the tutun, Turkish for tobacco, themselves. He also snacked on a lot of seeds.
He was a very good man and well-educated in religious matters. While we were little he spent a lot of time with us. He knew the Torah and Talmud very well. Imagine, he read Aramaic and Talmudic books and translated them into Ladino. He had all those Talmudic books. He read and translated. And he translated well. He didn't speak Hebrew, but he could translate it, and well. He knew the Talmud and so did my grandfather. My father went to work and home, nothing else.
He never took us to the park or anywhere. He would take the really little ones, the grandchildren. Not us big kids. We were independent. We were even a little more than independent, a bit naughty. We went far away from home. We went to Pelister [20 km west of Bitola], an especially nice mountain with a very nice forest. You needed two hours to get there and then another three or four hours to get up and six to reach the summit. We would wake up at three in the summer; the sun was just starting to rise. And we would go from three until nine. Eighteen hours we walked. I started this when I was six and onwards. My father cursed at me but I went. It wasn't rude cursing, rather reprimanding.
He never hit me, but he did hit my brother Solomon. He was naughty. He bothered my mother about food, ‘Why did you make this?' She cooked so nicely and we were all more than satisfied. And he complained and it bothered my father and he hit him. And Solomon regularly got hit by my eldest brother, Mois, too. Once Mois married and left the house, it fell to me to hit him. When my father got annoyed he would let me hit Solomon. At home I was good. He would get mad because we went on these excursions, because we were in Hashomer Hatzair , because we wanted to go to Israel. He was scared that we would go. He scolded me, but not a lot, and he never hit me.
Amongst Jews and others, men carried everything. Women didn't buy anything. Men bought and carried everything home. When they had a lot of things a trunk would come by horse or donkey. All other things from the greenmarket, market, grocery store he bought by himself. My father would do the shopping. He was close to eighty years old and still carrying the groceries. He had his own grocer who sold oil and other groceries.
My parents were not part of any political party. My father worked more with non-Jews than with Jews. He sold leather to Macedonians. If he had worked only with Jews, he wouldn't have survived. The relations were very good among everyone. My father socialized with non-Jews. But it was more socializing in the shop. They came as customers or not as customers. They would come to the store to socialize. They rarely came to the house. Some Turks came to our house and some Macedonians. And in fact my mother didn't socialize with them. She didn't know how to speak anything but Spanish [Ladino]. She knew little Macedonian. A person would laugh [when he heard how she spoke].
We never went on a vacation. We didn't have a weekend house. My wife's parents were rich and they had a place in a village.
I had three sisters and three brothers. Mirjam and Sol married a lot earlier, so I didn't even know them when they were at home. Mirjam's husband, Haim, was a tailor. He had his own shop and he had one for his son too. My sister Sol was a housewife and her husband, Avram, was also a tailor. My sister Rashela suffered from a mental illness and didn't marry. She was at home with us. She died in the camps.
Mois married a little later, so he lived with us some time before he married. He was very well-educated in comparison to my father who knew Ivrit but didn't know these other things. My brother went to a French school, so he was really well-educated. He could read French and Spanish. He got literature from Salonica and he read it. Mois read a Spanish [Ladino] newspaper from Salonica called Lavara. Lavara means ‘hyphen' and it was a humorous communist satirical magazine, like Jez . He got a lot of other periodicals too. My brother got lots of papers from Greece.
I had one sibling who died young. I don't remember her name; she died before I was born.
Shlomo and Sami lived with me. Shlomo was very messy, not in a negative connotation. He didn't want to eat this or that. He would make a big problem, ‘Why did you cook this? Why did you cook that?' We were all calm, especially me. Sami also didn't want to eat, in the same way, but he would always find something else. But Shlomo always had to make a big problem. My brother Mois used to hit him. He would take him once or twice and hit him. After he got married he left Shlomo to me. I used to fight with him, ‘Why do you bother her?' My mother tried her best. She cooked the best she could. He made problems not just about food but about other things too. But in school he was an excellent student. And he was an excellent partisan. He was great with others, but he made problems at home.
Sami was a very calm child. I loved him very much. He was a little sick and I took him to Sofia for treatment. Sami and Shlomo were in Hashomer Hatzair too. Shlomo and Sami died while with the partisans. Shlomo died in 1944 near Kumanovo and Sami died on the Srem [a part of Vojvodina]  Front.
That brother [Solomon], he was a terror. The little one, Sami, he was the opposite. He was so quiet.
We celebrated all the holidays. For Rosh Hashanah we went to the temple for two days, from morning to afternoon. They read a lot in the temple. And for Yom Kippur it was all day. The hakham used to blow the shofar. The Yom Kippur fast would begin the soon as three stars appeared and we fasted until three stars appeared the next day. [Editor's note: According to the Shulchan Arukh, the fast begins 18 minutes before sunset.] We went to the temple for the whole day. We were there all the livelong day.
We made a sukkah on Sukkot. Not every house made one, because there was a lot of poverty and not everyone had a yard where they could put one. That's why there was one in the temple. We had our own sukkah and in our neighborhood many people made their own. We didn't have a lulav and etrog at home.
We had one chanukkiyah and we sang every night of Chanukkah. I still sing this for Chanukkah. I don't believe, but I do this as a custom.
Maoz cur jeshuati
leha nae lesabeah
tikon bet tefilati
Vesham toda ledabeah
et ahim matbeah nicar anabeah
az egmor beshir mizmor
az egmor beshir mizmor
[O God, my saving Stronghold,
To praise thee is a delight!
Restore my house of prayer,
Where I will offer thee thanks;
When thou wilt prepare havoc
For the hoe who maligns us,
I will gratify myself
With a song at the altar.
Translation from Hebrew by Philip Birnbaum]
My father would save watermelons and other melons for Las Frutas [Tu bi-Shevat]. He would buy special melons in the summer and store them in the basement. We had all the fruit that could be stored on Las Frutas. All of it was put on the table and you could take as much as you wanted. The children got money for this holiday. It was a very nice holiday.
Purim was also a good holiday. We children got money. And we received and gave tavazikas [Editor's note: Sephardic Jews of Macedonia exchanged platikos di Purim] Mother would make something sweet and something salty and we would give it to someone else; this was tavazikas. And we had ‘las paletas,' a noise-maker made from three pieces of wood. We drew in the middle and we moved it when they read Haman's name. There were three or four different kinds of them: one that was turned by hand, one that was hit. We played with this at home, not in the synagogue. We would visit people on Purim. For instance, my father went to visit his daughters and son in their homes. It was the custom that the older people go visit the younger people. And the kids would get a little bit of money, a few dinars. A few dinars was a lot. We had a coin which we called ‘dvaestoparac' [1/20 of a dinar]. The younger kids got a few of those, one or two dinars at the most. We ate a lot of sweets for Purim. We went to the temple but it was a short service, not comparable to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The month between Purim and Pesach was called Las Tuendas, which means work. The whole time there was work cleaning the house. G-d forbid how much cleaning. Women and girls had to do the cleaning. And in the end we all went around the house with our father looking for the crumbs [before Passover]. And then we carried them to where they put the trash. Some of the things we made kosher. We took a big pot and put boiling water in it and put the things in and that is koshering. The things that couldn't be boiled we hid in a special house, so that they were far away. You cannot touch chametz on Pesach. We had special dishes for Pesach and when it was over mother collected them and put them away again.
For Pesach we all got new clothes. We waited for this. Maybe during the year we bought things sometimes, but for Pesach one simply had to have new clothes. We had these things made by the tailor. My mother didn't sew pants and such things. She sewed small things. My mother didn't know how to use a sewing machine but my two sisters did. And my sister-in-law knew. They were younger than my mother. We got pants, suits, shoes, shirts, socks. Everything that you see and do not see was new. For Pesach everything had to be new.
My mother made boyos, unleavened bread. It was smaller than bread and very hard. And she made matzot in our house too.
We had seder and would sing in both Hebrew and Ladino. For instance we sang: ‘a lamana di ahalu avatana b'ara d'mizraim kol' [This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt]. I used to know the whole song. And we sang:
este el pan de apresion
que comieron nuestros padres
de tiera en ejipto
todo que leaz de menester de
este ano akizjel ano el vinenen en tiera de israel
este ano aki siervo
a el ano vinenen entiera de israel
[This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat of it; all in need come and celebrate Passover. This year we observe it here; next year may we be in the Land of Israel. This year we are slaves in exile; next year may we be free men in the Land of Israel. Translation from Hebrew by Rabbi Jonathon Cohen]
and then ‘mah nishtanah:'
ma nishtana laila ze mi kol alelot
shebe kol alelot ain ano matabilim afelu paam ahat. Vhalajla hazeh shte pamim
[Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we need not dip even once and on this night we dip two times.]
When my father sang everyone who knew joined in with him. And I knew the songs, so I sang too. The women didn't sing. They didn't know. We all sang ‘manishtana alajla aze mi kol alelot shebe kol alelot.' Which means: ‘This night is different from all other nights because all other nights we have intimate relations only once and this night two times.' [Editors note: This is not an accurate translation of the text in the Haggadah.] And so on and so on.
On Shavuot we read:
y fue djuzara del djueses de ambre la tiera.
y fue el dia de djuzara los djueses
y fue ambre la tiera
y aduvo va ronde betlehem jehuda
por morar il kampo del moav
el imusek y deo su zizos.
This is the history of Jews who were in crisis, and couldn't live where they were anymore, so they went to live in another Jewish country. [In Hebrew it is]:
Vayehi b'mea shfot hashafotim
Vayehi raav baaretz
Vayeleh ish mi beit lechem yehudah
Lagor bsde moav
[Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Yehuda went to sojourn in the country of Mo'av Ruth 1:1]
It is from Megilat Rut [Book of Ruth] and very long. After Sir Hashirim [Song of Songs] this is the most beautiful poem, the most poetic. And David came from Ruth.
On Shavuot we also sang:
es razon de ala vara Dios Santo
Konte moredad de korason y alegria
y qozo. En estedia Santo y temirozo.
[Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from the Shavuot Ketubbah that was read in Balkan Sephardic communities during the morning service when the ark was opened. ‘One must give thanks and praise the great and mighty G-d with a trembling heart with joy and delight. On this holy and awesome day.' Translation from Ladino by Rabbi Isak Asiel]
For Tisha be-Av we sat on the floor. We went to the temple and then, when we went home, we didn't eat anything the whole day. We didn't sit on chairs, only on the floor. We had some special prayers for this holiday.
Every Friday female beggars would come and we gave them bread. Since my mother had baked bread she gave them some of it. There were only a few beggars and they were all women. In general, even though people were very poor they didn't beg. They got money, help from the Jewish community and what they could earn working.
We went to the temple on Sabbath evening. It didn't last long and then we went home. Saturday we ate fizon di Shabbat, Jewish beans. Father would recite the Kiddush.
On Sabbath one couldn't light the fire, so we had a gypsy woman come and light the furnace, and everything that we needed lit, but especially the furnace because in the winter we needed to have it on. They lit them and we paid them.
La mortaza was the special clothing that was made before a person died [kitel in the Ashkenazi tradition]. Everyone had their own mortaza, women and men. Women sewed them. It wasn't any great clothing, just something to wrap a person in when he dies. We sang special prayers and there was a special book of them just for the dead. Only men went to the cemetery. A woman was never permitted to go to the cemetery. Women cried and sang special prayers at home.
After a funeral we sat at home seven days, lasijeti, which means to sit for seven days [shivah]. For seven days we didn't sit on chairs rather on the floor. We didn't do anything. Our relatives brought us food. I was about 17 when my grandfather died. For seven days the mourners were served. I don't remember that I sat these seven days when my grandfather died.
When I was little we played outside. First we played hide and seek. Then we had a stick and hit things. Then we played soccer. I was the goalie and defender. We had a special Jewish soccer club called Atehija or Nada in Serbian. We played with other clubs, non-Jewish, some were better, others worse. I was in the second team. I was too young to be in the first team. Our team was just Jews.
Atheija was a Jewish club that did a lot of things, amongst them there were sporting activities, a choir, literature, all sorts of things.
There was no kindergarten [Editor's note: Rabbi Djaen established the first Jewish kindergarten in Bitola. Teachers brought in from Palestine taught there. The first teacher was Lea Ben-David, who arrived in 1925.]
There was Lumdei Torah [Editor's note: This school was called Lumdei Torah or Torah Learners, it was established by Yitzhak Alitzfen (1870-1948), the chief rabbi after WWI (1920s-1932). The institution was similar in function to a Talmud Torah but had a strong Zionist focus. Source: Mark Cohen]. In the mornings I went to [elementary] school and in the afternoon to Lumdei Torah. When I was ten, maybe younger, and until I was 12-13, Musa Safan taught me religious lessons at the Lumdei Torah. I went there for four years. This was a special building next to the main temple, Aragon. Here I learned the whole Torah and the history of the Torah. He knew this very well. He had a talent for teaching: he spoke so nicely that we remembered everything he said. He also taught us Hebrew. He didn't know it exceptionally well, but he taught us what he knew.
He was an old man, with a beard. He was about 56-57 and we considered that to be old. I went every day for two hours in the afternoon after school. It wasn't obligatory, not everyone went. Whoever wanted went. He was a perfect man. Like all hakhamim he wore a black robe, down to his feet, and not a fez but a special Jewish cap.
He taught the ten or fifteen of us to be little hakhamim. He took us to the temple where we sang. I sang a little better than the others; they sang, but some didn't have good voices, so they gave me more verses to sing.
There was a state-run elementary school where the Jews went. There was one Jewish elementary school and many others. There were four grades in the elementary school. The elementary school was called ‘La skole de la Zudios' which means Jewish school [in Ladino]. All the Jewish kids went there, but the teachers were Macedonians, that is Serbs. All Jewish kids went to this school. There were no non-Jewish students. [Editor's note: The territory of today's Macedonia was attached to Serbia as a consequence of the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and the Slavic-speaking Macedonians, as a pretext, were considered part of the Serbian nation by Belgrade.] Serbian was taught in the school. In elementary school all the subjects were in Serbian. Nothing was in Macedonian. The Macedonian language was forbidden. It was forbidden as a language. It was forbidden to speak it. If a teacher heard someone speaking Macedonian, he would reprimand the person. It was forbidden because it was understood that Macedonians were Serbs and should speak Serbian and not Macedonian, a gypsy language.
[In elementary school] we learned to read, write, draw, and gymnastics. We never experienced any anti-Semitism. Our professors loved us so much; I still remember a few of them: Mr. Nikola and Mr. Hristo. They taught us everything.
All male Jews, and later females too, finished elementary school. Then only a small number went on to secondary school. Only a small percentage of Jewish kids went to gymnasium. One could choose between the gymnasium or the commercial academy. Secondary school was eight years. There was one gymnasium and one commercial academy for all of Bitola.
I went to the gymnasium. There was no Macedonian in secondary school either. It was not just that it wasn't spoken officially; if someone heard it being spoken in the yard, some people were tolerant, others were not. If they heard someone speaking it they would say: ‘What are you speaking?' and take the person by the ear and slap, slap, two or three hits, ‘You are speaking some foolish language.'
All the professors were sent from Belgrade. They were all sent from Belgrade and they were all Serbs. There were Macedonians, but only those who considered themselves Serbs. Serbianized Macedonians. There were just a few of them.
[In the gymnasium] Professor Popovic taught French. Professor Civovic taught math and physics. There was a woman teacher named Popovic who taught Serbian. Caslav taught geography and geology. My favorite subject was math. Most people hated it because it was hard.
My wife went to the commercial academy. At the commercial academy they learned to be employees in businesses. After this there were no further [educational options]. Those of us who studied at the gymnasium, we could go further, to university.
My brother [Mois] finished the French school and Dzamila [my wife] studied at the French school which was recognized as secondary schooling. There was a French elementary school and to some point a secondary school. If you finished the French secondary school it wasn't recognized as having finished the final exam for secondary school. The French school lasted up until the time of occupation. During the occupation all French things were forbidden. The French bank and school were closed. The school was run by French nuns.
Solomon finished the commercial academy. Sami studied at the gymnasium maybe to the fifth grade and stopped because of the occupation.
We didn't have to wear a uniform, but we did wear a special school cap. On each cap there was a number with the grade you were in. You had to wear this cap so that one knew you were a student. If you didn't wear it, you could be punished.
Girls didn't go to school, they were illiterate. There wasn't one Jew who was illiterate in Hebrew. Everyone knew how to read, absolutely everyone, there wasn't one who didn't know how to read. And the opposite was true for women; there wasn't one who knew how to read. [Editor's note: According to Bitola Jewish community statistics only 19 Jewish girls in Bitola were enrolled in school in 1932. Source: Zeni Lebl] There was no special school for girls. That changed a little bit already in my time.
I had my bar mitzvah when I was 13 and I read the whole parasha [weekly Torah portion]. My bar mitzvah teacher came to my house and taught me to read my portion. We practiced for more than a month. I knew the whole parasha by heart. It was a big honor in the temple and outside. They made cakes and other things. I got some presents and money.
When I was in the second grade of the gymnasium, I had a magazine called Borba . This was a magazine that was published in Belgrade until 1922-23. It was the magazine of the communist party. Borba was an illegal publication from 1922. It was a communist magazine. In 1922 it was legal and then became illegal. It was published even though it was illegal. And a Jewish second-hand shop sold it among other books. I bought it, read it, found it interesting and gave it to someone else. I bought it from a second-hand shop. Petar, the non-Jewish boy who sat next to me in school, wanted to read it. However, he was impatient and he read it during class. The history teacher caught him and gave it to the director. The director called the police. The police didn't arrest us but they kept us there. Petar and I weren't allowed to go home. In the end, I told them where I had bought the book. They asked me, ‘Who is that second-hand trader?' and I told them. I also told them that I didn't know what kind of book it was. The man I had bought it from admitted it.
My brother [Mois] learned that this had happened and he took all of my books to his house. If they had caught me with those books I would have had to go to prison. This way he saved the books and me. These were leftist books.
They discussed whether to expel me from school. They decided that if they were to expel me they needed to expel me from all schools in all of Yugoslavia. But there was one mathematics teacher, Prof. Matic, who defended me: ‘Listen, if he has to be punished, he should go to prison, but not be expelled from school. But he proved that this was unintentional and that is it.' And that's how he saved me. He was a communist but didn't tell us then. I saw him at a [anti-governmental pro-communist] demonstration in Belgrade in 1938-39 and that's when he told me, ‘I am the one who defended you. The communist. I didn't want to tell you.'