The Jewish Cemetery of Bitola/Monastir ‘BEIT HAIM’ (Home of the Living) was founded in 1497, only five years after their expulsion from Spain. This is one of the oldest, if not the oldest Jewish Cemetery on the Balkans. It has served the Jewish community of Monastir for more than 400 years.
During World War I, when the front line was passing through the town, Jewish cemeteries suffered severe damage from the bombing of the city conducted by the Central Powers (Germany and Bulgaria) throughout 1916.
When Rabbi Shabtai Dzhaen arrived in Bitola in 1924, he saw that the cemetery lies on a sharp slope on the outskirts of the city and is in a very bad condition. Most of the monuments were destroyed and served as construction material. Sometimes the inscriptions were disposed, but often stayed as ornaments. The remaining tombstones were scattered, broken and moss was spread all over them. Rabbi Dzhaen traveled to America and there he gathered contributions from the Jewish-born migrants from Bitola/Monastir. When he returned in 1929, the rabbi initiated an action to build a very nice and solid protective wall of stone with iron minted David shields, and arrange the cemetery itself. This wall/fence preserved Bitola’s Jewish Cemetery from further desecration and destruction even during the Bulgarian occupation of Macedonia in World War II.
The Cemetery was abandoned and left to ruin after the deportation of all Bitola’s Jews in 1943. The Bulgarian soldiers had used the gravestones to pave the military camp, the parade grounds, the floors of their barracks, the swimming pool, the walls of the washrooms, sidewalks etc…. All that was left were smashed pieces of gravestones strewn all over the Cemetery.
In 1961, the City Council of Bitola decided to remodel the entire complex and to create a park that would carry the memories of the former Jewish community and to put this memorial park under government protection. The project was developed and initial calculations were made, parts of the funds for spatial reconstruction were assigned, but nothing was undertaken.
A civil campaign to restore the cemetery and create a Holocaust memorial complex there began in 1997 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of its foundation. Considerable work was carried out, including the restoration of the monumental entrance gate, declared a national historic-cultural monument. It has a central Gothic arch flanked by two Gothic-arched windows and features a facade whose upper part is decoratively ribbed.
This initiative lost its momentum in 2005 when work began on the construction of the Memorial Center in Skopje, but it regained it this summer when the Memorandum for cooperation 2015 between Israel and Bitola/Monastir was signed. It envisages the creation of a memorial park to honor the Jewish population that lived here and further nurture the good relationship between Israel and Macedonia. ARHAM of course, had an essential role in the signing of the agreement.
Today, the Cemetery is fully enclosed by a wall (three sides are masonry and part of the front is decorative iron grille work). The main gate stands at the bottom of the hill. Several thousand grave markers remain, but most are illegible and only a few – in the lower left corner as seen from the entrance – are in good condition. Most of the gravestones lie flat, in the Sephardic manner.
- In January 2015 ARHAM raised the initiative for the restoration of the Jewish Cemetery in Bitola.