The existence of Jewish people in the territory that is now the Republic of Macedonia dates back to ancient times.
According to some researchers, the settling of Jewish people in Macedonia, and in the Balkans in general, began with the conquest of Darius (513 BCE). According to other researchers, the settling took place after Alexander the Great’s conquest of Asia Minor (330 BCE).
There is evidence that Jewish settlements existed in Macedonia through all ages; however, the most important evidence is the archaeological remnants of a synagogue in the ancient town of Stobi that date back to the third to fourth century CE. The archaeological findings of Polycharmos’ Pillar, which has a Greek inscription, confirms the existence of an organised Roman Jewish community around the Stobi synagogue at such an early date.
With the division of the Roman Empire into the Eastern and Western Roman Empires and the annexation of Macedonia to Byzantium, a difficult period followed for the Jews. In that period, Christianity became the state religion, and hostile propaganda against the Jews followed. Many restrictive laws were passed: a ban on erecting new synagogues, conducting religious rituals, working in the state service, observation of Passover before Easter, commenting on the Torah, etc.
Mass migration of Jews to Macedonia was noted in the year 613 following King Sisebut’s decree on the expulsion from Spain of all Jews that would not convert to Christianity. This occurrence coincided with the settlement of the Slavs in Byzantium.
After the invasion of the Normans and crusaders, the number of Jewish communities in Macedonia increased owing to the continuously larger influx of Jewish settlers from Italy, France, Germany and Hungary. During that time, the renowned Jewish doctor, Talmudist, philosopher, grammarian, mathematician and linguist, Judah Ben Moses Mosconi was born in Ohrid. He is credited with major developments in Macedonian culture, a fact noted in the Russian Jewish Encyclopaedia.
With the Serbian Army’s invasion of Macedonia in 1282, and especially after King Dusan conquered several Macedonian cities (1331-1335), the existence of Jews (mainly from Macedonia and Thessaly) is recorded in the newly formed Serbian state. The existence of Jews in that period was recorded in the imperial acts of King Dusan.
With the invasion of the Balkans by the Turks in 1354 and annexation of Macedonia to the Ottoman Empire, the situation of the Jews dramatically changed. They were given the same rights as other non-Muslim populations. In 1366, the first synagogue was built in Skopje, and by 1382 a Jewish community existed in Ohrid. In 1453, when Mehmed II took over Constantinople, many notable Jews from Ohrid moved to Constantinople, where the Ohrid synagogue existed up to the 19th century.
The greatest influx of Jews to Macedonia took place from 1492 to 1496 with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. The welcome acceptance of the Jewish settlers by Sultan Bajazid II brought them freedom and greater rights than those they had previously enjoyed. There were nine synagogues in Bitola, three in Skopje, and two in Stip. The Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), brought with them elements of a developed culture and had a major role in culture and economy. Due to the fact that they were able to speak several languages, they filled the role of mediators between the East and West.
In the 17th century, the work of Prophet Nathan of Gaza was noted in Macedonia. He was buried in Skopje in 1680. Many Jews from all over the world made pilgrimages to his grave, which was demolished during the Second World War.
There is historical evidence of Jews participating in the Macedonian revolution (Rafael Kamhi was the head of the unit in Debar in the Ilinden Uprising; Mentes Kolomonos, Santo Aroesti, the Muson brothers and Avram Nisan were also participants). Jews also participated in the Young Turk Revolution, and many of them embraced the vision of Kemal Ataturk. In addition, there is evidence of communication between Gjorce Petrov and Theodor Herzl regarding the liberation of Macedonia.
After the First World War, the Jewish communities in Dojran, Strumica, Prilep, Veles, Udovo, Gevgelija and Kumanovo were completely destroyed, while others underwent mass migration to Thessaloniki.
On April 6, 1941, Yugoslavia was occupied by Nazi Germany. Macedonia, Thrace and Southern Serbia fell under the jurisdiction of Nazi Bulgaria, which adopted the Law on Protection of the Nation, signed by King Boris III. The law obligated Jews to wear a yellow Star of David, initiated a number of prohibitions (on marriage, agriculture, education in general and higher education) and imposed special taxes, and seizure of property and bank accounts. On March 11, 1943 the Jews from Skopje, Bitola and Stip were gathered in the Monopol temporary concentration camp. From there, they were deported via three subsequent train transports (March 22, 25 and 29) to the Treblinka death camp. Not a single one came back alive. 98% of the total Jewish population in Macedonia was exterminated in Treblinka.
The Jewish population took active part in the Resistance against Fascism by providing financial aid, refuge to soldiers and propaganda material. Young Jews participated in the partisan units of the Resistance. Some of them served as fighters and leaders of the Resistance. Estreja Mara Ovadija was designated National Hero of Yugoslavia, and twelve other fighters were awarded Distinctions 1941-1945.