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The Holocaust in Yugoslavia

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Letter from Ester Ruben Menahem to the Commissariat for Jewish Questions

Menahem, Ester Ruben letter 1943
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade
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tags: belongings

type: Letter

The Independent State of Croatia and occupied Serbia took up most of the former territory of the dismembered Yugoslavia. Of the remaining regions—what today are the countries of Slovenia, Montenegro, and Macedonia—only the last was home to a significant number of Jews, around 8,000 on the eve of World War II (there were virtually no Jews in Montenegro and Slovenia). Most of Yugoslav Macedonia was annexed by Bulgaria, which laid historical claims over this territory, and whose allegiance to Nazi Germany Hitler rewarded by territorial expansion in this region. The timeline of the Holocaust in Macedonia is thus part of the history of the Holocaust in Bulgaria.1

During the course of the war, as an ally of Nazi Germany, Bulgaria had instituted a number of antisemitic measures, including marking the Jews and drafting Jewish men for labor battalions. Although antisemitism was not widely spread among the Bulgarian population (and had not been traditionally), some officials in the Bulgarian government were dedicated antisemites and had gradually become committed to deporting the Jews from Bulgaria to "Poland"—a euphemism which, by 1943, obscured very little. After the deportation plans had become publicly known, some politicians, Bulgarian Orthodox Church officials, as well as ordinary people voiced their objections against the background of the battle of Stalingrad. This German defeat in February 1943 increased the likelihood of Nazi Germany losing the war. In these new circumstances, many elites of countries allied with Nazi Germany—such as Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria—started questioning their alliance with Hitler, and exploring the limits of German influence and pressure, including on the so-called "Jewish question."

Nevertheless, some government officials and institutions remained dedicated to the deportation of Jews to camps in German-occupied Poland. On March 11, 1943, some 7,000 Jews from Yugoslav Macedonia were rounded up across the region (mostly from Skopje, Bitola, and Štip), and concentrated in tobacco warehouses in Skopje. The action was part of the Bulgarian government's plan to begin by deporting Jews living in the occupied territories (in Yugoslav Macedonia, as well as in Greek Thrace) first, in order to legitimize the idea of deporting the Jews without yet resorting to drastic measures in Bulgaria proper and potentially causing a public outcry. Over the next several days, virtually all of the Jews rounded up in Yugoslav Macedonia were deported to Treblinka, where the overwhelming majority of them were murdered.

Once thousands of Jews were shipped off to their deaths, Bulgarian state agencies as well as enterprising individuals made sure that the property left behind did not stay unattended. Plunder of Jewish property was part and parcel of the Holocaust, and similar patterns of dispossession, forced "aryanization" and outright plunder repeated themselves in different parts of Europe.2

Very few Jews from the three towns in Yugoslav Macedonia managed to escape the roundup on March 11, 1943. Several were released from the tobacco warehouses on account of their Spanish citizenship. Before Franco's coup and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the Spanish republic had passed a law that granted Spanish citizenship to any applicants who could document their Sephardi origin; in theory, all Sephardi Jews across Europe were eligible, but relatively few took this opportunity. Ester Menahem was probably one of them, as she successfully managed to pull herself out of the transport to Treblinka.

About two weeks after the deportation, she petitioned the representative of the Commissariat for Jewish Questions, the thoroughly antisemitic government body tasked with organizing the deportations, and noted the plunder of her property.

For a history of the Holocaust in Bulgaria and the occupied territories, see Frederick Chary, The Bulgarian Jews and the Final Solution, 1940-1944 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972).

On this aspect of the Holocaust, see Martin Dean, Robbing the Jews: The Confiscation of Jewish Property in the Holocaust, 1933–1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2010).

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In[coming] No. 363
April 24, 1943]
To the Honorable
Delegate of the Commissar
for Jewish Questions
Here [Skopje]



by Ester Ruben Menahem, resident of the c[ity of] Skopje, “87” St. no. 18


Honorable Delegate,

On the 11th of this month I was, together with my family, taken to a camp. However, I was later released as a Spanish citizen. I left my entire household wares at the above address, but when I returned [home] I did not find anything. Everything was taken away by persons unknown. Since nothing is left of my holdings at the apartment, except two iron bed frames, I appeal to you to order, if you please, that I be awarded items for my use, such as: mattresses, duvets, sheets and bedding, because I need them urgently, and have nowhere to procure them.

I hope you will pay due attention to my appeal.


C[ity of] Skopje, March 27, 1943



Ester Ruben Menahem

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade
Date Created
March 27, 1943
Author / Creator
Menahem, Ester Ruben
Skopje, Macedonia
Skopje, Bulgaria (historical)
Document Type Letter
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