Hey! For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Jesse. I’m a junior at Penn studying PPE (politics, philosophy, and economics). As many of my friends know, I went abroad last semester. While abroad didn't change me, I did learn a lot. When deciding on studying abroad locations, I ultimately opted for London, because I knew I liked it (I had visited before), I knew there were great universities in (I studied at King’s College), and I knew I could use it as a good base to go on many trips around Europe. I wanted my abroad experience to be “different” so I did something a little unorthodox: I skipped many of the conventional abroad trips (Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, etc.) and decided to go to more off-the-beaten-path places- most of which were in Eastern Europe. In what I hope what will become a series of posts, I’ll talk about my Jewish experiences in these locations.
On my first abroad trip, my friend and I went to Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Albania. Upon landing in Kosovo, we spent a day in Prizren and Pristina. Unfortunately, the Jewish community in Kosovo is extremely small; so, we couldn’t find anything Jewish to do or see. We were surprised, however, by the massive Bill Clinton statue in the middle of the Pristina- which is a different story for a different day.
North Macedonia was totally different. When we arrived in Skopje, I knew that there was a Holocaust Museum. It was just about an hour before they closed so we decided to quickly hurry over there. In my experience up until that point, Holocaust museums in non-major cities that aren’t heavily populated with Jews ~anymore~ don’t seem to be so great (don’t worry, I’ll talk about the museum in Vilnius in a different post). But, upon entering, I was amazed at the three-story interactive museum. There was a massive mezuzah on the door and Hebrew writing letting us know that it was there. Throughout the museum, I was surprised at the displays showing artifacts, recordings, and testimonials from the Jews of North Macedonia. It turns out that there were three major communities there before the war (Skopje, Ohrid, and Bitola). At the museum, my friend and I definitely learned a lot about the mostly Sephardic community (they came from Spain during the Inquisition) from before the war and decided that we would check out the synagogue that remained. When we got to the synagogue, it was unfortunately under construction and we were not allowed in. We asked to meet the rabbi, but the construction workers didn’t know who he was so we, unfortunately, couldn’t’ meet him. We did think the museum explained a good amount of history though and we were satisfied.
The next day, we went on a tour of Skopje. Our tour guide, Alexander, was beyond knowledgeable and it was a really interesting tour. When we reached Matka Canyon, I didn’t really want to ride a canoe, so Alexander and I grabbed a coffee while we waited for everyone. We started talking politics and, since Israel is such a large part of my identity, it naturally came up. He immediately mentioned that he was actually a good friend of the Israeli ambassador in Skopje and regularly gets drinks with him. He also told me that he had been invited to and gone to Israel multiple times for entrepreneurship conferences and vacations. I asked him what his favorite part was, and he said Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. I asked him why and he said that it reminded him of his grandfather, who helped save Jews during the war. His grandfather’s farm was actually right over the hill we were sitting under and since it was hard to get to from the city at that time, the Nazis never really came around to look. He hid multiple Jews there who survived the entirety of the war. This was such a profound story to me, and I was so glad that I skipped the boats and was led to this conversation.
Since my friend and I only visited the small towns of Tushemisht and Pogradec of Albania (after we walked through passport control on foot- yes, they were extremely confused why two Americans were standing in the car line), we didn’t get to see any Jewish sites. But, overall on our trip, the Jewish history of North Macedonia really stuck out to us and we were glad we got to experience it.
Thanks so much for reading!
Jesse Fox is a junior in the College, studying PPE from Boca Raton. He's a Meor Ambassador and is fluent in Mandarin. Grab a virtual coffee chat with him here.