It was July 26, 1963. Berta Abravanel was at her home in Bitola/Monastir, Macedonia. The night before she had just finished sewing the final touches on a special dress she had made for her seven year old granddaughter Shelley Levi. The dressmaking had gone slower than expected. Shelley was supposed to have returned to her parent’s home in Skopje days before, but the dress was not yet ready.
Dr. Haim Abravanel, Shelley’s maternal grandfather, was hard at work at a hospital medical center he managed in Bitola/Monastir
Shelley’s parents, Salvatore and Reni Levi were medical doctors living in Skopje, along with Shelley’s uncle, Nissim Abravanel, who was also a medical practitioner in that city.
In fact, to the Jewish communities in both Bitola/Monastir, and in Skopje, the Abravanel/Levi families were famous for their contribution to Macedonian society in the field of medicine.
While Shelley was waking up the morning of July 26th, her maternal grandmother, Berta, received news that there had been an earthquake in Skopje. Shelley remembered hearing about the earthquake. But, for the particular region that the Abravanel and Levi families lived in, an earthquake was not a rare phenomenon. Earthquakes were so common, most families didn’t talk about them much. But, this one was alarming. Some said it was much stronger than usual.
When Dr. Haim Abravanel heard about the earthquake, he put together a delegation of medical doctors from Bitola/Monastir. They immediately left for Skopje to offer their assistance.
Shelley explains the difficult story that followed. “My grandfather, as head of the Bitola/Monastir hospital medical center, headed up the delegation. He took his team immediately to the house where my parents and uncle had been living. He saw that everything was destroyed. People nearby said there was no chance he would find anyone alive there.”
Dr. Abravanel asked those around him if they would help his team dig through the rubble. There in the ruins of the earthquake, he found the bodies of his son Nissim, his daughter, Rene, and his son-in-law Salvator.
Shelley was now an orphan at seven years old. But, the news of her parent’s death was not told to her at the time.
In the Skopje post office, a postcard was waiting to be sent and delivered to the house of Shelley’s grandparents in Bitola/Monastir. In the postcard, Shelley’s uncle Nissim had written that all was well in Skopje. He requested that his parents remember to put a pair of special trousers in Shelley’s luggage when the Abravanel’s sent her by train to Skopje on July 26th. He confirmed plans to pick Shelley up at the train station in the city.
But, Shelley never did get on that train. The earthquake happened before her departure. One of her most precious possessions today is the postcard, which was preserved and eventually delivered to her grandparents in Bitola/Monastir.
For Dr. Haim Abravanel, his loss was beyond words. However, it was not the first time he had experienced tragedy in the Abravanel family.
In the 1930’s Haim and his wife Berta immigrated to Macedonia from their home in Serbia. Then, in the 1940’s he lost about 120 members of his extended family during WWII, when the Jews of the former Yugoslavia were deported to Nazi death camps.
In Macedonia, alone, 7,144 Jews were rounded up on March 11, 1943, brought to a tobacco factory in Skopje, and taken by train to Treblinka. No one survived that journey. And, only 2-3% of Macedonia’s Jews managed to escape that day’s horror.
To their surprise, when the Nazis collected all the Jews in Macedonia, Haim and Berta were left behind. The Nazis needed the help of medical practitioners to curb a Typhoid epidemic that had broken out in northern Macedonia. The Abravanel’s spent 1943-1945 in that area where Haim worked as a doctor.
After the war, in 1945, the Abravanel’s returned to Bitola/Monastir to manage the hospital in the city. It was a small hospital that Haim developed and expanded, establishing new medical departments. The Abravanel’s were among the very few Jews living in Bitola/Monastir who had survived the Holocaust. Only 200 Jews in all of Macedonia survived. Some of them moved to Skopje and others left for Israel. Today, there are no Jews living in Bitola, but a stable number of about 200 live in the Jewish Community area of Skopje.
Dr. Abravanel raised his family in Bitola/Monastir. His daughter Rene (Shelley’s mother) was born in 1932. Shelley’s father Salvator Levi came from a family of Zionists, many of whom lived in that city.
During WWII, when the Jews were collected by the Nazis in Macedonia, Salvator was studying medicine in Sofia, Bulgaria. He and his brother, who was a student there, were not sent to Treblinka. They survived the Macedonian round-up.
Salvator returned to Bitola/Monastir during the latter part of the war. He joined the Partisans. After the war, he finished his medical studies. He married Shelley’s mother in 1952 and they moved to Skopje. They practiced medicine there and raised Shelley, who would often go on vacation to visit her grandparents in Bitola/Monastir.
In July 1963, at the house of her grandparents, Shelley was not sure how to behave after she figured out that her uncle and her parents had died. She acknowledges it was not easy.
“I immediately felt that something happened to my family. The neighbors were saying things like, ‘the poor Abravanel family’. I knew I should not ask. So, as a small child, my friend and I went to the police station in Bitola/Monastir. I said to my friend, ‘Let’s go ask a policeman what happened to that house in Skopje.’ So, we asked, but the police already knew from my grandparents not to tell me anything.”
Nobody actually explained to Shelley that her parents were not alive. She just understood she was not allowed to speak about it.
“It was very difficult, but that was my life. I understood, not in the beginning, but very soon after, that my parents died in the earthquake. I needed to be strong enough not to talk about it with my grandparents. Their loss was too great.”
Because of his Zionist upbringing, Shelley’s father, Salvatore, had visited Israel one year before, in 1962. He and his mother-in-law Berta thought about the idea of the Abravanel and Levi families immigrating to the land. But, they kept putting it off.
Only one month after the earthquake, despite the fact that Haim and Berta were grieving, they packed up their bags and immigrated to Israel with Shelley. They brought the bodies of Shelley’s uncle and parents to Israel and buried them in the land.
Shelley says, “My grandmother was dealing with the feelings that if she would have made Aliyah earlier all this would not have happened. That is why she and my grandfather immediately decided to move from Macedonia to Israel. We didn’t bring a lot of pictures of the family with us. Almost everything stayed in Macedonia. About 3-4 years later, my grandmother started talking about my parents. She said, ‘Your parents were great people and you should be proud of them.’ ”
The Abravanel’s then had the responsibility of raising Shelley by themselves. Her grandfather Haim was 67 years old when they arrived in Israel, and he began working as a doctor for a health organization. Shelley’s grandmother, Berta, was a good pianist and decided to become a piano teacher.
Shelley explains, “They came to Israel and started over in 1963. My grandmother would always say, ‘I am building a new home here. But, I have everything in Macedonia. I have carpets, the piano, furniture, Judaica, and dishes… all in Macedonia.’ ”
Eventually, Shelley took on the Hebrew name, “Rachel”. It was derived from the name of her father’s mother, “Rachela”. Shelley never got to know her paternal grandparents, Aron and Rachela Levi. Yet, in her new homeland, she wanted to take on a new identity. But, she later realized she had two identities…. Shelley, as a Macedonian; Rachel, as an Israeli. She officially uses both names now.
According to Rachel Shelley, her grandmother Berta died in 1981, and her grandfather Haim in 1984. “During the more than 20 years they lived in Israel, they did not go again to Macedonia. I think it was very difficult for them to go back there. They lost all their family in the March 1943 Holocaust and in the July 1963 earthquake. They lost sisters, brothers, nephews, parents, and they lost their children. They had only me.”
After Rachel Shelley’s grandparents died, she carried on with her studies in Israel. At 27 years old, she decided she would return to Macedonia for a visit. She longed to go back and find the things her family left behind.
“I wanted to see all the furniture and other valuables I grew up with as a child. It reminded me of my grandparents. It was their whole life in Macedonia. This, for me, was the ‘story of the things’ my grandmother had talked about throughout my childhood.”
The ‘story of the things’ encompassed the people that were no longer alive in Rachel Shelley’s life. She wept as she spoke about it. “I have some very deep feelings because these have become treasures that keep the stories alive of my family and friends.”
So, Rachel Shelley went on a journey to find her grandmother’s valuables. “It happened immediately after my grandparents died. People were not going abroad at that time from Israel. But, I had the responsibility to find these treasures. The first time I went with a friend and traveled all over the former Yugoslavia. Then, I met with those who knew my family. They had a reception for me in Skopje. Everybody remembered my parents because it was a big story when my parents died. Some very good friends of theirs, who lost their only daughter in the earthquake, had wanted to adopt me. I saw them at the reception. Also, an uncle of mine had wanted to adopt me because he had no children. But, it was the most natural thing for me to have gone with my grandparents to Israel and to be raised by them.”
Rachel Shelley then traveled to Bitola/Monastir, and knocked on the door of her mother’s very close friend, Keti Geras Sotirovski. She was also welcomed by Keti’s daughter, Mima.
“Mima’s mother and my mother were friends. I had heard the stories. My grandmother had kept in contact with Keti, and with other families in Macedonia.”
At their home, Rachel Shelley found the possessions of her grandparents stored in their basement. She discovered these things in a very large room, full to the top with her family’s belongings. She knew she would come again, organize everything, and prepare to bring a shipment to Israel. When Rachel Shelley returned to Macedonia, she thought only about bringing the piano and pictures back to Israel.
“But, then, I decided to organize more things to return with me to Israel. OK, I thought. I will look for a company that will help me bring these things back. I will pay for this.”
At the time, Macedonia was still under communist rule, and the authorities said it was not possible to find a moving company. Shelley wanted to haul her family’s possessions back in crates. The authorities said she should do it by herself. They told her there was nobody in Macedonia that could take care of her things properly and move them.
“Mima and her brother helped me go through my belongings. I had to decide what would stay and what would go. It took me about a month to organize all of it.”
Then, a remarkable thing happened. It was 1987. Shelley was in Bitola/Monastir and on a particular day decided she would go to Skopje. On the way back, somebody asked her if she wanted a ride. She accepted the invitation and got in the car. There was an officer sharing the ride with her who belonged to the Macedonian army. He had gold medals on his uniform. He asked her what she was doing in Bitola/Monastir. She explained she was organizing her family’s heirlooms to bring with her to Israel.
“I explained to the officer, I am the granddaughter of Dr. Haim Abravanel. This officer, with all these big gold medals on his uniform, started crying. I thought, ‘What is happening?’ He said that after the war, around 1946-47, when he was a child, his family was very poor. His mother was working at my grandparents’ home as a house cleaner. He said that his family was so poor they did not have enough food to eat. So, once a week, my grandmother invited this young boy and his family to eat at our home. He remembered being encouraged by my family to play football with my uncle. The young boy’s family had not been able to afford a well-made ball. They had just glued some material together in the shape of a ball. So, he was able to play with a real ball at my home.”
As they continued on their journey, Rachel Shelley asked the officer what his profession was in the army. To her surprise, he explained that he was the Manager of Customs at the border point in Bitola/Monastir!
“When I told him I had come to move my grandparents’ things to Israel, he said ‘no problem’, he would help me. I had to finish a long list of documents. I went to his office and had great favor with the people there. They liked me.”
After Rachel Shelley’s return to Israel with her family’s belongings, she made a point to stay in touch with her Jewish and non-Jewish friends in Macedonia. She now not only had her grandparents “things”, but she had the memories to cherish, along with the restoring of precious friendships. She began to realize that even in the great loss her grandparents experienced, they had found the inner strength to take care of her. Yet, her mind was flooded with new understanding, that while her grandmother had appeared strong, Berta collapsed emotionally after the earthquake tragedy.
Part of the healing from her childhood trauma has been the frequent trips that Rachel Shelley has taken to Macedonia. While she does not see herself living there permanently, she talks of going back for a period of time and doing some kind of meaningful work there.
She is married now to Dov Drummer and they have two children serving in the Israeli army. Today, she goes by the name Dr. Rachel Shelley Levi-Drummer. She has her doctorate from Bar-Ilan University in Computational Biology.
Rachel Shelley remembers that when she first started to visit her mother’s friend Keti in Bitola/Monastir, she would see Mima in the entranceway.
“I was going to their big home. Mima was standing on the stairs looking at me. She would say, ‘Oh, so you are Shelley. I heard a lot about you, and I would like to get to know you better.’ We became closer and closer friends from visit to visit.”
Mima is married now and has become a lawyer in Bitola/Monastir. Her official name is Adv. Maria Geras Dochevska, and she with her husband, Milcho, manages a company called ARHAM.
In 2009, during one of Rachel Shelley’s trips to Macedonia, she visited the old Jewish Cemetery in Bitola/Monastir built in 1497 for the Sephardic Jews who had escaped the Spanish Inquisition. As families died off they were buried in that cemetery. After most of the Jews were taken away to the Treblinka death camp during WWII, the cemetery was left neglected. With no more Jews living in Bitola/Monastir, the city townspeople had wanted to do something about the cemetery, but no project seemed to start successfully.
“I had dreamt about this cemetery. I thought it should be cleaned, uncovered, and restored. It was very difficult for me to see the cemetery as it was. I was not sure I could identify my own relatives buried there. So, I shared my feelings with Mima.”
Rachel Shelley also happened to meet a diplomat at a gathering hosted by Israel’s Foreign Ministry in 2014. That diplomat, Dan Oryan, became the Israeli Ambassador to Macedonia. In 2015, Rachel Shelley introduced Ambassador Oryan to Mima. Soon after, the Macedonian citizens of Bitola/Monastir signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Israeli government. Since there were no longer Jews living in the city, they agreed to take on the cemetery project as their responsibility to honor the Jewish people who had once thrived there.
Rachel Shelley shared her excitement about the project which is now called, ‘The Macedonia Initiatives’. “This is the story of the Jewish Community of Bitola/Monastir. It is the story of the city’s rich Jewish heritage.”
Besides cleaning the cemetery and uncovering and restoring the tombstones, the development plans through Mima’s company ARHAM is to create a Memorial Park and plant trees. According to the design, there will be one tree planted for each Jew from Bitola/Monastir that was sent to Treblinka. At least 3,100 Jews vanished from the city on March 11, 1943.
Through the help of Jews, Christians, and Muslims working together from all over the world, the cemetery is being restored. More than 3,000 gravestones have been discovered so far. Many of the stones contain Hebrew writings, explaining something about the heritage of the person buried there. An Israeli artist, Maty Grunberg, whose roots are from Macedonia (he miraculously escaped the Nazi round-up), has plans to create a sundial in the cemetery that will beam a special light into the air with the words, “March 11, 1943”, to remind visitors what happened in the town of Bitola/Monastir during the Holocaust.
After all the tombstones are discovered and restored (there could be more than 8,000 in this large cemetery); and after the Memorial Park is built, there are more plans for the city of Bitola. Paths will lead tourists from the cemetery to special Jewish markers in the city that symbolize the Jewish Community life that once existed there.
Rachel Shelley has seen busloads of Jews coming from all over the Balkans, and from Israel, who are curious to visit the cemetery. They are looking for their relatives buried there. But, now, when the work should be almost completed, the project has hit a financial snag.
She shares her dreams for the future. “I hope that somebody will see the importance of this cemetery, find the money and financially support the project in finishing this special work. In Bitola/Monastir, the Jewish Community vanished. We cannot allow it to be forgotten. This is the community of my family. In uncovering the tombstones, I think the cemetery is telling the stories of the people and reviving the community. It is the place of the stories. Life stories.”
Some of the text on the gravestones tell about the Jews who lived and worked in the city; what their employment was; how they spent their lives — rich or poor. There is even rabbinical history and Talmudic information about how some of the more religious Jews studied.
While the preservation of Jewish history is being restored in the cemetery of this special town of Bitola/Monastir, an Israeli NGO has recently been formed to help finish the project of the “Macedonia Initiatives.”
Nowadays, Dr. Rachel Shelley Levy-Drummer is the Secretary of Academic Affairs at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel. At the university, she has established an academic committee for the research of the findings of the cemetery.
For more information, contact Rachel Shelley by E-mail: email@example.com
work on the Bitola/Monastir cemetery and the uncovering of the gravestones (photos by Carrie Hart)