Salonica and Istanbul: Social, Political and Cultural Aspects of Jewish Life
Excerpts from Jews of the Soviet Satellites
The History of Turkish Jews
Jewish Community Of Monastir: A Community In Flux
The Holocaust In Macedonia: Deportation Of Monastir Jewry
What Can We Learn From This Story? A Personal History Lesson
A Father's Story: Three Walls, and the Spiral of Life
A Son's Story: Television, Transformation, and Passing on Tradition
|What Can We Learn
From This Story? A Personal History
Mark Cohen, Bulgaria
Author the highly acclaimed Last Century of a Sephardic Community: The Jews of Monastir, Mark Cohen shares with us his reasons for writing this book: chiefly, that he didn't think he'd live to see its completion. We're happy to say that he did, and this personal essay, full of irony and self-deprecating humor, Mark will take you along on this rather bumpy voyage of self-discovery.
What Can We Learn From This Story? A Personal History Lesson
A few years ago there was a movie about a little boy who had an ability that gave people the creeps. As the boy said in the coming attractions, œI see dead people. Well, I can beat that. I spent seven years in the company of dead people. I read their mail, went through their wardrobes, listened to their songs, visited their schools, and laughed at their dirty jokes. And that's what drew me to write my book about the Sephardic Jews of Monastir. It was an attachment to the dead. To write history is to spend a lot of time with the dead. That was fine with me. I had been thinking a lot about them anyway.
I started my book in 1998 after cancer surgery, but it is not fair to blame my cancer for my morbid frame of mind. Once you've had cancer, you want to blame it for everything. And who's going to stop you? With a bad malignancy you can bully anyone. Speak softly and carry a big tumor.
But I had already had a long training in thinking about the dead. Growing up in New York in the 1960s, a whole cast of dead people populated my world. My father filled my head with the Sephardic characters from his childhood world of the 1930s. Those people had themselves been born at the end of the 19th century. What for some people seemed the distant past always seemed near at hand to me.
There was Bachor, the energetic owner of a dress shop, who was the legendary first born of 16 children. And Stamula, who taught my dad how to swallow a pill by reaching into the medicine cabinet and taking whatever was nearest. And in my own childhood there were the Sephardic anos, or yahrzeits, when my extended family would gather at synagogue to hear the names of people long dead. Afterward the family would eat lunch together. And my father once told me that at anos in the 1930s the Sephardim would eat lunch in the cemetery. So I was shocked but not surprised when, in my research, I learned that the writer Rebecca West visited Monastir in 1937 and saw something that touched her deeply: œa peasant woman sitting on a grave ¦ with a dish of wheat and milk on her lap.
So I was heir to a tradition of being close to the dead. And didn't my favorite author, Saul Bellow, say the living and the dead form one community? And didn't I owe these dead something for the entertainment they provided me? And didn't they try to help me when I was sick? My father visited his parents' grave and asked for help, which used to be a common Jewish practice. And my cousin Karen had a dream that her grandmother said I was going to be alright. And I had been thinking a lot about being dead myself, and what I wanted from the living after I was gone. I had a long list of secret demands.
So I decided that the way to commune with the dead, and at the same time fight for my life, was to write a book about the Sephardic community of Monastir (today's Bitola, Macedonia), where my grandmother was born. It would take years, which my doctors didn't believe I had, and it would take me out of the world of the living, which I no longer felt very connected to anyway. So I began.
The unreasonable method
My first breakthrough started with a German book on the history of the Catholic Church in Macedonia. I was looking at everything. I prowled corners of library stacks that hadn't been visited in years. Monastir, set at an ancient crossroads in the Macedonian highlands, had been under Ottoman Turkish rule for more than five centuries, from 1389 until 1912. Then it was briefly Serbian and after the First World War, Yugoslavian. World War I accounts like, What an American Woman Saw and Did in Suffering Serbia, hadn't been checked out since the 1930s. I was becoming a real crank. When I found the book, Little Grey Partridge: The First World War Diary of Ishobel Ross, who served with the Scottish Women's Hospitals in Serbia, it made my whole day.
But the German book was a turning point. The author had found a history of the Catholic mission in Monastir, and he learned from it that two Jewish girls attended the mission school in 1857. I had to get that history. The mission existed in Monastir from 1857 to 1930, nearly the entire period of the history I wanted to write, from 1839-1943. So I looked for the mission history on the Melvyl system, which searches all of the University of California libraries. It didn't turn up. I checked Stanford University's catalog. Nothing. I checked the catalogs for the New York Public Library, Harvard, and finally the Library of Congress. Zero. I went to UC Berkeley to use computers hooked up to WorldCat, which links together 45,000 libraries in 84 countries.
When that turned up empty, I knew I was in trouble. I double-checked my source. It turned out the mission history was an unpublished manuscript located in the archives of the Congregation de la Mission in Paris. Well, I said to myself, forget about it. No way you're going to get that.
But about a week later I asked myself, what are you doing? You have to get that book. This is no time to fool around. This has to be done right. It was the breakthrough that had eluded me my whole life. It was the take-no-prisoners determination that leads to stories on the evening news about 85-year-old grandmothers who climb Mt. McKinley, or fourth graders who win interviews with the Dalai Lama. They succeeded by being unreasonable. I wanted to join that club.
So I called the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Could I speak to someone specializing in the history of Catholic missions? I get a call back from a professor aware of the French church I am looking for, and he has the phone number of their office in Los Angeles. I call Los Angeles and leave a message. I get a call back from Father Stafford Poole, who has the name of the archivist in Paris and his fax number. I fax Paris, and three weeks later the manuscript is on my doorstep.
After that, I was on my way. I felt invincible. Nothing could stop me. I learned of a 19th century American publication called Missionary News from Bulgaria. Hey, Monastir was considered “ by Bulgarians “ to belong to Bulgaria. Would Monastir be mentioned in Missionary News? All I had to do was check through 30 years of the publication on microfilm. No problem.
Monastir was in there, and also something else. An American missionary mentioned that in the 1860s he had competition from the Church of Scotland, although it mainly worked with the Monastir Jews.
The Church of Scotland? All I had to do was get from Harvard the microfilm of the Church of Scotland Home and Foreign Missionary Record! No problem.
But after looking through 40 years of that fascinating monthly, I realized that I was just kidding myself. The only way to do a proper job was to get the minutes of the meetings of the Church of Scotland's œCommittee on the Conversion of the Jews.
So I emailed the Church of Scotland. They explained that their minute books had been relocated to the National Library of Scotland, and at the library Dr. Louise Yeoman quite reasonably explained that she could not go through the Church's minute books of the 1860s looking for mentions of Monastir. I understood. œBut, Dr. Yeoman, I said, œI know that there was a Scot missionary there in 1863. I must have also said something else. I honestly don't remember how I sweet-talked her into looking through those minute books. But she didn't have a chance, because she was talking not to me “ the ordinary Mark Cohen. She was talking to the guy who had gotten the church manuscript from Paris.
I got great information from Scotland about the arrival of a missionary in Monastir just weeks before the great fire of 1863, which destroyed the traditional Jewish quarter. And I also learned that there had been a missionary in Monastir even earlier. In 1860, there had been a missionary to the Monastir Jews sent by the Church of Canada.
The Church of Canada? Well, yes, explained Ruth Wilson at the United Church Archives. œWe worked with the Church of Scotland in the 19th century. But Wilson found no mention of anything about Monastir in the records. I went back to Dr. Yeoman in Scotland. She advised that if Canada did not have the actual correspondence, they should look at a publication called A Missionary and Religious Record of the Presbyterian Church of Canada in Connection with the Church of Scotland.
Who was the Church of Canada's missionary to Monastir in 1860? A New York Jewish doctor. Ephraim Epstein was a Jewish convert to Christianity and medical doctor who volunteered to be a missionary to the Jews, with whom he could speak Hebrew. His 1860 letters from Monastir were published in the church newsletter, and they provided key information about the Jewish community before the 1863 fire, which led to the arrival of the French-language schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle. Epstein's 1860 letters strongly suggested that even before the fire there was unrest in the community between traditionalists and modernizers, who wanted to change the traditional Jewish schools and educate girls. It was a key discovery.
Are you a professor?
The cooperation I received from institutions such as the churches of Scotland and Canada “ the time and energy they devoted to a lone, unaffiliated researcher “inspired and humbled me. But even those experiences paled beside my experience with Macedonia. This newly formed country, born after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, holds in the archives and museums of Bitola (formerly Monastir) the photographs of the legendary Manaki brothers, who introduced filmmaking in the Balkans in the early 20th century. The Manakis worked in Monastir and they photographed the city and its citizens. What I wanted was some of their photographs of the Monastir Jews. An official responded to my initial inquiry by inviting me to visit Bitola whenever I liked. A 14,000-mile round-trip journey from California to Bitola was not what I had in mind.
Ivan Dodovski understood. Ivan worked at the Open Society Institute in Macedonia, and he became my chaperone through bureaucracies, my defender against (justifiable) skeptics, and my hero on the day that my mailman handed over to me a small but hefty package festooned with numerous stamps and seals. The Manaki photographs had arrived.
But such cooperation is what happens when you deal with non-Jewish organizations. I soon learned it is a whole different ball game when you deal with Jewish groups. I don't care if it's a synagogue or a Jewish historical society. All the conversations go the same way.
œHello, my name is Mark Cohen. May I please speak with the person who organizes your archive.
œWe don't have an archive.
œBut, I was just on your website and it mentions an archive.
œIt's closed now.
œIs Ms. Feldman there?
œWhy do want to see the archive?
œI'm writing a book about the Sephardic Jews and as it turns out that in 1875¦.
œAre you a professor or something?
œWell, actually, no. I'm writing this book ¦
œMark, honey, maybe you can call back later.
But at a Christian organization the conversation goes something like this.
œI'm writing this book about a Sephardic community in the Balkans¦
œMark, this is a very important project. I'm going to give you three phone numbers. The first is the private line for the Pope.
But in time, even the Jewish organizations caved in, and I got papers from the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, the Joint Distribution Committee in New York, the labor Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair, and many others. Without the extraordinary cooperation of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Paris my book would have been impossible.
My history lesson
Some of these old papers, these communications from the dead, had interesting things to tell me not only about Monastir, but also about my myself and my upbringing. There was a very un-American formality in my father's Sephardic family. People were real sticklers when it came to propriety and protocol. My father to this day can strike an attitude of regal untouchability. It was at times no pleasure to live with, and like all children I dismissed my father's explanations about his upbringing as mere excuses. So I was unhappy to learn that he may have been right. Because in 1873, the French Catholic missionary in Monastir had many Jewish boys in his school and he was struck by their formal behavior, which was far superior to that of his Christian students. He wrote,
œI have often admired the honesty and integrity of these Jewish youths. If one of them sometimes allows himself to say something inappropriate to me, he would immediately be denounced by his comrades, who would rebuke him warmly for having dared to say to his teacher una palabra negra [a bad word]. Every time we go visit their parents at home, they receive us as great personages with all possible ceremony.
This evidence of a long-standing culture of formality exonerated my dad, and raised a new question: How much of ourselves is of our own making? How much is decided before our birth by history, tradition, inherited traits of character, in-bred traditions of behavior?
I am one of those people who can't stand change. I compare everything to how the world was in 1967 in New York. The pizza then was better, and also the baseball cards, Good Humor ice cream trucks, comic books, lawn sprinklers and the bikes we drove through them, you name it. It's not an approach I recommend. But I admit it took some weight off my shoulders to learn that all of Jewish Monastir was like this. The Ladino language there was among the least changed and most archaic in the Balkans. The Spanish ballads sung there were among the most obscure ever found. The way of dress there changed more slowly than it did elsewhere. These people fought change tooth and nail. So maybe that's where I get it from.
And maybe that is one of the consolations of history. The individual is not the be all and end all. Life had a momentum and a direction before we arrived. It's not all our fault.
For me, the consolations have also been more tangible and more unlikely.
My search for the remaining scraps of Jewish Monastir amounted to a hunt for signs of life. At the same time, doctors searched me for signs of death. They used X-rays, CT scans and other tools to peer into my brain, lungs, and blood for signs of cancer, while I used the Internet, email, and telephone to scan the world for evidence that death had not and could not erase signs of life. My faith in the power of life seems to have swayed the judge of all life. I was granted a reprieve. The cancer removed by surgery has not reappeared. My book, however, appeared in 2003 and was purchased by libraries and individuals across the country and around the world. Now it, too, is one of those scraps that bear witnesses for life “ that testify in the face of death that we still live.