Israel and Macedonia are celebrating 20 years of diplomatic relations, offering friendship and cooperation as part of an on-going effort to bring these two nations closer together. This unique journey in diplomacy has opened doors to business investments, tourism, and cultural exchanges.

Israeli Ambassador to Macedonia (non-resident) Dan Oryan expressed his heartfelt gratitude to the people of Macedonia during a recent press conference in Bitola, a city which once had a thriving Jewish community. “We want to know you better. We want to be closer. And, I hope so today, in a much stronger way in friendship, culture, and business. We hope you will come and visit us in Israel soon.”

Before the press conference, the Bitola children’s choir, “Little Bells”, shared songs in the Macedonian and Hebrew languages which warmed the hearts of Israeli journalists and others standing by. Oryan helped the town mayor plant a tree symbolizing the growing warmth in relationships. And, together, the people of Macedonia and those on tour from Israel, picked up colored and painted stones that represented the flags of their two nations. It was a special symbolic moment in time.

Looking for continued ways to deepen these unique ties, Ambassador Oryan, who is also Israeli Director of the Balkan States, has been helping to enhance political and economic cooperation, along with advancements in the fields of education, health, agriculture and trade. Furthermore, leaning on his past experience as Cultural Attaché for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Oryan has brought poets, dancers, book illustrators, film producers, theatrical directors, actors, photographers, literary writers, and journalists to Macedonia, paving the way for Israelis to share their talents and creativity outside of their own country. It is a way of Israel being a “light to the nations” and a big contributor to the on-going celebrations of this developing partnership with Macedonia.

Special festivals have been taking place in Bitola, Ohrid and Skopje (the capital of Macedonia). Recently, two Israeli theater companies, Habima National Theater and the Cameri Theater, brought their co-production of Our Class to these cities, and to Tirana, Podgorica, and Belgrade, receiving praise and commendation for their performances in the Balkans region. Audiences were enthusiastic, and the theater company experienced an overall positive response.

The people of Macedonia, who have suffered through wars and persecution, and have a history of having seen their own Jewish communities devastated during the Holocaust, can identify with the distressing and heartrending moments represented in the theatrical drama of Our Class.

The play is written by Polish screenwriter Tadeusz Slobodzianek, based on the book Neighbors authored by Jan Gross. During his research, Gross collected evidence dealing with the atrocities done to the Jews by Polish Catholics in the town of Jedwabne, July 1941. One of the main tragedies that occurred was when Polish neighbors forced their Jewish neighbors into a local barn, set it on fire, and burned them to death.

This sad chapter of life in a European country during WWII brings to memory the evil of anti-Semitism that existed at that time, an evil that still exists today. It reminds audiences to stand against intolerance, prejudice, racism, hatred, murder, and rape and to fight for the principles of respect, dignity, love, compassion, kindness and freedom for all mankind.

According to Oryan, “It’s about all of us; how you treat each other; how you treat your neighbor during times that are not easy.”

Our Class is based on the true story of a local pogrom in a small village in eastern Poland, but the play takes the event into a classroom. And the audience receives a history lesson of what went wrong among classmates who had grown up together. They eventually allowed destructive human behavior to take over precious friendships, bringing chaos and devastation to their community.

Miki Peleg-Rotshtein plays Zocha in the Our Class performance. This writer interviewed her on a Macedonia Ministry of Tourism bus excursion from Bitola to Skopje. According to Peleg-Rotshtein, “For a German Polish writer to write such a book is a sensation. They (the Polish people) did a lot of demonstrations. They burned his books. They kicked him out. He went out from Poland. He went to Germany and the United States… Our Class is based on this event of burning 1600 Jews in the barn.”

As the performance begins, the actors are young, enjoying fun and games in the midst of their studies, within a joyful atmosphere. At one point, Alex Krul, who plays Rysiek in Our Class, begins to sing a nationalistic Polish song where his mood towards his Jewish classmates becomes confrontational. The pressures of nationalism and fascism begin to shift the tone in the classroom, and the environment eventually becomes hostile towards the Jews. Peleg-Rotshtein explains, “They (the Polish classmates) were looking for those who were against the rulers. Everyone wanted to survive. The nasty and bad things that people do is just because they want to survive. One surrendered his friend because he wanted to survive. This is what happened everywhere.”

Our Class Director Hanan Snir selected five actors from the Habima National Theater and five from the Carmeri Theater to perform in this theatrical drama, winning Best Production of the Year, 2015, in Israel.

Peleg-Rotshtein is from Habima, and she expressed how unique it is to work with such a creative group of people, and to travel to Macedonia and other countries in the Balkans region. “It is a very interesting combination, and I am really grateful to be in this land, and to be in this co-production.”

Ambassador Oryan described why he wanted to bring this particular theatrical production to the Balkans. “It is important for countries to understand our history, and the tragic history of the Second World War. And, of course, we are also looking for the stories of the righteous among the nations; those who saved Jews during WWII; in order for others to appreciate what they did.”

"Israelis remember the horrific circumstances that occurred when 7,700 Jews from the former Yugoslavia were sent in cattle cars to the Treblinka death camp where they perished during the Holocaust. Oryan acknowledges that the people of the Balkans relate to this historical wound. “In many cases there is sympathy and close feelings coming out of the mutual suffering during WWII. We shouldn’t forget that.”

It is also because of the ethnic wars of the past 20 years in the Balkans that Oryan believes many of the people of the region can understand the situation of Israel today. He explained that Israel is surrounded by many countries that are not ready to accept the existence of the Jewish State in the Middle East.

Oryan is also working tirelessly to introduce Israel’s entrepreneurs and high-tech executives to investors from the Balkans, so they become familiar with Israel’s unique brain power, research and development, and start-up incubators. Hoping for successful business ventures, he has arranged for officials from the Balkans to see the many achievements of the Jewish State. “There is a lot of interest in Israel as a blooming country, as a successful model for those countries that are still turning into successful states. Israel, after 67 years, has shown how you can really turn a desert into a garden, and create a society that cares about others.”

In the past year, Israel has had visits from foreign ministers, heads of states, and high-ranking officials from most of the Balkan countries. The primary focus is to try and build partnerships.

A cultural event that will be taking place in the near future in Macedonia will be a presentation by Israeli illustrator Liora Grossman. She will visit Bitola as the curator of an exhibition titled, “I Am From Here”. It will include 100 illustrations from 1948 until 2013, the work of 70 Israeli illustrators. Also, a group of young Israeli students is scheduled to visit Macedonia in November and contribute to the partnership between the two countries. Cultural events will be coming to Israel, as well. A Macedonian theater group will play at the Acco festival in November.

As the celebrations continue, and good relations become a bridge towards a thriving friendship between Macedonia and Israel, Montenegro is getting ready for its festivities in 2016. It will be celebrating 10 years of independence, as well as 10 years of diplomatic ties with the Jewish State.

In the meantime, the Balkan countries are coming on-board with new ideas for keeping the momentum going, and Israelis are waiting with open arms, hoping that mutual interests will create closer alliances between Israel and its partners within this developing region.