There is not one single monument today in Macedonia of the great humanitarian Zaharija Shumljanska from Bitola. This is the woman who, after the famous Ilinden uprising, opened an orphanage in her city. Also, during the Balkan wars she cared for the Macedonian soldiers at a hospital in Thessaloniki, and right before her death she opened an orphanage in Sofia for the Macedonian immigrants!
Very few people from Bitola, but Macedonians also, know that the City of Consuls and our country, as well, had their own Mother Theresa. This humanitarian was called by the people Mother Shumljanska, and her humanitarian deeds have been compared by historians to those of the world’s greatest benefactors.
Her real name was Zaharija Vasileva-Shumljanska. She lived from the period 1864-1937. She was the founder of the orphanage in Bitola, created right after the Ilinden uprising. Here, many of our children who lost their parents during the revolution managed to find a roof over their head and some bread. Among them were children of famous Macedonian fighters, including the three orphans of Pitu Guli. Later on, during the Balkan wars, Zaharija founded a hospital in Thessaloniki which offered support and help to dozens of Macedonian fighters. She also founded an orphanage in Sofija for the thousands of Macedonian immigrants.
She was very supportive of the Macedonian revolutionary fight, so she helped the Macedonian fighters even in prisons, bringing them food and clothing. Because of these activities, she was even sent in Africa, separated from her family. However, she never quit her mission to help the people of Macedonia.
Educated like very few Macedonians were
Nikola Minovski, a historian from Bitola who has been researching the life of Zaharija Shumljanska for years, says that even though she did such a great humanitarian work, today in Bitola there is not a single monument dedicated to this Macedonian folk mother. While she is forgotten by us, a Bulgarian organization has discovered her writings two years ago, which, by a game of chance, were kept in Indiana, USA.
– Unfortunately, for Bitola and Macedonia, this Macedonian messiah and benefactor, and also a great martyr, has suffered a great injustice and has been thrown in a deep oblivion by the whole Macedonian historiography. I have been trying to affirm her work for ten years, but there has not been any interest so far. No one has made the effort to keep this woman in our memory. Bitola has not got a more deserving figure throughout history and it is time that people in Bitola make the initiative and dignify this woman to the extent she deserves because we really can say that she is our people’s messiah – stated the historian Minovski, who plans to share the life story of this humanitarian to the mayor of Bitola, Vladimir Taleski, hoping that he, as a man who cares about preserving the traditional values of the city, will find a way to keep the name of this woman safe from oblivion.
According to Minovski’s research, it was thought for a long time that Mother Shumljanska was born in the village Mogila, near Bitola, but she had written that her hometown is Bitola itself. Even from young age, her outstanding intellect was noticed and she was enrolled in school, although at that time, very few girls had the opportunity go receive education. She was the brightest in the class and with the recommendation of the student counsel and the municipality’s managing board, she received a scholarship to finish gymnasium in Plovdiv. Zaharija finished this education, too with great success, and afterwards she returned to her homeland. She worked full 14 years as a teacher in Skopje, Odrin and Thessaloniki.
Mother Shumljanska looked after the orphans after the Ilinden uprising
In the meantime, Shumljanska married the Polish immigrant Julijan Shumljanski, a natural science teacher in Thessaloniki, Serez and Bitola. He was known as an excellent assistant, and had a great passion for teaching, and so he supplied the schools in Macedonia with beautiful collections of flora and fauna, thus contributing to the development of practical teaching to a higher level in the schools. Also, he is considered to have been very close to the Macedonian revolutionary organization!
Zaharija had the fate to live in one of the brightest, but also the most difficult periods of the Macedonian history – the Ilinden uprising and the years afterwards. It is a well known fact that a great number of fighters were killed, but also many civilians. Many villages were burnt, ravaged, robbed and part of the inhabitants moved to the cities. Bitola was full with homeless people and orphans who were wandering about starving and without clothes. The bishop at the time, Grigorij, called Zaharija and told her to do something for the orphans and he gave her few facilities from the church “The Holy Mother”at her disposal for this undertaking. Initially, she opened there a free of charge kitchen for the poor children in the city, and it grew to become later the Orphanage.
-Word got through and there were children from all over Macedonia. The revolutionary fighter from Ohrid, Petre Chaulev, brought eight orphans from the Ohrid region, and Hristo Cvetkov brought from Kostur nine orphans. Also, the three orphans of Pitu Guliwere brought from Krushevo together with five others. Orphans were arriving also from the regions of Prilep, Kichevo, Florina – says Minovski.
This activity was a great feat for a woman and required great courage because after the uprising the Turkish authorities were enormously careful and lot less tolerant. Zaharija notes: “I had a great desire to improve the terrible fate of the wretched orphans, but I feared that I would come to obstacles from the Turks and that the people, already being in a terrible state, would not offer any help. But, I had no other choice. Thinking about those unfortunate children, I felt the moral duty more than any other woman from Bitola”.
The number of the hungry was increasing, but funds were too low to manage to feed and take care of everyone. According to Minovski’s research, the first help arrived from one of the most respectable citizens of Bitola- Nikolaki Robev, famous tradesman and a cultural activist for the usage of the Macedonian language in schools. Contributions were also given by the guilds, bakers, butchers, fishermen in Bitola, while the shoemakers and the tailors made shoes and clothes for low prices for the orphans. The doctor Angelaki Robev treated the orphans free of charge, and pharmacies sold medications at lower prices for them. The Jew from Bitola, Rafael Kamhi, a close collaborate to Gjorche Petrov and Dame Gruev, donated cloths, materials and blankets at the value of ten thousand euros. This help included also the poorer families from Bitolathat sew and washed the clothes of the orphans.
Although it was a great risk for a woman to travel alone at that time, Zaharija Shumljanska, escorted by Rakarova, a woman from Bitola, set for Ohrid, Prilep and Krushevo to get more help. In Prilep, even a meeting of the city council took place where the most prominent people from the city gave nine napoleons to the two humanitarians, and the brothers Bombolovi gave them a great amount of woolen fabric. However, what made the biggest impression to Zaharija was the visit to Krushevo.
-I will never forget the hospitality of the people in Krushevo. We simply shed tears how touched we were when we saw the women taking shirts, socks, cloth, blankets from their trunks and giving them to us. We even gathered 11 napoleons. We were happy because all the fear and effort paid off. The children had now clothes and shoes for the winter- wrote down this missionary.
A martyr because of her work
According to records from 1910, there were 110 orphans at the Orphanage in Bitola. Unfortunately, this humanitarian work was interrupted when the Shumljanski were exiled to Thessaloniki. It is believed that Greek supporters from Bitola gave data to the Turkish authorities that Zaharija’s husband had connections and supported the revolutionary organization. Not even the intervention from the Russian consul PEtraev helped, so the Shumljanski family was deported to Thessaloniki. The departure at the train station was devastating, there were a lot of people, including children, who did not hide their grief of being separated from their protector. The Orphanage remained in function only for a short while after the departure of Zaharija and it was destroyed later on during the Balkan wars in 1912-1913.
However, Mother Shumljanska did not stop with her humanitarian activities even in Thessaloniki. She opened a hospital for the sick and wounded soldiers, and a great number of Macedonian fighters who fought at the front in the Balkan wars received a full support and protection.
According to Minovski’s research, because of these activities and the closeness with the Macedonian revolutionary fighters, the family Shumljanski was again was a thorn in the eye, especially with the arrival of the Greek military and civil authorities at the beginning of the First world war. The family was kept in home prison and there were frequent rations, examinations and various tortures. Soon afterwards the couple was sent to Mehadi and Ras Seltin in North Africa. The great humanitarian handled the trip quite difficult and she almost froze on the ship. In Africa the couple was separated for two and a half years, and the worst part was that they did not know what was happening with their two little children!
Minovski says that after the independent country of Poland was formed, they were freed from captivity, the husband being Polish. They spent their last remaining years in Sofija. Julijan died first, while Zaharija handled her pain through continuation of her humanitarian work. After the First world war thousands of Macedonian fugitives came to Bulgaria. Although she was not physically capable, her desire to help did not diminish and thus an orphanage was formed in the capital city of Bulgaria, carrying the name “Bitola”. The Orphanage was a home of 120 orphans.
Fortunately, Zaharija lived to see her people pay her respect for her work. Few months before she passed away, there was a celebration marking the 50 years of humanitarian work of this missionary from Bitola in Sofija at “Aliance Francais” salon. The place was to small to gather all her fans.
-Mother Shumljanska died at the age of 73 in Sofija. With her outstanding humanitarian work and achievements, the people from Bitola and Macedonia truly owe her a lot. She paid an enormous patriotic debt, and this is why she can be represented as a Macedonian messiah worthy of greatest respect – concludes Minovski.