On March 10, Skopje, the capital of Macedonia — home to more than a quarter of the country’s population of 2 million — gained a new cultural artifact: the Holocaust Memorial Center of the Jews from Macedonia. A landmark in the middle of the city, the center remembers Jews lost in the Holocaust from Macedonia and from neighboring Southeast European nations.
The opening of the first building, a large three-level white modern museum constructed in the shape of the Star of David, featured appearances by the Macedonian prime minister and president and from the chairman of the directorate of Yad Vashem, and a video message from America’s secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Until recently,” asserted Macedonia’s president, Gjorge Ivanov, in his speech, “the graves of our fellow countrymen who are no longer among us were only painful memories. Starting tomorrow, the Holocaust Memorial Center will be an eternal monument to 7,148 Macedonian Jews.”
“The sad reality is that the destruction of Macedonian Jewry in the Holocaust was almost complete,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs. In March 1943, 98% of Macedonia’s Jewish community was wiped out when Bulgarian police officers displaced families from their homes, seized all their assets and delivered them to the Nazis, who deported them to the concentration camp Treblinka, in occupied Poland.
Jews were held at Monopol, a Skopje tobacco factory, before their ultimate deportation. Of the nearly 8,000, only 165 were released: 67 doctors and pharmacists, and 98 of those who could prove foreign citizenship. Now, each year, on March 11, Macedonians of all ethnicities and faiths lay flowers at the factory.
Co-curator Yitzchak Mais, who was previously director of Yad Vashem and founding curator of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, terms the special exhibit accompanying the opening a “cultural insight into a dynamic Jewish world that was destroyed.” He stated that the exhibit, which features hours of interviews with Macedonian Jews, “focuses on Macedonian Jewry before the Holocaust, on forgotten history, and on tremendous stories of Jewish vitality and vibrancy wiped out by external causes.”
The official celebrations marked only the first phase of the center. A special children’s museum will open in the complex in March 2012, to be followed by the permanent exhibition, in March 2013. The completion of all phases of the project coincides with “Skopje 2014,” a $273 million initiative to transform the city into a competitive European capital and rebuild its infrastructure after a 1963 earthquake that destroyed about 80% of the city’s architecture.
The inspiration for the center came from Ivan Dejanov, president of the Macedonian Israeli Friendship Association, and its implementation has been led by principal consultant and Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum and by Victor Mizrahi, honorary consul of Israel in the Republic of Macedonia. It became possible, however, only with the enactment of the Law on Denationalization, which allows for restitution of money and property rights of Jews, even those without living heirs. The Macedonian government allocated 17 million euros to the Holocaust Fund for the Jews of Macedonia, and this eventually went toward the completion of the center and helped in the construction of the country’s only synagogue, in 2000. “It is almost unprecedented for a government to have acted in this way,” Mais said. “It’s an exemplary phenomenon.”
The center, symbolically located in the central area of the city by the left bank of the River Vardar, sits where the ancient Jewish community lived from the 15th to the 20th centuries. Although legend has it that the community was founded during the time of the Roman Empire, the bulk of Macedonian Jews came to Skopje after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal and found shelter in the Balkan section of the Ottoman Empire. The troubled Spanish Jews settled primarily in three Macedonian cities — Skopje, Shtip and Bitola (formerly known as Monastir) — and lived peacefully and prosperously through the next few centuries alongside ethnic Macedonians, as well as Turks, Vlachs, Serbs and Albanians.
In December 1944, after the Holocaust, only 50 survivors remained to reconstitute the Macedonian Jewish community. Most of them had escaped into Italian-governed territories or joined the organized leftist antifascist partisan movement, fighting alongside non-Jews against the Germans. The current community numbers about 200. “This is essentially their project,” Baker said of members of the community sitting alongside AJC representatives on the center’s committee. “There is a passion to their voices that belies their small numbers.”
At the opening, Laurence Weinbaum, speaking as the World Jewish Congress’s director of research, congratulated the organizers: “By creating this memorial and museum, you have rescued the memory of the Jews of Macedonia from the realm of cold statistics and from historical oblivion.”
Katherine Clarke is a Northern Irish journalist based in New York whose work has appeared in The New York Observer and The Wall Street Journal.
Watch a trailer for “Empty Boxcars,” a new documentary film on the survival of the Bulgarian Jews and the mass murder of the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia: