Mar 12, 2011
Text and photos by Chris Deliso in Skopje
Each year on March 11, Macedonia’s small Jewish community, bolstered by guests local and foreign alike, gathers for a solemn commemoration of the Holocaust. On that date in 1943, 7,148 Macedonian Jews – 98 percent of the country’s Jewish population – were deported to the Treblinka death camps by occupying Bulgarian forces. However, this year’s commemoration was somewhat bigger.
Indeed, the series of events held in Skopje, Bitola and Stip (two other former Jewish centers of life), coordinated by the Macedonian and Israeli governments, along with Macedonia’s Holocaust Fund and its small Jewish Community, spanned almost the course of an entire week.
The reason for the unprecedented attention was the opening – at long last – of the much-anticipated Holocaust Memorial Center of the Jews from Macedonia, fittingly located on the site of Skopje’s former Jewish quarter, along the north bank of the River Vardar.
Although the entirety of the $23-million complex, which will also include an adjoining hotel (to provide sustainable revenue for the Center’s future well-being) and perhaps an arts/cultural center, is not yet complete, an impressive three floors of exhibits, multi-media presentations and historical information on Jewish life over the ages were opened just in time for the ceremonial opening.
For all those who have worked long and hard for the initiative to succeed, this achievement is especially satisfying (for a lengthy discussion of the Jewish heritage in Macedonia, including original photos from 2005-2007 of the early phases of construction, see an earlier Balkanalysis.com piece here).
The week’s events started off on the Tuesday (March 8th) with a commemorative session at the Macedonian Academy of Sciences & Arts (MANU), followed that evening by simultaneous exhibitions of historical photographs documenting Macedonian Jewish life at the city museums of Skopje, Bitola and Stip. On the following day at noon, the honorary guard of the Macedonian Army started from Bitola and Stip, conveying the ceremonial urns from these cities to the capital.
On Wednesday evening, several hundred local and foreign guests gathered at the Macedonian Opera and Ballet for an event held under the patronage of President Gjorge Ivanov. It included a commemorative concert by the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra, which was preceded by several speeches – including a congratulatory message relayed via video from US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, an event unexpected by most in attendance, which was met by warm applause.
One of the most powerful messages of the night was delivered by World Jewish Congress Research Director Laurence Weinbaum. After conveying the regards of WJC President Ronald Lauder, he commended Macedonia for its principled and determined approach to property restitution for descendents of Jews murdered in the Holocaust and the Jewish Community in general.
In so honoring “the dead and the living,” said Mr Weinbaum, Macedonia has “set an example to which other nations should aspire. There are nations that are larger, richer, better known and more powerful than Macedonia, but none more decent, gracious, good-hearted and noble.” Mr Weinbaum also expressed his appreciation for the Macedonian government’s strong friendship and support for Israel.
In his heartfelt keynote address, President Ivanov noted the many contributions Macedonia’s Jews had made to the country during the past century, including Jewish participation in the struggle for freedom, first from the Ottoman Empire and later from other occupying forces. And, though the modern-day Jewish community in Macedonia essentially dates from Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews who migrated to the area from Spain during Ottoman times, President Ivanov reminded guests that the expansive archeological site of Stobi (a former Roman city, in the center of the country), holds the remains of one the oldest synagogue in Europe- proof that the Jewish heritage here is much older.
On the following day, Thursday, the major dedication ceremony for the new commemorative center was held under the patronage of Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. The event began with a solemn procession led by the military guard, transporting the urns from the Skopje City Museum, down the pedestrianized Ulica Makedonija, and across the historic Stone Bridge to the site of the new complex- set amidst a veritable construction zone of new buildings, statues and other structures now being developed as part of the Skopje 2014 architectural program.
Here, several hundred seated guests from the diplomatic corps (including leaders of neighboring states Bamir Topi of Albania, and Filip Vujanovic of Montenegro) were flanked by throngs of well-wishers and numerous journalists. Several speakers, beginning with Macedonian Holocaust Fund Director Liljana Misrahi, spoke of the importance the new center will have for perpetuating the legacy of Jewish life in Macedonia, and educating locals and visitors alike about the identity, role and significance of the Jews of Macedonia.
Several times during the week it was noted, as by the Macedonian Jewish Community’s president, Bjanka Subotic that most Jewish survivors of WWII have since died, and with their immediate descendents being but few, the present generations have a duty to carry on their memory. For Misrahi, the new commemorative center will serve as an answer to the rhetorical question of “but mother, who are we?” to come from future generations of Jewish children. The detailed exhibits, histories, photographs and other materials inside the center go a considerable way towards answering these questions.
Representing the state of Israel, Vice Prime-Minister Moshe Ya’alon gave a strong speech which highlighted the importance of Macedonia’s Holocaust memorial center – one of only four in the world – in the context of current realities of resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe, and even in developed EU countries such as Holland, Denmark and Britain. Reminding the audience that the seeds of the Holocaust were planted in the years preceding the Second World War, when anti-Semitism grew unchecked and was met by “indifference,” Ya’alon also spoke of the need for the West to confront powers that both deny the Holocaust and seek to destroy the state of Israel, specifying President Ahmadinejad of Iran.
Another prominent international speaker, the Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Affairs for the American-Jewish Committee and President of the International Advisory Board of the Holocaust Fund of the Jews from Macedonia, reinforced the severity of what the Macedonian Jews suffered and the importance of what their descendents have now achieved. “The tragedy of the Jews of Macedonia during the Holocaust is a particularly painful one, even when placed amidst the many other horrific accounts of deportation and murder,” he stated.
For many, the most moving part of the ceremony was the final recitation of the Jewish prayers Kaddish and El Malei Rachamim. Recited under clear blue skies, the ethereal, elegiac sound of the prayers emanating from the former Jewish quarter felt both appropriate and unreal, since the sounds emanating from the city’s “old town” today are primarily the cacophony of mosques and occasional clang of a church bell.
Even though things will never be as they once were in a country where little more than 200 Jews survive, at least for a moment one could feel something of what the culturally richer Skopje of old must have been like. Plagued as it still is by inter-ethnic and inter-religious mistrust, Macedonia today would be a significantly better place had its Jewish population survived to enhance the culture and diversity of daily life. This painful point was one that none of the speakers mentioned directly, though it is certainly obvious when countenanced from the point of view of current-day events here.
Following the ceremony, guests were invited to take a complementary tour of the new Holocaust Memorial Center. It became immediately clear that, despite the absence of much news about progress over the past few years, planners had indeed been very active in developing what is certainly the most modern museum in the country, and one of the most engrossing and unique in the region.
Upon entering, guests are treated to old photos of some of the Macedonian Jews who died in the Holocaust (this reporter was moved to see one elderly man point to one of these photos, sighing and telling his friend, ‘ah, here’s my father’). A huge chandelier of sorts, made up of 7,148 delicate strands (one for each of the victims) hangs from the center of the facility, from the third floor through the open center, interspersed with a Macedonian phrase calling for remembrance.
Further on, visitors can learn through maps, photos and other displays historical, social and cultural details of the Jews of Macedonia and the Balkans. These carefully prepared exhibits are remarkable, and not only because (unlike with many museums in the region) the English translations are excellent. Moving onwards through the center, one not only goes backwards in time but also gains an appreciation and understanding of a once vital, and now all but lost part of the Macedonian population. The quality and tasteful presentation of the whole entity will surely serve as an example for similar cultural centers in Macedonia and beyond.
In the buzz of all these new happenings, the main annual event – the March 11th commemoration of the Holocaust at Butel Cemetery in Skopje – was unfortunately omitted from most media coverage. This melancholy annual gathering allows the survivors – each year, fewer and fewer – and their descendants, well-wishers and foreign diplomats – to gather and ensure that their suffering is never forgotten.
However, with the major steps that the Jewish Community has achieved over a long period of hard work and long cooperation with the state of Israel, international Jewish organizations and other supporters, they have now finally achieved something remarkable, and something that will put this small Balkan country on ‘the map’ of international Jewish sights- as it well deserves.
In the form of the Holocaust Memorial Center, a symbol of the legacy of Macedonia’s Jews will endure far into the future, a testimony which would certainly have made their ancestors proud.
Readers who enjoyed this article may also like the present author’s 2006 essay “Letter from Macedonia,” on the history and modern-day experience of the Jewish community in the country, with unique, first-hand testimony from community members.
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