Macedonia: Holocaust Memorial Museum Opened
In a recent post I mentioned the new Holocaust museums in Skokie and Los Angeles. I should also have mentioned the new center in Skopje, Macedonia. There, the actual and remembered history and landscape are quite different than in U.S. cities - where they have been more survivors living, but where many remade lives far from the site of community destruction. In Macedonia, a small country with few Jews, a large new center has risen on the site of the Jewish ghetto.
Last month a Holocaust museum and educational center was dedicated in the former Jewish quarter of Skopje, Republic of Macedonia. The project had been announced with great hoopla in 2005 in a public ceremony involving the Macedonian President and Prime Minister among others, with an anticipated completion date of 2006 or 2007. as with many such projects that have to negotiate a complex financial, political, aesthetic and historical path; things took longer.
'The Memorial Holocaust Centre, in a symbolic way, will bring the victims of Treblinka home to Macedonia', said Prime Minister Buckovski, after laying the center's cornerstone.
According to Katherine Clarke writing in The Forward:
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."Not everyone is pleased with the memorial.
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.
An article in Macedonia Daily addresses some of the very real concerns of people in Macedonia - including some Jews - about the cost and scope of the project at a time when other infrastructure in thew country needs costly attention.
The Holocaust Center also illustrates a recent trend in Macedonia to more strongly assert the country’s identity as an independent nation. The project dovetails conveniently, for example, with Skopje 2014, the government’s controversial, $273 million plan to transform the city from a provincial seat into a full-fledged European capital.Others, however, consider this a "world-class" museum and look forward to it becoming a destination - helping to put Skopje on the travel map.
The center and Skopje 2014 are technically unrelated. But if the center is completed next year, as expected, and Skopje 2014 remains on schedule, the new center will eventually stand in a radically redesigned downtown, near a new Macedonian history museum, new national theater, a massive triumphal arch and other proposed monuments.
Taxpayers are footing the bill for Skopje 2014, making it a subject for public debate. The center’s costs, alternatively, are covered by a special fund created in 2000 from the assets of Macedonian Jewish families who perished in the Holocaust and left no heirs. But critics within the Jewish community nonetheless link the two, arguing the center’s backers are overreaching in the same way the government is trying to do too much with Skopje 2014.
“It’s become big, maybe too big,” said Samuel Sadikario, a former president of the Holocaust Fund, a quasi-public organization that administers the center’s budget. “Maybe such a project should be done in Poland.”
Located on a 30,000-square-foot parcel near the River Vardar, in Skopje’s former Jewish quarter, the Holocaust Memorial Center will commemorate the 7,200 souls sent to the Treblinka death camp in 1943, when Nazi-ally Bulgaria occupied Macedonia, then part of Yugoslavia. The $23-million center is slated to contain a museum, arts center and hotel.
About 220 Jews remain in Macedonia, too few to merit a grand center, said Sadikario. He thought the millions invested in the project might be better spent on Macedonia’s crumbling universities. He also noted that construction was supposed to finish two years ago, but has been repeatedly delayed by the Jewish leaders struggling to manage the project.
“There is no capacity,” Sadikario said. “Judaism is actually dying out in Macedonia. It’s not too much to say its dead."
Here is the report posted by the World Jewish Congress:
Macedonia praised for honoring its Jews at opening of Holocaust memorial museum
11 March 2011
A museum dedicated to the memory of the Jews of Macedonia who perished in the Shoah has been inaugurated in the former Yugoslav republic, in the presence of the country’s president and representatives of international Jewish organizations, including the World Jewish Congress (WJC). In his speech, the WJC’s Research Director Laurence Weinbaum pointed out that no Jewish community in Europe had suffered a greater degree of destruction than the Macedonian one. Referring to Macedonia's principled stand on the restitution issue and to its unwavering friendship with Jews and Israel, he said: "In much of contemporary Europe, dead Jews are respected, but live ones are defamed. You honor the dead and the living, and in so doing you have 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.”
In a video message to the event, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "this museum and memorial will document the long and rich history of Jewish life in the Balkans and honor the memories of those who perished in the Holocaust. Schoolchildren and visitors from throughout the region will be able to see their faces, hear their stories, and learn about their lives. The government of Macedonia has shown real leadership by enacting legislation resolving compensation claims for Jewish property stolen during the Holocaust and supporting the establishment of this memorial and museum. And today your entire nation can be proud of this effort." The modern, multi-million dollar edifice stands in the heart of what was once the city's Jewish Quarter, in the center of the Macedonian capital Skopje. It was built by the Jewish community of Macedonia, which today numbers some 100 members. Macedonian Jewry benefited from a 2002 law providing for the return of heirless Jewish property, a law that is widely recognized as one of the best in Europe.
"The only surviving member of the 81-strong Misrahi family was my father," Viktor Misrahi (pictured on the left), one of the few Macedonian survivors still alive, told the news agency AFP. "Today, the ashes of our people were brought back here from Treblinka and they will remain here, at their home," he added. At the ceremony, Macedonia was hailed for enabling the Jews to regain the assets they had lost in the Shoah. The cornerstone for the museum was laid in 2005. Ljiljana Mizrahi, president of the local Holocaust Fund that had initiated the project, opened the ceremony by reading the names of some of the victims and explained that the museum would "preserve the memory of the Jews of Macedonia, not only commemorate their deaths, but also their lives and the civilization that perished with them."
In his address, Macedonian President Gjorje Ivanov recalled the long history of co-habitation between Jews and Macedonians of other faiths and said that with the loss of the Jews "a part of Macedonia had been torn out and that on the Jewish streets of Skopje, Bitola and Stip, after the war there was silence." He went on to note Macedonia's support for Israel, which he said would continue.
In April 1941, Macedonia - then a part of Yugoslavia - was occupied by Bulgarian troops. In contrast to its policy back home, Sofia instituted a regime of terror and plunder against Macedonian Jews. That policy culminated in the deportation in March 1943 of some 7,200 Jews to the German death camp at Treblinka, from which not a single one returned. Some 98 percent of the Jews were killed. The only survivors were those who had managed to evade deportation, many of whom fought with the partisans.
Also, Read the AFP story here.
For more on Jewish sites in Macedonia click here.