Ninety-eight per cent of the Jews of Macedonia were murdered in Treblinka during the Holocaust. Yet, 75 years after their deportation, an extraordinary museum has opened in the country’s capital Skopje, a joint project of the government and the now-tiny Jewish community.
The Holocaust Memorial Centre, designed by renowned museum specialists Berenbaum Jacobs Associates (BJA), is due open to the public next month.
But a series of ceremonies last weekend saw the project blessed by the Bulgarian Prime Minister, members of the Macedonian government, scholars from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the US special envoy for Holocaust issues, Thomas Yazdgerdi.
Dr Michael Berenbaum, principal of BJA and himself a renowned Holocaust scholar, said that the Macedonian community is one of the most ancient in the diaspora.
“Jews lived here in antiquity, in Roman times,” he told the ceremony, “it was the oldest-known community outside the land of Israel”.
The early Christian apostle, Paul, formerly under his Jewish name Saul of Tarsus, is said to have preached in one of the Macedonian synagogues.
The new museum tells the story of Macedonian Jewry from 2,000 years ago to the growth of the community as a haven from the Spanish Inquisition, all the way to post-Holocaust Jewish Macedonia.
Its creators say the project is in marked contrast to attitudes expressed in Poland.
Holocaust property compensation paid to the remnants of the Jewish community has helped fund the museum, which was created in an existing building in Skopje and bought with the proceeds of the restitution money.
Dr Berenbaum said only around 165 Jews escaped deportation to Treblinka, adding: “They were physicians and pharmacists who the Macedonians could not do without, or they were partisans or foreign nationals.”
Their stories are vividly brought to life in the museum, whose director is Goran Sadikarijo said: “Even though we are only about 50 families, the Jewish community of Macedonia is strong.
“The museum juxtaposes our history against current events such as [the] rise of antisemitism, xenophobia and prejudice, encouraging people to look in their hearts to determine how they respond, how their decisions affect their humanity.”
Many of the installations in the museum are re-creations by local artists, including an extraordinary “partisan frieze” showing the revolt against the Nazis by Macedonians.
Among the special exhibits is a Ladino street scene, and an exact replica of a Guttenberg press, designed to show the early contribution of Jews to the creative arts.
“The local population is not educated about Jews”, said Dr Berenbaum.
But he and his BJA partner, Edward Jacobs, hope that the new museum and its contents will change hearts and minds in Macedonia.