Remembering the evils of the past
Keeping the flame
A good example of commemoration
Jul 14th 2011 | SKOPJE, MACEDONIA | from the print edition
Framed in memory
IN THE Balkans people are remembering. On July 11th tens of thousands converged on Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, for the now annual pilgrimage in commemoration of the 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were murdered in 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces. In Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, the look of the city centre is being transformed by new statues. A giant monument to Alexander the Great was erected last month. He is surrounded by other statues of emperors and bishops, politicians and saints.
That those killed so recently and the hoopla surrounding the politically charged monument to Alexander, to which Greece takes major exception, should garner attention is not surprising. But five minutes’ walk away is another new act of remembrance. Earlier this year Skopje joined Jerusalem, Berlin, Paris and Washington, DC, in opening a museum dedicated to the Holocaust. It also commemorates Macedonia’s Jewish community, which was almost completely annihilated during the second world war.
Whereas the fate of Jews from Poland to France and even Thessalonika, in the Greek part of historic Macedonia, is relatively well known, that of the Jews of the part of Macedonia which was once Yugoslav is not. Jews lived here since the time of Alexander, says the museum’s director, Goran Sadikarijo, but their history changed radically following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal after 1492. Large numbers of refugees accepted the invitation to settle in Ottoman territories including Macedonia. They lived in Skopje, Stip and especially Bitola, which used to be known as Monastir, and spoke Ladino, or Judaeo-Spanish.
In 1943 the Bulgarians, who were occupying Macedonia (and who protected their own Jewish citizens), rounded up and deported 7,148 Macedonian Jews to the death camp of Treblinka. Nobody came back. Of a pre-war Jewish population of some 8,000 only 350 remained after the war. Today the community numbers about 200.
The first thing that greets visitors to the museum is a memorial with digital photo frames with changing pictures of the dead, including 3,500 identity photos which the Bulgarians demanded from the Bitola Jews. The museum is not yet finished but today its main exhibition charts the history, not just of Macedonia’s Sephardic Jews, but also those of other parts of the Balkans and especially the former Yugoslavia. What is striking, in comparison with the museums in Paris and Berlin, say, is the lack of objects. The community was wiped out so comprehensively that virtually nothing remained, says Mr Sadikarijo.
For decades the spot where the new museum stands was a rough patch of ground that served as a bus station. The whole area, which was more or less empty, was the old Jewish quarter of Skopje, many of whose remaining houses collapsed in a devastating earthquake in 1963. When the Macedonian government began its post-communist programme of returning property nearly a decade ago, it was found that there were no heirs to much of the former Jewish property. So a fund was established, which in turn created the museum.
The memory of this community has been saved from oblivion in a way that is neither flashy, political, nor full of raw emotion. Perhaps it will serve as an exemplary model of sober remembrance in the Balkans in years to come.