Tiny Macedonian Jewish Community Pleased by New Settlement on Property

Jewish leaders are hailing a World War II restitution agreement announced by the Macedonian government as unprecedented in redressing the wrongs of the Nazi and Communist eras.

At a ceremony in the capital of Skopje on Aug. 29, Finance Minister Nikola Gruevski announced that Macedonia would either return or provide compensation for Jewish communal properties claimed by the Jewish community.

He also announced that all heirless Jewish property or compensation will go to a new Holocaust Fund foundation to be jointly administered by the government and the Jewish community. Jewish community board member Samuel Sadikario will serve as chairman.

Both decisions were based on a property privatization law enacted in 2000.

To provide start-up funding for the foundation, Gruevski announced that the government would immediately put government bonds worth nearly $500,000 into the Holocaust Fund as compensation for four heirless properties in Skopje.

“Basically, this is a first ‘installment,’ ” said Macedonian Jewish official Zdravo Sami, who will serve on the fund board.

Yechiel Bar Chaim, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee country director for Macedonia, said that as far as he knew no other post-Communist country had enacted such a sweeping law.

And, he said, nowhere else had the process of communal property restitution “been completed with such thoroughness and at one single moment in time, in one fell swoop.”

Macedonia was a part of the former Yugoslavia. Of the more than 7,000 Jews who lived in Macedonia before World War II, some 98 percent were killed in the Holocaust.

Only about 200 Jews live there today, and Jewish community leaders admit to being “overwhelmed” by the restitution decision.

“We had all hoped and worked toward this historic moment,” Sami said. “But I am convinced that the actual moment surprised us all, as did the outcome itself. We will need some time to come to grips with the new situation.

“We are now faced with a new and even more responsible task — how to proceed,” he added. “We need to reorganize and restructure ourselves.”

The Holocaust Fund foundation will use the restituted assets for three main purposes:

to create a regional Holocaust museum and education center to be located on the site of Skopje’s old Jewish quarter;

to finance the repair, restoration and upkeep of Jewish heritage sites, such as the ancient Jewish cemetery in Bitola; and

to underwrite various programs in the areas of education and multi-ethnic understanding that have yet to be defined.

In cases where the property in question no longer exists or belongs to someone other than the state — which is probably the majority of sites — the government will give the foundation the property’s current value in interest-bearing, euro-linked, 10-year government bonds.

In Skopje alone, about 500 heirless sites have been preliminarily identified, but as many as 1,000 sites may be involved, Jewish community officials say.

“Everyone involved recognizes what a tremendous undertaking this foundation is going to be,” said Bar Chaim. “Once they begin to sort out the basics, they will be assembling an international board of advisors.”

Compensation for communal property will not be administered as part of the new Holocaust Fund, but directly by the Jewish community. At the ceremony, Gruevski announced the restitution of several specific communal properties that were on a “wish list” of 40 sites the Jewish community drew up after the denationalization law was implemented.

In addition, he said the Jewish community would receive financial compensation for the nearly three dozen sites that cannot be physically returned. This would come, spread out over the next 10 years, in the form of government bonds with a current local-currency face value approaching $3 million.

The restituted property includes an undeveloped prime residential site located in Skopje just outside the city center. In Bitola, the community received title to two small shops as well as the fairly large former building of Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist youth group.

“Everyone is in shock,” said one source connected to the restitution process. “No one knows yet how easy or how difficult it will be to generate income from the physical properties now restituted to the community.”

For example, the Hashomer Hatzair building in Bitola is in bad condition and could take a minimum investment of $120,000 in repairs and renovations to make it usable.

Not only that, the source added, “no one understands in the slightest the embryonic market for Macedonian government bonds. They fear, perhaps wisely, that an imprudent sale might collapse the bond values.”

He noted that a bond market had opened in Skopje only in recent weeks, and no one knows yet what to expect. Government bonds reportedly are being sold for about 65 percent of their face value.

The Aug. 29 ceremony was attended by Jewish representatives from other Balkan countries, as well as senior officials, including the president of the Macedonian Parliament. The ambassadors to Macedonia of the United States, Croatia, and Yugoslavia, as well as Israel’s deputy ambassador, also attended.

American Jewish leaders who have followed the process also praised the settlement.

The executive vice president of the JDC, Steven Schwager, put it in a broader context in a country still fraught with ethnic tensions.

“You are demonstrating to your fellow citizens — and indeed to the entire world community — that each and every national, ethnic and religious group has a respected place in the fabric of Macedonian society,” he wrote in a letter to the Macedonian president and other government leaders.

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