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A Holocaust museum for Macedonia

SKOPJE, Macedonia, March 23 (JTA) — Macedonia’s national day of mourning for its lost Jewish population has just ended, and Viktor Mizrahi is already looking ambitiously to next year’s anniversary. By next March 11, Mizrahi, the president of Macedonia’s Jewish community, hopes the capital city of Skopje will boast a Holocaust museum, or as he prefers to call it, a memorial center, for the whole Balkans region. “Macedonia lost 98 percent of its Jews in the Holocaust but the other Balkan countries lost huge proportions too and we must create a tribute to the memory of all those Balkan Jews who died,” he says. Pulling out a notebook from a cupboard in his office within the Jewish community center in Skopje, Mizrahi leafs through an artist’s illustrations for a possible design — a white, Star of David-shaped building on three floors. The ground floor would house a museum to show Jewish life through history. The second floor would feature an education center and the third a research center. Mizrahi’s ambitious vision might be realized thanks to money now secured for the Holocaust Fund, established seven months ago after the Macedonian government introduced a sweeping restitution law. Unlike most other similar meaures, the law introduced a provision for heirless property seized from deported Jews — or the equivalent value in government bonds — to be transferred to the fund. Recently, the first actual property was handed over to the fund — two small shops in Skopje. Further, a sum of $1.8 million is about to pass into the fund’s account and that, he points out, is far more than the $500,000 or so needed to fund the building. But Mizrahi has a second priority that he says won’t wait a year — a public apology from the Bulgarian government for the murder of almost all of Macedonia’s Jews. None of the 7,148 who were rounded up on March 11, 1943, and deported to Treblinka by Bulgaria, which had seized control of the neighboring Balkan country, survived. “We are still waiting for an apology. For me, every passing day is a day too late,” says Mizrahi, who says he lost 81 relatives as young as six months and as old as 105 in Treblinka. “The truth is the truth. Everyone must know who destroyed the Jewish community in Macedonia.” During the war, Bulgaria protected the Jews living within its prewar borders, but helped round up the Jews of Macedonia. While Mizrahi insists the apology is the most important thing, the Macedonian Jewish community is also seeking $16.5 million in compensation from Bulgaria for personal belongings and cash seized when Macedonia’s Jews were rounded up. Pulling out another folder, Mizrahi leafs through documents showing the precise amounts deposited in various bank accounts, part of it in “special” taxes that Macedonian Jews were forced to pay the Bulgarians. “This money is part of our treasure and we think that it must be returned to this Jewish community,” he says. As for the museum, Macedonia and its Jewish community may be small but the geographic location and the financial means to realize his big dream make the project viable, Mizrahi insists. The chairman of the Holocaust Fund, Samuel Sadikario, says the assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic this month, apparently by criminals loyal to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, illustrates the urgent need for such a center in the region. “Yugoslavia has a history of ethnic conflicts — Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia — and Djindjic’s assassination shows that there is always a risk of that happening again,” he says. “The center would play an important role in helping to educate about tolerance and preventing such ethnic tensions and conflicts in future.” The Macedonian government has shown an impressive commitment to restituting properties that belonged to the country’s Jews before the war, particularly in the face of severe economic strains. The country has suffered severely from the breakup of Yugoslavia, formerly Macedonia’s primary trading partner. Sadikario estimates there are around 1,000 properties, both residential and commercial, that were seized from deported Jews and which the fund is eligible to take over because there are no surviving heirs. But although important progress is being made, he points out the long process ahead. “It is a very complicated situation because the state sold these properties to private owners who often resold them,” he says. Meanwhile, the Macedonian Jewish community has been collecting documents and researching the lives of the 7,148 murdered Jews for the museum, to be built on the site of a former synagogue in the old Jewish quarter. One key aim is to match all victims’ names with photographs. There are also hopes to support the excavation of a synagogue in central Macedonia that is believed to be the oldest in the Balkans, as well as the ongoing renovation of the Jewish cemetery in Bitola, the only surviving Jewish cemetery in Macedonia Mizrahi accepts that not all governments in the region may be willing to hand over their Jewish artifacts and documents but says that Greece and Bulgaria have already agreed to the plan. The Jewish community also hopes that the Holocaust Fund will pay for Jewish books; stipends for young students studying the Holocaust and a home for elderly Jews. “Macedonian history without Jewish life is like a body without a limb,” Mizrahi says.

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