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Macedonia to build Holocaust museum

SKOPJE, Macedonia, April 14 (JTA) — After years of negotiations, work on the Balkans’ first Holocaust Museum could begin in as little as several weeks. Macedonia’s tiny Jewish community has been in discussions with the government for several years about building a memorial center to the Balkans’ lost Jews, using Holocaust restitution funds. After various bureaucratic hurdles, construction is finally close to commencing in the former Jewish quarter in the capital city of Skopje. “The final document concerning the land is about to be handed over, and then work can start,” Samuel Sadikario, chairman of the Macedonian Holocaust Fund, told JTA. Macedonia lost 98 percent of its 7,300 Jews in the Holocaust. The country’s Jewish community today numbers just 200. Its members are keen that the center, which would cost around $1 million, would not just map out the country’s painful Jewish history but should be a memorial center for Jewish communities from the whole Balkans region. The three-story white building is to be built in the shape of a Star of David. The ground floor would house a museum and permanent exhibits showing Jewish life over the years, featuring photographs and documents. The second floor would feature an education center and the third floor a research center and library. The community’s vision would be realized thanks to money secured for the Holocaust Fund, established after the Macedonian government introduced a sweeping restitution law in August 2002. Unlike measures in other countries, the Macedonian law introduced a provision for heirless property seized from deported Jews — or the equivalent value in government bonds — to be transferred to the fund. Sadikario points out the poignance of such a center in the former Yugoslavia, parts of which still are home to simmering ethnic conflicts. The center would play an important role in helping to educate about tolerance and preventing such ethnic tensions and conflicts in the future, he says. “This center will be very important for Macedonia and for the whole region. We cannot bring back all the people who died — and in some ways building this will be causing more pain — but we need a reminder of the crossroads of culture,” he said. “Yugoslavia is a very dangerous area for potential conflict based on nationalism, and we have to get across the important message about different cultures living together in one place,” he added. But it has been a slow process, Sadikario said. “We have agreed with the government on 7,000 commercial and residential properties which are former Jewish properties, most of them heirless and therefore earmarked to be transferred to the Jewish community. But of those, just seven have been passed to us,” he said. 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. 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. Sadikario said the Jewish community had been deeply saddened by the recent death of Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski in a plane cash in Bosnia. Trajkovski, who was not Jewish, had close ties with the Jewish community, he said. “Trajkovski was a true friend to the Jewish community and used to attend some of our holiday celebrations. It’s a deep loss for us,” he said.