When I was approached in the fall of 2009 to consider working on a Holocaust Museum in Macedonia, I could not have imagined its unique challenges – and opportunities. As a student of the Holocaust I had known of the distinct qualities of Bulgarian occupation. An ally of Germany, Bulgaria had received and occupied Thrace and Macedonia and had consented and implemented the deportation of its Jews to the death camp of Treblinka. None returned.
Bulgaria had also signed an order to deport its own Jews to Treblinka when segments of the population protested, parliamentarians and lawyers, Bishops and priests, writers and artists and because of this pressure, the government was forced to retreat from the agreed upon deportations. These protesters had remained quite silent where “non-citizens” were sent to their death; they were even more silent earlier when citizens of the occupied territories were deliberately defined as “non-citizens” because they were Jews. But when it came to Bulgarian citizens, well that was a different matter entirely. The Bulgarians could discriminate against Jews, persecute Jews, send Jews to work camps, but deportation to death camps was where they drew the line.
Bulgaria was seeking to portray itself as pure as Denmark, which had rescued and protected its Jews under German-occupation, by emphasizing the non-consent to deportation of its own and developing a historical amnesia regarding the Jews in the territories it occupied as well as its own.
I knew Treblinka well. Having visited Treblinka more than two dozen times, having worked on the Memorial and Museum at Belzec and listened to the testimony of some 57 of its 100 survivors, I knew the nature of the killing operations at Treblinka. Opened on July 22, 1942, within the next 60 days, more 265,000 Jews were shipped from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka where they were gassed upon arrival. When the Macedonian Jews arrived in March 1943, Treblinka had been in operation for 8 months and was then the most lethal of all the Nazi killing centers. It was one of three Aktion Reinhard Centers, death camps dedicated exclusively toward killing by gas all arriving prisoners and to implementing the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” in Poland and beyond.
I also knew that the only Jewish survivors in Macedonia were those who escaped deportation either by hiding or by joining the partisans where Jews fought as an integrated part of the partisan movement alongside non-Jews against a common enemy -- the Germans. I was certain that these experiences would have to be portrayed within the Museum.
A word about Museums or at least the way in which my colleagues and I fashion historical museums: we believe that historical museums must be a storytelling Museum. Unlike most artifact-centered historical museums, which tell the stories of the artifacts they possess, we believe that this Museum -- both in design and exhibition -- must be driven by the story that is told It is on the basis of the story that artifacts are collected and exhibited, that photographs are gathered and chosen, and the diverse media– film, video, narrative tale, text, design and atmosphere – should be shaped. So as we began our work, we asked: What is the story to be told.
I soon learned what you, our readers and visitors, will soon learn that the story of Macedonian Jews is long, deep and complex.
Jews have lived in Macedonia for more than two millennia as the first Jews migrated there to be part of the historic trade roots of the Roman Empire. The specific character of Macedonian Jewry was shaped by an event that occurred a half continent away in the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and the receptivity of the Ottoman Empire to receiving some of these refugees not solely because of altruism or because Moslems rulers were more tolerant than some of their Christian counterparts but because of the technology – the printing press and the use of steel – and the skills in trade, diplomacy and medicine. As the remade their lives throughout the Balkans, they retained the traditions of Spain, the Jewish language of Spain. They spoke Judeo-Spanish, “Ladino.” They named their synagogues after their community of origin. Macedonian Jewish experience also encompassed a great “scandal” in Jewish history as Shabatei Zevi, a self proclaimed Messianic figure attracted a significant following on Maceodnian soil and throughout the Ottoman Empire in the late 17th century. In fact, his publicist and promoter, his ardent follower and proselytizer, Nathan of Gaza is buried near the Museum. His grave disappeared in the earthquake of 1963. And Macedonian Jewry, once ardently traditional, underwent its own modernization and secularlization during the 19th century. This Museum tells that long story and then centers on the 20th century, Yugoslavia. This Special Exhibition tell an overall Balkan story for the experience of the Jews transcended the changing national borders of Balkan countries. Contacts between the Jewish communities were ongoing and intense.
Naturally, we focus on Macedonia and on the Holocaust period, the Bulgarian occupation, the deportation to Monopol in March 1943 and from there to Treblinka and to death. We present the few Jews who survived through hiding and in the partisans and the remnant that rebuilt Jewish life, a small but proud remnant, after the destruction both in Macedonia and in Israel.
The Museum has an ambitious program. When completed it will consist of a Permanent Exhibition, a Children’s Exhibition for those too young to confront in full force the evil, the horror of the Holocaust, space for Special Exhibitions, programs, classrooms, meeting places for learning and dialogue, concerts, films and performances..
Long promised the Museum began its preliminary efforts more than a decade ago and it will take two more years to achieve its full program. But we could not wait, we dared not wait The Museum’s educational task beckons; it must begin. So on the 68th anniversary of the deportations, the Museum will open the Memorial and the commemorative space, brilliantly designed by the Israeli designer Edward Jacobs, as well as a Special Exhibition which is a foretaste of the Permanent Exhibition that will replace it within two years.
And this book so beautifully and caringly crafted by Michael Haderer, the designer of the Special Exhibition, and Edward Serotta, its co-curator of the Special Exhibition, edited and introduced with his special historical expertise by my distinguished colleague Yitzchak Mais, is offered as a memento of a visit to the Special Exhibition for those who will visit it, as an invitation to visit by those who have not yet come and as work that tell the Chronicle of Balkans for all who are interested.
In Hebrew there is a phrase that characterizes this period from inception to realization: “kol hatchalot kashot, all beginnings are difficult, but begin we must.
The Talmud, Jewish traditions sacred compilation of laws and commentary on Scripture, says: It is not incumbent on you to complete the task, but begin you must. We have begun and we do feel it incumbent on us to complete the task but again, begin we must.
On behalf of my colleagues who have labored on this book and the Museum that it represents, permit me to offer words of gratitude of Ljiliana Mizrahi and to the Board that she so ably leads, to Rabbi Andrew Baker, the Chair of the International Advisory Committee and his distinguished colleagues for the faith that have placed in us to bring this sacred task to fruition; and to the wonderfully talented and hard working staff led most recently by Goran Sadikarijo , contractors and colleagues who have worked on this project, given so much, done so much under great pressure and with so little time to bring this first stage of the larger project to completion. Their names are recognized in the catalogue or on the walls of the Museum. Their contributions were large and small, but all important. May we go from strength of strength!
The mission of this Museum is urgent, the Memorial to Macedonian Jewry is long overdue and the educational opportunities awaiting us are so great.
Los Angeles, California
March 10, 2010
68 Years after the Deportation of Jews from Monopol to Treblinka
May Their Memories Service as a Blessing and a Warning.