Skopje #1: Holocaust Memorial Centre for the Jews of Macedonia

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March 4th 2020
Published: April 12th 2020
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It was quite an early start as a I retraced my steps from the previous day to Serdika Bus Station. As I got there far too early, I headed over to the other bus terminal for a bit of a mooch around. This one was much better and had shops, places to get food and toilets, and more importantly free wifi. I headed back over to catch my bus and I rather liked how chill it was as I just got on board and no one bothered to check my ticket. The bus wasn't too busy, which is always a bonus and we left bang on time. The bus had wifi, but once we left the city behind that seemed to disappear. I enjoyed the drive through the countryside. It was nice to see what the more rural areas of Bulgaria looked like. I am looking forward to returning after my time in Macedonia. We drove for a couple of hours before stopping for a toilet break. Toilets were clean, but lacked lighting and it was mixed gender. Also, we had left the good weather behind and it was raining as we progressed higher to the border. The border was only about ten minutes further on from the rest stop. First was Bulgarian customs, we all had to get off the bus. I didn't realise that we needed to take our hand luggage with us, not that I was the only one that made that mistake. The official poked around some people's bags but mine was left alone. Then it was back on the bus and to Bulgarian immigration, where we just handed our passports over to the immigration officer that came on the bus and just chilled while they were processed. I liked that we didn't have to leave the bus and that the bus driver collected and returned our passports. Next stop was Macedonian immigration. While the Bulgarians did seem to be bothered about taking precautions for Corona Virus, the Macedonian immigration official was masked and gloved up. I got the third degree for some reason about my travel plans, whether it was just an excuse for the bloke to practice his English or a more substantial reason, the whole bus now knew my travel plans. Other people did get a bit of a grilling, but mine was twenty bloody questions. Once again, we didn't have to get off the bus and the bus driver got one of the passengers to hand out the passports, so he could get on with driving.

While the scenery was pretty similar to Bulgaria, one thing that really shocked me was the amount of litter on the roadside as we made our way through rural Macedonia. It was really sad to see as I am totally not used to seeing big piles of rubbish anymore. Also, the start of the journey from the border was quite bad as the road hadn't been tarmacked. Luckily, it wasn't like this all the way to Skopje, they just haven't finished the road properly all the way to the border. The rest of the journey to Skopje took about two hours and we arrived at the bus station in Skopje early. The bus station is a bit of a shithole and I was glad to get out of it, and after figuring out what I'd hoped was the right way, I made my way to my hostel in the rain. I was able to check in early and was happy to find out that I had the room to myself. I was going to head straight out, but since it was raining and cold, I decided to chill in the warm for a bit.

I finally dragged myself out. I had a rough plan for what I wanted to see. I headed into the city centre. I had been told that Skopje was a bit of a trippy place due to all the random statues around. I saw a few statues as I walked passed Zena Borec Park, but I liked the look of them as they were quite imposing. I also liked that Macedonia is proud of displaying their flag as I would be too if my country had such a cool looking flag. As I came to Macedonia Gate, I was confronted with a building site just behind it. It did make making my way to the centre a little more difficult. I was surprised at how quiet all the restaurants looked as I walked past them. I came to Macedonia Square and the giant Warrior on a Horse Statue of Alexander the Great. I really liked how quiet it was, I suppose the rain has its benefits. I made my way across the Stone Bridge. Certain countries/places can be described as an assault on the senses, Skopje I would however describe as an assault on the eyes. There are just so many things to see, everywhere you look there are statues. It was a short walk from the bridge to my destination, the Macedonian Holocaust Museum. When doing some research, I came across this museum and it not only sounded really interesting, but was also open until 7 pm.

After a false start, the security guard pointed me to the right door. The museum is fairly new as it only opened its doors in 2011. The museum opened on 10th March, the 68th anniversary of the deportation of Macedonian Jews to the Treblinka Death Camp by the allied Bulgarian and German forces. The entrance fee to the museum was 100 denar. The clerk told me that photos could only be taken in the lobby and not of any of the other exhibits and gave me a leaflet that showed me the different sections of the museum. I was surprised to see that there were about 20 exhibitions. I had given myself about two and half hours, but now I didn't think it would be enough time. The first two exhibits were on the ground floor, the first one really packed a punch. It was 'The Commemoration Area', which displayed was a large sculpture that showed survivors holding pictures of their loved ones, whose fates were not known to them. It was a very powerful piece. Next to this was a small memorial room. As I made my way up the stairs the wall was covered with a timeline of Jewish history. I really liked that every piece of space in the museum had been used to give visitors more information. Too much information is better than not enough in my opinion. The next exhibition was about the Jews in Antiquity. I enjoyed learning about this as I had already forgotten a lot of the stuff I had read at the Jewish Museum in Warsaw a few months earlier. It was interesting to find out that the first synagogue outside of Israel had been in Stobi in Macedonia. The next exhibit was quite different and was entitled 'Jews of the Balkans'. It was a fairly small and simple exhibit showing old photographs of Jews from the area. It was really nice to see them posing for group pictures and smaller family portraits. It was nice to see what normal life was like for them. It echoed a sentiment I had heard from my walking tour guide when doing the Jewish Quarter Walking Tour in Warsaw about the POLIN Museum and that was not to only focus on the horrific things that have happened in Jewish history, but to present a more rounded picture that celebrates the good and gives a wider and more detailed representation of Jewish history.

The next section described the Golden Age in Spain as most Macedonian Jews could trace their roots back to this area and the subsequent expulsion of the Jews from Spain. This time period saw the rise of Jewish intellectualism and how literature and laws that were created back then are still used today. It was sad to see that after this rise, Christian xenophobia led to the expulsion of not only the Jews, but also Arabs in Spain. The exhibition on the Ottoman Empire was interesting as it showed how the Sultan brought the Spanish Jews into his empire and i really liked seeing the printing press that was on display. The next exhibition was on Ladino language and culture, which I knew nothing about. It is the combination and manifestation of Hebrew, Spanish and Turkish that flourish with e Jews of the Balkans. I liked that there was some traditional music playing as it gave me an interesting insight to something I knew nothing about. I then moved on to the exhibit about the Skopje Jewish Quarter, this is the area geographically next to the museum. It is interesting to note the area was not destroyed during the Holocaust, but during the 1963 earthquake. There were some great pictures on the wall depicting day to day life and i liked the old furniture that showed what an everyday house was like. There was also a small area about the formation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and how life and well being declined, but also how young Macedonian Jews were exposed to new ideas and formed new kinds of Jewish associations.

I had been in the museum quite a while by this point and I wasn't getting around the different sections quick enough. There was just so much information to take in. I had to hurry through the next ones a bit more, which was a real shame as I had wanted to take my time so that I could absorb more. The next section focused on the Nazi's rise to power in Germany and the growing antisemitism in Germany and the invasion of Poland that lead to the outbreak of World War II. During the second World War, Macedonia was occupied by the Bulgarians, who had allied themselves with the Axis Power. They implemented Nazi policies that striped Jews of their rights. The next exhibition was 'Monopol' and this was particularly harrowing. Monopol was the tobacco factory in Skopje where Macedonian Jews were held until their deportation form their country. I think one of the reasons that this exhibition is so heartbreaking is that you hear the voices of the survivors that tell you about the deportation process and how horrific the train was. Then you step into a rail car and try to reconcile what you have just heard with the place you now are in. Through the other side of the train car is the exhibitions about Treblinka Death Camp. Having recently visited Auschwitz, it was a sad reminder of all the evil that the Nazi regime inflicted on the Jewish people.

After all that sadness, the next part of the museum looked at some of the positives that happened during this time. Some people were able to escape Nazi persecution by being a dual citizen of another nation and fleeing there. Other options were to join the resistance movement or to escape by going into hiding. It was really interesting to read about the resistance fighters who worked hard to defeat the Axis Powers and were national heroes. Reading the stories of people who hid, some in plain sight by passing themselves off as a goy or trusting others to help them, proved that there is always some good in the world and people who would make the ultimate sacrifice to help those in need. Albania was important during this time as it was the only country in Europe to have more Jews after the war ended than before it started. However, the next section was a mixture of happiness and sadness as it was about those people who survived and made it back home. Normally numbers can be very depersonalising, but here it was really shocking from the thousands of Jews that had lived in Macedonia before the war, only a couple of hundred survived as 98% of the Jewish population had been killed. It was really saddening to read about the people who returned to their communities and waited for family and friends to return, and they didn't. Efforts were made to rebuild the Jewish communities in Macedonian cities, but too many people had killed and I think there were too many ghosts for people to be happy there again. Even after the war there was still fear so people moved to other countries where they felt safer Also many sought refuge in moving to Israel and Yugoslavia was one of the only Communist countries that allowed Jewish people to immigrate there unhindered. The last exhibition was a small one entitled 'Jewish Macedonia Today'. Jewish Religious Councils had closed in Bitola and Stip due to so few Jews returning after the war, but the Jewish community in Skopje had been reestablished and it is good to see that the faith still lives on in Macedonia. The museum was very informative and powerful. It is one of the best museums I went to on my, along with the Red Flat, and totally worth a visit when in Skopje.

From the museum, I made my way back to my hostel via a supermarket. Since it was dark now, a lot of the statues and buildings were lit up and it was nice to take a look at them. I think the supermarket near my hostel in Sofia had really spoilt me as the choices on offer here were rather lacklustre, but I managed to get enough supplies to knock up a pretty decent dinner. Since it was rather cold, I enjoyed wrapping myself up in my duvet and blasting the heat in my room to keep warm. I was looking forward to seeing more of Skopje the next day.


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