Holocaust Commemoration in Macedonia

Holocaust Commemoration in Macedonia
March 11, 2013
Rabbi Andrew Baker
AJC Director of International Jewish Affairs 

The Psalmist teaches us that the span of a lifetime is “three score and ten”—seventy years. We gather tonight to commemorate the deportations and murder of the Jews of Macedonia that took place seventy years ago. A lifetime has gone by. The eyewitnesses to these crimes—the perpetrators, the few surviving victims, the by-standers—are dead or dying.

There are those who have sought to deny the Holocaust or claim its numbers are exaggerated. There are others who have sought to distort the facts in order to shift the blame or exonerate the guilty. Despite the exhaustive, historical documentation these deniers and revisionists will have an easier job with the passage of a lifetime.

We ourselves often with the best of motives may also contribute to some distortions. We want to highlight the stories of bravery and rescue, of neighbors and sometimes even strangers who risked their lives to shelter and protect Jews. We designate them as “righteous among the nations” and applaud their heroism. Their accounts do offer hope that even in the darkest of times some light can still shine. But we should not lose sight of the fact that there were many, many more by-standers and accomplices to the German murderers than there were rescuers.

We have gathered here tonight to remember. It is for us a sacred obligation. In January 1943 three-quarters of those European Jews who would be murdered by the Nazis were still alive. By the end of the year three-quarters were dead. The Nazi killing machine rivaled its ability to make war, with a systematic, mechanized operation that would reach to almost all corners of the continent. And as we well-know it reached here.

The burden of remembering this tragedy that occurred a lifetime ago falls disproportionately upon the shoulders of Macedonia’s small Jewish community.

We are fortunate that here in Macedonia there is now a permanent memorial and museum to those victims. We can see their faces. We can imagine the hopes and dreams they shared before the Nazi terror descended upon them. All who visit can appreciate the rich and diverse Jewish culture that existed for centuries in this corner of Europe and that animated their lives. In these ways, Macedonia should serve as an example to other countries.

Of course we certainly thought that an essential lesson of the Holocaust would be the elemental recognition that anti-Semitism can have lethal consequences and an unshakable commitment to combat it. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is still very much with us. In far too many places we still see the old myths of international Jewish political and economic conspiracies gaining currency at a time of financial dislocation. We see the growing success of right-wing, populist parties whose racism and xenophobia include anti-Semitic invective. And now that highly-charged hate speech echoes from the halls of parliaments across Europe. Those old themes are increasingly infused with new approaches that seek to demonize and delegitimize the State of Israel. And at this time no one can ignore the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran, a nation that has long supported international terrorism and whose leaders deny the Holocaust while calling for the annihilation of the Jewish State.

When Bulgarian gendarmes herded those 7200 Macedonian Jews to their deaths, no one stood up to defend them and to prevent their deportation. The brave voices in neighboring Bulgaria did not come soon enough, were not loud enough to help here. We can rejoice in the rescue of those Jews, but it cannot be separated from the tears that we must shed today.

On this day of remembrance our faithfulness to those who perished will be measured not only by our ability to recall their stories but by our resolve to prevent such crimes from ever recurring. Ye’hi zichronam l’vrachah. May their memory be a blessing.