Perhaps the most emotionally charged day of “Bridging Backgrounds” was the fifth day when the participants had a guided tour of the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia. The building’s gray concrete and glass architecture resembled the only three other such centers in the world in Berlin, Jerusalem, and Washington D.C. The exterior and interior of this building are beyond unique: the emotions they cause are many and demand to be felt.
The first exhibit that the participants were faced with was the permanent one. It is an elaborate structure of thousands of hands holding up displayed framed images of the Macedonian Jews lost to the Third Reich. But some frames don’t hold photographs for there weren’t any available for those victims. Instead, the hands hold framed mirrors, reflecting the past back to the visitors of this museum. “What if they came after me?”, “Would I have tried to save them?” and “Is there a chance for this to happen again?” are just some of the questions these mirrors elicit.
The tour guide explained that the 7144 Jews that were taken from Macedonia to the Treblinka extermination camp constituted 98% of the Macedonian Jewish population. Only 2% managed to escape to Albania or to join the Partisans in the resistance. On March 11, 1943, officers from the Bulgarian Occupation of Macedonia arrested 7144 Jews and took them to the Tobacco factory “Monopol” in Skopje where they were kept in horrific conditions with little food and water. After only three weeks, they were all sent to the Treblinka extermination camp.
None of the 7144 came back from Treblinka.
Next, the tour guide showed us a room with an authentic cattle cart that was used to deport Jews. Sixty to eighty people of all ages were carried in these types of vehicles. Some even died on the carts. The reality of this item was extremely haunting.
“None of them survived,” the tour guide kept repeating.
Before playing a documentary for the “Bridging Backgrounds” participants, the tour guide mentioned that Macedonian students of different ages come to the Memorial Center to watch films, do research, write essays, make documentaries and the youngest even do drawings. In fact, there was a temporary exhibition of these drawings. It turns out that middle schoolers could create skilled art, such as paintings of the concentration camps, Jewish symbols, and depictions of emotion through human figures that captured a certain reality of the Holocaust.
The documentary that was shown was well-directed and allowed the participants to better visualize the timeline of the events that occurred. Probably the most fascinating and daunting information revealed in the film was that the Bulgarian occupiers required the names, photographs, and addresses of all of the Jews that they arrested. This is the reason why the Memorial Center was able to build their main exhibit, using the photographs gathered from the oppressors of the Macedonian Jews.
After learning about Jewish cultural traditions, the tour ended with yet another short documentary called “The Years Make their Own”, a film about two Macedonian Jews – Beno and Roza – who had different experiences during the war. They both joined the Partisan forces and were active in military actions. The two also ended up marrying and having children. It was certainly a great way to end the tour. The documentary was utterly humanizing, showing two Jewish individuals as more than a statistic, but rather complex human beings with loved ones, careers, and battle experiences.
Perhaps the tour really ended with the participants having to once again look in the chandelier at the middle of the building that transcended all three floors. It was made out of 7144 glass beads, one for each Macedonian Jew lost in the Holocaust. The word “Remember” is written over the beads in Macedonian, Albanian and English. Certainly, this wouldn’t be an experience that the “Bridging Backgrounds” participants would forget anytime soon.
“None of them survived,” the beads urged anyone who saw them to not forget this painful truth.
Back at FON University, the participants were asked to reflect on the field trip through an exercise called “Memory Tags”. Facilitated by Brendan, the participants were asked to make individual tags about their feelings that they would stick on a joint poster where the negative feelings would be placed on the right and the positive feelings on the left. The participants were also encouraged to use different letter sizes for the intensity of their feelings as well as to on varying degrees of left and right. After making the “cloud” of feelings where emotions such as “empathy” found themselves on the positive side, while “defeat” and “uncomfortable” found themselves on the negative side, the participants were asked to think about how they felt in relation to how they believed they should feel and later discuss this in five smaller groups.
Following these discussions, all twenty-six participants had a joint discussion, coming to various conclusions. For example, one group talked about the importance of monuments of remembrance, while another was more interested in discussing what an “average” person would feel at such monuments. A third group talked about how they felt terrified at what humanity is capable of, while also feeling proud of the Macedonians that put their lives on the line to help some of the Jews avoid the Treblinka death camp. The same group also felt that the Memorial Center let them truly picture the Holocaust as a collection of individual stories, such as the one of Beno, and Roza.
Ultimately, what was discussed was how to prevent this from ever happening again. One participant noted that she wasn’t taught enough in her school curriculum about the Holocaust, let alone other genocides. She emphasized that, sadly, the Holocaust was not the last genocide to happen on Earth. She mentioned Rwanda and Srebrenica as examples that she had to learn about on her own – indeed few of the participants were informed about these historic catastrophes.
“None of them survived,” the tour guide’s words echoed as Brendan and the participants tried to grapple with one of humanity’s most shameful legacies.
Many of the participants called for better education on subjects of history, interethnic understanding, and human rights to prevent further atrocities. In a sense, they were calling for more programs like “Bridging Backgrounds” and organizing team gave them exactly what they were looking for. Brendan offered historical background on the Holocaust. He also asked the participants to think about the first steps governments and oppressive regimes take to arrive at ethnic cleansing and genocide, such as the creation of in and out groups.
“Think about how we value human lives. Think about why terrorist attacks in Western Europe receive significant media coverage, while humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen receives almost no media attention,” Brendan asked the participants to critically evaluate which groups are given more humanity. “Atrocities do not start with concentration camps; they start with discrimination, human rights violations, and apathy.”