THE TRAGEDY OF THE THESSALONIKI JEWS
THE FALL OF GREECE
The Balkan theatre of war is to be conventionally discussed through the prism of the German advance to Greece and Yugoslavia back in April 1941, the Battle for Crete, resulting in a well-known delay of the ‘Barbarossa’ plan and the invasion of the Soviet Union. Along with that, the Second World War showed its signs as late as October 1940 (six months prior to the German invasion) with Benito Mussolini’s ambitions to gain ultimate supremacy in the Mediterranean region, push out the Englishmen, as well as to expand the proclaimed Empire and to impress Adolf Hitler with the indeed nonexisting mighty of the Italian army. Regardless of the ‘on-paper’ dominance over France in June 1940 since the factual dominance of Germany over France and the seizure of Paris, Benito Mussolini was far from happy with the fact, that Hitler now dominated the ROME-BERLIN axis, an ally of the two powers. In the heat of his zeal to overshadow Adolf Hitler (the same way Mussolini had experienced heart-burning jealousy with the mutual state visits: his to Munich in 1937 and Hitler’s visit to Rome, Florence, and Naples in May 1938), Duce proclaimed a promise to conquer Greece within two weeks, thus opening the second front with the Mediterranean theater of operations after North Africa.
Both Italy and Mussolini firsthand would experience a mix of painful military disillusions and international humiliations in the course of the Autumn Greece campaign. Subsequent to the Greek counteroffensive having been initiated on November 5, 1940, close to a half-million of the Italian soldiers were now enforced not only to retreat to the baselines but to lose 40 000 men killed in action and to give a part of the Albanian grounds. The rightful national cause united the nation and no less than 12 000 Jews from Salonica took part in the battle against the Italians with at least 613 KIA. Another 1400 Jewish soldiers were now invalids and the major part of them would meet their end in the Nazi death camps three years later.
Hitler had accounted Balkans much more like the German backland prior to the advance to the Soviet Union rather than a touchstone of the Italian army. The British presence in the region was beyond Hitler’s limits of acceptance with a strong need to secure the oil reservoirs of Ploiesti, the logistic arteria for the upcoming ‘Barbarossa’ invasion. The German army invaded Yugoslavia and Greece simultaneously on April 6, 1941, and Wehrmacht gained unthinkable military success by the end of the same month. As soon as the Germans smashed the armies of two Balkan states, they succeeded in the expulsion of the Britishers first from continental Greece to Crete and later from the Balkans. As the last guns were sounded, Greece was divided between Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. Duce finally gained the given (by the Germans) control over the major part of continental Greece and the islands. The Bulgarians were left to contend with Frakia and a part of Macedonia. The Germans, the indeed conquerors of the Balkans, now pulled back troops remaining control over a small part of the Greek land to the North-East, including the port city of Salonica (Thessaloniki).
THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF SALONICA 1941-1943
According to different estimates, the Germans gained control of over 150 000 Jews soon after invading Yugoslavia and Greece. The enormous figure indeed amounted to less than half of the population of the Warsaw ghetto itself at that time and a dramatic fraction of the number of people, who would be destined to be murdered within the territories of the Soviet Union already in 1941 in such mass killings actions as in Babi yar in Kyiv. The less part of the 77 000 Greek Jews amounted to ‘The Romaniot Jews’, one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe, historically deeply assimilated within the Balkans and the islands. The first ‘Romaniot Jews’ made an appearance in Salonica as late as 140 B.C. and the first in-depth description of the community dated from the XII century with estimations of 500 Jews at that time. With the new order of the Osmans (Salonica was made a part of the empire back in 1453), the Jews, as well as other religious minorities, were left with relative autonomy.
Relatedly, in 1941 two-thirds of the Greek Jews, up to 53 000 people, were associated with a tight community in Salonica. On the whole, they were representatives of ‘Sephardi Jews’, expulsed from Spain back in 1492, the year Columbus discovered America. For the first two years after the exile from Spain, Salonica itself had become home to at least 20 000 Spanish Jews. As late as the start of the XVI century they would amount to over half of the city population. The newcomers even used to name new-built synagogues after the Spanish heartlands: Calabria, Catalonia, etc. The erection of thirty synagogues and religious schools now lured Jews from almost every corner of Europe and Salonica was now attributed as “La Madre de Israel” (The mother of Israel). In contrast to Romaniots, who had been generally proficient in the Greek language and historically assimilated in small groups along the Balkans, Sephardi Jews in Salonica had historically lived in a tight community with its own ‘Ladino’ dialect. The population density, poor assimilation, and dependence on the warm Greek climate would be attributed as key factors in the dramatically high mortality of the Salonica Jews during the Holocaust.
The Germans preserved the occupation of Salonica onwards, handing credit to its crucial strategic role as one of the largest seaports in Europe. In April 1941 the city population was estimated at 210 000, including 53 000 representatives of the local Jewish community. The majority of the Jews had formed the basis of the city’s working and middle-class decades prior to the occupation, including merchants and the owners of the antiquarian shops. The influence of the Jewish community had been evident to the very extent, that the operations of the city port of Salonica used to be temporarily frozen in the days of the Jewish religious celebrations. Regardless of the German occupation, the local Jewish community was not exposed to the antisemitic actions, that had been previously suffered by the Jews in Austria after the Anschluss or in Poland soon after the fall of the country in the Autumn of 1939. The Germans performed selective detentions against the local Jews in Salonica, yet far from the faith of the Croatian Jews within the same period of Spring 1941.
Notwithstanding the moderate tranquility in which the Jews of Salonica had been left up to the mass action in March 1943, the weight dominance of World War Two as a whole and the occupation, in particular, represented a significant burden on the economic health of the city and the Jewish community notably. The two-front World War and the shortage of the AXIS resources had appeared to be experienced in the first instance within the occupied territories on the periphery of the Third Reich and the proclaimed Italian Empire. The former Balkan countries suffered immense inflation already in the summer of 1942 and the prices for the majority of goods had already risen three times as in the pre-war years. Already in 1942, the German practice of the requisition of the goods (from the locals) in Salonica and the mounting blockade of continental Europe (by the Allies against the AXIS) resulted in famine in Salonica and the Jewish community experienced the same hardships as the Turkish Men and Greeks, if not to the bigger extent due to the biased racial attitude.
JULY 11, 1942 – PLATEIA SQUARE
Alongside the painful economic burden of the War, it was not until the summer of 1942 for the Germans to take the indeed severe actions against the Jewish population of Salonica on a mass scale. The expropriation of goods and supplies by the occupational authorities, the disposition of rights and ownership, the exhaust of the national minorities, and harassment against Jews in local media: all were among the realities of the first fifteen months of the occupation. The first days of July 1942 witnessed the mass persistent media campaign against Jews. The German authorities were puzzled by the fact, that the average Greek: either Christian or Muslim, had no notion of the so-called ‘Jewish question’, that should be worked out in the context of the Third Reich realities.
On June 11, 1942, five days prior to the notorious sadly remembered raids against Jews in Paris and 13 days prior to the initiation of the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto in Poland, the male Jewish population of Salonica from 18 to 45 were commissioned to be present at Platia Eleftheria (Freedom Square). The official order was justified by the need to register the labor force for the work. In the early hours of July 11, 1942, the square of 120*90 meters in size was now filled with 9000 Jewish men, now surrounded by the German patrols, including the armed soldiers within the balconies. For a number of hours these men were forbidden to leave the open space, they were deprived of food and water and exposed to humiliating bodily exercises in the scorching heat of the Greek midsummer. Those, who refused to perform the calisthenics were butchered with batons and those who lost consciousness were dragged back to their senses for the next phase of the beatings.
As the day was on, the exhausted men were let home, yet 3500 of them would be soon assigned by the Germans to erect the roads, including the highway to the West between Salonica and Katerini and Larissa. Other hundreds of the unfortunates were daily taken to a suburb of Thermi by trucks to enlarge the local airport, which had been used by the Germans since 1941. In total, up to 400 men lost their lives due to hard work, exhaustion, and beatings by the end of 1942. The Jewish community of Salonica would collect no less than 2.5 million drachmas to take these men out of the pledge.
Years after World War Two, the key square of Salonica had been steadily transformed from an open space to the city parking site, the only of the such kind within the city center. For decades to come, the local authorities had been debating the idea to move the bus station out of the square and turn it once again into a park. As soon as in 2006 the ‘Memorial of the Victims of the Holocaust’ was erected in the southern part of the square, made of metal in the form of a tree. Tragically, it would be exposed to acts of vandalism within the following years, yet the late architectural plans of turning the area into a public park would make the memorial a part of the new urban appearance, as a dramatic part of the historical heritage of the city.
Subsequent to the humiliating mass action on July 11, 1942, thousands of Jewish men of Salonica were assigned to perform exhausting works in the height of the hot Greek summer and autumn. As soon as in December 1942 the local Greek authorities of Salonica decreed the destruction of the city’s Jewish cemetery, a resting place for 350 000 members of the local Sephardic community since the XV century and the arrival from Spain. Back in 1942 Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsfuhrer of the SS underscored the supposed (from the German perspective) danger of the Jewish influence on the city port of Salonica, a strategic one for the Germans. Along with that the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942 is generally attributed as the trigger for the ‘final solution’ within the occupied territories of Greece, in Salonica in particular.
As soon as in January 1943 Adolf Eichmann, the infamous SS bureaucrat assigned his deputy Sturmbannführer Rolf Günther (who would later commit suicide in American captivity in August 1945) to ‘solve the Jewish question’ in Salonica. He was soon accompanied by another two SS functionaries: Dieter Wisliceny, the institution of sending the Slovak Jews to the death camps in 1942, who would be hanged in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and Alois Brunner, later the commandant of the Drancy camp in France. He managed to flee to Syria and died as an elderly man six decades later. Along with the assistance of the governor the Germans were now supported by the local police of order. Already in February 1943, the occupational authorities initiated the creation of the puppet Jewish council after registering the Jewish population, now assigned to wear the ‘yellow star’ on a compulsory basis. In the same period of time, the three city quarters that had been historically populated mostly with Jews were now fenced with barbed wire and turned into ghettos. The Jewish population was now expelled from the economic life of the city, were forced to give the keys to their businesses and shops, and their belongings were now subsided to declaration according to a decree of March 13. Now fenced with barbed wire, the residents of three ghettos were forbidden to leave the prescribed areas.
EMPTYING THE GHETTOS
Fast on the heels after the Jews of Salonica now imprisoned within three overcrowded city quarters, the Germans designated the BARON HIRSCH QUARTER next to the railway station and the poorest among three, as a transit camp to expel the unfortunates ones to the Auschwitz death camp in Upper Silesia, Poland. As late as January 1943 Eichmann’s second hand received instructions to make Salonica ‘Judenfrei’ (free of Jews) in a span of two months. The mass deportations were put into action on March 13, 1943, the day of the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in Poland as well, and the very first transport left the city Apr. 2800 of 16 000 of the residents of the Baron Hirsch Quarter at that time. Five days later, the train would arrive at Auschwitz Birkenau and the great majority of these men, women, and children would be gassed to death upon their arrival. It would take another two weeks of the German methodicalness and another five trains to empty the Baron Hirsch quarter. One of these five trains was taken to Treblinka, not to Auschwitz.
Close to 25 000 people were ‘evacuated’ within April 1943 and the vast majority of the rest would be forced to leave the city in May. They were permitted to take supplies for three days and no more than 15 kilograms of the belongings in suitcases, which had to be signed. Shortly after the Jewish population was taken from their homes and the transit camp facilities, the locals among Christians and Muslims possessed the property seeking some valuables. With the last train leaving the Salonica in August, carrying the Jews who had been previously assigned to hard work, up to 48 500 people were deported in total in order to execute the order of Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler. The preserved papers of the Greek railway still render the number of 46 061 people and the records of Auschwitz Birkenau give the figure of 48 774 Greek Jews, 37 386 of which were killed upon their arrival at the camp.
Ever since the onset of the occupation, at least 3400 of the Salonica Jews had succeeded to leave the city and reaching Athens in the Italian zone. A few hundred young Jewish men managed to break away from the city and joined the guerillas. According to different estimates, up to 650 Greek Jews had taken part in the guerilla movement and at least 250 of them were former citizens of Salonica. 365 men managed to find salvage in Spain. As a result of the official Spanish claim, on July 24, 1943, they were sent not to Auschwitz, but to the German camp Bergen-Belsen to be later finally taken to Spain in February 1944. Along with that, the Germans used Salonica city as a transit junction to deport the Jews from all over Greece (after the Fall of the Italian regime).
Even months after the last Jews were deported from the city of Salonica, the locals used to pay visits to the former Jewish quarters in quest of goods and free accommodations. The local authorities even had to initiate the so-called ‘Service for the Disposal of Jewish Property’, yet the new body had to face some difficulties. It took 27 warehouses to store all the belongings of the deported Jews of Salonica. Relatedly up to 2000 former Jewish businesses were now left abandoned and it would take another span of time for the locals to take ownership and management of these enterprises.
THE BARON HIRSCH QUARTER
On March 6, 1943, one week prior to the start of the mass deportations of the Salonica Jews to the Auschwitz camp, the ‘Baron Hirsch Quarter’ had been fenced with a mix of a wooden enclosure and a barbed wire. Within the previous century, the city of Salonica witnessed two devastating fires. The very victims of the 1890 fire were lucky to experience the support of the local authorities as well as a gracious donation from Baroness Clara de Hirsch, widow of Baron Maurice de Hirsch. As soon as 1892 the local urban area was turned into a new district. In under a quarter of the century, other hundreds of the casualties of the 1917 fire would find accommodation within a quarter, named after its famous patron, later (in 1931) accompanied by the Jews from Campbell quarter. Baroness de Hirsch was famous as a philanthropist and she granted 200 000 golden franks for the erection of a Jewish hospital in Salonica, a building that would be finished no sooner than 1908, ten years after the patron had passed away.
THE OLD TRAIN STATION
Baron Maurice de Hirsch, an Austrian Jew, whose wife would invest a lot in the city of Salonica, was famous as one of the godfathers of railway transport in the Balkans. The very first railway line in the Salonica region, lined between 1871-1874 by Eastern Railways, an Austrian company owned by Baron Hirsch, and connected Mitrovica (the future Kosovo) and Salonica. In 1888 the line was pieced together with the Serbian railway line, also owned by the Osman Empire. In this respect, the Osmans now gained the direct railway junction with Central Europe. The same year Salonica city witnessed the first trains from Vienna and Paris, events appeared to be an occurrence of a grand scale. By the early 20th century, one of the largest ports, as well as the railway junction with the European lines and with Konstantinopol (since 1896) had turned Salonica into a large transport junction.
The very first railway station, later regarded as the ‘Eastern Railway Station’, made its mark on the city map along with the first railway line in the 1870s. As time and the development of the transport connection went on, the station was accompanied by new erections, as well as an artificial water pond with four bridges. The VIP guests of the city were welcomed with red carpets and thousands of newcomers took their time in the local baths. The station was later completed with three waiting rooms of separate classes of comfort and the open square in front of the terminal was complemented with a hotel and tavernas. In so much as the quarter close to the station had been historically populated with Jews, the local infrastructure was heavily dependent on Jewish families. In a wider sense, the railway connection was dependent on the Jewish community in the same sense as the port.
As World War Two occurred, the former railway magnitude vanished and the first transport terminal of Salonica would be destined to become a site of tragedy during the Holocaust. As the so-called ‘Baron Hirsch transit camp’ was formed and fenced, the former railway station was not to become a basis for the expulsion of the Jews from Salonica. During the deportations, the area was surrounded by German units and the representatives of the local police of order. In total, up to 48 500 Jews were forced to leave the city once and for all from the platform of this very station. In the span of the after-war years, the station lost its former important status and in 1976 it was completely turned into a transport junction of a non-passenger service, heavily dependent on the port of Salonica. Only some of the original platforms, as well as the warehouse premise and a building that was moved away in 1997, remained from the pre-war times. As later as 2013 the local authorities signed an agreement on creating the largest (In Greece) museum of the Holocaust within the area of the former station, yet there are still poor signs of the erection.