The Jewish Cemetery of Thessaloniki – part 1
Posted by Abravanel, the Blog στο 05/05/2007
Part 1 – The Destruction
DD, some time ago, published an academic paper by Hesse and Laquer on the destruction of the jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki, (else known as Salonika), during WW2 with ultimate beneficiary the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. This cemetery, for most part of it’s history, was the largest jewish cemetery in the world covering more than 350.000 square meters and having between 400.000 and 550.000 bodies in 1940, (since jews do not exhume bodies, each tomb actually contained the remains).
The cemetery was already disputed before WW2 as Thessaloniki tried to expand eastwards and the cemetery was hindering this growth. A mass influx of greek christian refugees from Asia Minor had increased Thessaloniki’s population to heights never reached before, forcing the city to expand outside it’s traditional borders. This vast area in the outskirts of Thessaloniki of 1940, (now it lies in it’s very centre), was the perfect place to house the newly-founded Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
In 1937 the Greek State and the Jewish Community decided together that the Community would grant 30.000 square meters to the University; the University would move the graves found in this area into new cemeteries that would be founded away from the city. The rest of the cemetery, ie the 320.000 sq.mt. remaining, would be closed for new burials and would become a park but no existing tombs would be touched. Despite the agreement, neither the Municipality, nor the Community took any action to implement it and the cemetery continued to work uninterrupted until 1942. At that time a german envoy arrived in the, now occupied, city to plan the deportations of the 55.000 Thessaloniki jews, who would take place in 1943. As a first measure the germans decided to commandeer thousands of Thessaloniki jews into forced labor in the greek provinces of Chalkidiki, Veria and Katerini; there an undisclosed number of them died from malaria and the hardship.
The Jewish Community, highly-wrought, tried to offer ransom to the germans who accepted the idea and asked for 3.5 billion drachma, a huge amount. The german envoy, Max Merten, communicated to the heads of the Community that a deal could be made for 2 billion and the land of the cemeteries; various sources inform us that he was approached by various prominent members of the greek society who were pressuring him into asking the land of the cemetary, (an example is a specific Thessaloniki architect with ties with the german Befehlshaber Baelke Abteilung Militaerwaltung Saloniki-Aegae). The Community refused but finally an agreement was reached for 2.7 billion which would lead to the liberation of the jewish captives and the savior of the cemetery.
After the agreement the danger for the jewish cemetery wasn’t over. On October the 17th the Governor of Macedonia V.Simonidis sent an letter to the Jewish Community ordering them to cooperate with the Municipality and dismantle the cemetery. It should be stressed that the germans at that point had no further demands from the jews; this action was an initiative of Simonidis that satisfied the demands of far too many thessaloniceans. Greek historian prof.Enepekidis didn’t hesitate to describe Simonidis as being “more german than germans themselves” due to his actions concerning the cemetery, the deportations and the looting of jewish properties that went on. Merten had to play the umpire between the greeks who asked for the complete destruction and the Jewish Community who tried to save it. Merten decided that a part would be given to the University and the rest would remain intact. But, even in the confiscated part, the graves less than 30 years old were to be spared. The testimony of Y.Yacoel, an official of the Jewish Community who participated in the meeting and later perished in the Holocaust, offers is indicative: a greek official from the Technical Department kept pressuring the germans to deny even some months of delay by saying that the Community tries to buy time hoping that the “English will come to save them”.
Finally the Municipality, by it’s own initiative, on the December of 1942 sent 500 workers to dismantle it and within two weeks as many as half a million tombs were destroyed; neither the graves less than 30yrs old were spared, nor time for the transfer of the bones was allowed to the general public contrary to the german decisions. Only a few families managed to transfer the remains of their beloved ones into the new cemeteries and the community managed to transfer some important rabbis. But even these graves were desecrated afterwards; local habitants destroyed them, after the deportations, hoping to find mythical jewish treasures that they fantasized that the jews had buried. The marble tombstones were so many that the price of marble in the local market plummeted at an all-record low as sources tell us. As far as how the whole process took place in Thessaloniki, the US consul in Istanbul said: “Recently buried dead were thrown to the dogs.”.
This was the only important jewish cemetery in all of Europe to be completely destroyed during WW2 since, even at the heart of Nazi Germany, cemeteries survived. Even in Warsaw, where the whole Ghetto was reduced to ashes, the famous local cemetery with 150.000 graves and 10.000 sq. mt. survived intact. Also the decision to expand the university in the midst of a raging war, while the greek population starved seems untimely to the casual observer, (unless one takes into account that probably the University wanted to alter the status quo while it still had the chance). These two facts, coupled with the fact that even the germans had not agreed to the complete destruction, render highly improbable the interpretation that the cemetery was destroyed by the Nazis; who we already have seen had absolutely no interest for the dead jews. Needless to say that without their approval nothing would have happened; but it is foolish not to recognize that Simonidis and the Municipality were the key players taking initiatives that hardly one can account to simply following orders. The germans were only too happy to oblige the local population, (Y.Yacoel informs us that some christians committees visited Merten to thank him for taking care of the jewish cemetery), but if it wasn’t for the greek authorities nothing would have happened. We can conclusively say that the main driving force was the need for new space to house the New Thessaloniki, greed by local contractors and a virulent form of nationalism, endemic in Thessaloniki of that time, that tried to make “disappear” all non christian-greek elements of the city and often evolved into open racism.
Three months afterwards, on the 15th of March 1943, the first 2.800 were deported in cattle wagons to the extermination camp of Auswitch/Birkenau. As Molho said in the final chapter of the 1970 edition of “In Memoriam”:
“Before heading to their own extermination, the Jews from Thessaloniki, witnessed the annihilation even of their own dead”.