Abravanel, the Blog

Jewish life and not only in Greece / Εβραϊκή ζωή και όχι μόνο στην Ελλάδα

Posts Tagged ‘looting’

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”.

Posted in greece, Shoah, thessaloniki | Με ετικέτα: , , , , , , | 6 Σχόλια »

The Jewish Cemetery of Thessaloniki – part 2

Posted by Abravanel, the Blog στο 05/05/2007

-> «Part 1 – The Destruction» can be found here.

Part2 – After the War

Until this point we witnessed the events leading to the destruction of the cemetery. Some argue that we simply deal with a hateful initiative, facilitated by the WW2 conditions. But when referring to this story people usually limit themselves to 1943, the year when the destruction happened. Even limiting the time frame, the responsibilities of the Municipality of Thessaloniki and the General Governor of Macedonia, are simply concealed. One can argue many hours on the length of the german involvement and many more can argue that «this way goes the war». But what cannot be explained and what cannot be justified is the shameful conduct after the war.

The last convoy for Auswitch left Thessaloniki on 10/8/1943 with the last 1.800 jews; Thessaloniki was officially judenfrei. The Greek State swiftly acknowledged the mutated status quo. The Finance Ministry on October 14, 1943 issued an order to seize the entire Jewish Cemetery on the grounds that it had been deserted by its owners. (!!!) This settled once and for all the propriety of the land; if the jews had perished, why shouldn’t one profit from their dead? After WW2 the Greek State in 1946 issued a decree that allowed jews who had returned from the extermination camps to collect the gravestones; of course no mention was made to restitute the graves to the ones who had survived. A decimated Jewish Community, where more than 90% of its members was ashes and only 2.000 had survived, lacked the economic means and the people to take advantage of it; the looting continued. After the war no mention was ever made to restitute the land and even worse there was and is imposed a complete silence over this matter. Attempts, decades later, to contact the University to agree on some kind of commemoration failed again and again and there is a strange silence in greek academic circles over this matter.

The bones of most of the half million Thessaloniceans still lay there. I talked to friends who attended the University in Thessaloniki in the ’60 and ‘70s; they told me stories of how during construction works, bones were found constantly. In one case the workers presumed that probably they were bones of dogs and were marveled on how big these dogs should have been (since human bones are much longer of those of dogs). Other testimonies talk of bones found & discarded, during construction of sewages.

The grave stones were used in construction works of privates, military works, a swimming pool for the german occupying forces, churches or even as new tombstones. In a visit to Thessaloniki in the early ‘90s, I saw myself jewish grave stones used in the courtyard of a church in the suburb of Panorama. I still can’t understand how the local priest accepted looting from the dead while in theory he should be the first one to understand how pure evil this act was.

Today tenths of thousands of young persons are enrolled in the University. They laugh, they fall in love but not even one of them knows that they’re still surrounded by the ghosts of our families. The University avoids all talk on this subject, since it knows that it is morally and legally compromised, both for accepting the land and failing to speak afterwards. The Jewish Community stays silent, since if it ever spoke the racist hawks would claim that this is done only to claim financial recompensation!

So what needs to be done? Certainly not only a commemorative plate which everyone would forget the next day, in my eyes this would seem a further insult. This should only serve as the starting point of a far longer path. The University should accept it’s origins and try by itself to perpetuate the memory of those whose graves has violated. If a grave is a place where the living can come and mourn the ones who left, a way to honor their memory, then the University should become the house of such initiatives. It is unacceptable and insulting that 64 years later there is nothing to remind of our families while their bones still lay there; to have young students protest about jews controlling the world or being behind 9/11, while they sip their coffee on top of the people whose voice still reechoes in our memories! Nice way of controlling the world! Again I feel the need to stress that this isn’t about returning any land or any kind of monetary compensation – only a virulent antisemite would claim this, as to portray jews obsessed with money. This is only about respect about the dead who still lay down there.

After the war the Aristotle University chose to continue building on top of the dead. The Greek Government chose to accept the looting of the land afterwards. The society of Thessaloniki chose to keep using the tombstones without any moral indignation. The University after building its new campus chose to refuse putting a commemorative plaque and chooses today to keep a shameful silence. Even its students today ignore where they lay upon and are happy to attack the jews, whose graves helped building their fine university.

These choices constitute today the second desecration of the dead who still lay there. Even the ones disagreeing on the responsibility of the Thessaloniki Municipality and the Macedonia Governorship conveniently omit referring to the acts of the free Greek State after the war. And if one thinks that it was the war who brought out the worst side of the people, then the choices after the war show that this side had no need of the war to flourish. We may not be able to choose our past or change it, but we can certainly shape the future. The choices Thessaloniki made and makes after the war validated the conduct of it’s leaders during the war and unquestionably compromise it’s moral standing. Each new generation after the war has the same chance as the generations before it had: to deny and forget or to join the dead in their grief for their stolen homes.

The dead may have lost their homes but they still lay down there; hopefully one day the city will decide to listen to their deafening silence.

-> « Part 3 – Photos after the Holocaust« can be found here, there you can also comment.

Posted in greece, Shoah, thessaloniki | Με ετικέτα: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki – part 3

Posted by Abravanel, the Blog στο 05/05/2007

-> Part 1 – The Destruction can be found here.

-> Part 2 – After the War can be found here.

Part 3 – Photos after the Holocaust

Here I included some photos concerning the Jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki and its fate today. The ones deriving from books I kindly ask not to have them reproduced elsewhere since I’m not certain about the copyright. For all pictures you may click on them to get better resolutions. I also included a small bibliography for those interested reading more, plus a couple of interesting links.

  • GoogleEarthThis is a screenshot I took with GoogleMaps. I used the maps I already had to draw a line of where the cemetery stood and what lies above it today. The drawing is approximative of course but I plan on improving it in the future. The names you see are in greek and 80% of them are the names of the university schools which lay there. Among them is the AHEPA hospital, the Medical School, the Dental School and others.

It’s borders today according to the site of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki are:

The vast proportions of this necropolis can still be traced. The western limit extended along the flank of the PAOK soccer stadium and the eastern limit followed approximately Pavlos Melas Street. The northern limit lay within the entire campus of the present day University of Thessaloniki, including an orphanage and a number of adjacent buildings and military barracks. The southern limit ended in the neighborhood known as Saranda Ekklisies (Forty Churches) and a collection of private dwellings. Along its entire length it was divided by a fairly wide path that had been created by Ottoman soldiers in the 19th century

  • Map of the cemeteryA map of the cemetery before the war, with the buildings that the University planned on building if the land was to be confiscated. One can see that the exact size of the cemetery was total 357.796 square meters.

  • Bones and broken gravestonesBroken tombstones and bones to the mercy of dogs after the War. Unfortunately only a few gravestones survived and one can see them in the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki and in the new jewish cemetery.

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  • Gravestones at the courtyard of St.Demitrius church Various gravestones deriving from the Jewish Cemetery, in the courtyard of St.Demetrious Church; the main church of Thessaloniki dedicated to its patron saint. Some of these were used for reconstruction works of the temple.

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  • Map of the cemetery with christian cemet.adjacentA map of the prewar Thessaloniki Jewish Community. With yellow one can see the cemetery while the map below is portraying the Thessaloniki of 1960’s. Using this map one can pinpoint exactly the borders of the Jewish Cemetery, in relation to Thessaloniki today.

A thick red line indicates the christian cemetery of Evangelistrias, immediatelly adjacent to the jewish one. This cemetery was founded in the ’20s and its removal was never asked by the University or the City itself. It still survives today surrounded amidst the town and with the University a few meters away.

Bibliography :

  • M.Mazower – Salonica,City of Ghosts/Θεσσαλονίκη,Πολη των φαντασματων – (exists both in greek and english)

An excelent book which covers briefly how the cemetery was destroyed and has some valuable information on its fate after WW2.

  • Γιομτωβ Γιακοελ, (επιμελεια Φ.Αμπατζοπουλου) – Απομνημονευματα 1941/1943 – εκδ.Παρατηρητης 1993

A prominent member of the Jewish Community who took part in the negotiations with the greeks and the germans and comments the events. The book is extremely interesting because it was written in 1943 and contains the thoughts and climate of the period untouched by later knowledge of the events, since Y.Yacoel died in Auschwitz in 1944. As he said: “The hurried manner and the excessive zeal shown by the Greek authorities make it obvious that it wasn’t only out of motives aimed at the city’s beautification that they were moved to dismantle the Jewish monuments so quickly.”

  • In Memoriam – J.Nehama,M.Molho – 1974

A monumental work dedicated to the extermination of the Community of Salonica; its third volume is dedicated to the fate of the cemetary. In addition to giving us its history thoughout the centuries, it also gives us a detailed account of how and who destroyed the cemetary. M.Molho was also a prominent member of the Community and had participated first hand in the talks. The pictures in black and white derive from there.

  • Π. Ενεπεκίδη – Οι διωγμοί των Εβραίων εν Ελλάδι 1941/1944 – Εκδ.Παπαζήση 1969

A book which tries, very approximately, to describe the Holocaust of the greek jews. It isn’t by all complete and completely ignores the matter of the jewish necropolis while it over emphasizes greek achievements. Still, even by such an enthusiast, the conduct of the greek authorities of Thessaloniki leaves a bitter aftertaste.

  • Haggadah – JCT 1970

The traditional book for Passover contains also some interesting information about the Community before the war. That is the source for the last picture.

Links :

The Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. It houses a small collection of gravestones that survived, plus it has some valuable information material. Click on The Jews of Thessaloniki -> Necropolis to get a brief story of the cemetery plus some more photos. [English-Greek]

Gravestones everywhere. A post in the AgitProp blog which tells us of the author’s experiences with tombstones in modern Salonica. The first one was in the Aristotle University campus, near the Biology Department and the second one was near the suburb of Panorama. There you can also see a photo that the author took of a gravestone incorporated in a modern building today. Take the time to visit the rest of his blog since it often houses articles of ladino interest. [Greek]

Invisible Revisited. A series of posts by DeviousDiva that host the academic paper by Laquer and Hesse «Bodies Visible and Invisible». A major source of information which deals extensively with the historical context of the destruction and the german policy towards the cemeteries throughout Europe. A must-read for anyone wishing to learn more about the subject.

Posted in greece, Shoah, thessaloniki | Με ετικέτα: , , , , | 59 Σχόλια »

 
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