Today marks 80 years since the departure of the first train that transported 2.400 Thessaloniki Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp on March 15, 1943, where the vast majority would meet a tragic death in the gas chambers. The Jews of Thessaloniki are a community intertwined with the history of the city, which marked it in every way.

The Jewish presence in Thessaloniki dates back to ancient times. Already, when the Apostle Paul visited the city, he found a community with its own synagogue and preached there for three Saturdays. The arrival of Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews from Iberia after the Edict of Alhambra in 1492 brought with it new techniques and professions from the west as well as trade networks. Thessaloniki experienced a rapid development then and soon took on the characteristics of a cosmopolitan city, an economic, spiritual and social crossroads.

In 1912, when the city was incorporated into the Greek state, Jews made up more than half of the population. But the First World War, the fire of 1917, the crash of 1929 and other negative developments during the interwar period lead a significant part of the community to emigrate to other countries. Nevertheless, the Jewish community in the city remains strong and active, and on the eve of the Second World War numbered 50.000 souls.

With the start of the war, Greek Jews join the war against Italy en masse, with the same patriotism and self-sacrifice as their Christian fellow citizens. The first mass anti-Jewish measures are the gathering of the city's Jews, aged 18-45, in Eleftheria Square on July 11, 1942. There they are subjected to public humiliation and registered for forced labor, an ordeal that ends towards the end of 1942, with the payment of a large sum of money as a ransom and the destruction of the city's Jewish cemetery, which began on December 6, 1942 and after the war occupied the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

Life in the ghetto

From February 1943, when the SS organs arrive in the city to implement the "Final Solution", the life of the Jews changes radically. They are forced to move to specific areas – ghettos, where many families live together in one apartment. The shops of the Jews pass into the control of bailiffs, and many of the wealth and labors of generations are dissipated in a few days. Measures such as the yellow star and the ban on entering and exiting the ghetto are also imposed. Life in the ghetto is tragic. People are losing their minds and are in a deep depression. People are looking for escape routes and young people are marrying in groups to get a partner in these difficult times. They are also preparing for the big "relocation" trip to Poland. The efforts of the leaders of the Community to intervene and mobilize the Government, the municipal and church authorities, the trade associations and chambers as well as the Red Cross to stop the displacements are not crowned with success. Since March 15, and every 2-3 days another train leaves the city carrying 2.500 souls in inhumane conditions destined for industrialized death. Inside closed animal wagons were 80 people, old, pregnant, babies, sick. They had little water and food for the journey and only one bucket for their needs. By August 10, in 18 convoys, the vast majority of the Jews of Thessaloniki were deported to the Auschwitz death camp. Of these, very few returned alive.

End of season

The violent and abrupt extermination of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki radically changed the character of the city. The Jewish shops were now owned by young people with changed signs. People's furniture and possessions were blown away. Of the dozens of Jewish synagogues, only a few will survive the war, in dire condition. The ancient and vast Jewish cemetery had been demolished. The corpses had become food for the dogs and the tombstones an all-purpose building material. After the war, only 2.000 Jews would be in the city and many would prefer to emigrate from their hometown for a new start. Thessaloniki had already lost the significant presence of the Jewish element that for centuries had given it this unique aspect and dynamic.

Source: IN.GR, 16.3.2023, by LEON SALTIEL

*THE Leon Saltiel is a PhD in Modern Greek History at the University of Macedonia, focusing on the Holocaust of the Jews of Thessaloniki. His book "The Holocaust in Thessaloniki: Reactions to the Anti – Jewish Persecution, 1942-1943" won the 2021 International Holocaust Research Book Award from the Yad Vashem Foundation of Israel.