How important is the constant reference to the past and the events of the Holocaust? How do we preserve its historical memory but also how do we pass it on from generation to generation? Questions that seem trivial, but even though they have been asked many times, they have not lost their topicality, especially in the modern context of multiple geopolitical crises.

The Holocaust marked the 20th century and the fate of the Jews of Europe as a horrific genocide, a collective trauma and a landmark, which we recall as an example to be avoided in the long history of mankind. Today, 79 years after the end of the Second World War, historical research, museum collections, books, theatrical performances and films, images and narratives bear witness to the many faces of Nazism.

January 27 was established by the UN General Assembly as the International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Holocaust. Greece especially honors on this day the Memory of the Greek Jewish Martyrs and Heroes. Memories that act as a firewall against worse tragedies? Janet Battinou, archaeologist, director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, an outstanding historical memorial site, and Leon Saltiel, professor of Modern Greek History at the University of Macedonia with a focus on the Thessaloniki Holocaust and historical researcher ("Don't forget me. Three Jewish mothers write to their sons from the ghetto of Thessaloniki" from Alexandria Publications, 2018 and "The Holocaust in Thessaloniki Reactions to the Anti-Jewish persecution, 1942-1943" from Routledge Publications, 2020), talk about the importance of preserving historical memory .

"It is important for the present and especially for the various historical junctures we face in our time to know the past well. The past is not a wish list, it is not an empty phrase when we say ``Never again'' about the Holocaust, two trivial words that have no content", says Janet Battinou from the Jewish community of Ioannina and the tradition of the Romanians Jews. "Education also leads to the knowledge of the historical past as it is important to know how the events developed and how they ended. And of course the Holocaust did not start with the crematoria. It began in ways not easily discernible as to the course that events would follow thereafter. By studying History in many ways, we gain a comprehensive picture of the events and become useful citizens to ourselves and to others", notes the director of the Jewish Museum of Greece.

A third-generation descendant of Holocaust victims since her maternal grandparents were both survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, Ms. Battinou notes that "family memories strengthen determination."

"World War II marked a genocidal disaster for the Jewish population of Greece," she adds. The Jewish Museum of Greece traces, among other things, how transgenerational trauma is transmitted alive from generation to generation. This is attested by the 150 testimonies collected by the Museum from Greek Jewish survivors of the extermination camps as well as their children. Their testimonies document the extent of the destruction and prove that the efforts of young people to embrace life and bring the next generations into the light were not easy at all. "It was a feat for these people, so this is also the importance of the testimonies we gather here at the Museum. We have tried very hard, wherever possible, to have the second generation testimonies be from the children of people who gave us their own testimony as first-hand witnesses some years before, so that one gets a global picture not only of the destruction but also of the decades of recovery .", says Janet Battinou.

The museum and the Jewish tradition

The Jewish Museum of Greece, a non-state museum with a Mark of Recognition by the Ministry of Culture, historical and ethnographic museum and research center, tells the story of the Holocaust of the Greek Jews, in the absence of a Holocaust Museum in Greece for many years. Through his work he projects a broader picture of Jewish history and tradition that is culturally rich. At the same time, it focuses on research and memory and mainly on education in schools through programs that promote, among other things, experiential experience and are carried out in collaboration with the Ministry of Education.

In order to implement this priority, the museum promotes the acquaintance with the culture of the Jewish community, which can be traced archaeologically in the Greek area from late antiquity (for example the current exhibition "Jewish inscriptions" and the previous one called "Stone routes - Histories from stone: Jewish inscriptions in Greece" presented in 2023 in collaboration with the Epigraphic Museum). "We are not talking about centuries, but we are talking about millennia of Jewish presence in Greece, which means that we have the obligation and thus act, to put the Holocaust and the destruction within the broader context of the history of the Jews in Greece and Europe and to to connect, with the aim of a better understanding of the past and the present", says Janet Battinou to BIMA.

As with all Jewish populations in Europe, the Holocaust was decisive for Greek Jews, as it decimated the Jewish population of Greece. The director of the Jewish Museum narrates how out of the approximately 80.000 Greek Jews at the time of World War II, less than 11.000 survived, a number that includes those who hid in some way, those hid by the Resistance, but also those who fled to the Middle East. About 1000-1100 Greek Jews returned alive from the concentration and extermination camps.

"The Holocaust is a genocide that has been documented in detail by the perpetrators themselves with lists, photographs, scrapbooks and many other ways. The oral and local history archive of the Jewish Museum of Greece and other similar archives of organizations that exist with testimonies of Jews from all over Europe and Greece with whom we have cooperation, are important, because otherwise we would not know the side of the victims, the daily life in the camps, the situations they experienced, the fates of their relatives, even what circumstances of luck and good health helped them survive and how many others perished. "Also from those who survived, we collected names of people who were lost," emphasizes Janet Battinou.

"The Holocaust didn't start with the crematoria," Mrs. Battinou repeats, "but with accusations in newspapers, with articles in the yellow press." The point is that what happened affected people with full life and hope, which was suddenly canceled by extreme and unpredictable circumstances. As the director of the Jewish Museum of Greece comments, "The question that must be asked today for us is whether these conditions were really unforeseeable. Today, when we know how low things can slide, we must be vigilant to protect the principles of human dignity and security not only for one community, but for all our fellow human beings."

"A people who do not know their history cannot have a future"

Thessaloniki historian Leon Saltiel, a member of the Board of Directors of the Central Jewish Council of Greece and the Greek Delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, has dedicated his work to combating anti-Semitism and preserving the memory of the Holocaust. In recent years he has been working as a representative of the World Jewish Congress at the United Nations in Geneva and UNESCO in Paris.

He tells VIMA that "a people who do not know their history cannot have a future". He also underlines that the knowledge of the historical past concerns us all, and especially the future generations who are pregnant with tomorrow. "It is not enough only to know the history of each nation, but also to study the tragic pages of our history. Only by studying our mistakes can we improve our societies. It is in these contexts, in my view, the need to preserve, safeguard, defend and continue the memory of the Holocaust," he notes.

Stories of humanity

Leon Saltiel has brought to the surface previously unseen aspects of the history and destruction of the Thessalonians - Sephardic in origin - Jews. His and both parents' grandparents are Holocaust survivors who hid in Greece, his father's parents with the rebels in Evia, a Pontian refugee family and his mother's parents in houses in Athens. These are survival adventures that are stories of humanity, survival and solidarity. "They are also sad stories, because they concern people who, after the war, returned and found nothing, neither their homes, i.e. material goods, nor the wider community, nor their relatives, nor their friends. They had to start their lives over. This was one of the tragic parameters of the Holocaust, which does not end with liberation. With the liberation begins a new round of challenges to reconstitute not only Jewish life but also the personal lives of the survivors," notes Leon Saltiel.

"Holocaust memory builds a firewall against extremist ideologies"

In our conversation he himself emphasizes that "the crimes of the Holocaust must never be forgotten". Complacency is not allowed. "Extremists must be isolated and we must consciously fight to improve and strengthen democracy and the rule of law. I think these are the timeless messages of the Holocaust up to the present day, and these make the memory of the Holocaust relevant," he emphasizes. As the historian typically says: "January 27, the day of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in 1945, is not only a day dedicated by the Greek Parliament to the Memory of Greek Jewish Martyrs and Heroes, but also an International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Holocaust with unanimous resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, which means that all the states of the world have recognized the Holocaust as perhaps the greatest tragedy in human history. Holocaust memory builds a bulwark against extremist ideologies.”

In the book "Don't forget me. Three Jewish mothers write to their sons from the ghetto of Thessaloniki" (Alexandria Publications, 2018) Saltiel presents three collections of letters, letters sent by three Jewish mothers from the ghetto of Thessaloniki to their sons in Athens, a few weeks or days before the departure them to Auschwitz. The testimonies of the publication give a unique look at the life of the Jews of Thessaloniki during the Occupation, through descriptions of eyewitnesses.

Then in the book "The Holocaust in Thessaloniki: Reactions to the Anti-Jewish Persecution, 1942-1943" (in English by Routledge, 2020), which was awarded the International Book Award for Holocaust Research by the Yad Vashem Foundation (Yad Vashem), issues arise in relation to the reactions of institutions and authorities of the city of Thessaloniki during the period of anti-Jewish persecutions and the Holocaust. At a time when the interest in the Holocaust of the Jews of Thessaloniki has expanded significantly, this research gives a place to the tragedy of the Thessaloniki Greek Jews in the European and global context.

"At the end of the 19th century and during the interwar period, Thessalonian Jews traveled for commercial and business purposes throughout Europe, essentially the Thessalonians were for many people identified with the Jewish community. All this was lost for myopic reasons in which the elite of the period saw the Jewish element as foreign. With the policies that were implemented, under the shadow of which there was no solidarity towards the persecuted Jewish population during the Holocaust period where more than 90% of the population of Thessaloniki disappeared, a rate of population loss among the highest in a European city, in fact the Thessaloniki its future. Imagine how different the region would have been if, after the war, in the decades that followed, there had been a strong European community in Thessaloniki with international connections, multilingualism, education, trade networks and an economic demon. The Holocaust was not only a blow to the Jewish community, which never recovered, but also to all of Greece and the wider region. Much of what is happening today could easily have been avoided if the Holocaust had not intervened."

Anti-Semitism today

Regarding the rise of anti-Semitism in the period we are going through due to the Israel-Hamas conflict and Israel's bloody military operation in Gaza, he comments that the rise of anti-Semitism, according to the relevant research, took place from the first hours of the attack Hamas before Israel's operation even began. "I am saddened when developments in the Middle East create anti-Semitism outside of that region. One could say that this anti-Semitism has to do with Israel's offensive defense policies that it is currently conducting. Of course, the rhetoric of anti-Semitism has intensified and increased on social media since October 7, the day of the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians. Anti-Semitism did not wait for the reaction of the State of Israel to flare up," Leon Saltiel tells us.

The historian emphasizes: "What I want to say is that anti-Semitism, no matter how much one tries to rationalize it by trying to give it political motives, is an irrational attitude to life, a conspiracy which always finds the Jew as the scapegoat, the different, the stranger, the other and attributes to him all the evils of humanity. From this point of view, anti-Semitism is not a phenomenon that concerns only Jews. As we saw some years ago with the actions of Golden Dawn in Greece, anti-Semitism in Greece does not only threaten the Jews but the entire Greek democracy, it threatens the rule of law. So anti-Semitism is not exclusively an issue that should concern only the European community, but should concern all democratic states. And many European democracies have understood this."

Holocaust Museum

However, when it comes to Greece and the return to light of the centuries-old Greek-Jewish history, Leon Saltiel is optimistic. Another proof, the Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki, which after years of delays due to bureaucratic difficulties, is on track for construction in the coming months. "This project has been adopted by both left-wing and right-wing governments in Greece, so it does not divide the Greek political world, but instead unites it, and this should be emphasized," notes Saltiel.

"The issue of the Jews of Greece was forgotten," he emphasizes. "Essentially, the Holocaust of the Greek Jews fell into the corners of history. In recent years, thanks to the research of historians, the contribution of Yiannis Boutaris in Thessaloniki, the efforts of the Greek government but also the tightening of relations between Greece and Israel and the arrival of many tourists from America and other countries, there is a general revival of interest in the history of Greek-Jewish culture, which paves the way for more actions to record and preserve this memory, but also to defend and perpetuate it".

SOURCE: THE STEP, of Antas Daliakas 27.1.2024