Jerusalem of the Balkans

The Greek city of Thessaloniki had 53,000 Jewish residents before the German occupation in World War II. The vast majority was murdered in Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor. Less than 2,000 survived. My friends Eleftheria and Tsako showed me some of the places where the heritage of the once largest ethnic group of the city is still visible.

Thessaloniki was once known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans. When the city became part of Greece after the Balkan wars in 1913, a census found Jews as the by far largest ethnic group in the city. The majority were Sephardi Jews whose ancestors had fled Spain in 1492 and received asylum in the Ottoman Empire.

On Sunday morning my friends Eleftheria and Tsako picked me up at the hotel where I was going to attend a conference. The sun was shining and there were spring-like 18° C – far better than in Germany when I left a day before. We went up to Ano Polis – the old town of Thessaloniki, surrounded by Byzantine city walls. I had heard of the Jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki, one of the largest in Europe with estimated 500,000 burials. But this cemetery does not exist any more. It was vandalized during the German occupation and finally destroyed in 1946 when its territory was built over with the local university. Tombs were destroyed and tombstones given away as construction material.

Some in particular beautiful surviving tombstones are now in the small but nice Jewish museum; more are at the new Jewish cemetery. “Do you want to see them?”, Tsako asked.

At the new Jewish cemetery are two memorials. One is dedicated to Jewish soldiers who fell in World War I, the second one is dedicated to those who died in the Holocaust. But what touched me the most were graves of survivors with engraved registration numbers of Auschwitz concentration camp – once tattooed on human arms. Fragments of tombstones from the old cemetery are everywhere – laying on the ground or leaning on walls. While the old stones have mainly Hebrew inscriptions, the new ones are a mix of Hebrew, Greek, Ladino and French. “This is because we are multi-cultural”, said Tsako.

When we approached to the synagogue and the Jewish museum, we passed a neighborhood called Ladadika. The place consists mainly of small houses, once with shops inside. Now there are mainly bars and restaurants. It looks quite picturesque. “My grandfather used to have a shop here”, Tsako told me. “When he returned after the war, the shop had been taken over by somebody else and was never handed back”, he said. “The survivors returned to a hostile environment.”

Today the Jewish-Greek relations are much better. “The Jewish community is more open today”, Tsako stated. One of the reasons might be Thessaloniki’s mayor Yannis Boutaris, who values and promotes the multi-ethnic past and present of the city. There are plans for a Holocaust museum in the area of the former ghetto.

Another topic remains unresolved. By the German occupants confiscated Jewish property was never compensated.

Thank you, Eleftheria and Tsako, for guiding me!

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