What is the story of Jews of Thessaloniki and what places today tell us of what happened during the Holocaust? The history of the city – intended to become “Greek” and “Christian” after its annexation to Greece – has heavily contributed to the extent of extermination of Thessaloniki Jews during WW2 and the consequences are still visible in today’s society. Symbiosis radio interviewed Giannis Glarnetatzis, historian and guide of the Holocaust remembrance walk by the Thessaloniki Antiracist Initiative. [Listen to the full podcast in Greek below]
Antonis Gazakis (AG): Giannis, tell us a few words about the idea of the Holocaust remembrance walk in Thessaloniki.
Giannis Glarnetatzis (GG): It was the fourth time we had this walk. As Thessaloniki Antiracist Initiative, we started those walks in 2013 – at my own initiative, since I generally organise history walks in the city. It all started because, if until the 2012 elections someone could claim that racism or antisemitism in Greece was a marginal phenomenon, after that no one could say that anymore. We have a clearly Nazi political party that reached 6-7%, and is third in the Parliament. We can no longer afford to bury our heads in the sand. Until then, we could, as a society – not us, of course, who have monitored the phenomenon for many years now –hide and say “things are not that bad”, “let’s not push it further.” When we saw that the phenomenon became so widely expressed – antisemitism, racism and xenophobia are not limited to the voters of Golden Dawn, since if there are so many clearly positioned, the total rates should be much higher – we started this effort to better understand what happened back at that time.
Of course, a three-hour walk is not enough to come to know the history of Holocaust, but that is not our purpose. The purpose is to intrigue the participants, to give them an idea and a sense of the locality of the phenomenon, of all the incidents that took place here – not only in Auschwitz that most of us know from films and documentaries.
"Auschwitz was the end, while the story began here. Here people were concentrated in the ghetto, here they were arrested, tortured and boarded trains to Auschwitz".
So, we try to get an idea about places that still exist today, as well as others which do not exist anymore. For instance, right after the Old Railway Station, our point of departure, we head to Stavros Voutiras and Sapfous streets, where the Baron Hirsch settlement was located. What has started as a settlement for Jewish refugees of the Czarist pogroms and the Corfu pogrom of 1891, turned into a settlement where the poor Jewish population lived and in 1943 it was used as the hub before the Station where the Jews were gathered to depart. There is nothing left there, yet the streets have the same names as then. Moving forward, we enter the Bara area.
AG: Although the Jewish presence is in no case evident anymore, the areas included in the walk maintain their social character. The Voutira neighborhood is still an area where poor Roma families live; and the Bara area, between Lagada and Monastiriou streets, is where brothels have been operating until very recently, and, although close to the city centre, it remains quite deprived. As you told us during the walk, those areas were also d back in the time and it was the very poor Jews who used to live there. As we move closer to the city centre, how is the presence of Jews and all that happened reflected there? Is there anything to reveal the Jewish presence, the ghetto or anything relevant?
GG: Unfortunately, the signs are very few – signs that someone would struggle to notice – but this falls within the framework of the guided walk. The main sign is the Monasteriotes' Synagogue, the only pre-war synagogue to survive. Of the approximately 40 synagogues in Thessaloniki, only few of them – including the Beth Saul Synagogue, the largest in the city – were destroyed during the Occupation. Most of them decayed right after the Occupation, due to the lack of Jewish people to preserve them. Many were sold; others have been trespassed and demolished while others have been left in abandonment.
The only one to remain was the Monasteriotes' Synagogue, built in 1926. Many traces were lost not only because of the Jewish people's extermination during the Occupation. This destruction continued after the war, not against people, but rather against their culture and history. Many buildings, including the Jewish cemetery, have been destroyed.
The Holocaust Monument in the central Liberty Square states a few things, but it is very recent, as is the city’s tribute in the remembrance of the Jewish genocide. Let’s not forget that the monument was built in 1997 in the Jewish refugees' square, a much less central place, and it was later transferred to its current location in 2004. So, there are only few visible marks; we need to look into books and online in order to find pictures and places related to the Jewish presence.
AG: How, and to what extent, does Thessaloniki (i.e. the authorities or the mainly Christian population), remember both the history of the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz and their presence in the city since it was founded, in the 4th Century BC?
GG: This issue has to do with the history of the city and how it has been perceived by the Greek administration: specifically because Thessaloniki “should” become “Greek”, the Greek government’s authority should be justified also on the basis of the history of the city. This is the reason why, from the moment Thessaloniki came under the Greek State’s authority [Thessaloniki was under Ottoman rule until 1912], there has been an emphasis on its byzantine period (that was indeed important and should be brought out); while for the same reason, the minarets of the city were destroyed during the 1920s, after an official decree was issued. The Muslim residents were already gone by 1924, according to the exchange of populations’ agreement.
"Since the beginning, there was an intention to reduce, if not to eliminate, any trace of other cultures, ethnicities, religions, in order to feature the “Christian-Greek” legacy of Thessaloniki".
That was particularly evident during the decades after the civil war [1946-49]: in this “emergency” state in Greece, especially Thessaloniki, this model of extreme nationalism was reproduced. According to this, other ethnicities, other religions, or “the others” in general, were omitted from the history of Thessaloniki or restricted to a small part of it. This has left strong marks.
I believe this changed slightly during the 1990s, but we still have a long way ahead of us to develop the concept of understanding of the past. Let’s not forget that a few years ago, the previous municipal authority refused the participation of Thessaloniki into the Network of Martyr Cities, because, according to them, Jews were not considered as citizens and their Holocaust did not take place there! Even more recently, there have been some efforts, under ludicrous excuses, to erase that memory and, unfortunately, I think that the majority of the citizens today are not aware of things related to the Jewish presence here – they are only aware of the Holocaust, which is more or less common knowledge. It is knowledge repressed to a great extent.
There is also the issue of responsibility: the Nazis committed the crime, but they had accomplices. The people, and their collaborators, who took Jewish properties, made money out of them, not only remained unpunished, but even in the many cases where they were convicted by the Special Collaborators Tribunal, they were later rewarded and participated in the core of the post-war state and parastate. As a result, all they had done was buried really deep.
If the city and its citizens want to have consciousness of their history, they should foster the remembrance of all the communities who lived or still live here, such as Muslims and Jews.
AG: Is there an intention to erase and forget this part of the past? Do you believe this occurs because of the continuous apparent or latent antisemitism of the local society?
GG: Exactly. There are many examples showcasing the peculiarity of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, even after the accession of the city into the Greek state. Back then, the Jewish community, in numbers as well as in social and economic relevance, was so strong that cannot be simply disregarded – but even when it stopped being the most numerous community of the city, [after the exchange of populations and the arrival of Greek refugees from Asia Minor]. There had been contradictions between the Greek-orthodox and the Jewish populations since the period of the Ottoman ruling, and they escalated even more under the Greek administration.
During the mid-war, we cannot refer to the local antisemitism as a marginal phenomenon. Incidents such as the pogrom and the arson of the Campbell settlement in 1931, organized by the parastate nationalist group EEE (National Union “Hellas” – Ethniki Enosis “Ellas”) would prove us wrong. This was the worst of a series of attacks against Jews in the summer of 1931 in Thessaloniki, and started from a campaign run by the largest newspaper of the city, “Makedonia”, that accused Jews of supporting the independence of the region of Macedonia in a Maccabi conference in Sofia, and saw them as traitors. This hostility is not something new. From my research in the mid-war newspapers I discovered that there had not been a single week that “Makedonia” had not printed an antisemitic front page! The newspaper’s antisemitism against the Jews at that time was impressive. Of course there were other newspapers too, centrist or right wing, that had antisemitic moments, but “Makedonia” was intimidating.
AG: What do you mean by “antisemitic front pages”? Were they directed against Jews as people in general or against the Jewish community of the city on the pretext of local issues?
GG: For instance, at the time of elections during the mid-war, those who had not been elected were accusing the Jews, through the newspapers they controlled, for not voting for them. This happened because there was institutional antisemitism too, expressed in the law for separate electoral departments only for the Jews of Thessaloniki – not for the Jews of other Greek cities! Moreover, any triggering event, such as an article published abroad complaining for something that had happened in Thessaloniki, had as a result the accusation of Jews of calumniating the “democratic” and “liberal” Greece as antisemitic.
AG: So, you believe that “Makedonia” newspaper and the local press played a significant role towards the formulation and strengthening of the antisemitic sentiment of a part of the citizens, such as, for example, EEE?
GG: Absolutely. Any EEE member was accepted as partner by the Nazi during the Occupation, since they had been drawing inspiration from the two major Nazi ideas: antisemitism and anti-communism. The antisemitic sentiment built up in Thessaloniki with the major press confluence played a significant role in the dreadful extent of the Holocaust in Thessaloniki [more than 90% of Jews in the city are estimated to be killed], especially if compared to the rest of the country.
"These conditions could not possibly encourage strong bonds between Christians and Jews, in order for Jews to receive, in the crucial moment, the necessary help to be saved".
This, on the contrary, happened in Athens and Chalkida were, a year later, a large extent of the Jewish community was saved for many reasons, including the mobilisation of Christians. In Thessaloniki there have been only few exceptions of families who hid Jews, while others went to the mountains and became guerillas.
The relationship between the two communities was numb, to say the least. For instance, when the Nazis gathered Jewish men in Liberty square, officially to enlist them for forced labor, but in fact to humiliate them in public, there had been no reaction by the Christian community […]: neither some resolution coming from associations, nor even a protest against the Nazis for treating their fellow citizens this way. On the contrary, there had been incidents revealing the existent animosity, as well as certain behaviors and actions against the Jews well before the Nazis. One of them was the exclusion of Jews from commercial associations or the changes of Jewish street names, decided by the then quisling municipal authority before Jews were cast out of the city. The main problem was then the apathy of the majority of the Christian population: they did not help at all in the rescue of more Jews of the city.
AG: After the Holocaust and the end of the war, was the attitude of the local community and the press against the Jews any changed? Was there any effort of reconciliation or at least of remembrance?
GG: Right after the war, the Holocaust was an issue of discussion, although still in the framework of not admitting responsibility: Nazis were considered the only responsible for what happened, in order to cover up their local partners’ responsibility as well those who gained profits. After that, there was a period of silence and detachment, as happened in the rest of Europe. There were only some isolated references to something that happened to a few citizens, who were not considered the core of the city, and therefore it was not judged as our concern. This has started to change in the last two decades.
AG: In the Athenian press there are examples of strong antisemitism, such as the daily's “Elefteri Ora” articles. Could you tell us if there are similar examples in the local press?
GG: There has been no local press in Thessaloniki in the last years, with the exception of “Makedonia”. The silence over this issue is rather due to the fact that, as Makedonia, the main and only newspaper of the city, cannot take extreme positions. On the other hand, even when there were more newspapers in the city, the dominant attitude towards Jews was silence and cover up.
"However nowadays, apart from the newspapers, there are plenty of books sold and bought, which either contain antisemitic hints or they are clearly antisemitic".
And I can tell that for sure, as I work in a central bookstore of the city. Those books may be separately considered as marginal, yet collectively they cannot be considered as such anymore. Unfortunately, antisemitism is present in the Greek bibliography more than we think. Same happens in the internet, which promotes not only the dissemination of knowledge but also the dissemination of nonsense, and we can often read antisemitic opinions on far-right or conspiracy-theories websites.
AG: Is there any worthy counterweight?
GG: There is, absolutely, and it has grown in the last few years, thanks to both Greeks and immigrants, Christians or Jews, who produce studies, articles and books on the Jewish presence in Thessaloniki and the Holocaust of Greek Jews. It also seems that the audience is more receptive too, judging not only from the circulation of those books, but from the people’s participation in our walks, for instance, which steadily increases every year. There also seems to be an engagement of many young people online or in groups on Facebook related to the local history, in the framework of which we can see a more specific interest in the history of the Jewish part of the city.
AG: Do you believe that this silence on the fate of Jews played some role in the development of the antisemitic phenomenon in Greece?
GG: The silence, as well as the unusual presentation of the history of Occupation in Greece (as many of those who cooperated with the Nazis remained unpunished or were even rewarded) led to the tolerance towards the Nazi crimes in the country and contributed in the development of such an extreme fascist phenomenon. The establishment of Golden Dawn in the Greek political scene in the last years is, in my opinion, a result of the nationalist and racist perception of history that prevailed in the country after the war. This was previously hidden inside major political parties, but after the collapse of the clientelistic system, it developed as clear and autonomous.
AG: So, do you believe that this is related to the high rates of Golden Dawn, eventually not far from its final rates on national level, both here, where a great part of the city population was lost, and in other regions where there were many victims of the Nazi?
GG: Yes, after the war the common attitude was either silence or the perception that what had happened, had happened somewhere else, and to someone else. The dominant pompously nationalistic and conservative perception of historiography was that as long as it didn’t pertain to Greek Christians, it didn’t pertain to the city either. But this has changed, although it’s going to take long time to perceive the Holocaust of the Thessaloniki Jews as a trauma in the history of the city and not as an incident alone.