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Greece: Thessaloniki grapples with Holocaust taboo

The deportation of Jews from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz began 75 years ago. The horrific event was long shrouded in a veil of silence, due in large part to widespread anti-Semitism in Greece. DW's Florian Schmitz reports.

On the University of Thessaloniki's campus, there is a memorial to the Greek victims of the Holocaust. It was built in 2014 — very late for a city once known as the "Jerusalem of the Balkans."

"There are still people in Thessaloniki who don't know that the campus used to be part of the Jewish cemetery," says filmmaker Lydia Konsta.

Read more: How Greece is combating widespread anti-Semitism

The cemetery was destroyed during the Nazi German occupation. This was done in cooperation with the city's administration, who were pursuing goals of their own. Large parts of Thessaloniki had been destroyed by fire in 1917 and the Jewish gravestones were to be used for the remaining repairs. Thus, one of the world's largest Jewish cemeteries disappeared into the streets, sidewalks and churches of the city.

Part of Jewish gravestone embedded in Thessaoloniki sidewalk (DW/F. Schmitz)

To this day, parts of headstones from Jewish cemeteries can be found embedded in sidewalks around Thessaloniki

Obliterated and forgotten 

Until the early 20th century, half of Thessaloniki's population was Jewish. Most of the numerous synagogues and Jewish shops were destroyed in the 1917 fire. Jews settled in city as early as the 7th century. The apostle Paul, on his second missionary journey, preached in the Etz-Achaim synagogue, which was also destroyed in the fire. In the 15th century, Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain settled in Thessaloniki, shaping its cultural life for centuries.

Read more: The 'good German doctor' who saved Greek lives during WWII occupation

Lydia Konsta only found out about all this at the end of the 1980s. Thessaloniki's Jewish heritage was neither remembered in school lessons, nor in the urban landscape. And the fate of the city's Jewish citizens was also suppressed. "After the suffering of the occupation, they simply wanted to forget everything that had to do with the war," Lydia Konsta says.

According to historian Rena Molho, many Nazi collaborators benefited from the extermination of Greek Jews. Valuable real estate changed hands after the war.

Holocaust memorial in Thessaloniki (DW/F. Schmitz)

A Holocaust memorial for Thessaloniki's Jewish community was built in 2014

Ninety-seven percent of Thessaloniki's Jews died in the Holocaust. Then came the veil of silence over the city, where even today there is hardly any talk about who supported the German occupying forces in their expulsion and annihilation of the Jews.

Coming to terms with the Holocaust

Giannis Boutaris, the acting mayor of Thessaloniki, was the first to change this post-war reticence. He approached the nearly 1,000 members of the Jewish community who now live in the city. Since 2013, the city and its Jewish community have been organizing a memorial march to commemorate the deportation of Thessaloniki's Jews. A Holocaust museum is being built, half financed by Germany, to inform future generations about aspects of Nazi terrors that have so far received little attention in history lessons.

"To this day, many Greeks still ask themselves why they should care about the Holocaust. That's a problem for the Jews," says Rena Molho. "But it is quite simple — the Holocaust was an injustice — the greatest injustice. Those who do not acknowledge this will fail to take other cases of injustice so seriously."

The many victims' associations in Greece use the term "Holocaust" in connection with the cruel massacres committed by the Nazis, in which non-Jews were also killed. "The Jews were killed for the simple reason that they were born. Most others were killed for purely political reasons," says Molho. "A lot of people haven't understood this. And many still don't want to understand it. For me, that's anti-Semitism."

Holocaust memorial march in Thessaloniki (DW/F. Schmitz)

Every year since 2013 a march has been held commemorating the deportation of Thessaloniki's Jews

This form of anti-Semitism is sometimes openly expressed: "The Germans killed 360 people in my village," a retired teacher from Crete told DW, "but Hitler was right about the Jews. They still hold the world's power to this day, and they don't respect the crucifix." A 41-year-old animal keeper from Serres in northern Greece says: "Why should we deal with such stupidities as the Holocaust today? Anyway, the young generation has nothing against the Jews."  

A systemic problem

But the numbers appear to tell a different story. According to a worldwide survey by the Anti-Defamation League in 2014, anti-Semitism is more present in Greece than in any other European country. Seventy-four percent of those questioned said they think that Jews have "too much power in the world." Almost half, 47 percent, said that the Jews were "hated because of their own behavior." It is striking that, looking at the ages of those surveyed, younger people are generally no less anti-Semitic than older people.

Read more: Echoes of 1968 anti-Semitic campaign haunt Poland 50 years on

Conspiracy theories about Jews are also promoted by parts of the Greek Orthodox Church, says Molho. "There are metropolitan bishops such as Seraphim from Piraeus who make public anti-Semitic comments, and are neither discharged nor forced to resign. This shows the Church's position on this subject." In 2010, Seraphim said on television that Jews control the international banks.

Filmmaker Lydia Konsta (DW/F. Schmitz)

Filmmaker Lydia Konsta believes that ignoring Thessaloniki's Jewish past and the Holocaust has weighed heavily on the city

But not all Greeks are anti-Semites, says Molho, pointing out that there was a lot of help given to Jews by the Greek civilian population, especially during the occupation. The fact that the Greek Orthodox Church nowadays simply ignores anti-Semitic statements by high dignitaries points to a "fundamental systemic problem," says Molho.

Despite all the issues, Molho also sees that some things are changing — mostly through private initiatives. She is particularly hopeful about future generations. "Children listen to you and they believe you." And Lydia Konsta also firmly believes that "Thessaloniki must stop groping around in the dark. We must finally come to terms with who we really are. The city, as it is today, has a long and culturally diverse history." She thinks that the denial of its Jewish history has weighed heavily on Thessaloniki. "Someone who cannot acknowledge that half of the city's population used to be Jewish will never understand that it is also because of this, that the city is Greek."

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