Greece's slaughtered Jews

August 16, 1996

Mark Mazower commemorates a group of Holocaust victims so efficiently erased by the Nazis that little trace ofthem remains.

In Europe, some ghosts are more invisible than others. Millions of visitors flock to Greece each summer and wander through the ruins of Delphi and Olympia. How many are aware that the country once boasted some of the most distinguished and ancient Jewish communities in the world? Popular ignorance is compounded by scholarly neglect, for the story of Greek Jewry has been marginalised by both Greek and Jewish historians. Recently this has begun to change, prompted perhaps by Thessaloniki's designation as the next cultural capital of Europe. But the Nazi destruction of the great Jewish community of Salonika in particular remains for most people a relatively unknown chapter of the Holocaust.

Before the war Greece's Jewish communities may not have been large, but they included some of the oldest in Europe - the Greek-speaking congregations of central Greece and the islands - as well as those in the illustrious, proud and powerful city of Salonika. In this polyglot port - still under Ottoman rule as the century opened - the largest single ethnic group was the Jews who spoke Ladino, the medieval Spanish dialect they had brought with them on their expulsion from the Iberian peninsula over four centuries earlier. Even after the city became Greek in 1913 the Jews retained a strikingly powerful presence. "There are so few of them left now," a distinguished Greek writer lamented last year. "You won't find them spread over the town as they did before I very rich, sophisticated and cosmopolitan Jews and very poor Jews, carrying luggage at the port and the station."

In the space of a few months in early 1943, nearly 50,000 people were uprooted, deported to Auschwitz and killed. Their libraries, manuscripts and religious objects were ransacked by Nazi academics for the projected new Library for the Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt. Most of the city's numerous synagogues were despoiled by the German army, which blew them up or used them as stables - today only two survive. The Jewish cemetery outside the city was destroyed and the tombstones scattered. One still encounters them set in walls or pavements in the Old City; a heap used to lie in the yard of the beautiful Byzantine church of Agios Dimitrios. The Aristotelian University now extends over the ground where the cemetery lay.

The speed and efficiency of the destruction were breathtaking. It was organised by Adolf Eichmann and the SS with the assistance of the German army and diplomats. Although there was a tradition of tension between Greeks and Jews in the city, the Greek government played no role in the deportations and indeed offered some resistance, mild at first but more forceful later on. Yet the strength of the German military was enough to push through the Final Solution unaided. Thousands of Jews were herded into camps by the railway station and sent north.

A young Wehrmacht officer called Kurt Waldheim - the former president of Austria - was in the city at the time. Almost certainly he had nothing to do with the deportations themselves, but can he really - as he claims - have noticed nothing? Was it so easy to overlook the removal of a fifth of the city's population, with all the social problems and possibilities this offered?

What, for instance, was to happen to the properties and possessions left behind? This concern looms large in testimonies of that time: "The piano we gave to a neighbour who promised to look after it," writes Erika Counio, an Auschwitz survivor, in her recent memoir. "He promised to return it as soon as we got back. The photographer Melanides, a close friend of father's, agreed to keep an eye on the drawing-room." In fact, despite the formation of a special organisation charged with supervising the empty properties, looting and thieving occurred on a vast scale, public order broke down, and there were nightly shoot-outs in the deserted quarters of the city. Buildings were dismantled by people hunting for the valuables they believed the departing owners had secreted in the walls or foundations. Few empty apartments were ever given to the genuinely needy; most benefited Gestapo agents, German soldiers or highly placed notables. Thus the Holocaust generated numerous illicit and violent transfers of wealth.

A small number of Jews fled and went underground, joining the Greek resistance or surviving thanks to the solidarity of non-Jews. Peasants, islanders and others manifested a sort of spontaneous popular mobilisation against Nazi racism. On the island of Skopelos some villagers had so little idea of what a Jew was that they asked one refugee from Salonika: "You Jews, how do you cross yourselves"? It is not surprising that a Nazi official noted rather glumly in 1941 that "for the average Greek there is not a Jewish question".

This is not, of course, to say that there was no Greek anti-Semitism. But it was largely after the war that this manifested itself, chiefly in the form of obstacles placed in the path of survivors trying to reclaim their property. Even then, this was only a weaker echo of the recrudescence of anti-Semitism visible across Europe during the war. In comparison, Greece stands out for the extent of support lent by Christians to Jews. The Greek government was closer to the courageous position taken by the Danish state than to the collaborationist zeal of Vichy France, Slovakia or Croatia. The passions of the Greek civil war quickly buried memories of what had happened to the country's Jews. Some 80 per cent of the Jewish population had perished; the survivors quietly tried to rebuild their lives.

In the late 1950s, Max Merten, one of the German architects of the deportations, was arrested on a tourist visit and his trial reopened the whole story. But, supported by the West German foreign ministry which had set up a special legal affairs unit to protect war criminals who faced trial abroad, he was quickly extradited to Germany and released. Neither the Eichmann trial nor, more recently, the Waldheim affair, succeeded in resurrecting Salonika's lost Jewish history. Today, though, with the Bosnian war fresh in our minds, we hardly need to be persuaded of the importance of Europe's ethnic and religious minorities. Thanks to a new wave of scholarship, the ghosts of Greece's Jewish past are becoming a little more visible.

Mark Mazower is reader in history at the University of Sussex.

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