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The first deportation of Jews took place in the territories controlled by Bulgaria

27 October 2014 / 22:10:06  GRReporter
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Anastasia Balezdrova

On 28 October Greece celebrates its second important national holiday, namely the day when in 1940 Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas responded negatively to the ultimatum issued by Italy. It said that Greece must allow the Axis forces to enter the country and take strategic positions. Otherwise, a war would have been declared on it.

In his memoirs published in 1945 ambassador Emanuele Grazzi describes the scene. "I told him, "Mr. Prime Minister, I was ordered to tell you something" and gave him the document. I was watching the excitement in his eyes and hands. With a firm voice and looking into my eyes, Metaxas said, "This means war." I replied that this could be avoided. He replied, "No". I added that if General Papagos... Metaxas interrupted me and said, "No". ("ohi" in Greek which is why the holiday is known as "Ohi Day"). At 5:30 am the same day, Italy attacked the Greek border crossings and Greece was officially involved in World War II.

On the verge of the 44th anniversary of the events, GRReporter presents to its readers an interview about the events of the last phase of the conflict, namely the fate of Greek Jews. We spoke on the subject with historian from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki Maria Kavala. She is a lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science and her subject of study is "The Holocaust and the Historical Memory" and "Anti-Semitism in the 20th Century."

The Mayor of Thessaloniki has recently announced that a Holocaust museum will be established in the city. Why should there be such a museum in Thessaloniki?

This is because 96% of the largest Jewish community in Greece, namely that in Thessaloniki, numbering 50,000 out of 70-75,000 people throughout the country, disappeared during the years of the German occupation and under the operation "Final Solution". Thus, the percentage of Greek victims of the Holocaust against Jews in Europe is one of the highest among the Western countries. Perhaps the time has come for that past of the city, which was suppressed for decades (until 1990), to become its history and be presented in a museum.

There were Jews in Thessaloniki even in the 2nd century BC. They spoke Greek and partly Hebrew and Aramaic. Ashkenazi Jews, who came from the north, settled in the city in 1376, and after 1492, Thessaloniki became one of the major sanctuaries for Sephardic Jews who were coming from Spain. During the Ottoman period, the millet of Jews marked significant progress. When the city joined the Greek state in 1912, the Jewish population began to decline amidst confronting national interests. In 1912, its number was 62,000 out of a total population of 150,000 people, and shortly before World War II, Salonika Jews numbered 50,000 out of 250,000 inhabitants. Gradually, they became a minority in Greece. It was not the result of just a religious and national process, but of a political and cultural assimilation. Shortly before World War II, the community in Thessaloniki continued to be the largest in Greece. It had changed somewhat in cultural terms, many of its members were poor and some were economically powerful but all of them had problematic relations with the new inhabitants of Thessaloniki, namely the Greek refugees who came from Asia Minor in 1922. During the years of Metaxas’ dictatorship (1936-1941) and during World War I the conflicts between them decreased to a certain extent. But the subsequent occupation by the Nazis, their settlement in the city and their racist theories, fanatical anti-Semitism, their economic ambitions and the way in which they benefited from the contradictions in Thessaloniki and Greek society in the period between the two world wars marked the beginning of the end of the Jewish communities in Greece, as was the case in the rest of Europe.

Was the fate of Salonika Jews irreversible? Was there a way to save them?

It is difficult to answer this question... I think that every event in history "bears the stamp of a situation" as Marc Bloch said first.

In Thessaloniki, there was a combination of factors that contributed towards this result. Jews in the city were a minority, which was already apparent in a hostile environment, especially after the arrival of refugees. The existing 'national' fears of some of the Greek institutions that cooperated with the occupiers (the "Bulgarian danger" was already on the doorstep of the city) combined with the anti-Semitic stereotypes, the economic interests of the collaborators of the occupiers and of some of Thessaloniki's residents; the passive indifference of the majority of the citizens towards "the other"; the skilful use of differences from the period between the two world wars and of national issues by the German authorities; the confidence of Jews in the Chief Rabbi and the unity of the community, the lack of awareness of what was going to happen, the close family ties - these were some of the factors that contributed towards saving a small part of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki.  

Things did not develop in this way in other cities with Jewish communities. In the Bulgarian occupation zone (and unlike the refused protection of Jews in Bulgaria that seems to have been the result of pressure on the part of society and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church but not a central political choice), there was an agreement to deliver to the Germans Jews from the Aegean region (i.e. from the occupied areas of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace). The first deportation of Jews, Greek citizens, from the occupied Greek territory took place in the area controlled by Bulgaria in February 1943, as stated by Vassilis Ritzaleos.

Italians, on the other hand, had a completely different view on the issue and the reasons for this should be sought in the previous attitude of the Italian government and society both towards the Jewish communities and Jews with Italian citizenship. From the outset, they banned all measures against Jews in their area of control, thus presenting the Germans with a serious problem. There are indications that the Italian diplomats tried to help Jews in the German occupation zone to go to the Italian one, but the establishment of historical truth requires further study into the diplomatic and other archives. By September 1943, the Italian occupation zones were a refuge for persecuted Jews.

What was the social and economic profile of Salonika Jews?

The legendary "rich Jews" were in fact a social group with a full social stratification and so were the other inhabitants of Thessaloniki. "Many, many Jews of all classes," state their Christian neighbours in their modern narratives. The processing of economic data from the last census shows that there was a powerful economic class and it comprised about 10% of the total Jewish population. The property of these people exceeded the sum of two million drachmas. By comparison, an average-sized house cost 70,000 drachmas at the time. 15% of Salonika Jews were wealthy whereas 50% of people belonged to the middle and lower social strata. 25% were very poor, and their main assets were simple household items.

Was there an attempt from the other residents, from civic and religious organizations to save them?

When SS officer Dieter Vislicheni began to implement the racial measures, he wanted to disband the intermarriages between Jews and Greeks that were around 80-90 in Thessaloniki at that time in order to ensure that no Jew would remain unaffected by them. Then, Thessaloniki Metropolitan Gennady, chief governor of Macedonia Basilios Simonidis, humanitarian organizations and individuals who were personally affected sent protest letters to the German authorities. In the event, the order for disbanding the mixed marriages was withdrawn. Some of the participants were apprehended in a station in the Athens suburb of Haidari, where some of them were killed and the rest were released in 1944.

The attempt organized by the association of the disabled from the Albanian front was collective too. They appeared in the SS headquarters and made ​​a request to the Nazis not to deport those Jews with whom they had fought together in Albania. Instead of receiving a reply, they were threatened that the response to all such "Jew-friendly initiatives" would be mass executions. The experience from the fighting and war had created feelings that connected the community of the city but there was not enough time for them to mature.

In the creation of the Greek National Liberation Front (EAM) in September 1941 two members of the central committee, namely D. Marangos and lawyer Ilias Kefalidis, visited Dr. Korets (chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki) and offered him cooperation, but he refused because he believed that the path of obedience was the safest. 5,000 Jews however accepted the proposal and they were transported from Thessaloniki with the help of employees in the railways. There were more proposals for cooperation in other specific cases too, and some of those Jews who joined the battle on the side of EAM tried to attract others but without much success. Around 10,000 people in total fled from the city, many of whom were arrested in other cities or returned to Thessaloniki, when the racial measures were enforced. The study of the resistance movement and its help to the Jewish population, as well as the participation of Greek Jews in it has recently started. We expect works such as that by Rica Benveniste to shed light on many details that have been unexplored to date.

At the same time, and despite the fact that the relations between the Greek Orthodox Church and Jews were complex and full of conflicts, many priests expressed opinions in favour of Jews in their sermons to the laity. Many Christians proposed saving Jewish children by adoption, but the attitudes in their families forced them to give up. There were cases of Christians who helped Jewish families to hide or escape to the Italian occupation zone. Some attempts were successful, others not.

At the last moment, in March 1943, shortly before the start of the deportations, in a letter to Prime Minister Logotetopoulos, the Bar Association of Thessaloniki proposed the relocation of Jews to a remote location in the country. However, governor of the region of Macedonia Vassilios Simonidis did not support the proposal. At the same time, in Athens, political leaders, along with other prominent members of society submitted a request to the Prime Minister, which bore the signatures of party leaders. All these protest letters can be determined as awareness at the last moment in terms of what was happening, as an expression of human feelings towards Jews, but also of a fear of violation of every principle and rule on personal safety, property and on the lives of citizens, which applied even in times of war. This probably raised fears in society in general.

The degree of acceptance in every community, of solidarity, or its lack, on the part of the local communities, authorities and the church, the emergence of the local resistance movement, the humanity of the representatives of the German authorities in some regions - all played their role in the salvation of Jews or in the failure thereof. But the Nazi machine was too strong to be stopped by separate attempts, and the Greek government that was cooperating with the occupiers at that time and its various representatives did not take common political actions to solve the problem for two reasons. This was because they did not have the political experience to draw up such a plan on the one hand and did not intend to do so, on the other, although this concerned Jews, Greek citizens. Here we can see some political choices associated with the use of the property of Jews.

Have the personal stories of those Jews who were sent to concentration camps been studied in depth?

I will try to summarize, without being exhaustive. The attempts at the international level began in the 1980s. Documentary "Shoah" by Claude Lantsman is both a turning point in the description of oral testimony about the Holocaust and a proposal for consideration of its history "from the bottom up", i.e. of social history. In the Greek bibliography, Odette Varon-Vassard and Rica Benveniste very thoroughly present how the tentative interest in the subject began in the 1980s, after the publication of the first evidence of the events. In the 1990s, we witnessed a boom in the interest in both the publishing of books containing personal stories of people and books describing the historical events. Authors of the most valuable works are Frangiski Abatzopulu and the late Alberto Nar.

In recent years, there has been a systematic attempt on the part of the group for the study of the history of Jews in Greece to organize the oral narratives of Greek Jews, which is carried out within the context of the research programme of the Latsis Foundation. Their task is to describe and archive video and audio materials containing testimony and to create a database on We are talking about at least 800 recordings. The main audiovisual archives that preserve the testimonies of Greek Jews, Holocaust survivors, are the archive of oral testimonies of the Jewish Museum of Greece, the archive of oral testimonies in the Department of History, Archaeology and Social Anthropology of the University of Thessaly, the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, the Holocaust archive of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the archive of USC Shoah Foundation - The Institute for Visual History and Education, and the Yad Vashem Archives.

However, now a programme initiated by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is underway in Greece within which many Greek scholars and historians are recording the testimonies of Christians, fellow citizens of Jews, who witnessed the deportations. This is precisely because the witnesses contribute towards the interruption of the linear story, offer alternative interpretations and bring their findings into question, while keeping the variations.

What about the property of Greek Jews from that time until the present day?

It is hard to answer in terms of today because I do not have enough data.

According to the register of property declarations of 1943, without excluding the possibility of undeclared data, the movable and immovable property of Jews amounted to about 11 billion drachmas or 11 million English sovereigns, the amount of real estate being 1 billion drachmas. The overall plan of the occupying government was to provide, through the management service of the property of the people of Israel, the capital of the recently deported Jews to 50,000 Greek citizens, refugees from various categories. The Greek government that was cooperating with the occupiers was trying to improve its image in the context of the ongoing Bulgarian occupation and the unresolved problem of refugees by providing them with houses and shops. The German authorities were following the meetings of the committee and the Greek refugees were often neglected in order for associates of the Germans or relatives of committee members to benefit. The squandering of Jews’ property continued in different ways and the study of this issue is in progress. The issue is developed in the works of authors such as Stratos Dordanas, Gabriela Etmektsoglu, Christos Hatziyosif and Stella Salem, but it has not yet been investigated in its integrity.

Just two days before the withdrawal of the German troops from Athens Ioannis Rallis government issued a law that transformed the service into a central service for the liquidation and the provision of property of the people of Israel. Obviously, this was another attempt to legalize an illegal procedure.

This apparent legitimacy continued during the government of George Papandreou, which passed a law on the management and the return of property to its owners, but its implementation was quite problematical. While the official policy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was to connect the Jewish issue with the passage of national interests (German reparations, etc.) at the operational level, the Greek military, judges and police officers did not press the Greek citizens to hand over the confiscated property. For its part, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs attempted to delay, or hamper, the repatriation of Greek Jews who survived the Nazi camps. The first government of Themistoklis Sofoulis issued forced Law 846 of 22 January 1946, which cancelled for Jews the order of the civil law that, in the absence of heirs, the deceased's property would automatically pass to the state. The practical application of the law, however, began only three years later with the publication of the Royal Decree of 29 March 1949, which established the office for assistance and rehabilitation of the people of Israel in Greece. According to recently known data, only 300 houses and 50 shops were returned to their owners.

The continuation of the study of the archives of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, the management service of the assets of the people of Israel in Greece, the office for assistance and rehabilitation of the people of Israel in Greece, the property registers in Thessaloniki and Athens, the bank records, the archives of factories and companies of that time and the additional research in the British archives could give answers to these questions and connect the fragments of the complex and often unexpected puzzle of the economy during the Occupation and provide data on the dispersion of the property of Jews and on the social and political processes in that era. The economic activity during the occupation was anyway very complex and multifaceted. Big capital was in circulation in the black market and industrialists and businessmen were widely speculating.

How many of the surviving Jews returned to Thessaloniki or settled in other countries?

About 2,000 from a total of 50,000 Salonika Jews returned. 1,000 of them survived the concentration camps and the rest descended from the mountain or returned from other locations in Greece, where they were hiding during the occupation.

Of 31 Jewish communities before the war, now there are only 8 in Greece, and their members are few.

The number of surviving Jews from all over Greece was about 10-12,000 (compared to 70-75,000 before the war). Many of them emigrated to Israel and the United States, and around 6,000 remained in Greece.  

Today, the Jewish community in Thessaloniki has less than 6,000 members.

How would you comment on the fact that, so many years after World War II and the revelations of terror in concentration camps, anti-Semitism in Europe continues to be so strong?

Anti-Semitism and other ideologies of exclusion and discrimination can be very durable, but they change at the same time. They retain elements of the past and become enriched with new ones, depending on the epoch.

The historical approach helps us to understand this process. The hatred of Jews preceded the modern era and the emergence of the term anti-Semitism, which is a creation of the modern era and the end of the 19th century. This particular category of hatred contains mostly religious elements. The dominance of Christianity, the conflict between the Church and heresy, the Inquisition, the anti-heretic theoretical arsenal that was hiding political rivalries also explain the attitudes toward Jews and other minority groups such as lepers, homosexuals and witches.

Respectively, the modern world, the revolutions of the late 19th century (the French one, the revolutions of 1848, etc.), the end of empires and aristocracy, science, colonies, parliamentarism, but also nationalism, the Jewish emancipation and the first crisis of liberal economics with the subsequent conservative retreat, the October Revolution, World War I, the crisis in 1929, fascism and Nazism, can explain the racist - for the first time - anti-Semitism, the identification of Jews with capitalism, and later with Bolshevism. An identification that presents them as a reason for the plight of European societies, both because of economic and social reasons, and because of the presence of an ideological foundation created by the pre-existing religious Anti-Judaism.

In our era, with the knowledge and tools at our disposal, it is necessary to decipher ideologies, practices and ways of isolation.

Do you think there is a danger for humanity to experience a new Holocaust or another similar genocide?

If we talk about genocide carried out in a similar way, probably not. However, after World War II, there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of crimes directed against national, ethnic or religious groups with thousands of victims.

In today's era of profound crisis in Europe and the world, genocide, a mass crime or a policy that leads to mass deaths can often be presented as a restoration of order, or defending the safety from the immigrant, Jew, 'unbelievers', neighbouring people, from every "other" person.

Let us think of, and look for, the motives whenever something similar happens, investigate who has an interest in it, without relying on the easy explanation that the case is about scapegoats.


Tags: HistoryOhi DayIoannis MetaxasWorld War IIGreek JewsThessalonikiDeportationOccupationGerman authoritiesBulgarian authorities
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