Salonika’s Jews were wiped out by the Nazis. Is their monument to disappear too?

Salonika’s Jews were wiped out by the Nazis. Is their monument to disappear too?

The few Jews left in what was for centuries one of the world's most flourishing communities fear its memory will soon be obliterated. It's not entirely clear that they're right

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Jews in Salonika registering at Libery Square in July 1942. (Bundesarchiv)
Jews in Salonika registering at Libery Square in July 1942. (Bundesarchiv)

The beginning of the end for Jews of Salonika took place in the ironically named Liberty Square (Platiaes Eleftherias). It was here that one scorching Shabbat in July 1942, 9,000 starving Jewish men aged 18-45 from the Greek city’s ghettos were forced at gunpoint to perform calisthenics to the delight of their Nazi guard onlookers.

Many died that day, and hundreds more in the weeks that followed from excruciating forced labor on brutal road construction in areas rife with malaria.

Today, that central Liberty Square houses Salonika’s sole Holocaust monument — recognition of the pivotal historical nature of this site for the once thriving Jewish community. Soon, though, that may change.

“There is no other Jewish monument in Salonika. There is no other place in Salonika more important and symbolic than Eleftherias Square. This square represents for Salonika’s Jews the Ground Zero area. That place is where everything started and finished,” Ilias Pessah, a young physician and political activist from Salonika, told The Times of Israel.

But the Salonika municipality recently announced a town renovation plan which would, according to the few remaining members of the Jewish community, effectively remove the Holocaust memorial, which is currently located next to a parking lot in the decrepit square. Say community leaders, the plan proposes to create one universal monument which would highlight important historic dates throughout the year, such as the massive 1917 fire that razed half the city, as well as the Holocaust.

It is unclear whether the current monument would be fully removed or merely sidelined to an even less desirable section of the square. The renovation’s plans have varied, say community leaders. (Despite repeated requests, Salonika Mayor Yiannis Boutaris’s office declined to officially respond to questions from The Times of Israel.)

Salonika Jews wonder why, when there are three monuments to Greek Orthodox Christians in the city, the sole Holocaust memorial cannot be made more central in the public square surrounded by cultural institutions in what was once the heart of a thriving Jewish community.

“We have proposed that if it be transported, it would be in the center of the square, where we will put also the names of the Jews who perished around it,” the president of Salonika’s Jewish community David Saltiel told The Times of Israel. As of this writing, Saltiel said the mayor’s office had not communicated its final decision.

Saltiel has drafted the support of international Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, which wrote letters to Mayor Boutaris urging the municipality to create a permanent place for the monument at Liberty Square.

Needless to say, the Holocaust monument is highly significant to the Jewish community. It represents a physical reminder, easily accessible to all passersby, of the almost total liquidation of a people who had populated the city for millennia.

Looking at contemporary Salonika’s Jewish community, it’s hard to believe the city was once the epicenter of Sephardic Jewry. There are records of Jews living there since 52 CE, and starting from the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, all the way through to 1923 — more than four centuries — Jews were the majority population in the multi-cultural city.

After strife with Turkey, including population exchanges in 1923 — Muslims were sent to Turkey, and Christians from Izmir to Greece — and a subsequent mass Jewish emigration, there were 60,000 Jews left by the time the Nazis rolled in on April 9, 1941. All were deported to Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor and most were killed.

Only 2,000 Jews survived the Holocaust to return to a city cleansed of their brethren, and which would no longer be called “Jewish.”

Today there are a mere thousand or so Jews living in Salonika and, like most Greek communities, this one too is struggling financially to maintain services as basic as its one Jewish elementary school.

According to an April 2013 article in The Telegraph, Boutaris is well aware of the Jewish significance of the city.

“This is a city with a very, very long multi-ethnic history… Since the 15th century Jews, Greeks, Turks and Slavs lived here together without any interruption,” said Boutaris.

The Holocaust monument was inaugurated in 1997 in front of the Baron Hirsch hospital. Said Saltiel, the city then asked for its removal when it decided to build a parking lot in that spot.

The community supported the move to Liberty Square, but has since pushed a string of city mayors to make it more visible. To no effect. And now comes the concern that it will be removed altogether. “We are not willing to take it every year from one place to another,” said Saltiel.

According to the physician Pessah, who has previously run for municipal office in an opposing party, one of the reasons the Jewish community backed current mayor Boutaris was his promise to make the monument more prominent. Unfortunately that has not panned out.

According to April’s Telegraph article, Boutaris, who has been mayor for three years, has plans to build a monument to the Holocaust in a central square currently dominated by a car-park, and with the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party terrorizing Asian migrants in Athens, and making inroads in Thessaloniki, he deliberately courts his city’s newer minorities.” It’s not clear what has become of that plan.

Also part of this “courting,” said Pessah, are recent announcements, essentially window dressing, of a new Jewish Studies program in Salonika’s university — without any funding — and December news of a plan to sometime in the future build a Holocaust museum. This museum would be built on land outside the city center, donated by the municipality and the Railway Organization of Greece, at the Old Train Station from which Jews were transported to death camps.

Liberty Square during World War II. (Photo credit: Andreas Assael archive, private collection)
Liberty Square during World War II. (Photo credit: Andreas Assael archive, private collection)

In its response to The Time of Israel’s query about its role in protesting the monument’s potential removal, the AJC attached the organization’s original letter to Boutaris alongside the Salonika Jewish community’s press release on a ceremonial contract signing, attended by Greece’s infrastructure minister, at the future site of the Memorial Center for Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. The AJC’s email said, “We are satisfied with the outcome.”

Yiannis Boutaris (photo credit: Drassi / Wikpedia Commons)
Yiannis Boutaris (photo credit: Drassi / Wikpedia Commons)

Is this monument “scandal” just a tempest in a teapot, then, stirred up by leaders of the Jewish community, as a way of making political deals to ensure that the new Holocaust museum gets built? Time will tell.

Although Boutaris’s office would not go on record with The Times of Israel, a source from the municipality familiar with the case said Tuesday that the monument’s removal “is just a rumor with no relation to reality at all.”

The source added: “The monument will be removed in the context of the renovation and replaced so it will be highlighted in a better way. We plan to remake the square, which is basically a parking lot now, and make it into a real square. In this context it will be replaced in a place that would highlight it better.”

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