A global mon­u­ment against racism in Thes­sa­loniki

The Holo­caust Mu­seum and Ed­u­ca­tional Cen­ter, a six-floor glass-and-metal struc­ture, sched­uled to be in­au­gu­rated three years from now

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY IOTA MYRTSIOTI

It took Thes­sa­loniki seven decades to re­store its mem­o­ries, rec­og­nize its mis­takes, and, above all, to apol­o­gize for a piece of its his­tory that was silently buried un­der the foun­da­tions of its univer­sity. Three years ago, the city’s mayor, Yian­nis Boutaris, erected a mon­u­ment in a cor­ner of the cam­pus as a re­minder that this was the spot where, for 500 years, the city’s once-large com­mu­nity of Sephardic Jews hon­ored their dead. Then, the mayor spoke of the un­due de­lay in break­ing the silence and be­gin­ning to talk about the dark mo­ments of the city’s his­tory.

It was one of the slow but steady steps to­ward the tar­get set by the mayor’s of­fice. The cul­mi­na­tion of it all is the cre­ation of the Holo­caust Mu­seum and Ed­u­ca­tional Cen­ter in the area of the old rail­way sta­tion, where the be­gin­ning of the end was writ­ten for the Jewish pop­u­la­tion of Thes­sa­loniki.

The move came from an idea be­long­ing to the pres­i­dent of the Jewish Com­mu­nity of Thes­sa­loniki, David Saltiel. Boutaris adopted it and used his in­ter­na­tional con­tacts to pro­mote it. The mu­nic­i­pal­ity and the Jewish Com­mu­nity of Thes­sa­loniki (JCT) worked to­gether me­thod­i­cally, and now, al­most three years later with fund­ing se­cured, the goal is in sight.

A six-floor cir­cu­lar build­ing dom­i­nated by metal and glass and spread across 7,000 square me­ters will rise over the next three years, stand­ing sym­bol­i­cally in the place where the death trains be­gan trans­port­ing 55,000 Greek Jews from Thes­sa­loniki, dec­i­mat­ing a mul­ti­cul­tural, multi-re­li­gious and pros­per­ous city. The foun­da­tion stone of the Holo­caust Mu­seum will be laid at the end of 2017 in 5 acres sup­plied by Ga­iaose SA. If all goes well, Thes­sa­loniki will in­au­gu­rate its new mu­seum be­fore the end of 2019.

Fund­ing

The project has a bud­get of ap­prox­i­mately 22 mil­lion eu­ros, 10 mil­lion of which will come from the Ger­man gov- ern­ment (5 mil­lion in 2017 and 5 mil­lion in 2018). The rest will be cov­ered by the Stavros Niar­chos Foun­da­tion and other bod­ies (Jewish com­mu­ni­ties and fig­ures). Two ar­chi­tects, one in Tel Aviv and one in Ber­lin, are work­ing on the fi­nal plans. An in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tute for the Holo­caust Mu­seum of Thes­sa­loniki will soon be set up, based in Brus­sels, and a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion in Greece will be es­tab­lished for the man­age­ment of the con­struc­tion and the ini­ti­a­tion of the project. From the first mo­ment of the project, the Jewish Com­mu­nity of Thes­sa­loniki es­tab­lished a co­op­er­a­tion frame­work to pro­vide 20 years of ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­per­tise in both the cre­ation and the op­er­a­tion of the Holo­caust Mu­seum, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to ed­u­ca­tion.

“What hap­pened in Thes­sa­loniki dur­ing the Holo­caust is part of both lo­cal and Euro­pean his­tory, which we need to teach to young peo­ple es­pe­cially to com­bat anti-Semitism, racism and all forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion that un­for­tu­nately are once again ris­ing to the sur­face around the world,” said the di­rec­tor of the Shoah Memo­rial in Paris, Jac­ques Fredj, at the sign­ing of the agree­ment in Jan­uary 2016.

For JCT chief Saltiel, it will not be just the voice of mil­lions of Jews who were de­ported, hu­mil­i­ated and mur­dered. It will be the voice of the Greek Jews and their long his­tory in the city, which is the story of Thes­sa­loniki it­self. Be­yond its ed­u­ca­tional char­ac­ter, the commu- nity’s in­ten­tion is to doc­u­ment the his­tory of wor­ship items and be­yond. They are stored at the Jewish Mu­seum on Aghios Minas Street, which will op­er­ate in par­al­lel as a small mu­seum in the heart of the city.

For en­rich­ment, says Saltiel, they will “look for items from the descen­dants of Thes­sa­loniki Jews,” es­pe­cially those who im­mi­grated to Pales­tine in the 1930s to work in the ports of Haifa and Jaffa. Ob­jects from Thes­sa­loniki are in mu­se­ums in Poland, and Saltiel says “the au­thor­i­ties are in­di­cat­ing their in­tent to re­turn them to us.” Of ut­most im­por­tance are the his­tor­i­cal records of the JCT (100,000 doc­u­ments) stored in Moscow. Their repa­tri­a­tion will shed light on the lives of Thes­sa­loniki’s Sephardic Jews be­fore the Holo­caust.

Un­known chap­ter

“What hap­pened in Thes­sa­loniki is a chap­ter of the Holo­caust which is com­pletely un­known to the world,” says Boutaris. With the Holo­caust Mu­seum, he be­lieves that Thes­sa­loniki, apart from the ob­vi­ous ben­e­fits of tourism and rais­ing the city’s pro­file, will be­come a symbol to pro­mote tol­er­ance and fight racism. For this rea­son, he said, “I in­sisted on the par­al­lel op­er­a­tion of a train­ing cen­ter. Only in this way will we be able to have a greater aware­ness of what this crime means and why it should not be re­peated.”

Thes­sa­loniki, like War­saw and Krakow, is seen as an im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal place for Jews ev­ery­where, but much more so for Sephardic Jews, a largely un­known and neglected com­mu­nity. This di­men­sion is also noted by Gior­gos An­to­niou, pro­fes­sor of con­tem­po­rary his­tory on the newly es­tab­lished Jewish Stud­ies course at the Aris­to­tle Univer­sity of Thes­sa­loniki.

“The Holo­caust Mu­seum, be­yond the tragedy of the Greek Jews, be­yond the tragedy of Thes­sa­loniki’s Jews, rep­re­sents the tragedy of the Sephardic Jews. The dif­fer­ence be­tween this mu­seum and those in the US and Is­rael is that it is lo­cated in the place where the crime was com­mit­ted. It will right­fully be put on the map with the world’s lead­ing Jewish his­tory mu­se­ums. In ed­u­ca­tional terms it will act as the um­brella for the re­search and teach­ing that has blos­somed in re­cent years at uni­ver­si­ties and other in­sti­tu­tions.”

Evan­ge­los Heki­moglu, the cu­ra­tor of the Jewish Mu­seum, sees it as a liv­ing or­gan­ism, un­der­lin­ing the po­lit­i­cal and aca­demic as­pect. Twenty years ago, he says, “apart from a gen­er­a­tion of sur­vivors, three peo­ple were in­volved in [re­search­ing] the Holo­caust: Poly­chro­nis Enepekides, Rena Molho and Al­ber­tos Nar. The progress made over the past seven years in re­search on the Holo­caust (so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, ide­o­log­i­cal), is enormous. How­ever, the fruits of these ef­forts will fade on their own. Only a co­or­di­nated ef­fort for the dis­sem­i­na­tion of these ef­forts can be trans­lated into the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. This role has to be played by a new, mod­ern Holo­caust mu­seum.”

The project has a bud­get of ap­prox­i­mately 22 mil­lion eu­ros, 10 mil­lion of which will come from the Ger­man govern­ment, while the rest will be cov­ered by the Stavros Niar­chos Foun­da­tion and other bod­ies. An in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tute for the Holo­caust Mu­seum of Thes­sa­loniki will soon be set up, based in Brus­sels, and a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion in Greece will be es­tab­lished for the man­age­ment of the con­struc­tion and the ini­ti­a­tion of the project.

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