Greek Jewry and the Holo­caust

Be­fore World War II, ap­prox­i­mately 80,000 Jews lived in Greece in 31 dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties. By war’s end, only 10,000 Jews sur­vived

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - HEALTH - • ALAN ROSEN­BAUM

The de­struc­tion of the Jewish com­mu­nity of Greece re­mains, more than seven decades af­ter the con­clu­sion of World War II, one of the lesser-known sto­ries of the Holo­caust. Be­fore World War II, ap­prox­i­mately 80,000 Jews lived in Greece in 31 dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties. Two-thirds of the Jewish pop­u­la­tion – ap­prox­i­mately 55,000 Jews – lived in Saloniki. By war’s end, only 10,000 Jews sur­vived. 87% of the Jews of Greece were mur­dered in the Holo­caust. Yet, the tale of the an­ni­hi­la­tion of the Jews of Greece is much more than a story of numbers.

Devin E. Naar, the Isaac Al­had­eff Professor of Sephardic Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Washington ex­plains that be­cause the vast ma­jor­ity of the Jews of Greece lived in Saloniki, in many ways, the story of the Jews of Greece in the 20th cen­tury and their ex­pe­ri­ence in the

Holo­caust is the story of the Jews of Saloniki. “The Jewish com­mu­nity of Saloniki was one of the largest, cul­tur­ally and intellectu­ally di­verse pros­per­ous Jewish com­mu­ni­ties in mod­ern times,” says Naar. The real im­pe­tus to the city’s Jewish devel­op­ment, Naar ex­plains, emerged af­ter 1492, in the wake of the Jewish ex­pul­sion from Spain. Saloniki re­ceived a large in­flux of Sephardic Jews that trans­formed the na­ture of Jewish life in the Ot­toman Em­pire. From the 16th cen­tury un­til the end of World War I, Jews con­sti­tuted a plu­ral­ity of the city’s pop­u­la­tion. Rab­binic lu­mi­nar­ies such as Rabbi Shlomo Alk­a­betz, au­thor of the ‘Lecha Dodi’ hymn, sung at the in­au­gu­ra­tion of the Sab­bath, and Rabbi Joseph Karo, au­thor of the Code of Jewish Law (‘Shul­han Arukh’), lived in Saloniki be­fore mov­ing to Is­rael.

IN THE 19th and 20th cen­turies, Saloniki, which was part of the Ot­toman Em­pire, be­came a ma­jor port city. “Jews were in all of the so­cio-eco­nomic strata of so­ci­ety,” ex­plains Naar. “The steve­dore was likely to be a Jew; the cus­toms agent was Jewish; shoe shin­ers were Jewish; lawyers, teachers – even gang­sters and pros­ti­tutes were Jewish.” Saloniki was, es­sen­tially, a Jewish city. Due to the pre­pon­der­ance of Jewish port work­ers, the Saloniki har­bor was closed on Satur­days and Jewish hol­i­days, and Ladino, the Judeo-Span­ish di­alect of the Jews, was spo­ken through­out the city. Saloniki was dubbed the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.”

Even af­ter the Balkan Wars, when the in­de­pen­dent Greeks con­quered Saloniki, Naar ex­plains, the city still re­tained much of its Jewish char­ac­ter, and main­tained a ro­bust Jewish com­mu­nal life with ten Jewish po­lit­i­cal par­ties, Jewish com­mu­nity schools, and Judeo-Span­ish and He­brew news­pa­pers.

ON APRIl 6, 1941, Ger­many in­vaded Greece and Yu­goslavia, and con­quered both coun­tries within a month. Professor Gideon Greif, se­nior lec­turer and re­searcher in Holo­caust stud­ies in the Ju­daica depart­ment at Ono Aca­demic Cen­ter, ex­plains that though Ger­many had con­trol of Greece since the spring of 1941, the real be­gin­ning of the Holo­caust for the Jews of Greece was on July 11, 1942, known as ‘Black Sab­bath’, when the Nazis sum­moned 10,000 young Jews to Lib­erty Square, and tor­tured and hu­mil­i­ated them. Soon af­ter, they con­fis­cated Jewish prop­erty, forced them to wear the yel­low badge, and moved the Jews into two ghet­tos, one in the eastern sec­tion of the city, and one in the western side, near the rail­road sta­tion. On March 15, 1943, the de­por­ta­tions to Auschwitz Birke­nau be­gan, from the western side of the city. Most of the de­por­tees were gassed upon ar­rival.

Greif says that “the Holo­caust of the Greek Jews was one of the most tragic sto­ries about the Holo­caust. Though all com­mu­ni­ties suffered greatly, Greek Jews suffered even more, be­cause they were dif­fer­ent and even when they reached Auschwitz, their suf­fer­ing was even greater.” The Greek Jews, notes Greif, were not used to the frigid climate of Eastern Europe and could not com­mu­ni­cate with their fel­low Jews from Eastern Europe, be­cause they didn’t speak Ger­man, Yid­dish, or Pol­ish. They were mocked by Ashke­nazic Jews

be­cause of their dif­fer­ences, he says. Many of them were com­pelled to work within the killing in­stal­la­tions as Son­derkom­man­dos and were forced to aid with the dis­posal of gas cham­ber victims dur­ing the Holo­caust. Greif ex­plains that the rate of death within Greek Jewry was among the high­est in the Holo­caust, “be­cause the Ger­mans used their reper­toire of de­ceit ef­fi­ciently and hid their mur­der­ous in­ten­tions.” In ad­di­tion, he says, the Greek Jews were led by Rabbi Zvi Koretz, the head of the Jewish coun­cil, who was naïve, and thought that co­op­er­at­ing with the Ger­man au­thor­i­ties would im­prove their sit­u­a­tion. Be­cause he was so obe­di­ent, says Greif, one transport fol­lowed an­other un­til April 1944.

Naar notes that while the de­struc­tion of the Jews of Saloniki was echoed through­out most of Greece, some com­mu­ni­ties ex­pe­ri­enced dif­fer­ent fates. The Jewish pop­u­la­tion of Athens on the eve of the war was ap­prox­i­mately 1,500, and it dou­bled and tripled over the course of the war, as many Jews fled there. The Nazis were less suc­cess­ful in de­port­ing the Jews of Athens, and Arch­bishop Da­mask­i­nos of Athens called on the cit­i­zens to in­ter­vene and speak out against de­por­ta­tions.

The coastal city of Vo­los on the Aegean Sea had a Jewish pop­u­la­tion of al­most 900, and some Jews from Saloniki had fled there. In Septem­ber 1943, the city fell un­der Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion. Nev­er­the­less, due to the ef­forts of the city’s chief rabbi Moshe Pes­sah, who worked to­gether with the lo­cal Arch­bishop and the National Lib­er­a­tion Front, the vast ma­jor­ity of the city’s in­hab­i­tants were saved.

FI­NALLY, NO men­tion of the Greek Jews and the Holo­caust would be complete with­out the story of the is­land of Zakyn­thos, the third largest of the Io­nian Sea. In 1944, the mayor, Loukas Kar­rer, was or­dered by the Ger­mans to hand over a list of the Jews liv­ing on the is­land. Bishop Chrysos­to­mos pre­sented the Ger­mans with a list con­tain­ing two names – his own, and mayor Kar­rer. The bishop told the Ger­mans. “Here are your Jews. If you choose to de­port the Jews of Zakyn­thos, you must also take me, and I will share their fate.” The Jews of the is­land were safely hid­den in the moun­tains, and all 275 sur­vived the Holo­caust. While the story of Zakyn­thos is un­doubt­edly in­spi­ra­tional, the fact re­mains that the vast ma­jor­ity of Greece’s Jews per­ished, and along with them, a rich tra­di­tion and cul­ture that can never be re­stored.

“The Jewish peo­ple and the world lost a lot by this tragedy be­cause the Greek Jews were very no­ble and in­tel­li­gent and good-hearted,” says Greif. “It is a hor­ri­ble loss which will never be com­pen­sated.”

This year, the speaker of the Greek Par­lia­ment, Mr. Nikos Vout­sis and Bartholome­w I, Arch­bishop of Con­stantino­ple-New Rome and Ec­u­meni­cal Pa­tri­arch, rep­re­sented the gov­ern­ment of Greece in the In­ter­na­tional March of the Liv­ing from Auschwitz to Birke­nau, on Thurs­day, May 2. Ye­huda Po­liker, renowned Is­raeli singer and mu­si­cian, whose par­ents who sur­vived the Holo­caust af­ter be­ing de­ported from Saloniki to Auschwitz, was also in at­ten­dance.

Writ­ten in co­op­er­a­tion with March of the Liv­ing.

(Yad Vashem)

INVASTION OF Ger­man army into Greece.

(Yossi Zeliger)

YE­HUDA PO­LIKER per­forms "Ashes and Dust" in the March of the Liv­ing cer­e­mony.

(Yossi Zeliger)

PAR­TIC­I­PANTS EN­TER­ING Birke­nau in The March of the Liv­ing.

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