Thessaloniki’s new Holocaust museum a sign of a city finally embracing its Jewish past

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the children of a Greek Jewish Holocaust survivor unveiled a plaque Thursday for the planned Thessaloniki Holocaust Memorial Museum, it marked a new chapter for the city’s famed, and nearly destroyed, Jewish community.

It is only now, more than seven decades since the first convoy of Jews was loaded onto cattle trucks for the journey north to their deaths in Auschwitz, that a fitting memorial is becoming a reality — a sign that Thessaloniki, or Salonica as it was known, is finally willing to come to terms with its Jewish history and the great tragedy that befell it.

Netanyahu was joined at the museum’s unveiling by Rachel and Eliyahu, the two children of Moshe Ha-Elion, 93, a Greek Holocaust survivor who this year lit a torch at Israel’s Holocaust memorial day ceremony, but was now too ill to make the journey with the prime minister.

“I would like them to join us in unveiling the plaque that will be in the museum to commemorate what happened here for two purposes, commemoration and prevention,” said Netanyahu, who was in the northern Greek city for a trilateral meeting with his Greek and Cypriot counterparts.

“We commemorate the loss of these human beings, our fellow Jews, but we also dedicate ourselves to make sure that this horror will never happen again,” said Netanyahu.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (C), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), the Mayor of Thessaloniki Yannis Boutaris (R) and the president of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki David Saltiel attend the presentation of a memorial plaque at the Museum of the Holocaust in Thessaloniki on June 15, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAKIS MITROLIDIS)

The remnants of the community, who number less than 1,000 today, have long dreamed of a fitting memorial to the once-great Jewish community of Thessaloniki, one of the most important centers of Sephardic Jewry for 450 years following the expulsion from Spain. Known as the Flower of the Balkans, it was the center of Ladino culture in the region.

Now, 74 years after the great destruction began, this memorial is finally becoming a reality.

“Jews were here for 500 years and the history of Thessaloniki is the history of the Jews,” said long-standing community president David Saltiel, who has been the driving force behind the museum and a tireless worker to ensure that neither the current tiny community, nor the memory of their famed past, fades away.

At the turn of the last century, some 90,000 Jews lived in the city that was a key trading port in the Ottoman Empire, making up some 60 percent of the population.

Jewish family from Thessaloniki, Greece seen in 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

But by the eve of World War II — faced with poverty, tensions with the Greeks who took control over the city in 1912, and a devastating fire that left 55,000 homeless in 1917 — the community had dwindled to some 55,000.

The Nazis entered the city in April, 1941, but it was not until two years later that they began implementing the Final Solution for Greek Jewry.

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

On March 15, 1943, the Nazis began deporting the Jews of Thessaloniki. Some 4,000 people were loaded onto cattle cars and shipped off to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, the longest journey of all the train transports of the Holocaust

Eighteen more convoys followed. By August, 49,000 out of the city’s pre-war population of 55,000 Jews had been deported. Fewer than 2,000 survived.

A Hellenic Railway officer walks in front of a train that was used by the Nazis to carry Jews from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz during the WWII, in the Greek northern town of Thessaloniki, on Sunday, March 15, 2015 (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

The Germans not only destroyed the population, but also wiped out its cultural imprint.

Following the deportations, Jewish property was looted, synagogues were destroyed, priceless Ladino libraries were shipped to Germany and Jewish cemetery headstones were used as construction material. The city’s Aristotle University was later constructed on top of the ancient cemetery.

To this day, the Jewish community archives are held in the Kremlin, despite ongoing and so-far fruitless efforts to have them returned.

The few who returned to the city after the war did what they could to keep the community alive, including the establishment of a small Jewish school and museum, but they found a city now almost entirely Greek with little interest in confronting the diversity, or the horrors, of the past.

However, in recent years this has begun to change, a move Saltiel credits to the 2011 election of Mayor Yannis Boutaris.

An unorthodox, chain-smoking, straight-talking businessman with a stud in one ear, Boutaris, 75, has shaken up Thessaloniki since becoming mayor. One of his main thrusts has been to revive Thessaloniki’s cosmopolitan history, embracing a city important to the Jews and to Turks for its Ottoman past.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Mayor of Thessaloniki Yannis Boutaris (R) during the presentation of a memorial plaque at the Museum of the Holocaust in Thessaloniki on June 15, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAKIS MITROLIDIS)

“This is the fulfillment of a historic responsibility for Thessaloniki,” Boutaris said when he announced the museum project. “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.”

Boutaris helped turn the dream of the Holocaust Memorial Museum into a reality,granting the permits and, more importantly, the political backing for the 5,000 square meter, six-story building that is expected to be completed by 2020.

Greek Jewish community head David Saltiel (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

The museum will hold a memorial to the Jews who were murdered and also exhibitions devoted to the culture and history of the Sephardi community of the city. It will also tell the story of the smaller Romaniote Jewish community that has been in Greece for more than 2,000 years, Saltiel said.

With Boutaris’s backing, the Greek railways donated a plot of land overlooking the railway station from which the Jews were deported and 22 million euros were raised to fund the building. The German government donated 10 million euros and the rest came for the Niarchos Foundation, a major Greek philanthropic organization founded by shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos.

“Unless you have the approval of the citizens who are in favor, you cannot build such a museum,” Jewish community head Saltiel told The Times of Israel.

“The only guarantee we have is that the people of Thessaloniki believe in it and want to do it. The mayor represents the city and we are honored that after 70 years they want to tell the story of the Jewish people in Thessaloniki and honor the city,” said Saltiel.

The design of the planned Thessaloniki Holocaust Memorial Museum (Courtesy/Jewish Community of Thessaloniki)

For Boutaris, this strategy was about confronting two of greatest challenges to Greece in recent years: the devastating economic crisis and the rise of the far-right neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party to become the third largest party in the Greek parliament.

By embracing the past, he hoped to both encourage tourism to the city and also help confront the racism and anti-Semitism that are so prevalent in Greek society.

In 2013, on the 70th anniversary of the deportation, Boutaris organized and led, together with the Jewish community, a public march from Liberty Square, where the Jews were first rounded up, to the Old Railway Station. It was the first such public display by the Jewish community since the end of the war.

More than 2,500 people, many of them non-Jews, participate in a march to mark 70 years since the deportation of the Jews of Thessaloniki (Michael Thaidigsmann/ WJC via JTA)

He also pushed for the erection of a monument at Aristotle University, built over the ruins of the Jewish cemetery.

“Mayor Boutaris is a fighter for this museum, he knows that it is something necessary to help confront the racism,” said Saltiel.

To that end, Saltiel and Boutaris agreed that the new project would not only be a Holocaust memorial and a museum of Greek Jewry, but would also serve as a principle education center on human rights and tolerance.

“We want to teach students and teachers what happens when democracy is not working and racism and anti-Semitism can create these horrors,” said Saltiel. “It is very important now as we are seeing the rise of the extreme right in Greece and across the world.”

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