Greece and the Holocaust

Monastir Synagogue, Thessaloniki, Greece – © David H. Enzel, 2023

As part of a trip to Greece in 2023, I visited Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece, with over one million inhabitants in its metropolitan area and learned about the sad fate of its Jews during the second World War.

On the eve of World War II, approximately 77,000 Jews lived in Greece. Some 56,000 of them lived in Thessaloniki. The Jews of Thessaloniki were prominent in the fields of industry, banking and tourism. Many were laborers and artisans, and worked in the ports.

“Menorah in flames”, Thessaloniki, Greece – © David H. Enzel, 2023

On April 6, 1941, the Germans invaded Greece, and they occupied Thessaloniki on April 9. The members of the Jewish community council were arrested, Jews’ apartments were requisitioned, and the Jewish hospital was taken over by the German Army. Jewish newspapers printed in French and Ladino were closed down, and antisemitic and collaborationist newspapers started appearing. Staff of “Operation Rosenberg” systematically looted literary and cultural treasures from dozens of private and public libraries and synagogues in Thessaloniki, with the help of the Wehrmacht. In the winter of 1941-42, some 600 Jews in Thessaloniki died of hypothermia and disease.

On July 11, 1942, 9,000 Jewish men between the ages of 10-45 were ordered to assemble at Liberty Square in Thessaloniki, where they were humiliated all day in the blazing heat. The event became known as “Black Saturday“. After negotiating with the German Army administration in Macedonia, the Jewish community managed to have the young men released, in exchange for a ransom. Some of the money was collected in Thessaloniki and Athens, and the rest was raised by the sale of the 500-year-old Jewish cemetery to the Municipality. The cemetery was destroyed, and the tombstones were used as building materials. Some 2,000 Jewish men who were arrested on Black Saturday were sent as forced laborers for the German Army. By October 1942, 250 of them had perished due to the harsh conditions.

In February 1943, the Jews of Thessaloniki were given less than a month to move into a ghetto established in the Baron Hirsch quarter, and almost all their property was confiscated. Deportations began in March, and by August, almost all had been deported and murdered at Auschwitz and Treblinka. Some 54,000 of the approximately 56,000 Jews living in Thessaloniki were murdered in the Holocaust.

The “Menorah in flames” shown above is a sculpture created in 1997 by Nandor Glid as a Holocaust memorial commemorating deportation of the Thessaloniki Jews. Glid (1924-1997) was a Yugoslav sculptor, best known for designing the memorial sculpture at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

The sculpture, initially built in a suburban area, has been installed since 2006 on Eleftherias Square where a major roundup of 9,000 Jewish men took place in 1942.

It was the first Holocaust memorial to be built on a public space in Greece and its installation marks a change of attitude of Greek officials towards the remembrance of the Holocaust. The monument is regularly vandalized.

The Monastir Synagogue is a historic synagogue of the once vibrant Jewish community in Thessaloniki.

The construction of the synagogue lasted from 1925 to 1927. The funding was due to Jews from Monastir in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The synagogue was designed by architect Ernst Loewy (1878-1943) from the city Buchau of Austria-Hungary. He was based in Karlsbad of Czechoslovakia, visiting Thessaloniki often as the engineer for the Austrian Company that built that railway line between Thessaloniki and Vienna.

During World War II, the synagogue was saved by being requisitioned by the Red Cross. In June 1978, the structure of the building was severely damaged by an earthquake. It was restored by the Greek government and today is used primarily during the high holidays. In 2016 the historic restoration of the synagogue was completed. The restoration project was supported by the Federal Republic of Germany.

The synagogue is no longer in regular function. There is a new one shared with the Rabbinate and the offices of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki at Tsimiski Street downtown. The Jewish museum is also near this new location.

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