Salonika, a city with amnesia


As part of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, a screening of Salonika – A city with amnesia took place. It retraces the history of Thessaloniki through the 20th century. The narration switches between present and past, through interviews of inhabitants of the city and an old letter from an American woman that describes the city to her sister.

Thessaloniki under the Ottoman rule: “Within the city walls rise, the broads domes and crescented minarets of mosques and its masses of houses.” (Letter from an unknown American woman to her sister, 1839)

Earlier known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans, Thessaloniki contained a diversity of populations. For example, the three Abrahamic religions were represented in the city: Jews, Muslims and Orthodox cohabited with each other. However, wars disturbed those communities. After the Greco-Turkish War, a population transfer occurred between Turks and Greeks. Then, with World War II, Nazi occupation forces deported around 50,000 Jews most of them never came back. The documentary focuses especially on the evolution and dismantlement of this Jewish community.

From the Ottoman Rule to the Greek Kingdom

At the beginning of the 20th century, Salonika was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was a cosmopolite and multi-ethnic city with an important Jewish community. Indeed, after Spain expulsed Jews in 1492, many of them settled in Thessaloniki. Some also converted to Islam; they were known under the name of Dönme.

During the First Balkan War, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro opposed to the Ottoman Empire. They won and shared the former European territories of the Empire. As a result, Greece integrated Salonika in its state.

It was the century of nationalist sentiments. People believed that each ethnic population should have their own country. For this reason, Turks left Salonika to settle in Turkey and historically-Greek people from the Anatolia region came over. It was also a matter of religion. The Byzantine churches that Ottomans had turned into mosques became Christian again. Then, the fire from August 1917 finished to wipe out the traces of the Ottoman culture. It destroyed almost a third of the city. Among the burned buildings, we can count the Ottoman Bank but also two Orthodox churches, twelve mosques and sixteen synagogues.

The Second World War

From April 1941, Nazis were occupying Thessaloniki. They implemented anti-Semitic laws and ordered male Jews to gather at the Liberty square. There, soldiers publicly tortured and humiliated them. Jews also had to register for forced labour.

Then, in 1943, Nazis deported more than 50,000 Jews to Auschwitz. Only two thousands returned from the camps. More than 95 percent of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki was killed in those few years.

Gathering of male Jews in the Eleftheria square
In July 1942, Jewish men from Thessaloniki had to gather at the Eleftheria square, where Nazi soldiers beat and humiliated them.

The amnesia

Through this documentary, the directors explore the theme of amnesia and loss of memory that affected Salonika. In only several years, Nazis erased not only the Jewish community but also many of its traces. For example, they dismantled the old Jewish cemetery. At its emplacement now stands the Aristotle University. People used the tombstones as free material to construct churches, stairs and houses. Nazi soldiers even built a swimming pool from some of them.

Swimming pool made by Nazis
Swimming pool made by Nazis from the tombstones of the old Jewish cemetary.

This amnesia was also fueled by the strong Christian community and by the municipality up to 2008. For example, the city council refused that Salonica joined the “Association of Martyr Cities”, a network that commemorates the Greek victims of the Holocaust. They gave two mains reasons for this rejection of the proposal. First, the extermination of Jews took place in Poland, not in Greece. Then, Jews only lived in Thessaloniki for five hundred years.

Under the new mayor, Boutáris, the situation changed with more acknowledgment of the history of the city and its Muslim and Jewish heritage. For example, he supported the construction of the Holocaust Museum of Greece. He has also spoken in favor of the building of a new mosque. Although his actions are aimed at increasing the touristic attractivity of the city, he embraced a multi-cultural side of Thessaloniki that many had forgotten.

If this article interested you, you can see the short version of this documentary by following this link.

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