The Mother of Israel forgotten in a parking lot  

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Eleftharias Square, July 1942

January 27 marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Every year we pay tribute to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust in order not to forget and to reaffirm, today and every day, our determination to oppose anti – Semitism and any other form of intolerance. However, sometimes that is not enough, and even a place like Thessaloniki, once known as the Mother of Israel, can try to send another slice of the Jewish community’s history into oblivion.

Thessaloniki, the Jerusalem of the Balkans 

As we know, not all Jews who died during the Holocaust were German, many of the victims of the Holocaust came from nearly all the countries in Europe, including Greece. However, not everyone knows that the largest Jews community in this country was living and prospering in Thessaloniki. They inhabited this city since ancient times, mainly Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Their growth began as early as the 14th century, when Jewish from Central Europe, Italy, and Sicily moved to Thessaloniki, finding in this city the possibility of living in peace. The same happened in the following century at the time Hebrew from Italy, Portugal, and north Africa, but mainly from Spain, were escaping the Catholic Inquisition, and in the city of Thessaloniki they found a home.

By 1519, the Jews represented 56% of the population, and by 1613, 68%. For many years the Jewish community kept growing in the city until it became a prominent part of the social and commercial life of the city. During this period Thessaloniki got the honorary title of “Mother of Israel” representing the hospitality that the city of Thessaloniki offered to the Sephardic population, and several other communities around Europe, during their hard times. Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the Jewish of Thessaloniki suffered a difficult period that reached its climax with a mass apostasy prompted by the Ottoman authorities.

Before the mid-19th century, a period of rebound began, and again the community became fundamental for Thessaloniki. Jewish were the significant labor force in the city, established a whole chain of charity institutions, and created a welfare system that no other Diaspora community ever matched. After they founded the first printing house in Thessaloniki, they also released the first newspaper published in this city: EL LUNAR (1864). The demographic and economic superiority of its Jewish community becomes one of its interesting characteristics. They integrated as a community into the city and were an active part of its life, but it was not until 1912, with the liberation of Thessaloniki, that they obtained a guarantee from the crown and the ministry to uphold their rights and guarantee equality.

After the big fire of 1917 that devastated most of the city, their neighbors, synagogues, and charity institutions, many of them emigrated. However, the community in Thessaloniki still counted between 50 and 60.000 people living in peace with other communities. It was an intercultural city where people with diverse religions, languages, and traditions used to live together peacefully. Before World War 2, Thessaloniki represented one of the most culturally diversified societies in the region. 

The black Shabbat

On the 6th of April 1941, the Germans invaded Greece, occupied Thessaloniki three days after, and in one week arrested all the Jewish leadership, evicted hundreds of Jewish families and confiscated their apartments, expropriated the Jewish hospital, and closed down any Jewish newspaper. 

Elefherias Square, gathering of men of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, 1942.
Elefherias Square, gathering of men of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, 1942.

On 11 July 1942, Jewish men in the age range of 18 and 45 years were ordered to assemble at Eleftherias Square in Thessaloniki (Liberty square, what a paradox) to be registered for forced-labor assignments. Here the Germans humiliated and tortured them, in the indifference of the rest of the population. They left those 9,000 souls in the boiling sun all day and, after that, sent them to forced labor for the German army in a region rife with malaria. To release those innocent men from forced labor, the community had to pay an insane ransom that they managed to collect, draining their savings with no help from other communities. Despite the economic prosperity of the Jewish population, the amount of money asked was shockingly large for those times. It was not enough, so what was still missing was raised by the handover to the Municipality of the 500-year-old Jewish cemetery. It did not take long for the cemetery to be destroyed and turned into a quarry, graves looted, and tombstones scattered all over the city. 

In February 1943, German authorities concentrated the Jews of Salonika in two ghettos. It was the first time in almost 2.000 years that the Jews of Thessaloniki were forced to live in ghettos. Deportations began in March, and by August most of them had been deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Nineteen trains left the city carrying more than 50.000 Jews, some of them managed to escape the deportations, while  others survived the nazi concentration camp. In the end, 96% of the prewar Jewish population was murdered. 

The struggle to be remembered

In October 1944, the Greek and Allied forces liberated Thessaloniki. Not more than 2.000 Jews returned to the city whose history had been intertwined so closely with their own for 2,000 years. They found their homes occupied, their property looted, most of their 19 synagogues destroyed, and their five-century-old cemetery still used as a quarry. Today, almost 80 years after the Holocaust, Thessaloniki numbers no more than 1.200 Jewish souls. They had to fight for several years to finally have a memorial to the Jewish cemetery, which in 2014 was placed on the grounds of the Aristotle University, where the ancient cemetery once stood. Likewise, it was a long wait to have in Thessaloniki an appropriate monument to commemorate the city’s murdered Jews. It was only in 1997 when the Menorah in flames, a sculpture by the Glint brothers, was installed in a suburban area and, in 2006, moved to the city center. The same people who called Thessaloniki the Mother of Israel were now just strangers to her.

Menorah in flames, next to Eleftherias square, in memory of the victims of the Holocaust
Menorah in flames, in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

How disrespectful can a parking lot be?

The place chosen for the memorial today is Eleftherias Square, which is the exact location where the Nazi extermination of the city’s Jews began in July 1942. The positioning of the statue in that specific place should be something to be proud of, but unfortunately, it looks more like a patch, put there to hide the insult that the Jewish community of Thessaloniki had to suffer, when they saw that same square turned into a parking lot. After the 2WW, on the 6th of April 1963, the square was officially proclaimed a public space and, despite numerous protests and disputes, in the end it was turned into a parking lot and bus terminal. 

“It’s tough, this square. It reminds us that the Holocaust in Thessaloniki was the heaviest link in a long chain of violence and tyranny. It also reminds us that the city’s Jews were an integral part of a colorful mosaic, that the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’ was also the ‘Babel of the Mediterranean.’” With these words the former mayor of the city, Yiannis Boutaris, presented a proposal to turn the square (the parking lot) into a memorial park. After some time in which it was closed to give way to renovation work on the square, the new mayor intervened by blocking and canceling the old plan in favor of a new one that calls for the construction of an underground parking lot, a project that will take several years. All this raises concerns over the fact that this might shift the focus more on the parking lot rather than the priority of reviving a place that carries with it so much historical, social and cultural importance and needs to receive the honor it deserves. Meanwhile, the square is still a parking lot and will probably remain so for a long time, so this shameful waiting continues. 

David star on the parking lot in Eleftherias square
Star of David painted in the parking lot as a sign of protest.

“For me, it is a matter of dignity and it has nothing to do with a political symbol” is what Giorgos Konstantinou said, the artist who, in 2021, painted a yellow star of David in the square, as a protest against the re-opening of the municipal parking lot. He used the same stigma that Nazis chose to discriminate Jews as a vehicle to remind people what happened in the past, where it happened,  and how dangerous forgetting can be. Lately both the memorials have been vandalized. “Vandal anti – Semites roam freely and stain undisturbed any attempt to preserve Holocaust memory in Thessaloniki.” The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) said in a statement. We all agree that we should condemn these acts, but what about us? We shouldn’t allow ourselves to forget what that square and so many other places like that have been. We should not allow ourselves to forget what that square and so many other such places have been. We cannot cross that parking lot and move on, humiliating those souls once again.

More about the jewish community in Thessaloniki

The legacy of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki

Salonika, a city with amnesia

Jewish museum of Thessaloniki

Sources:

Protothema (Boutaris speech)

Pentapostagma (Giorgos Konstantinou affirmations)

Photo

Eleftherias square with the star of David

Eleftharias square on July 1942

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