At the outbreak of the second world war, Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki, had a Jewish population of about 50,000, representing about 70% of the total number of Jews in Greece. The majority of these were sephardic Jews who came from Spain. Not for nothing was the city called the Jerusalem of the Balkans. When Italy failed to defeat Greece, the Germans came to the rescue in April 1941, shortening the process with both Yugoslavia and Greece. Greece and the Greek islands were divided between Germany and Italy, in which Thessaloniki came under German control. A small part of northern Greece also fell to Bulgaria.

In the german part, anti-jewish measures came quick, jewish leaders were arrested, jewish assets confiscated, jewish homes confiscated, and jewish hospitals were taken over by the germans and turned into military hospitals. Thessaloniki’s Jewish cemetery, probably the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, was destroyed and the tombstones were used as building material.

In the summer of 1942, the Germans introduced anti-Jewish laws that restricted the legal, political and economic rights of the jews. Jews’ property and funds were confiscated. In July, about 9,000 male jews between the ages of 18 and 45 were ordered to appear in a large square in central Thessaloniki. In addition to being humiliated, about 5,000 were taken away to perform slave labor. In February 1943, the Jews were forced to move to two open ghettos, one in the eastern part of the city and one near the railway station called Baron Hirsch. The latter later came to serve as a transit camp for the city’s Jews when the deportations began.

In December 1942, a special command from the RSHA (Richiets central security agency) arrived in Thessaloniki with the task of beginning the deportations of the Jewish population. The command was led by SS Hauptsturmführer Dieter Wisliceny and his colleague Alois Brunner. To their aid, the command had the assistance of the local military authorities.

As usual, the Nazis called the local Jewish leaders to a meeting where they were informed of the impending deportations. As elsewhere, they were promised that the Jews would be transferred to Eastern Europe and put to work. Local Jewish rabbi Zvi Koretz chose to cooperate with the Germans because he believed that the promises and explanations of the germans were true. Through active cooperation, he believed that he could appease the Germans and minimize any suffering and punitive measures. Over the next few months, Koretz paved the way for the deportations.

On March 15, 1943, the first deportation train departed from Thessaloniki railway station with its destination Auschwitz. Deportations continued until August 1943, and a total of about 45,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, where most were murdered in the gas chamber of the camp. The majority of the transports went to Auschwitz, but some also went to Treblinka, Majdanek and Bergen-Belsen. Privileged Jews were deported to Bergen-Belsen, including Rabbi Zvi Koretz, and Jews with Spanish passports.

Almost all Jews from Thessaloniki were murdered in the Auschwitz gas chamber and there are several reasons for this. First, Thessaloniki was occupied by the Germans so no negotiations with any foreign authorities were needed. The Jewish population was mainly concentrated in the central parts of the city. In addition, the Jews spoke a special ancient language called ladino and spoken by the sephardic jews. This meant that they excelled linguistically and thus had difficulty hiding. But perhaps the biggest reason why the deportations were so successful was Zvi Koretz’s cooperation. The cooperation meant that administrative and logistical bottlenecks were rare.

Current status: Partly preserved/demolished with monument (2018).

Location: 40°38'29.83"N 22°55'29.14"E (old train station).

Get there: Bus or walk from central Thessaloniki.

My comment:

The sites in Thessaloniki are scattered over the city’s central parts but can be easily reached by bus or by walk. On the site of the Jewish cemetery is now the University of Thessaloniki. It is easy to think about how Greek people reasoned when they once decided to establish a university and that the former. the Jewish cemetery was considered a good and suitable place. Only in 2014 was a monument established on the campus. At the new Jewish cemetery that was established shortly after the war there is another monument.

The railway station from which the Jews were deported has been replaced by a newer one. To what extent the old is used and to what extent it is allowed to visit the area behind the station building, I leave unsaid. When I was there in the summer of 2018, there were some seemingly self-appointed security guards who didn’t appreciate my visit. There is a memorial plaque on the station building and information boards next to the station building. Freedom Square (Plateia Eleftherias) is also not there but is now a large parking lot and there is a memorial monument. However, there are no monuments or memorials in the two former ghettos.

As of this writing in 2018, there are plans to build a Holocaust museum in Thessaloniki. How far they have come with these plans when this is read, I do not know.

Follow up in books: Gilberg, Martin: Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War (1987).