Make Jewish life normal again in Greece

Thessaloniki’s identity is embedded in its unique history as a multi-cultural city with long enduring prolific co-existence of Christians, Muslims and Jews. Thessaloniki’s Jewish community, the oldest in Europe, was present in the city for 2,000 years and was the largest ethnic community of the city between the years 1492 and 1912. The fire of 1917 destroyed many of the Jewish buildings of Thessaloniki. After Greece achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire, it made Jews full citizens of the country in the 1920s. During World War II, the Nazi Germans occupied Greece in 1941, and started to systematically persecute the Jews as they had in other parts of Europe. In 1943 they forced the Jews in Thessaloniki into a ghetto near the rail lines, and started deporting them to concentration camps (KZ)  and so called labor camps, where most of the nearly 69,000 deported were killed or died horribly as a result of the deportation. This resulted in the near-extermination of the community. The extermination of the Jewish community during the German occupation of World War II erased much of the city’s Jewish fabric. Only 1200 Jews live in the city today. Another sad chapter in the history of the city is the lack of support provided by the episcopat of Thessaloniki, which, in contrast to the archbishop of Athens, was not committed to their fellow Jewish citizens.

After a turbulent history, under the mayor Jannis Boutaris the city has resumed its responsibilities and established close contacts with the people of Turkey, Israel and especially the Jewish world population. Especially in difficult Turkish, Greek and European times, the close contact for freedom, peace and prosperity is necessary and conducive.

In particular, David Saltiel, the president of the religious community, had a dream and made a prominent contribution to the new development of Jewish life.  A recommendation and a must when visiting the city is definitely the 2001 founded Jewish Museum in the heart of the old town. Following discussions with Gaiose SA, the organization that manages the real estate property of the Railway Organization of Greece, and the Municipality of Thessaloniki, the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki signed end of 2013, a Memorandum of understanding for the development of a Memorial Center on Holocaust Education Remembrance and Research.

For the German government, it should be a special obligation, honour and only a small helping hand, to successfully support the establishment and maintenance of this planned memorial site and cultural center. At the same time, the funds promised to Saltiel by the German government and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation have led to controversy within the community, since many people do not want to end the catastrophic chapter of the mass murder of the Thessalian Jews with a relatively modest donation. It is to be hoped that both Saltiel’s commitment and the legitimate demand for further work can finally progress. It is estimated that the project will cost a total of almost 30 million euros. The cultural foundation of the Greek ship-owner Niarchos wants to contribute ten million euros. Millions more are to come from American and French clubs. And the German Bundestag decided to promote the construction project with another ten million euros. Half of this has already been paid out.

By offering the city of Thessaloniki a new public monument, the proposed Holocaust Memorial & Human Rights Educational Center seeks to commemorate the devastating fate of the Jewish community, but also to recount its cultural history and rejuvenation after World War II, and to host an open forum for multi-cultural education and forward-looking dialogs between various identity groups.