Saturday, September 27, 2014
The recent event commemorating the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, organized by the Thessaloniki Association “White Tower,” with the support of the Jewish Community Council in the Victorian Parliament, was unique in the annals of Greek community endeavor. For the first time, Greeks and Jews came together to celebrate the history of a vibrant community that came to Thessaloniki in search of a haven from persecution and intolerance, only to be decimated, centuries later, by an inhumane hate-preaching regime, for whom persecution and intolerance was its sole raison d'être.
Keynote speaker Dr Helen Light, in providing an overview of the history of the Thessalonian Jewish community highlighted the manner in which it was able to flourish in Thessaloniki and make meaningful contributions to its culture and economy, all the while retaining and developing its own unique sense of identity. Keynote speaker Eyvah Dafaranos on the other hand, captivated all present, not only with her spellbinding bilingual English/Hebrew delivery, but also her unique, learned and sound analysis of Greek musical and literary responses to the deportation and ultimate massacre of Thessaloniki’s Jews, emphasizing that it is not only through shared places, but also through shared forms of expression such as music that communities can establish lasting bonds of friendship and solidarity. In his remarks, Greek Ambassador Dafaranos, in assessing the contribution of the Thessalonian Jewish community and its ultimate destruction at the hands of the Nazis, stressed the importance of continued vigilance against copycat fascist and racist movements such as the unspeakably vile one that is currently blighting the Greek political proscenium. This sentiment was returned to time and time again by the many Victorian state parliamentarians present, and indeed most eloquently by Federal MP Maria Vamvakinou.
Events such as these challenge the outdated, hypernationalistic narrow conception of Greek history as something that pertains only to the “Greek” race, (however this is defined), and properly places it in context with the world around it and the many peoples who have called Greece home. Organised as one of a series of events celebrating the sisterhood of the cities of Melbourne and Thessaloniki, the aforementioned event is laudable as it highlights the infinite possibility of development of a culture, in a region that is benign, benevolent and not only tolerant but actively advocates diversity. This was certainly Thessaloniki for a significant period of time and surely is the case for Melbourne today.
The praiseworthy homage to Thessalonian Jews in the form of the event organised by the Thessaloniki Association, cements centuries of interwoven cultural and religious existence. Dr Helen Light pointed out that historically, the Thessalonian Jews were left to their own devices. While some Byzantine Emperors imposed some sanctions upon Jewish worship, these were relatively harmless compared to the intense western European persecution of Jews and further, the Ecumenical Councils of the Orthodox Church emphasized the Jewish community’s right to worship freely. Other speakers mentioned the active role of the Greek Orthodox Church in opposing the Nazis’ deportation of the Jews during the War. Such a noble tradition comes in marked contrast to the intolerance and anti-Semitism displayed by Golden Dawn today, proving that its ravings are without any roots in modern Greek culture.
The function had at its aim not only the celebration of Thessalonian Jews but also the commemoration of the destruction of that community by the Nazis during the Second World War. At some state, though this was not within the ambit of the aforementioned event, it would be useful to examine the multiple facets of the terrible tragedy that befell Thessaloniki’s Jews.
The fact remains that the vast majority of Greeks who actively opposed the Nazi deportation of the Jews in various parts of Greece and did their best to hide or rescue Jews from their fate. The church hierarchy in particular, including the brave bishop of Zakynthos and Archbishop Damaskinos condemned the deportations of the Jews at considerable risk to their own lives, and issued fake baptism certificates and other documentation in an effort to save Jews from their fate.
A very small minority however, actively assisted the Nazis, claimed indifference and, opportunistically helped themselves to the spoils of looted Jewish property in Thessaloniki after the deportation of the community. In his ground-breaking play “Salonika Bound,” local writer Tom Petsinis emphasizes the lasting bitterness created by the perfidy of Greek neighbours refusing to deliver Jewish property they have illegally occupied back to their rightful owners upon the return of Holocaust survivors to Thessaloniki after the War. Fittingly enough, such reconciliation as takes place, occurs in multi-cultural Australia.
In his research, U.S historian Andreas Apostolou looks at latent anti-Semitism among hitherto marginalised elements of the Thessalonian Greek community, who jumped on the Nazi bandwagon. Thus it should come as no surprise that local Greek anti-Semites assisted the occupying Nazis in publishing two propaganda newspapers that vilified the Jews. On 21 April 1941, the day after Hitler’s birthday, Greek collaborators put up signs in Greek and German declaring “Jews unwelcome in this shop.”
Similarly, the collaborationist Greek administration in Thessaloniki assisted in Nazis in the oppression of the Jews. One figure for whom more than opprobrium is merited, is the administrator for northern Greece, Vassilis Simonides who was based in the city. When the Nazis decided to round up all the Jewish males of the city for forced labor in July 1942, Simonides issued a proclamation specifying that this applied to men of Jewish “race,” regardless of their faith. This was the first time that Greece had ever defined Jews by race. The Greek collaborationist police and the Thessalonian municipality participated in registering close to 9,000 Jewish men, while German soldiers beat and humiliated them. The Greek police then marched the men away to work on German military projects, supervised by Greek engineers. Demobilized collaborationist Greek military officers supervised the Jewish slave-labourers, sometimes participating in the German abuse.
In January 1943, the Germans provided the Greek quisling government with advance warning of the Jewish deportations. After his discussion with the collaborationist Greek prime minister Konstantinos Logothetopoulos, “ambassador” to Greece Altenburg told Berlin to expect “no difficulties” from him. As such, the collaborationist Greeks implemented German measures designed to isolate the Thessalonian Jews. Throughout February and March of 1943, they carried out German orders expelling Jews from public bodies and associations, forcing them to wear the yellow star, and banning Jews from public transportation. The Greek administration also assisted in the confinement of the Jews to two main ghettos, something unprecedented in Greek history.
Andreas Apostolou also points out that it was the Greek collaborationist police who, on 15 March 1943, marched Jews to the railway station. Eighteen trains, supplied by the Greek railways, took 45,324 Jews to Auschwitz. Further, Greek officials also persecuted Jews of their own accord. When, during the spring of 1943, Italian consular officials issued protection papers to 75 Thessalonian Jews with apparent ties to Italy, collaborationist Greek officials confiscated these documents, allowing the Nazis to arrest and deport these Jews. By late 1944, as the Nazis were preparing to leave the city, there were just 13 Jews were known to have remained. While the Red Cross, bribes, and an American passport saved five of them, Greek collaborators shot the remaining eight on 8 September 1944.
The recent commemorative event presents a unique opportunity for us to examine these difficult matters and to place them in perspective. Examining the extremely small extent of Greek complicity in the deportation and persecution of the Thessalonian Jews, as well as the vastly greater instances of the heroism of the Greeks who opposed such measures, will provide much needed background that permits analysis of the resurgence of intolerant and fascistic tendencies among some of the modern Greek populace today. The Thessaloniki Association is to be commended for reaching out to a community for whom Thessaloniki is also home and whose history is a shining beacon of endurance, survival and triumph despite the odds.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 September 2014