On Sunday Greece commemorated the first deportations of Greek Jews from Thessaloniki to the Nazi camps where thousands perished during the Holocaust.
Holding white balloons captioned ‘Never Again’, around a thousand people of all ages marched to the old railway station of Thessaloniki, where the deportations began in March 1943. Many people left flowers on the train tracks.
The deportations were carried out in cattle wagons, each holding around 80 people forcefully crammed in, said ceremony officials.
Some 46,000 Thessaloniki Jews were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau between March and August 1943, said the president of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki David Saltiel. Just 1,950 returned, he said.
“The community lost 97 percent of its members, around 50,000 people,” Saltiel said, noting that Jews comprised a fifth of Thessaloniki’s population at the time.
Virtually all Jews of Thessaloniki were murdered in the Holocaust
Before the deportations started, the Jewish community in the city, which mainly comprised Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had been chased out of Spain in 1492, had flourished to the point where it had earned the nickname “The Jerusalem of the Balkans.”
But then came the horrors of 1943, when virtually all of the town’s Jews were deported. To carry out this operation, the Nazi authorities dispatched two specialists in the field, Alois Brunner and Dieter Wisliceny, who arrived on February 6, 1943.
They immediately applied the Nuremberg laws in all their rigor, imposing the display of the yellow badge and drastically restricting the Jews’ freedom of movement.
The first convoy departed on March 15, 1943. Each train carried from 1,000–4,000 Jews across the whole of central Europe, mainly to the Auschwitz camp.
A convoy also left for Treblinka, and it is possible that deportation to Sobibor took place, since some Salonican Jews were liberated from that camp.
The Jewish population of Thessaloniki was so large that the deportation took several months to be completed, on August 7.
Honoring the victims of the Holocaust
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas and Thessaloniki Mayor Konstantinos Zervas were among the officials at the ceremony.
“With this memorial march we honor the victims of nazism, fascism, and antisemitism and share in the grief of their descendants, listen to the revealing words of the few survivors and unite our voice with the thousands of citizens that walk the same route, from the ghetto to the train station, putting into action the universal human message ‘Never Again’,” Sakellaropoulou said.
In the aftermath of the Tempi tragedy that devastated all of Greek society, “we are here to keep alive the memory of one of the most horrific and painful events of the 20th century,” she added, stressing the necessity of memorial events to highlight the true facts regarding the arrest, displacement and extermination of thousands of Greek Jews.
“Significant is the fact that, especially in recent years, Thessaloniki has acknowledged its own share of responsibility and explicitly condemned the mistakes of the past, in an effort to heal the historic wound,” she added.
The American ambassador to Greece George Tsunis and Israel’s Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis also attended.