The Betrayal of Salonika’s Jews
The Nazis’ mass deportations of Jews from Greece in 1943 and 1944 largely ended the life of a thriving community, one responsible for centuries of important contributions to Jewish culture and to the life of the land in which the community lived. Eighty-six percent of Greece’s prewar Jewish population perished. In Salonika, where 70 percent of Greek Jews lived, the death rate exceeded 90 percent. While the German campaign to kill the Jews is no secret, few in Greece acknowledge that the Germans had the support of Greek administrators and police.
Greece’s political leaders have paved the way for this unwillingness to confront Greek collaboration in the Holocaust. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras recently spoke of the Holocaust as if it happened in Greece by chance and as if Greek non-Jews were utterly uninvolved.
Yet the Germans succeeded in their nefarious work precisely because Greek non-Jews were willing to assist. The German occupiers of Salonika implemented their standard battery of anti-Semitic measures with consistent support from Greek Christian administrators, civil servants, and police. The Germans systematically impoverished, isolated, marked, ghettoized, and then deported the Jews. The number of German officials directly involved in deporting tens of thousands of Salonika Jews to Auschwitz in 1943 was relatively small, because the local Greek authorities cooperated and contributed their own manpower.
Salonika is central to the history of the Holocaust in Greece because it had a Jewish identity that many Greeks wanted to erase. Thousands of Jews fleeing from Spain and Portugal (together, Sepharad in Hebrew) had revived the city in the late 15th century. The Sephardim soon became a majority in Salonika, turning the city, then under Ottoman rule, into a major Jewish religious and cultural center. When Greek troops captured Salonika in 1912, they found a city in which the main language was Ladino, not Greek. Although the Jews were anxious about Greek rule, they adjusted, and the younger generations learned the Greek language. By the eve of World War II, the Jews were no longer a majority of the city’s inhabitants, but they had every reason to believe that they were Greeks and that Greece was their country.
The feeling was not reciprocated by many of Salonika’s Christians, and the arrival of the Germans in 1941 provided them with their opportunity. The character of Salonika had changed in the 1920s after a large influx of Greek Christian refugees from Turkey. The Greek government promoted the city’s Greek identity, even discouraging the use of shop signs in Ladino. The Greek press in the city was often viciously anti-Jewish, inciting a 1931 pogrom that claimed two lives. When the Germans entered Salonika on April 6, 1941, they found a willing cadre of collaborators and a broad section of Greek Christian opinion hostile to the Jews.
Local Greek anti-Semites volunteered their services to the Germans, helping them publish two propaganda newspapers that vilified the Jews. On April 21, 1941, the day after Hitler’s birthday, Greek Christian collaborators put up signs in Greek and German declaring “Jews unwelcome in this shop.” This was the first appearance of such notices in Greece. The German occupation authorities, who were not yet ready for such measures, halted the campaign.
Equally useful to the Germans was the accommodating attitude of the Greek administration in Salonika. Government officials and police commanders in Salonika complied with German orders and even showed some initiative. A figure central to the implementation of Nazi measures was Vassilis Simonides, the administrator for northern Greece, who was based in Salonika. Simonides was an economist with no overt ideological leanings, but he frequently did more than just translate and circulate German orders.
When the German military decided on a mass call-up of Jewish men in Salonika for forced labor in July, 1942, Simonides issued a proclamation specifying that the measure applied to men of the Jewish “race,” regardless of their religion. While this was consistent with Nazi racism, it was the first time that Greece had ever defined Jews by race. The Greek police and the Salonika municipality participated in registering close to 9,000 Jewish men, while German soldiers and sailors beat and humiliated them. The Greek police then marched the men away to work on German military projects that were supervised by Greek engineers. Demobilized Greek military officers watched over the Jewish laborers, sometimes contributing their own abuse to that of the Germans.
The relationship between the Nazi occupiers and their Greek counterparts was so good that the Germans were willing to trust the Greeks with sensitive information. In January, 1943, the Germans provided the Greek collaborationist government in Athens with close to two months’ warning of the deportations. Günther Altenburg, the de facto German ambassador, met with the collaborationist prime minister, Constantine Logothetopoulos, to inform him of the impending expulsion of the Greek Jews to Poland. After their discussion, Altenburg told Berlin to expect “no difficulties” from Logothetopoulos.
Instead of raising the alarm, the Greek authorities used their advance notice to push through German measures designed to isolate the Salonika Jews. Throughout February and March of 1943, the Greek authorities in Salonika implemented German orders that expelled Jews from public bodies and associations, forced Jews to wear the yellow star, and barred Jews from public transportation. The Greek administration helped the Germans confine the Jews to two main ghettos, which had never before existed in Salonika, and set Greek police guards around them.
The process of assisting in the deportations followed directly from these other initiatives. On March 15, 1943, the Greek police marched Jews to the Salonika railway station. Eighteen trains, supplied by the Greek railways, took 45,324 Jews to Auschwitz. Upon their arrival, the Germans sent most of them to the gas chambers. By the end of the war there were just 2,000 Jews in Salonika.
Greek officials also initiated their own measures against Jews. During the spring of 1943, Italian consular officials issued protection papers to 75 Salonika Jews with apparent ties to Italy. The Germans could not respond aggressively to their Italian ally’s behavior; the Greek authorities also needed to be careful, since Italy, along with Germany, was an occupying power in Greece and could retaliate. Nevertheless, Greek officials confiscated the protective documents. The Germans then arrested the Jews and deported them.
By late 1944, as the war was entering its closing stages and the Germans were preparing to leave Greece, just 13 Jews were known to be in Salonika. The Red Cross, bribes, and in one case an American passport saved five of these Jews. Greek collaborators shot the remaining eight on September 8, 1944.
The standard explanation for this kind of behavior is that defying the Germans was dangerous, with the danger forcing the collaborators to comply with Germans orders. This overlooks the fact that Greek collaborators and ordinary citizens in Salonika opposed German actions on numerous occasions, often taking considerable risks. But very few were willing to engage in such heroics for the Salonika Jews.
Andrew Apostolou is a historian based in Washington D.C.
There are no footnotes because this is an opinion piece. My academic article with full references to documents in Greek and other archives is here:
I named specific Greeks as Nazi collaborators, e.g. Simonides and specific groups, e.g. administrators and the police in the province of Macedonia. The Holocaust in Greece was centered on Salonika.
Let me put this in a more constructive manner: Using your logic, Greeks and Armenians today are totally justified to hold those Jews responsible for the direct involvement of prominent Jews in the movement of Young Turks and the Armenian and Pontian Greek Holocaust in Turkey that resulted in the loss of 2 million souls.
Should we sponsor "research" pointing the finger at the Jewish elite that dominated (and in some cases still dominates) the Young Turk movement in Turkey instead of the Turks themselves?
Ultimately the actions of those traitors you are referring to in your article was first and foremost directed against Greece and Greeks - especially the ones that fought against the strongest army of the time to protect their country from occupation. Naturally, the treason you are referring to had a devastating impact on the Jewish community residing in Greece. Let's not forget though that the Greek population of Northern Greece also suffered torture, starvation and death from the Nazis and their Bulgarian allies. Sadly, anyone reading your article is left with the impression that this "betrayal of Salonicas Jews" took place in lake Geneva, not the defeated and occupied Greece.
I've often wondered what Israel's first decades might have been like had they adopted what I've called the "Salonika model", rather than socialism. Instead of being sent to development towns, Sephardi immigrants with business skills could have created centers of commerce and trade, education and culture - just as they once did in Salonika.
Also, there was no nationalisation of Jewish shipping assets (???), it is wrong to speak of shipping trade in the first place (Jews were very active in all types of trade in Salonica, and absolutely dominant in international trade) and of course Greek nationalism started to hit the Jews in the first decades of the 20th century, not during the late 19th, when it was still a cosmopolitan city under Ottoman rule and plagued by conflicting, violent Balkan nationalisms (most notably Greek versus Bulgarian...)
The concerted efforts of the authorities over decades to silence and erase the memory even of the Jewish presence in Salonica stem from the collective guilt over the failure of the Christian majority to assist their fellow Jews in their hour of need (at best) or its active involvement in their annihilation (at worst)...
A small correction though; the main language in Salonica back in 1912 was not Ladino, but djudeo-espanyol (Judeo-Spanish). Ladino is not spoken, it is a classical, written language into which the Hebrew scripts are translated, and it is written with the Hebrew alphabet. Djudeo-espanyol was, until recently, the spoken vernacular of the Sephardim...
Greek News, NY
All of this is in spite of the fact that thousands of Salonican Jews fought against the Axis in 1940-41. In fact the first allied victory of World War II was won by a Greek unit led by a Jewish officer, Colonel Mordechai Frizis who had served in Salonica. He was killed fighting the Italians in December 1940.
Hundreds of Jews fought against the Germans in Ellas, and in fact there was an incident of a Jewish partisan unit that rescued a group of Jews captured the Germans in 1944.
The situation in Athens was better. The Jews of Athens were more assimilated into Greek Society and were not seen as outsiders like the Sephardim of Salonica. Until September 1943 Athens was under Italian occupation. The Italians refused to hand over the Jews from their areas. After Italy left the war, and Germany took over Athens, Jurgen Stroop, fresh from destroying the Warsaw Ghetto was assigned to round up the Jews of Athens. He called in the Chief Rabbi of Athens and demanded a list of all the Jews within two days. The Rabbi stalled. At the same time Jews in Ellas arranged to hide the rabbi in the mountains. When the Jews of Athens saw the Rabbi had "fled like Moses," they too went into hiding. The Greek Patriarch of Athens urged Christian Greeks to help their Jewish compatriots unlike the Patriarch of Thessaloniki. The Athens Police chief helped by providing false identity cards as well.
There are many contrasts between what happened in Salonica and Athens. The church and the general society acted differently, and there was better Rabbinic leadership in Athens. Unfortunately most of the Jews lived in Salonica.
In order to become more clear: by using the logic you and Mr Apostolou use, Greeks and Armenians today are totally justified to hold Jews responsible for their direct involvement in the Armenian and Pontian Greek Holocaust in 1920's Turkey that resulted in the loss of 2 million souls.
Should we say that the actions of the Jewish population in 1920's Turkey was a betrayal of their former Greek and Armenian neighbors? Should we sponsor "research" to point the finger at the Jews instead of the Turks?
Ultimately the actions of those traitors you are referring to in your article was first and foremost directed against Greece and Greeks. Did the Nazi occupation of Greece have an impact on Jews ONLY? Certainly NOT. How can anyone forget the torture, starvation and death of the Greek population in Northern Greece from the Nazis and their Bulgarian allies?
Sadly, anyone reading Mr Apostolou article and your remarks is left with the impression that this "betrayal of Salonica Jews" took place in lake Geneva, (not the defeated and occupied Greece) with the full cooperation and participation of the Greek population. In my view, this is a despicable and immoral attempt to re-write history, painting Greeks as collaborators of the Nazis and their crimes. Coming from you two, is totally disrespectful towards the people who sacrificed their lives to defend Greece in WWII.
Thessaloniki in 1940 had a population of 250.000, of which 50.000 were Jews of Greek citizenship (Greek Jews) and mostly Shephardim origin, speaking greek if at all with an obvious accent and a historic record of strong anti-hellenism under the Ottoman Empire (eg a Jewish Civil Guard of Volunteers fought against Greek revolutionaries in Cassandra in 1822 etc etc). The Greek population was mostly refugees of 1922 living in poverty with no memory of Salonica's history but memories of strong Greek-Jewish antagonism back in Asia Minor.
Salonica at the time was really a bunch of separate neighbourhoods with few social bonds outside them, not only vis a vis Jews but also among Greeks themselves.
The Germans could have implemented their Jewish genocide plan in Salonica all by themselves.The Jewish community there was too large to hide. They had the willing/unwilling cooperation of the underdog Greek municipal authorities, police etc in preliminary matters without their knowledge to where those initial measures would lead too. The Jews themselves believed they were being relocated, not to be exterminated.
All talk of "Greek Anti-semitism" aims to make the Greeks a scapedog next to the nazis in order to secure certain benefits, including economic ones. But it does not explain why the Jews of Salonica mostly perished while those of Athens mostly survived. My own sociological approach offers a better explanation.
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Not only in Salonika, but in Corfu and other places where Jews had lived since before the Germans came out of their forests and stopped howling at the moon, were Jews rounded up with the encouragement and cooperation of their Christian neighbors.
Esav Soneh Yaacov