A Greek Town Tries to Honor its Jewish Past, but…

By Anna Pazos

On the sultry afternoon of July 4, about 100 people holding flowers gathered in silence at the end of a seafront promenade in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest town. They stood around a monument that resembled a tall, twisted bush, and squinted at each other awkwardly, as if awaiting instructions. Eventually, a woman stepped forward and left her white rose at the base of the statue. The others followed. By the time the sun had set over the Aegean, the crooked metal branches were sprinkled with marguerites, roses, and sunflowers.

The monument, which was built in 1997 and honors the nearly 50,000 Thessaloniki Jews murdered during the Nazi occupation of Greece, had been vandalized a week earlier during a nationalist rally. The flower offering had been organized by the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, an organization that represents the barely 1,000 Jews who still live in the town.

After the flowers were laid, Larry Sefiha, vice president of the Jewish Community, stood in front of a crew from Greece’s public TV station. “I think it is very important that Thessaloniki is reacting,” he said. “Every action has now a reaction, and this is positive, given the new existing sensibility.”

Sefiha was referring to the support given to Jewish residents by mayor Yiannis Boutaris, who took office in 2011, winning by a small margin of 300 votes. In conservative Thessaloniki, this unabashed recognition by a public official was unheard of. Boutaris, a winemaker who ran independently, broke a chain of right-wing mayors who wanted nothing to do with the Jews and refused to acknowledge the thorny circumstances of their extermination.

Boutaris has tried to put an end to the city’s amnesia regarding its multicultural past—including the fact that for centuries it was nominally a Jewish city. In January 2017, he announced the construction of the first-ever Holocaust museum in Greece. The $20 million needed for the museum, he said, would come from the German government and from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, a well-known Jewish philanthropy.

On July 4, a year and a half after starting the campaign for the museum, Boutaris looked tired, chain-smoking in the shadow of the monument as people approached him for photos. Even so,  his presence was uplifting for those accustomed to be ignored. “People are not aware of how much he’s made for us, and for the city,” said Erika Zemour Perahia, the director of the small Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, who attended the flower offering.

The monument stands in a corner of Plateia Eleftherias (Liberty Square), the site where all Jewish men from 18 to 45 were  rounded up in July 1942 by the Nazi occupiers to be used as forced labor. Seven thousand men were publicly humiliated for hours under the sun as bystanders watched from the surrounding balconies. From that moment on, the city’s Jews were no longer to be treated as citizens. A year later, deportations began. Almost 50,000 people—99 percent of Thessaloniki’s Jewish population—were murdered in Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps.

***

Unlike Athens, Thessaloniki can point to more than two millennia of continuous urban life. It was founded by a general close to Alexander the Great 300 hundred years before the birth of Christ; it remained a prominent city port during the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. Jews were there from its inception, but the Jewish community rose to prominence after 1492, when thousands of Jews expelled from Spain resettled in Thessaloniki, seeking  the protection of Ottoman rulers.

But the city’s history has been “decisively marked by sharp discontinuities and breaks,” as Mark Mazower, historian and professor of Greek and Balkan history in Columbia University, put it. The 20th century brought world wars, a brutal occupation, and several population exchanges with the neighboring countries of Turkey and Bulgary; all of it resulted in a progressive homogenization of the city. The Jewish and Turkish population eventually abandoned the city, and elements that reminded citizens of their Ottoman past were wiped out. Today nothing in Thessaloniki’s streets, architecture, or public life suggests it was ever something other than a Greek regional capital, bustling with rebetiko cafés and small Orthodox churches.

Boutaris had another vistion for the city. When he took office, Thessaloniki’s economy was flagging and tourism virtually non-existent. Boutaris took a hands-on approach at solving those issues: the city needed to be more appealing, and its rich history was its most precious asset, he maintained. In his first years as a major he travelled to Istanbul, in the enemy state of Turkey, and made a deal with Turkish airlines to establish a direct flight connecting the two cities. He also arranged a direct connection from Tel Aviv, aimed at boosting Jewish tourism. A Holocaust museum, he argued, would considerably attract the latter.

Boutaris’ recognition of Thessaloniki’s Jews and the city’s diverse history is not merely a publicity stunt aimed at attracting tourism. During his reelection swearing-in ceremony in 2014, he wore a yellow star of David on his lapel to protest that a member of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was taking a seat in the council. That same year, he organized a silent march from Plateia Eleftherias to the now-abandoned old train station, where the deportations to the death camps began, to honor the deportees and the murdered.

The announcement of the construction of the Holocaust museum in January 2017 was his latest recognition of the Jewish community. It  brought a wave of media attention, particularly when Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, payed a symbolic visit to the spot reserved for the museum last January.

The practical details of the plan, though, are hard to assess. Zoe Koutalianou, the mayor’s special advisor, said in an email that “by the end of this year [2018] the aim is for the Foundation to be founded and to obtain building permission.” Sefiha was even more vague about the timeline. “There are all of these procedures that we have to follow in order to take the building permit,” he said. “You know how it works in Greece.”

***

One afternoon in mid June, a few weeks before the flower tribute, Sefiha met me at the headquarters of the Jewish Community. In one corner of a majestic U.N.-like conference room stood a model of the projected Holocaust museum: a white, cylindrical structure that resembles Thessaloniki’s most prominent feature, the White Tower, which was used as a prison in Ottoman times and today houses a history museum. “Boutaris likes to say that these two buildings will speak to each other,” Sefiha said.

I asked him what he thought would happen if Boutaris didn’t run in the 2019 municipal election or if he weren’t  reelected. “I don’t know,” he said. “We need to hurry.”

Erika Zemour, director of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, was less optimistic. She started blankly at me when I asked her if she was involved at all with the Holocaust museum. She said no one knew when it all would happen, or who would provide the funds to keep it going. The current museum opened in March of 2001 as a project of the Jewish Community, and it provides an overview of the history of the Jewish presence in the city, with only the final stretch of the exhibition mentioning the Holocaust. Zemour said it was unclear wether the two museums would eventually merge, since one of the problems with the projected museum is the lack of material objects to expose. “If you ask me, I don’t even think it will ever exist at all,” she said.

Zemour’s opinion echoed  that of Jacky Benmayor, the son of an Auschwitz survivor whom I had found in his office on the top floor of a rusting sewing machine store in downtown Thessaloniki. It was a late June midday and the city was steaming with koufovrasi, a mix of heat and humidity that Greeks say can boil you alive.

Benmayor chatted cheerfully in Judeo-Spanish, the language of the Sephardic Jews, peppered with Italian, Turkish, and Greek. I barely saw his eyes, which were constantly half closed in laughter. He only became annoyed at the mention of the Holocaust museum, which he saw as an unnecessary splurge in times of austerity. He said the whole museum venture —building a museum to a population that isn’t even aware that Jews lived in their cities, least the fact that most were exterminated—, as the Spanish idiom goes, “building the house from the roof.” “I don’t think a museum is the way to go,” he said.

He then went on a tirade about how Greeks are oblivious about their history, mainly because the school system is failing to educate new generations. In 2014 the movie “Ouzeri Tzitzanis,” by popular Greek filmmaker Manousos Manousakis, portrayed an affair between a Jewish woman and a Christian man in occupied Thessaloniki. In the background there was the dispossession, deportation, and final annihilation of the city’s Jewish population. Benmayor said that shortly after it came out, an adult woman who was born and raised in Thessaloniki asked him if all that had truly happened.

“Only seventy years ago everything in this city was Jewish!” Benmayor said, raising his arms as if in prayer. “And now someone who’s born here isn’t even sure whether it was all a movie plot.”

Leave a Reply