THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, commemorated on Sunday the 80th anniversary of the departure of the first train convoy for the Auschwitz camp.
Officials, led by President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, marched from Eleftherias ("Freedom") Square, where members of the city’s Jewish community were rounded up by the German occupying forces, to the city’s Old Train Station, where they laid red carnations on the tracks. Some marchers held a banner reading “Thessalonki Auschwitz 80 years: Never again” and white balloons carrying the same slogan were released.
The first train carrying Jewish people departed from the station, which is now a freight terminal, on March 15, 1943; the last one, on Aug. 7 that year. Most Jews, more than 48,000 of them, were sent to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau sub-camp, where almost all were immediately gassed. Another 4,000 were sent to Treblinka and a smaller number to Bergen Belsen. About 90% of a once-thriving community, most of them descendants of Sephardic Jews who fled Spain after 1492, perished in the Holocaust.
“Thessaloniki has acknowledged its part of the responsibility” in the fate of the Jewish community, Sakellaropoulou said. Thessaloniki, once part of the Ottoman Empire, was captured by Greece in 1912, and relations between the Greek and Jewish communities were often uneasy. The tension was exacerbated by the arrival, after 1922, of ethnic Greeks fleeing Asia Minor following Greece’s defeat in a three-year war with Turkey. The new impoverished refugees saw Thessaloniki’s Jews, many of them successful professionals, as remnants of the hated Ottoman Empire.
European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas said that, just like the Nuremberg court administered justice after World War II, “The Hague (court) awaits those who think they will play history’s executioners.”
Schinas also made reference to preparations to set up a European network of locations associated with the Holocaust.
David Saltiel, head of Greece’s Central Jewish Council and vice president of the World Jewish Congress, expressed his satisfaction that a long-planned Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki will soon be ready.
The Israeli government was represented by Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis, who mentioned that his paternal grandparents left Thessaloniki in 1944, the year the city was liberated from the Germans. Akunis was one of the featured speakers at the ceremony, along with Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization.
Among the attendees was 75-year-old Shlomo Sevy, both of whose parents were among the rare Auschwitz survivors. He said his father had told him “'don’t ask how we stayed alive,'” he told The Associated Press.
There are now only about 1,200 Jews living in Thessaloniki, once home of Europe’s largest Jewish community called the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” Smaller Jewish populations in other Greek cities were also heavily affected by the Holocaust, but not to the same extent. In Athens, especially, many Jews passed themselves off as Christians, with the assistance of the local population.
Demetris Nellas reported from Athens.