The President of Israel was in Thessaloniki to break ground for the construction of the new Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki which has been called “the fulfillment of a historic responsibility,” by the city’s mayor, Yiannis Boutaris.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin joined Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for a foundation stone-laying ceremony for a Holocaust museum in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, which lost 97 percent of its Jewish community during the war.
Seven decades since the last train of Jews left the city for concentration camps in Poland, a fitting memorial will be built to tens of thousands of people who once flourished in this northern Greek city.
The survivors of the community that once was the majority population in this historic city– now numbering about 1,000 people, have long dreamed of a fitting memorial to a once-great community that had its own schools, hospitals, newspapers and other institutions.
At the turn of the last century, almost 100,000 Jews lived in the city that was a key trading port in the Ottoman Empire, making up about 60 per cent pf the population.
But Hitler’s Final Solution change that. On March 15, 1943 the Nazis began deporting the Jews of Thessaloniki. Four thousand people left on the first convoy and went straight to Auschwitz where most immediately faced death.
Eighteen convoys followed and by August of the same year, 49,000 out of the city’s pre-World War II population of some 55,000 Jews had been deported. Less than 2,000 survived.
The Germans not only destroyed the population but with the assistance of many collaborating Thessaloniki Greek Christian natives, aimed to wipe out the community’s cultural and financial imprints.
Thousands of parcels of Jewish properties were looted, synagogues were destroyed and a massive cemetery– the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe and one of the largest in the world– was decimated.
Marble from thousands of tombstones was used for building materials in many public works projects, including Greek Orthodox Churches and classroom buildings of the University of Thessaloniki, which also appropriated the property of the cemetery to build on.
The few who survived and returned to the city have been relentless in trying to keep their ancient traditions alive and rebuild their community.
For decades, they found a largely Greek Christian city with little interest in confronting the great diversity that once made Thessaloniki internationally recognized, or the horrors of the past, including the annihilation of its once-majority population of Jews.
Mayor Boutaris has been credited with the newfound soul-searching that Thessaloniki and many of its residents are currently experiencing.
“This is the fulfillment of a historic responsibility for Thessaloniki,” Boutaris said when he announced the museum’s construction, which is being built across the train tracks from the very spot where the cattle trains were loaded with people seventy six years ago.
The museum will have a memorial to the Jews who were murdered, as well as exhibitions devoted to the culture and history of the city’s Sephardic Jewish community, as well as the story of the smaller Romaniote Jewish community that’s been in Greece for more than 2,000 years.
The German government donated 10 million euro for the project, with the balance coming from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
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