Jewish Salonikans being registered in Freedom Square, Thessaloniki
The first transport from the city of Salonika, northern Greece, shunted out of the railway sidings on Monasteriou Street on 15 March 1943. It was carrying hundreds of Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau in occupied Poland. It is now the cargo depot; the new passenger station is a little down the line.
The Wilhelmine imperial project of a Berlin to Baghdad railway, in answer to Britain’s Cairo to Cape Town link, had been transfigured from means of economic and military competition in the belle epoch to artery for genocide at the midnight of the century.
In that frosty spring of 1943 all generations were corralled, standing-room only for days, into the cattle trucks. Almost all of those who survived the suffocating journey, melting icicles to quench their thirst – and many did not, were gassed within hours of arrival and turned to ash.
In just a few weeks, the near half a millennium history of the Sephardic population of the Aegean jewel of the Balkans (Salonika/Thessaloniki) was ended as over 40,000 lives were extinguished.
Not without resistance. Some managed to flee the roundup and join the partisans of the national resistance.
A friend of mine recalls how her father “was not very political. He was just a small businessman and not part of the left, which many Jews were. He escaped the roundup and joined the partisans in the mountains. They were Communists. And he became a Communist. The left meant to resist – and perhaps to survive.”
Jewish members of a partisan brigade in Western Macedonia, 1943
Among those few Greek Jews who were not killed upon arrival at Auschwitz were those selected to work in the crematoria – the Sonderkommando (“Special Units”) – disposing of the bodies.
And so it was that scores of Greek Jews took part in an uprising unsurpassed in its heroism and as testimony to the grandeur of the human spirit. On 7 October 1944 the Sonderkommando at Crematorium IV rose up, overpowering their guards and destroying the ovens.
Others followed, including at Crematorium II, and some escaped. Almost all were recaptured and executed. A few survived – it seems, 26. Perhaps as many as 300 Greek Jews, mainly from Salonika, had taken part, writing their names into the most incredible page history.
Their ancestors had arrived in 1492, following the expulsion of Jew and Muslim alike from southern Spain when Sevilla, Cordoba and Grenada fell to Ferdinand and Isabella in the conquesta. There was little re- about it and the imposition of an obscurantist form of Christianity upon the peoples of Anadulsia.
The Jews who fled and settled on the other side of the Mediterranean in Salonika created a unique musical, linguistic and cultural synthesis.
Forget your self-conscious fusion food in colour supplements – for true hybridity look to the City of Ghosts. That is the title of Mark Mazower’s magnificent biography of Salonika. His equally indispensable Inside Hitler’s Greece recounts the honourable record of rescue and of sabotage of the transports to the death camps by the Communist-led national liberation forces of 1941 to 1944.
The Saloniko-Sephardic creole –
Out of the mouth: Old Castilian, Andalusian Arabic, demotic Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, Bulgarian dialect, Aramaic, Aragonese…;
Onto the palette: Iberian and Iranian saffron, Greek oil and greens, Turkish sweetmeats, Arab mishmishya…;
On the ear: sufi, acem, rembetika, makam, tetrachords and all manner of musical devices.
The millenarian, multi-scripture message of 17th century revolutionary rabbi Sabbatai Zevi sank roots in Salonika.
How fitting, then, that this city’s radical, far-from-rootless cosmopolitanism gave birth to the Greek Communist movement two centuries later. It was embodied in militants such as Bulgarian-born Avraam Benaroya, who died in penury at the age of 92 in Holon, Israel, where his memory is shamefully effaced. But perhaps that is to be expected.
It was nurtured in the Jewish-led proletarian struggles of what became Greece’s second city when it joined the Greek state in 1912 following the First Balkan War (WWI came two years early to south eastern Europe).
Male dockers and female tobacco workers in Salonika and in nearby Western Thrace forged Greek organised labour.
On visiting Salonika in 1911, future Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion confided in his diary and to Theodore Herzl that it was a “Jewish city that has no equal in the world”. He was exasperated that its long-established inhabitants showed no desire to uproot and settle as colons in Palestine, to which they felt no rooted attachment.
The internationalist and communist tradition lives on in the struggles of today, in which Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Syrian and other newcomers resist austerity, modern-day deportation and racialised authoritarianism alongside those whose families arrived merely a little earlier. A blink of an eye in the eternal, gentle ebb and flow of the Aegean upon its pebbled, western shore.
Sadly, the music is preserved now largely outside of Greece. Yasmin Levy is one of the great interpreters and is connected by family back to the City of the White Tower. She has performed in Salonika often.
As the righteous demand for reparations for the Nazi occupation of Greece returns to European politics, let us raise also condign punishment for the right wing, royalist and collaborationist bourgeoisie of Salonika.
It was they who seized the immovable property of the 44,000 Jews who were rounded up in Plateia Eleftherya (Freedom Square): the choice of pen, a deliberate cruelty – not a bureaucratic accident.
Scandalously, the war-crime site is scarcely memorialised today today by plaque or sign. It is a nondescript car park.
The European leg of the Viva Palestina III convoy on the Corniche in Salonika
On the third Viva Palestina relief convoy to Gaza, via Europe, Turkey and the Levant, scores of us gathered at Freedom Square to remember, through story-telling, and to pay our respects alongside the socialist city councillors and activists who had welcomed us.
Young Bangladeshi participants from London’s East End proudly revealed to our hosts that they were from the same housing blocks – indeed, some from the very flats – as the equally youthful Jewish Communists who three generations earlier had organised the defence of Cable Street from Moseley’s Hitlerite incursion on 4 October 1936.
When we crossed the Evros River two days later into Turkey, we remembered the East Enders of the International Brigade who had battled Franco’s fascists at the near homonym – the Ebro – in Spain in 1938.
“A million pennies from the East End” was Tower Hamlets’ internationalist call to aidez l’Espagne in the war for the democratic republic. We were proud in 2009 to riff off that, with the permission of veteran Brigaders, in solidarity with the victims of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
That Jewish-Salonikan property which could be moved was sucked into the Nazi coffers, along with Greece’s national bullion reserves and much else besides. But the “real property”, the homes, the shops, the religious and community buildings… they were seized by others – by Greeks in Greece: the oligarchs who had distilled their own noxious anti-semitism and mythical racial purity five times over in a pre-Nazi campaign to exterminate the internationalist labour movement.
Today’s fascists of Golden Dawn are tied by a thousand threads of gold and family to the collaborators then. So too the more respectable chauvinist right. The grandfather of former prime minister Antonis Samaras was personal physician to a Waffen SS officer. Not a position that one would entrust to anyone with anti-fascist commitment.
Even the headstones from the old Jewish cemetery were dug up in desecration in the years of civil war against the left following the liberation. They were used as hardcore for the post-war construction boom, which bulldozed the graveyard itself.
The oligarchs enriched themselves, as migrants to the city, from Greece and from the diaspora, were crammed into poorly built blocks, just like the working class, timber-framed shoreline districts which were destroyed in the great fire of 1917. It raged for days, conveniently cleansing of Jewish proletarians the outstandingly beautiful corniche up to the iconic White Tower.
In the long boom and after, it was earthquake not fire which was to produce yet more ghosts, leading to the devastation of 1978 which bought sympathy from people in quake-prone Turkey over the heads of the countries’ rival ruling elites.
But the city lives on, once again a nursery for an emergent, European, new and young left.
It survives too in the acts of remembering, retelling and rediscovering which teenagers answering to Mohammed and Aisha are doing today in Shadwell and Stepney.
We can all too frequently bemoan the loss of collectivist tradition and belittle our own efforts as but a shadow of previous glories. But with common humanity and perseverance, our internationalism can be enriched, not merely preserved like rollmop herring in sweet vinegar.
The great Martinique-born revolutionary Franz Fanon once observed that it is not strictly true that colonialism and imperialism only destroy and deny the cultures of those they conquer and dominate.
There is a second dehumanising process also. They take aspects of those cultures, rip them out of historical development and lived reality and, as Fanon put it, “mummify them”.
They are then – sometimes literally – placed inside a glass case and re-presented to a viewing public as somehow constitutive of the timeless essence of the subjugated, whose inferiority then lies as much in quaintness resistant to change as it does in the primitiveness of what is taken to be a defining culture. Artefacts are preserved; history, annihilated.
In the battle waged in Greece today for all of Europe to be free of racism and fascism, the shades of this history, not their flattened simulacra, are with us – urging us on in the old Yehudice vernacular, so that they as well as we may find that tremulous cadence of peace, which Sophocles heard long ago on the shores of the Aegean.
- Sentir, Mano Suave or any CD by Yasmin Levy, much of whose work is also on Youtube. Here she is performing in Salonika: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJkNgytJkIQ
- Thessaloniki: city of ghosts and Inside Hitler’s Greece, by Mark Mazower
- The Black Life, by Paul Johnston and The Thread, by Victoria Hislop – two novels of different genre which draw on Jewish Salonika
- The Narrative of Evil, by Lisa Pinhas – a memoir by a Salonika survivor of the Holocaust, published following her death in 1980. The early account of growing up in the city – she was born in 1916 – ranks with Claudia Roden’s vivid recollections of the Eastern Mediterranean region as seen from a spirited girl in a Jewish family.
- The Greek anti-fascist movement needs your support in its campaign to ensure that successful outcome to the prosecution of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn – whose National-socialist anti-semitism is of the unreconstructed Der Stürmer variety. Please see the appeal in the international section at jailgoldendawn.com
(A version of this piece appeared originally in the Jewish Socialist magazine [London], Summer 2015.)