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A Short History of the Jews of Greece
The German Occupation Zone

German Tanks on the Acropolis The first Jewish community in Greece to feel the full weight of the Final Solution was Thessaloniki. The Nazis occupied Thessaloniki on 8 April 1941, and almost immediately started a discriminatory policy against the Jews of the city. Means were taken to arouse what anti-Semitic sentiments were present in the Christian Greek population, and several anti-Semitic publications which had been suppressed during the dictatorship of Metaxas were revived. A week after the arrival of the Germans in the city, on 15 April, the entire council of the Jewish community was arrested and replaced by a new council under the presidency of Saby Saltiel. This was the first official act in the series culminating in the annihilation of almost the entire Jewish population of Thessaloniki.

 In June 1941 the Jewish Affairs Commission (Judenangelegenbeiten), generally known as the Rosenberg Commando after the Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, arrived in Thessaloniki. Almost immediately its members began confiscating rabbinical, school, Beth Din, and private libraries, as well as manuscripts and priceless pieces of liturgical art. All of this was systematically catalogued, crated, and sent off to the Institute for Jewish Studies in Frankfurt. 

 The winter of 1941/2 drove refugees down from Thrace and eastern Macedonia towards Thessaloniki and Athens. The Bulgarians added to this flow of refugees by expelling as many as they could of the Greeks living in Bulgarian territory. The arrival of the refugees caused the already diminished food supplies in Thessaloniki to give out. Starvation and typhus exacted their toll, as did summary arrests and executions. The Jews were not the only people to suffer during these months, but an indication of the harsh conditions is the contemporary estimate that about 60 Jews died every day.

 The only apparently positive sign for the Jews of Thessaloniki during this bleak winter was the reinstallation of Zvi Koretz as Chief Rabbi. Koretz had been arrested on 15 April with the other members of the council and had been sent to Vienna. His return brought a ray of hope, soon proven futile, to the community.

 The next important incident occurred in early July, 1942. All Jewish males between the ages of 18 and 45 were ordered to assemble in Plateia Eleftherias at 8:00 A.M. on the morning of 11 July. It was almost an act of black humor. Freedom Square had been named to commemorate one of the first acts of the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 when the freedom, rights, equality, and brotherhood of all subjects of the sultan were declared.

 Approximately 3,000 Jewish men assembled as ordered on the hot and humid Saturday morning. They included every aspect of the Jewish population: stevedores, laborers, lawyers, doctors, directors of banks, and representatives of foreign firms in the city. Until late in the afternoon they were forced to do gymnastics, doused with water, and flogged, all of this under the gaze of German military and civilian personnel as well as those Greeks who came to watch. Newspapers the following day proudly described the indifference of the Christian Greek observers, an indifference reinforced by the silence maintained by all the city’s professional organizations.

 Having tested the public reaction, the Germans recalled the Jews two days later to repeat the ‘exercise,’ but this time it culminated in the registration of all present. On the basis of this registration, three days later, the men began to be called to forced labor in various parts of Macedonia and Thrace.

 The conscriptions had a catastrophic effect on the community’s already considerably shaken morale. Families were suddenly bereft of their sole source of support, as well as deprived of family unity and security. This almost satanic comprehension of Jewish family cohesiveness was the key to the success of almost every ‘action’ against the Jews in Greece in the next two years. Individuals chose to be united with their families in confronting an unknown future rather than be divided in pursuit of their own survival.

 The community did all it could to alleviate the sufferings of its men. At the  end of October a two and one-half billion drachma ‘ransom’ was set, towards which payments were made during the following months. This extortion absorbed what little remained of the community’s wealth, for private wealth had long since disappeared. On 6 December the Jewish cemeteries of the city were confiscated and systematically pillaged for building material. The Jews were now separated even from their dead.

 On 6 February 1943, Dieter Wisliceny, with his assistant Alois Brunner, arrived to take over the Rosenberg Commando. Within a few days of his arrival, he ordered the Chief Rabbi, Zvi Koretz, to appear. Koretz was told that Jewish affairs in Thessaloniki were no longer in the hands of the Gestapo but had been transferred to the Rosenberg Commando and that certain of the (anti-Semitic) Nurnberg Laws promulgated in 1935 were to be put into effect. Jewish identity was defined. Each Jew was to be marked by a Star of David. Each Jewish store and residence was to be marked both by a conspicuously apparent Star of David and a sign, in both German and Greek.

 Three ghettos were established, the main one centered around the Baron Hirsch Hospital compound. All of the Jews of  Thessaloniki were required to move out of their homes into the new ghettos. Jews were forbidden to belong to any professional or corporate organization and Jewish organizations were to cease functioning. On 1 March the head of every household was given a set of forms, so complete that it included room for dogs, cats, and canaries, in which he was required to list all personal and family belongings. 

 On Sunday, 14 March, Rabbi Koretz announced that a series of convoys, the first of which was to leave the following day, were being readied to transport the Jews to resettlement in Cracow. The following morning, as scheduled, 2,500 Jews from the Hirsch Ghetto were herded onto forty freight cars. Subsequent convoys left on March 17,19,23, and 27. Convoys left on April 3, 5, 7, 10, 13, 16, 20, 22, and 28. Two convoys left on May 3 and two left on May 9. The 19th and last convoy left Thessaloniki on August 19. In three months 45,649 people were sent from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz. Among them were more than 2,000 Jews who had been arrested in Verroia, Didimoticho, Florina, and Nea Oresteia. Only a handful escaped the crematoria. Malkhah Israel, the Queen of Israel, as Thessaloniki had been known for five centuries, was no more.

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