Hopes diminish for ‘lost treasure’

Prospects for the repatriation of the archives of the Jewish communities of Thessaloniki and Athens and other records that were taken by the Nazis and recently discovered in Moscow appear to have diminished after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Athens last month. The Greek government, which has officially requested the return of the files and at times indicated that the Russians were seriously considering such a gesture, for unspecified reasons avoided raising the issue during Putin’s visit, even though it had said that the subject would be on the agenda. «The matter is under negotiation between the foreign ministries of the two countries,» stressed a source at the Greek Foreign Ministry, without elaborating any further. Negotiations, though, had seemingly made headway, as last year, during President Costis Stephanopoulos’s visit to Russia, Greece in a gesture of good will turned over to Moscow the flags of the Czarist navy which had secretly been spirited out of the country after the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1917, these priceless Russian relics were loaded onto the battleship Aghios Georgios, which sailed to the Algerian port of Bizeta, where they were delivered to the local Greek community and kept in an Orthodox church. But once the last Greek of that community had passed away, the relics became the property of the Greek State, which returned them to Moscow in the hope that Russia would reciprocate and turn over the archives of the Jewish communities of Greece. The Greek request was made immediately after the archives turned up in Russia, and the issue was raised by both Foreign Minister George Papandreou and by his predecessor Theodoros Pangalos during their visits to Moscow, as well as in written statements. The Russian government demonstrated a positive stance on the issue within the general framework of good relations between the two countries, and, in an initiative from Moscow, four experts from the Greek Foreign Ministry traveled to Russia in November 1999 in order to make a thorough catalog of the files. The Greek officials spent over three weeks and hundreds of hours in the basement of a gray building where the Russian military archives are kept, situated outside Moscow on the way to the airport. While cataloging the files, the Foreign Ministry officials discovered that the archives contained more than just records of the Jewish communities in Greece. They included a wealth of information on the activities of other Greek associations. According to sources, the archives contain three sections on the Jewish communities and another eight on other groups and populations. Specifically, 297 files were found to be related to the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, containing information on its activities during the period 1917-1941; another 117 relate to the Jewish community of Athens from 1901 to 1942; while still other files include records gathered on various groups and associations of the same period, such as the «Greek Association of Friends for Peace in Athens.» In 1943, all of these documents were sent by train from Thessaloniki to Berlin for inclusion in a central museum that Adolf Hitler was planning to build. The plans for the museum were never realized and the Red Army discovered the archives along with scores of other files aboard a train outside Berlin and transferred them to Moscow. Fifty years later, the Russian archives were opened and Athens made its claims official. In fact, it was the Russians who initiated the talks and, according to knowledgeable sources, it was the Russians who first requested the return of their imperial archives abandoned in Hania, Crete, in 1962 by the last Russian ambassador there, and to whose return Athens raised no objections. But what has happened since then, as Athens did not raise the issue during Putin’s visit last month? Have the Russians reversed their position after realizing that such a move would open the door to other countries’ claims, or have they made new demands that Greece is unable to satisfy? In any case, the issue appears to have stalled. The former president of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, Andreas Sefiha, told Kathimerini that the issue should have been raised when Putin was in Athens. «An exceptional chance to end the affair was missed as Putin is the only one who can intervene and bypass the immense bureaucratic hurdles,» he declared, expressing his disappointment. Thessaloniki’s Jews elect new leader Thessaloniki’s depleted Jewish community has elected a new leader to represent its small but historically significant population. David Saltiel, formerly vice president of the board of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, has taken the mantle from Andreas Sefiha who has been its president for eight years. The highest seat was granted to Saltiel by a 20-member communal assembly also responsible for the election of a five-strong council under the president. The community serves to bring together the city’s remaining Jews, who now number just 1,000, in comparison to 70,000 at the beginning of the previous century – half of Thessaloniki’s population at that time. The most overwhelming blow to the city’s Jewish community was dealt by German occupying forces who in 1943 led 50,000 of the city’s remaining 56,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps, from which only 1,000 re-emerged and of whom only 60 are alive today.

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