Survivor of World War II concentration camp in Thessaloniki returns and remembers

The Pavlos Melas military camp, between Stavroupolis, Polichnis and Neapolis in Thessaloniki’s northwest, 38 hectares in the heart of Thessaloniki’s most downmarket area, is to be handed over to local residents for recreation, parkland and cultural activities. In other words, after more than a century, the camp will cease to exist. It is only one of many military camps around the country that are to close following a decision by the National Defense Ministry to reorganize the structure of the military forces. All these camps are to be handed over to local municipalities. However, behind the barbed wire, the stone walls and Ottoman buildings, the Pavlos Melas camp conceals the memory of a nightmare for thousands of people who passed through its gates as prisoners during the Nazi occupation. Some survived, others were executed. Place of annihilation The camp was used by the Germans from 1941-1944 to gather, imprison and then execute Greeks and foreigners – from Yugoslavia, Albania, Britain, Poland, Russia and elsewhere – and resistance fighters as well as unsuspecting Thessaloniki residents seized in retaliation for attacks on Nazi forces. More than 800 people are believed to have been executed, and around 5,000 imprisoned there during the occupation. Greeks were held in two large buildings, one for those serving sentences apart from the death penalty, the other for those awaiting trial and hostages – the latter being those who usually ended up in front of a firing squad. Whenever resistance organizations attacked occupation forces in the area, the Germans went into the second building and took them to be shot at Toumba, outside the camp, at Eptapyrgio, near the Mikra airport, at Kokkino Spiti in the Doxa district, at the Papageorgiou plinth factory, at the abattoirs, at Dervani and the bed of the Gallikos River, and at Derveni. The Melas camp was one of 36 concentration camps the Germans set up in Greece at which a total of 48,000 people were executed and over 100,000 imprisoned. It was described as one of the worst, along with the ones at Haidari and the Hatzicostas camp in Larissa. Those who were lucky to get out alive speak of an «endless bloodbath» and «death’s antechamber.» Now, 58 years after the «symbol of shame» closed, to reopen as a military camp, one of its former inmates, 77-year-old Giorgos Oraiopoulos, passed through its doors again a few days ago. This time, however, he was coming as a visitor, to recall his nine months of imprisonment there. With him was Stefanos Balis, another regular visitor to the camp at that time, who used to go in and out bringing food to his brother, but whom he only saw once, as they were bringing him out to be executed. Oraiopoulos had no difficulty recalling the place or the events, when he reached the building that now houses the 9th Support Brigade. Death row «This was the German administration’s headquarters, this is where they decided our fates,» he told us. «Right next to the large building was where those convicted of various crimes were held, chiefly for participating in resistance activities, and others were convicted of crimes,» he added. But when he saw the building next to it, he was silent for some minutes and then said: «Whoever went in there was destined to die. Here were those waiting or on trial and the hostages. When the Germans wanted to carry out executions they came at dawn with a list and took out those they had decided on beforehand.» The tension mounted as the German officer began to read out the names. When he had finished, those whose names had not been heard breathed loud sighs of relief. Yet their problems were not over. The usual place of execution, Toumba in Stavroupolis, was visible from the building. Other inmates or municipal workers had dug the graves and so knew what was to happen, although in order to avert riots, the Germans often said they were taking them to other prisons or releasing them. For two hours Balis and Oraiopoulos, accompanied by Brigadier Dimitris Davakis, walked around the camp that had marked their lives in one way or another. They looked around, remembered without saying much, and then left the camp without a word.