Thessaloniki: City of forgetfulness

Thessaloniki: City of forgetfulness

Even though I’m half-Thessalonikian, I don’t know the city well. Last there for the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in November, I walked past Eleftherias (Freedom) Square and saw it closed off with metal barriers. I was shocked when I realized where I was. There are just a few rusty signs briefly reminding people that this was the spot where the expulsion and extermination of the city’s Jewish population began. It was here that the Nazis rounded up some 8,500 Jewish men aged 18 to 45 on July 11, 1942. Dressed in their best clothes because it was the Sabbath, they were subjected to humiliation and torture under the searing sun from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., without respite or water. Passers-by watched without reacting – a precursor to the apathy displayed by so many at the violent uprooting of the Thessaloniki’s Jewish element. This incident was followed by the destruction of Jewish graves and the removal of their stones, which were used to build churches and swimming pools for the Nazis.

Now, the municipal authority have decided to turn Eleftherias Square into a parking lot. I saw crews working busily behind the metal barriers. Businesses in the area are delighted at the prospect. That was until the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece issued a stern announcement expressing its dismay and activists a few days ago painted the Star of David on the ground between the parked cars, turning stigma into a historical declaration.

The reactions prompted a hasty retreat by Thessaloniki Mayor Konstantinos Zervas, who said that the parking lot was temporary and added that an idea first put forward by his predecessor, Yiannis Boutaris, to turn Eleftherias Square into a memorial park would go ahead. He also claimed that the reactions to the parking lot were driven by “political expediency.”

This was not the first time, however, that Thessaloniki chose to slip into the black hole of forgetfulness, instead of acknowledging the painful memories that will help it come to terms with its history. Boutaris’ most valuable legacy to the city – the belief that history is shaped not just by moments of glory, but also by trauma – is being undermined by his successors.

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