Sunday marks the anniversary of the departure in 1943 of the first train taking members of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community to the Auschwitz death camp.
Another 17 trains followed, deporting around 55,000 Greek Jews in total (the overwhelming majority of them were residents of Greece’s second city). Approximately 2,000 survived the Nazi death camps to which they were dispatched.
A lot has been written about how they survived the dreadful conditions at the concentration camps, particularly at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only a very small number are still alive today, the serial number tattooed on their left forearm serving as a constant reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust.
On Sunday, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the roar of heavy artillery sounding in Eastern Europe and as the risk of a full-scale war on European soil looms, Thessaloniki will hold a so-called “silent march” to the city’s old railway station near the waterfront where the convoys of Jews were forcefully rounded up by the Nazi soldiers and sent off to the camps.
It will be an emotional demonstration against the extermination of the children of Thessaloniki back then as well as against the crimes unfolding today in Ukraine, in whose capital, Kyiv, the Nazis murdered 33,000 Jews at the Babi Yar ravine during World War II.
It will be an emotional demonstration against the extermination of the children of Thessaloniki back then as well as against the crimes unfolding today in Ukraine
This year’s memorial will be led by President Katerina Sakellaropoulou (other Greek heads of state had simply attended the event), who will proclaim the “never again” vow along with those who have chosen not to forget.
It took more than half a century and a bunch of courageous folk to take on the stereotypes and prejudice before the city of Thessaloniki and the Greek state finally paid homage to its own people.
In 2006, the Holocaust Memorial was controversially moved from Thessaloniki’s eastern district to the downtown Eleftheria (Freedom) Square. It is here that the Germans rounded up and humiliated the city’s Jewish population before their deportation. There is still debate about whether the square should be turned into a historical site or a car park. Meanwhile, obstacles keep getting in the way of constructing Thessaloniki’s Holocaust Museum. (Plans for the 10,000-square meter [108,000-square foot] structure in the western part of the city were first unveiled by Mayor Yannis Boutaris in 2013. The museum was originally scheduled for completion in 2020.)
It was only in 2014 that the city extended a formal apology to its Jewish community through the lips of Boutaris.
“The City of Thessaloniki took an unjustifiably long time to break its silence,” Boutaris said. “Today it can say that it is ashamed of those in Thessaloniki who collaborated with the Germans, those who embezzled their fortunes and those who betrayed Jews who tried to escape,” he said.
Sakellaropoulou’s presence in the front line of the silent march will confirm that the country has turned the page on this horrible chapter of its history.