Letter from Thessaloniki

Was it on May 8 or on May 9, as Consul General of Russia in Thessaloniki, Alexander Prosvirkin, confusingly maintained yesterday in an article titled «Victory of Life Over Death» in Angelioforos? Should we now celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II along with the birthday of the star Icelandic soccer player Asgeir Sigurvinsson – who was born on May 8, 1945 – or on May 9 as maintained by Russia, then the valiant Soviet Union, a country which paid a very high price for victory (27 million dead, including 18 million civilian victims; 33,000 cities and villages completely destroyed). Whatever. The truth is that WWII ended many months later. It was on August 6, 1945 when the United States used its massive, secret weapon against Hiroshima, and three days later against Nagasaki, Japan. Actually the simple question that jumps immediately to mind after that is: should the world be trying to get rid of nuclear weapons? The answer to this is no! Mainly because it can’t be done anyway since one cannot disinvent them but also because it shouldn’t even if it could. Nowadays, nuclear weapons seem to be the main reason for discouraging any sort of really serious war from starting. «Conventional» third world wars do not seem to count. These past 60 have been years of a long nuclear peace. On May 8 (or 9), 1945 – what has officially come to be known as Victory in Europe Day – the Allied powers celebrated the defeat of the Germans, who had agreed to an unconditional surrender at Reims, France, the previous day. Their surrender came just six days after Adolf Hitler committed suicide and just under a year after D-Day signaled the launch of a new European offensive. Thessaloniki was once known as the most populous city of Sephardic Jewry in the world, the «Pearl of Israel.» Of course, that was before the Nazis. Today a Holocaust monument in the city commemorates the victims of World War II, including more than 65,000 Greek Jews. The widespread circulation of a rumor about a «Jewish treasure» over the past few decades is not odd. The story went like this: Just before leaving for «work in Poland« the German commanders – assisted by the controversial Head Rabbi Koretz – selected and kept the victim’s valuables. Five years ago, a team of special deep-sea divers launched a search in the sea region of Messinia in southern Greece for the treasure believed to be concealed in a sunken fishing boat or, according to others, in a German submarine. According to information at the time, the biggest part of the valuable cargo had been made up of diamonds, bars of gold and jewelry with an estimated value (today) of 2.5 billion euros. All this has been described at considerable length in an exclusive report published by the Athens newspaper Ethnos. Further rumors insisted that a top German officer, War Administration Counsellor Dr Max Merten – chief of the military administration with the commander of the armed forces in Thessaloniki – had confided everything to a prison mate in Germany.    Yesterday Angelioforos published a completely different story about the same subject: The treasure was not sunken at all, maintains a German historian named Goetz Ali, but was used instead by the German-run Bank of Greece to sustain the dangerously tumbling drachma used in occupied Greece.   Curiously enough, what we are experiencing 60 years after the end of the great war is, increasingly, a pathetic, second-hand literature of memory. Plainly, what we are in for is hardball. While memory experienced ends up in archives and those who remember disappear, memory procured by later authors carries on in the twilight of rumors. It is probably still too early for history to be re-written. Because there are only a few historians (such as the world’s foremost intellectual activist Noam Chomsky) who dare write that the rise of fascism in the interwar period elicited concern, but was generally regarded rather favorably by the US and British governments, the business world and a good deal of elite opinion. Personally, I can bear witness to that. I remember my Berlin-educated parents and grandfather being proud of a country they considered to represent the highest peak of Western civilization in the sciences and the arts. Of course that was before the most monstrous regime in history came to power and before international conflict could no more accommodate their perception of Thucydides’ maxim that «large nations do what they wish, while small nations accept what they must.»