“It’s tough, this square. It reminds us that the Holocaust in Thessaloniki was the heaviest link in a long chain of violence and tyranny. It also reminds us that the city’s Jews were an integral part of a colorful mosaic, that the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’ was also the ‘Babel of the Mediterranean.’”
It was January 2018 when the then mayor of the northern Greek port city, Yiannis Boutaris, said these words on National Remembrance Day of the Greek Jewish Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust in a remarkable speech that was regarded as a belated apology on behalf of the city for the way that it handled the memory of the Jewish community and its extermination in the Nazi death camps.
Among others, he stressed: “It is our desire that Eleftherias [Freedom] Square should become a point where the difficult, traumatic memories of all this city’s residents will not compete with one another, but will, instead, coexist in harmony, where they will be cast in a vivid conversation, promoting a culture of coexistence and mutual respect so that the heavy legacy of the past becomes a springboard to a better future. The new Eleftherias Square will symbolize the Thessalonians’ pride in their city – in its past, present and future.”
The new plan
It has been four years since Boutaris gave that speech and nearly a decade since the Municipal Authority of Thessaloniki (under his leadership) approved a decision to turn the downtown seafront square into what it described as a “memory park.” Yet the historic square where the Nazi extermination of the city’s Jews began is still a parking lot and may remain such. The debate about what will become of the square was reignited by the current municipal authority, under Konstantinos Zervas, which decided to cancel the Boutaris administration’s plan – which foresaw the area being exclusively dedicated to the park – in favor of a new design that also includes an underground car park. The overwhelming impression that the entire project is basically going back to the drawing board and will end up lost in red tape or will destroy the location’s historic character has sparked reactions from the Greek and international Jewish community, as well as from locals who associate the square with major historic events.
“Eleftherias Square is a place of democracy, where in 1908 all Thessalonians – Muslims, Christians and Jews – celebrated the proclamation of the Ottoman constitution. It is a place of evictees and refugees, the spot from which the old Thessalonian Muslims departed in 1922-23 and the new refugees from Asia Minor and Pontus landed. And it is a place of torment, of the public humiliation of Thessaloniki’s Jews, where on that dark Saturday of July 9, 1943, the Germans pilloried 9,000 male Jews,” the city’s former mayor had said in his speech.
Eleftherias Square did not even have a Holocaust memorial until 2007, and even that was an embarrassing saga which began in 1997 in response to reactions over the fact that it had been more than 60 years since its Jewish population was all but wiped out, yet Thessaloniki still did not have a memorial paying tribute to those 50,000 souls. It took a public outcry and pressure from the US State Department to put up a Holocaust memorial. Yet even then, it was not put in a central location, but banished to the east of the city, until a fresh round of international pressure got it moved to one corner of Eleftherias Square, where it is visited by thousands of people every year.
Like the memorial, as soon as efforts began to bring the square out of its state of insignificance, there were reactions. But the Boutaris administration pressed on, carrying out the study for the square and its immediate vicinity, and calling a tender for a contractor. Among other things, the plan called for the Holocaust Memorial to be moved from the corner to the middle of the square, for the city bus station to be relocated and for revamps to several historic buildings around it, like the neoclassical building of the Wehrmacht garrison that carried out the roundup of the Jews.
The plan ground to a halt in 2019, however, with Zervas’ election. True to his promise to deal with the city’s traffic congestion problem by building an underground car park at Eleftherias Square, the new mayor set about the task. However, instead of assigning the existing project to a new contractor after the first one declared bankruptcy, he canceled the entire process and launched it afresh, even though digging machines had already started work.
A symbol of inhumanity
The reactions were vehement. The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) issued a statement reminding that Eleftherias is a symbol of “human degradation,” “inhumanity” and “the beginning of a campaign to exterminate the city’s Jewish population.” It went on to note that “the state, the local administration and the social stakeholders should showcase and safeguard its historic memory.”
The issue also grabbed the attention of Jewish media and drew criticism from one of the city’s most prominent Jews, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, who brought it up with the mayor.
Zervas defended the decisions in comments to Kathimerini, saying that he wants to use the area beneath the square to help ease traffic congestion in the city center while retaining its character as a memorial on the surface.
He said the study for the new plan is already under way and should be finished by the end of the summer, so that the project can start in 2023. “Once the study is finished, it will be put to public consultation and will be discussed by the municipal council. The first part of the study has already been delivered and sees the underground parking facility as viable,” Zervas said.
Critics of the new plan, however, fear that the memorial will be put on the back burner and that the mayor cares more for the car park. They argue that the parking lot will generate even more traffic in the square’s immediate vicinity, while also noting that it will take a lot of time and money to build an underground facility in an area that is so close to the sea and is bound to have structural issues.
“As far as we are concerned, the memorial project just needs to get done and it is unconscionable that it should be a car park like it is today. We’re told that the car park will be underground and the memorial park will be above it, but we’re also hearing about water, antiquities etc. It remains to be seen whether it will be feasible under such circumstances and in what timeframe,” the head of KIS, David Saltiel, told Kathimerini.
Yiannis Boutaris argues that a car park in that location will create an even bigger traffic problem and will cause widespread reactions. “And I will be there, in the vanguard,” he said.
“Mr Zervas has proved his determination to demolish, dismiss and abolish everything we accomplished. If he had any sense, he would scrap the car park, or there may be trouble. And I say publicly that I will be the first to start the fight,” Boutaris added.
Zervas, for his part, accused Boutaris of being a “constant reactionary.”
The battle lines are clearly drawn and with the study due in the fall, we can expect developments on this front. However, as the country enters pre-election mode, it is reasonable to wonder to what extent the municipal authority will risk stirring up an issue that is already so divisive.
For Lazaros Sefiha, the vice president of the board of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, there are no two ways about it: “It is a disgrace for the city for such a space to have a parking lot.”