The City of Thessaloniki has offered an official apology for what Mayor Yiannis Boutaris called the “darkest moment in its history,” the eradication of the Jewish community and legacy.
On Sunday, authorities unveiled a monument in memory of the old Jewish cemetery which was destroyed in 1942 on the order of municipal officials. During a ceremony that was attended by state officials, representatives of Jewish organizationsand university authorities, the city’s top official castigated the city’s collective conscience, pointing his finger at a past that the local community has for decades tried to keep in the dark.
“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.
Above all, Boutaris said, Thessaloniki is ashamed of the city’s officials, “of the mayor and general governor who consented without protest to municipal workers destroying 500 years of memory and turning Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery into a desolate area overnight,” he said.
Boutaris said there was no point in apologizing for the actions of those officials. “Responsibility is neither collective nor can it be transferred. But we do recognize that the institutions we represent were not born yesterday. They are vehicles of memory through time,” he said, adding that the loss of 56,000 Thessaloniki Jews was “a loss for everyone – Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and agnostics.”
In 1942 municipal workers – with the full knowledge of Max Merten, Thessaloniki’s German military administrator – destroyed the Jewish cemetery established in 1493 when Sephardic Jews from Spain first settled in the city near what is now the university campus.
Marble headstones from the graveyard were used to pave roads and sidewalks throughout Thessaloniki. Some were also used to build swimming pools at the mansions of wealthy residents and to pave part of the Church of Aghios Dimitrios.