08 April 2018

Remembering the Holocaust
in the only surviving pre-war
synagogue in Thessaloniki

Inside the Monasterioton Synagogue, the only surviving pre-war synagogue in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

Seventy years ago today, on 8 April 1948, a large service was held in the Monasterioton Synagogue in Thessaloniki to commemorate the annihilation of 96 per cent of the Jewish population of this city.

Between World War I and World War II, the Jewish population of this city had fallen from 93,000 people to 53,000 on the eve of the war.

On 11 July 1942, known as the ‘Black Shabbat,’ all the Jewish men in Thessaloniki aged from 18 to 45 were rounded up in Plateia Eleftherias (Liberty Square) in the city centre. Throughout the afternoon, they were forced at gunpoint into humiliating physical exercises.

The Holocaust Memorial in Plateia Eleftherias (Liberty Square) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

About 4,000 men were ordered to build a road for the Germans, linking Thessaloniki to KaterĂ­ni and Larissa, a region rife with malaria. Within 10 weeks, 12% of them had died of exhaustion and disease. The Germans also forcibly confiscated the Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki, with 300,000 to 500,000 graves. Today this site is the home of the Aristotle University.

About 3,000 to 5,000 Jews escaped from Thessaloniki, some proving Italian citizenship and others joining the resistance. In all, 54,000 Jews from Thessaloniki were shipped to the Nazi extermination camps. More than 90% of the total Jewish population of the city were murdered during the war. Only the Polish Jews experienced a greater level of destruction.

At Birkenau, about 37,000 Jews from Thessaloniki were gassed immediately, especially women, children and the elderly. Nearly a quarter of all 400 experiments perpetrated on the Jews were on Greek Jews, especially those from Thessaloniki.

In the 1943-1944, the Jews from Thessaloniki were a significant proportion of the workforce of Birkenau, making up to 11,000 of the labourers.

Many Jews from Thessaloniki were also integrated into the Sonderkommandos. On 7 October 1944, they attacked German forces with other Greek Jews, in an uprising planned in advance, storming the crematoria and killing about twenty guards. A bomb was thrown into the furnace of the crematorium III, destroying the building. As they were massacred by the Germans, the insurgents went to their deaths singing a Greek partisan song and the Greek National Anthem.

The return to Thessaloniki was a shock. Many of those who returned were often the sole survivors from their families. They returned to find their homes occupied by Christian families who had bought them from the Germans. The 1951 census listed 1,783 survivors.

The memorial in the former Jewish cemetery at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Monasterioton Synagogue at the top of Syngrou Street is the only surviving, pre-war working synagogue in Thessaloniki. It was designed by the architect Eli Levi and built in 1927 by Jews from Monastir in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The synagogue was saved during World War II because it had been requisitioned by the Red Cross as a warehouse. The building was structurally damaged by the earthquake in June 1978, but it was restored by the Greek government and is in use today.

As I look out my hotel room this morning, 70 years after that service on 8 April 1948, I can see Syngrou Street rise before me. The synagogue at the top of the street is one of the three functioning synagogues in Thessaloniki, and it is here that the Holocaust is remembered each year.

Looking up Syngrou Street from the balcony of my hotel room towards the Monasterioton Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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