12 April 2018

Remembering so that it
should never happen again

Remembering the past … old books on a bookshelf in the Monasterioton Synagogue, the only surviving, pre-war working synagogue in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Yom HaShoah / יום השואה, or Holocaust Memorial Day, comes to end at sunset this evening.

This annual day of remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust, which is observed by Jewish communities worldwide, and began at sunset last night [Wednesday 11 April].

The full name of the day is ‘Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah’– literally the ‘Day of (Remembrance of) the Holocaust and the Heroism.’ It is marked on the 27th day in the Jewish month of Nisan — a week after the seventh day of Passover.

The date was selected by the Israeli Knesset on 12 April 1951, but it has become a day commemorated by Jewish communities and individuals worldwide. Since the early 1960s, the sound of a siren on Yom Hashoah stops traffic and pedestrians throughout Israel for two minutes of silence.

Some Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis have never endorsed this memorial day. Although there is no change in the daily religious services in Orthodox synagogues on Yom Hashoah, many synagogues are creating a variety of rituals associated with Yom Hashoah. The overwhelming theme that runs through all observances is the importance of remembering — recalling the victims of this catastrophe, and praying that such a tragedy never happen again.

Today, after my visit to Thessaloniki this past week, I took some time to think about the Jews of Thessaloniki and from throughout Greece who died in the Holocaust.

The Jewish Holocaust Memorial at the south-east corner of Plateia Eleftherias (Liberty Square), where Nikis Avenue meets Eleftherios Venizelou Street, recalls the 50,000 Greek Jews exterminated in the Holocaust. The memorial is a bronze sculpture by Nandor Glid of a seven-branch menorah whose flames are wrapped around human bodies in death.

On the eve of World War II, about 80,000 Jews lived in Greece. In 1945, the Jews of Greece numbered only 10,000 – 87% of Greek Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. The Jewish community of Thessaloniki was one of the most ancient in Europe. Between World War I and World War II, the Jewish population of the city had fallen from 93,000 people to 53,000 on the eve of the war. By the end of the Holocaust, only 1,950 Jews from the city remained.

Today, the Monasterioton Synagogue at the top of Syngrou Street, which I visited last Thursday, is the only surviving, pre-war working synagogue in Thessaloniki.

In my own two minutes of silence today, I not only recalled the Jews of Thessaloniki who died in the Holocaust, but also prayed that for peace in the world today, and the present tensions in the world and the threats of another conflagration in Syria would not lead to more catastrophes.

I thought of the sufferings of people throughout Syria, in Yemen, in Gaza, of the refugees and migrants who continue to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean, the migrants I saw in the streets of Thessaloniki this week, and of the dreadful conditions of many in what we call ‘direct provision’ in Ireland.

As Richard Pine pointed out in The Irish Times yesterday, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is now running third in opinion polls in Greece, and as spring and summer approach the refugee problem in Greece will become a season problem once again as the crossing from Turkey to Greece becomes slightly less dangerous.

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

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