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The Jewish Cemeteries of Thessaloniki
Introduction: Thessaloniki (formerly Salonika before the Second World War) was surnamed the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”. (1) The two cemeteries of the city, one of them being destroyed and the other active, capture the history of its large Sephardic Jewish community, which we will now delve into.
History of the Jewish Community and of its First Cemetery: Leaving Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1496 after the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews as well as Italy, many Jews found refuge in Salonika, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. The trading city burgeoned under the Jews, which were the majority population, to the point that their culture impacted non-Jews. (2)
The cemetery was established on the ruins of a Byzantine cemetery; it covered 324,000 square meters (3) and contained approximately 500,000 tombs (4) out of which 300,000 were from the 15th century. (5) It is likely that it was the largest Jewish necropolis in Europe, covering an area of 86.5 acres. While it was originally located outside the city, it was incorporated into it when the city expanded towards the east. (6)
Due to the opening of European-oriented schools by the Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1873, the French language had become the second most important one in the city. (7) Hence, certain tombstones are in French. (8)
When Salonika was annexed by Greece in 1912, the economic situation of the Jews deteriorated. The Greeks were suspicious towards the Jews, whom they considered close to the Turks. (9) Isolated acts of profanation and vandalism began to occur, which was not the case under Ottoman regime. (10) In August of 1917, a fire ravaged many Jewish neighborhoods. Immediately afterwards, the city entrusted Mr. Hébrard with urban planning changes. The cemetery was under danger due to the adjacent positioning of the future university. Naturally, demands of relocation of the cemetery were met with protests from the Jewish community. Lengthy negotiations took place. During these negotiations, the political climate of Salonika changed. Due to the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which stipulated an exchange of population with the Turks, 100,000 Greek refugees arrived in Salonika. (11) In a context of economic jealousy, some of them settled near the cemetery; often, they were not respectful of the sacred nature of the site. (12)
The status quo was broken in 1936 when the Jewish community accepted abandoning 33,000 square meters of its cemetery against relocation of the tombs. Of these 33,000 square meters, 12,300 of them would be used by the university, the rest becoming a municipal park in which the tombs would not be touched. (13)
Salonika fell to Nazi occupation in April of 1941. (14) In July of 1942, during the Nazi occupation of Salonika, 5,000 men were selected to work as forced labor. (15) Several months later, those who survived were exempted from work since the Jewish community offered to pay 2 billion drachms and to give up the cemetery. In December of 1942, the expropriation of the entire Jewish cemetery was decreed by the city of Salonika and the Greek governor. (16) Certain tombs were supposed to be left intact. However, the Greek authorities did even more than what was decided and, at the last minute, ordered the entire cemetery to be destroyed. (17) Furthermore, as part of the handover plan, a cooperation between the Greek authorities and the Jewish community was supposed to help Jews find a location for a new cemetery. (18) Considering the speed at which the cemetery was destroyed, very few Jews were able to collect the remains of their family members. Some recent cadavers were given to dogs. The irony of the situation is amplified by the fact that the Jewish community reportedly paid for the workers who destroyed the cemetery. After this destruction and the deportation of almost all the Jews (95% of the over 50,000 Jews who lived there) (19), the plan to allocate lands for new cemeteries was suspended.
Until the end of World War 2, the remains of the cemetery were used as a quarry for the Nazis’ swimming pool, and later by the Church for its cemetery, by the city, and by the State Theater of Thessaloniki for its sidewalk. (20) These construction materials were used both on public and private buildings. (21)
The destruction of the Jewish cemetery can be attributed to the fact that the two interests of the Greek nationalists and of the genocide-oriented Nazis, were brought together in unique circumstances. (22) The Nazis were the “catalysts” of a rampant antisemitism, which permeated the Greek non-Jewish inhabitants of Salonika. (23)
Currently, the University of Thessaloniki is on the grounds of the former cemetery. (24)
In 2012, after 70 years of searching, 668 fragments of Jewish tombstones were discovered in Thessaloniki. Constituting a historical record since they include the trade of the deceased, they range chronologically from the middle of the 19th century to World War 2. (25)
In 2014, a commemorative monument dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish cemetery was inaugurated. Devised by Israelis, the monument contains five tablets (in Greek, English, Ladino, Hebrew and French) which remind the viewer of the destructive actions taken by the Nazis and those who collaborated with them. (26) A month afterwards, the monument was tagged with anti-Israeli graffitis; a vandalized Jewish tombstone, on which the word “Murderer” was written, was left next to it. (27)
The Second Cemetery of Thessaloniki: After World War 2, there was a new Jewish cemetery. Covering an area of 17,000 square meters, it contains some tombstones from the previous one as well as a Holocaust memorial monument (28), which was erected in 1962. (29) Today, only 1,000 Jews live in Thessaloniki. (30)