The construction of a new Holocaust museum in Thessaloniki, Greece, turns a page in the history of this city’s once thriving Jewish community that was nearly wiped out during the Holocaust.
Thessaloniki was formerly home to Greece’s largest Jewish community. Following the Jewish expulsion from Spain, the city was one of the most prominent centers for Sephardic Jewry for more than 450 years.
The city, also once known as Salonica, was so synonymous with its flourishing Jewish community that 16th-century Jewish Portuguese author Samuel Usques deemed it “the metropolis of Israel, the city of Justice, the mother of Israel same as Jerusalem itself.”
The Jewish community’s influence in the city was so significant that all trade and businesses — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — shut down on the Sabbath and during Jewish holidays.
At its peak during the Ottoman Empire, around 90,000 Jews lived in Thessaloniki. By the beginning of the 20th century, about 56,000 Jews remained.
During the early days of the Zionist movement, a young David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi both visited Thessaloniki to study its thriving Jewish society as a model for the future Jewish state.
The Nazis invaded Thessaloniki in April 1941, and two years later began killing Greece’s Jews. In March 1943, the Nazis began deporting Thessaloniki’s Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland.
By August 1943, an astounding 96 percent of the city’s Jewish community had perished in concentration camps. Today’s Jewish population there numbers fewer than 1,000, with three synagogues serving the community.
The mission of the Thessaloniki Holocaust Memorial Museum is to keep alive the memory of the city’s once vibrant Jewish community. The museum is expected to be completed in two years.
Greece’s Ambassador to Israel Konstantinos Bikas told JNS.org, “[The] Holocaust is one of the worst crimes ever. Its history should, and will, stay alive out of respect for the Jewish lives that perished and so that such unspeakable suffering will not be experienced in the future. The Holocaust Memorial Museum of Thessaloniki will enshrine the memory of the Holocaust and will pass it on to future generations.”
At a ceremony earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with the grown children of Greek Jewish Holocaust survivor Moshe Ha-Elion — who lit a torch at this year’s Yom HaShoah memorial ceremony in Israel — unveiled a plaque for the planned museum.
Netanyahu and his wife were accompanied by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Cyprus President Nicos
Anastasiades and Thessaloniki’s Mayor Yiannis Boutaris. Tsipras noted the shared history of Greece and Israel and how the museum would safeguard the memory of the Holocaust, as well as one of the most dramatic eras in the history of Thessaloniki.
“You cannot build your future unless you know your past,” Boutaris said, revealing the site’s commemorative plaque.
In his remarks, Netanyahu touched on Thessaloniki’s recent history in which the Nazis almost completely destroyed the “extraordinary and proud Jewish community.”
He also shared a little-known story about the “heroism of the Greeks,” in “the case of the Island of Zakynthos, where the German commander said, ‘Give me a list of the Jews’ and the bishop and the mayor brought a list of the Jews, two names. They said, ‘This is our Jews [sic]. Take us.’ We honor these two great heroes among the righteous among the nations in [Israel’s] Yad Vashem.” JN