Cultural dignity that genocide failed to kill

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The Independent Online
As the place to go when a thunderstorm strikes Salonika, I unreservedly recommend Molho's bookshop on Tsimiski Street, just a minute's walk from the Customs House and the bay that opens into the Aegean sea. Tsimiski Street is justly famous for its swish clothes and jewellery stores, but when the rain came down in buckets Molho's seemed the most inviting prospect.

Molho's is one of those bookshops that warms the heart because it does not dissect itself with icy precision into compartments. Instead, books are piled high to the ceiling in a variety of languages, narrow staircases lead you to more treasures, and the thoughts of Socrates are to be found next to the latest bonkbusters.

Yet Molho's is important not only for being perhaps the best bookshop in Greece's second city. As a rare Jewish-run business that survived the Nazi occupation of Salonika, it also demonstrates that a community, no matter how devastated, can still preserve something of its dignity and cultural identity.

The slaughter of the Salonika Jews has always struck me as one of the most peculiarly barbaric events of the Second World War. Although the city passed from Ottoman to Greek rule in 1912, it was the Jews who for centuries gave Salonika its special flavour and turned it into a centre of European Jewry on a par with Warsaw or Vienna.

Like the Jews of Sarajevo, those of Salonika were descendants of Jewish refugees expelled from Spain by the Catholic monarchs in 1492. More than 400 years later, they still spoke Ladino, their distinctive dialect of Spanish.

Their fate was sealed in early 1943, when the SS commander, Adolf Eichmann, ordered one of his most repulsive lieutenants, Dieter Wisliceny, to rid Salonika of its 50,000 Jews.

However, as the British historian Mark Mazower pointed out in his award- winning 1993 book, Inside Hitler's Greece, it is important to understand that the German army contributed just as much as the SS to the elimination of the Salonika Jews. Few episodes make this clearer than the horrible humiliations that the occupying forces imposed on the Jews on a hot Saturday in July 1942.

On the orders of the Wehrmacht commander, General Kurt von Krenzski, thousands of male Jews turned up for registering at Eleftheria Square, just round the corner from Tsimiski Street. There, to the amusement of watching German soldiers, many Jews were made to leap up and down, bend their legs, and perform other physical exercises.

As summer turned into autumn, the Jews were mobilised to build roads and airfields for the Wehrmacht. By December 1942, the Germans were demolishing the Jewish cemetery in eastern Salonika, using tombstones for pavements and walls elsewhere in the city.

The deportations to Auschwitz took place between March and August 1943, and were so systematic that it is believed only 2,000 Jews were left living in Salonika after the war.

At one stroke, a glittering piece of Balkan civilisation had been annihilated. There is a chilling line in Wisliceny's Nuremberg testimony, quoted in Mazower's book, when he is asked how he can be sure that most Greek Jews had been killed.

"When one knew Eichmann and Hoess [the Auschwitz commandant] personally," Wisliceny replied, "it is not difficult to reach such a conclusion."

When making my plans to visit Salonika, I had not intended to write about the fate of the city's Jews. After all, I thought, it must be etched on the memory of all decent Europeans.

I changed my mind after encountering a British MP who was attending a meeting of the Council of Europe in Salonika. Though interested in European history, he knew nothing about the events of 1943.

For sure, Salonika survived and is now a sophisticated, prosperous city. But the history lingers on, at Molho's and elsewhere. It will be a black day if it is ever forgotten.

Tony Barber