Cultural dignity that genocide failed to kill
Monday 03 June 1996
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.
- 1 Reader dilemma: 'My boyfriend jokes about putting photos of us having sex on Facebook'
- 2 Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta clashes with President Obama on LGBT equality: ‘Gay rights is really a non-issue’
- 3 Ralkina Jones: 37-year-old black woman found dead in police custody
- 4 Kanye West praises Caitlyn Jenner on I Am Cait: 'You couldn't have been up against more'
- 5 Five-year-old boy forced classmate to simulate oral sex at primary school, claims mother
Mystery over deaths of 3,000 Napoleonic soldiers in mass grave has been solved
Global Peace Index: Ukraine tops list of countries with the worst relations with neighbours
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband
Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, 71, still enjoys 'an early morning joint' for breakfast
Denmark bans kosher and halal slaughter as minister says ‘animal rights come before religion’
The 9 charts that show the 'left-wing' policies of Jeremy Corbyn the public actually agrees with
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
The last thing Labour needs is a leader like Jeremy Corbyn who people want to vote for
What the Labour party could look like under Jeremy Corbyn
I am the Jeremy Corbyn supporter that many will tell you doesn't exist
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
£18000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing Insurance Bro...
£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Junior IT Support Technician ...
£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides actionabl...
Negotiable depending on experience, plus benefits: Guru Careers: We are seekin...