It is currently unbearably hot on Eleftheria Square in Thessaloniki, temperatures are climbing to almost forty degrees. The inconspicuous parking lot is not far from the sea, near the old port, there is no shade. Eighty years ago today was a similarly hot summer day that has gone down in history as the “Black Shabbat”.
Saturday, July 11, 1942. It was supposed to be the traditional rest and family day for the Jewish community. But the German occupation authorities had asked all male parishioners between the ages of 18 and 45 to report to the square. They didn’t know what to expect: registration for forced labour.
Above all, they had no idea what cruel treatment awaited them. They had to stand on the pitch for hours in the heat. Those who arrived late, smoked or dared to sit on the ground were beaten by the German soldiers and their Greek collaborators. Some were also forced to do squats and other exercises to amuse the soldiers. Those who collapsed were tormented by military dogs.
Rena Molho, historian and pioneer of research into the Holocaust in Greece, points to one of the surrounding houses on the square: “This is the only surviving historical building here, the others were already destroyed in the great fire of 1917.” There, in Villa Stein , employees of the occupation authorities were there to observe what was happening. “These people applauded and laughed as people in the square collapsed and were humiliated,” says Molho.
From her point of view, the behavior of the numerous collaborators and those who simply looked the other way is particularly bitter. “Most of the Jewish Greek men who gathered here had risked their lives defending Greece against Mussolini’s Italy. Greece has not protected its Jewish citizens – like many other countries, unfortunately.”
Before World War II, Thessaloniki was a Jewish city. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Jewish community made up more than 40 percent of the population in the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”. The community had 56,000 members in April 1941, when the German occupation began.
After the “Black Shabbat” the extermination of the Jewish population proceeded at breathtaking speed. Several thousand men were drafted into forced labor and used for such heavy work that more than ten percent of them died of exhaustion after just a few months. The exploitation proceeded systematically under the supervision of the local Wehrmacht representative, Max Merten.
On his instructions, the Jewish community was able to buy many men free from forced labor by raising enormous sums of money. But the next steps in the policy of murder had long been planned: disenfranchisement, ghettoization, deportation. At the beginning of 1943, Eichmann employees Dieter Wisliceny and Alois Brunner arrived with an SS commando to carry it out. In half a year, more than 45,000 people were deported to Auschwitz in overcrowded wagons. Only a few hundred returned to Thessaloniki after the war.
The city still has a hard time remembering the catastrophe. There are research projects and growing interest. But hardly any places of remembrance. What was once the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe was destroyed by the city administration under German occupation, hundreds of thousands of tombstones were stolen and used as building material.
Today the campus of Aristotle University is located there, only a small memorial reminds us that the university is located on a brutally desecrated holy place. It is also easy to overlook the small Holocaust memorial in front of Eleftherios Square, which is still the central one in the city today.
A memorial park was actually supposed to be built on Eleftherios Square, as announced by former mayor Giannis Boutaris in 2018. The new city administration ignores the plan. “This is extremely disappointing for us, for everyone who cares about the story,” said Hella Matalon, a member of the Jewish community. From her office she looks down on the square where her grandfather Solomon Cohen was abused in 1942. The Germans beat him so brutally that he could not move the next day.
“Eleftherios” stands for freedom, the name of the square comes from the Young Turkish revolution, which had its center in Ottoman Thessaloniki, the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and demanded far-reaching reforms here in 1908. Given the humiliations of the “Black Sabbath,” the name is a mockery that is hard to bear, as is its current function as a parking lot.
The Jewish community is central to the history of Thessaloniki. Germans, but also Greek collaborators, are primarily responsible for their cruel fate. A proper commemoration of it is still missing in Thessaloniki.