Friday, July 18, 2008

Greece: New Excavations for Subway Line Under Destroyed Thessaloniki Jewish Cemetery Raise Concerns

Greece: New Excavations for Subway Line Under Destroyed Thessaloniki Jewish Cemetery Raise Concerns

by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) More than sixty years after one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe was destroyed to make room for a university campus in Thessaloniki (Salonika), Greece; excavation at the Aristotle University for a subway line has spurred new interest in the site’s history, new concerns about the fate of the thousands of Jewish graves, and calls for broader public recognition that the University is built on the site of tens of thousands of Jewish graves. The international community is also showing interest. U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust issues, Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy, recently visited Greece to discuss the matter, which has been raised by the Greek Jewish community.

Excavations for the university library in the 1960s apparently uncovered many graves. Though tunnels for the trains will run deeper than the level of the graves, there are legitimate concerns that excavations for a station and for access and air shafts will violate burials. Witnesses report that the new excavations have already disturbing Jewish graves – though to what extent remains unclear at this time.

While no one has suggested that the University be moved or that the cemetery be restored, there is a general sense among protestors that any new excavation must stop, the graves must be respected, and that their should be some sort of commemorative gesture. At the very least, all excavation work done on the site should be done under rabbinic supervision so that graves are protected and remains properly removed for reburial. Such care for graves in uncommon in Greece where it is the custom to excavate and remove ancient burials, and where Christian burial is often only temporary – the bones being then gathered up and removed to ossuaries.

In recent years there has been improvement in the Greek response to the legacy of the Holocaust (when I lived in Greece in the 1970s I encountered widespread ignorance and outright denial of thelong and expansive Jewish presence in Greece). In March, Greek president Karolos Papoulias attended the Greek Jewish Martyrs Memory event on the national memory day for Greek Jewish Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust. This comes on the heels of Bulgaria's admitting responsibility for the deaths of 11,000 Greek Jews in the Holocaust, probably the major issue that has been pushed in recent years by American-Greek Jewish advocacy groups. While these issues are not specifically related, they speak to a more receptive attitude towards Holocaust history in the Balkans.

The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki has requested (again) commemoration of the cemetery and the community at the University. Moses Constantinis, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Greece (KIS) said in a recent interview of Agence France Presse "The entire area was once a Jewish cemetery. In-depth excavation is certain to hit upon graves and remains...We would not want the peace of the dead to be disturbed. In our religion, it is a sin to move the dead after burial...we would like the area studied and if excavation interferes with the cemetery, which we believe it does, then to avoid building (the station) or move it to a different location.”

Bloggers have proposed solutions ranging from naming the new train station after the cemetery, or more constructively, creating a Sephardic Studies program at the University. The cemetery dates back to 1492 when Spain expelled its Jews and thousands found refuge in the small town of Thessaloniki, then under Ottoman rule. As the community grew to be the largest Sephardi center in Europe before the Holocaust – with a Jewish population of over 50,000 - the cemetery became one of Europe's largest, too, with more than 300,000 graves. Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, now has a Jewish population of about 6,000 among its nearly 360,000 residents.

The future of the enormous Sephardi cemetery was already in doubt before the Second World War and the German occupation of Thessaloniki. Actions to expropriate the land for the University had already begun in the 1930s, before the Holocaust. This was not uncommon in the interwar period, as many European cities underwent major growth and tried to expand into "open" or "under-utilized" land. Usually Jewish cemeteries were spared because they were much further from the town centers, but not always. In Thessaloniki, it seems that after initial acquiescence, the Jewish community resisted, and that was the state of things when the war started. Then, with the killing of all the Jews, the problem was solved for the surviving populace, since there were few Jews left to protest the taking of the land.

Prof. Steven Bowman of the University of Cincinnati and an expert on the Holocaust in Greece (he edits the The Sephardi and Greek Holocaust Library published by Sephardi House) reports that
"the Jewish community [of Thessaloniki "sold" the graveyard to the city as a result of negotiations to bring back the men in forced labor. The negotiations were in Fall 1942. Subsequently,
there was no discussion of the graveyard during the postwar return of the heirless property of Greek Jewry to the survivors. When the community "sold" its rights to the cemetery, it was stripped of its marble and stone which was recycled by contractors; and "the bones of ancestors were removed to Stavropolis on the other side of the city where the main Jewish graveyard exists today." But Bowman says that only a few hundred families were able to move bones of their relatives to the new cemeteries granted by the city. Since it is estimated that the cemetery had more than 300,000 burials, many bones must remain buried, or scattered amongst the fragments of stones on the university campus and the environs beyond its border. Today one can see many fragments of stones from the cemetery decorating the gardens and entrances of buildings at the University.

The situation in Thessaloniki was not an isolated case. Many Greek cemeteries have been built over. In Edirne, for example, a road was cut through the cemetery.

For more on Jewish Thessaloniki see:

Steven Bowman, ed., The Holocaust in Salonika, Eyewitness Account, Translated with introductions and notes by Isaac Benmayor (New York: Sephardic House & Bloch Publishing Co., 2002)

Elias Messinas, The Synagogues of Salonika and Veroia. (Athens: Gavrielides Editions, 1997).

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