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
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
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
The future of the enormous Sephardi cemetery was already in doubt before the Second World War and the German occupation of
Prof. Steven Bowman of the
"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
For more on Jewish Thessaloniki see:
Steven Bowman, ed., The Holocaust in
Elias Messinas, The Synagogues of