Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Greece: Correction & More Details on Subway Under Thessaloniki Cemetery

Greece: Correction & More Details on Subway Under Thessaloniki Cemetery

Last month I wrote about concerns in Thessaloniki, Greece, about subway excavations under the Jewish Cemetery, now occupied in large part by the Aristotle University. The U.S. State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues has provided the following details about the situation in Thessaloniki. I thank Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy for this information.

The visit of Ambassador Kennedy demonstrates the importance of outside interest in the treatment of Jewish sites in Greece and elsewhere. Sometimes, it is only under the cover of international interest that the concerns of local communities can be fully expressed. In the case of Thessaloniki, it is important that in addition to Jewish leaders and diplomats, that international academics express their concern. This is especially true for cultural heritage specialists, ancient historians, Byzantinists, and archaeologists who work in Greece or with Greeks, and any other academics with dealings with the Aristotle University. There is a better chance that the University will do the "right thing" when its community knows that people (outside the local Jewish community) care, and that the world is watching.

"Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, visited Athens and Thessaloniki during the June 25-28 period to discuss the impact of metro construction on the old Jewish cemetery at Thessaloniki.

In Athens, Ambassador Kennedy met with Aristides Agathocles, Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry; two members of the Greek Parliament; the deputy head of the European Commission Liaison Office; and the head of the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece.

In Thessaloniki, Ambassador Kennedy visited the metro construction site, accompanied by the manager of the contracting company responsible for the metro project, representatives of the Greek Archaeological Service, and members of the Jewish community. The construction site includes three proposed entrances to the subterranean University metro station to be located below the intersection of Egnatia and Third of September Streets.

The tunnel for the metro trains, now being bored, is at least fifty feet below the archaeological zone, the stratum with evidence of all human habitation going back to Neolithic times. The tunnel boring does not, therefore, pose a threat to any of the interments. Ambassador Kennedy has briefed rabbinical communities on this aspect of metro construction and none has interposed an objection to the tunnel boring method. The construction of the University metro station has, however, raised some concerns.

Two of the proposed three entrances to University metro station, are close to the boundaries of the cemetery. Detailed maps provided by the construction company show the entrances to be just outside the cemetery boundary. Excavation work on the entrances has not yet commenced, but cement channels for utilities and other facilities have already been dug in areas that appear to be just inside the cemetery, along Third of September Street.

Ambassador Kennedy was told that this work has not resulted in disturbing any graves. He urged the Archaeological Service to continue working closely with the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, particularly if further excavations should uncover any remains.

As he did in an earlier conversation with the University Rector, Ambassador Kennedy urged during his visit that the University create on the campus an appropriate memorial to the cemetery.

State Department officials will continue to monitor the construction and to coordinate with the Jewish community, the contractor and the government in Athens. We will also continue to brief interested rabbinical communities as events unfold."

Also, Prof Steven Bowman sent in the following correction to my Thessaloniki "history.":

"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. There are today less than 1000 Jews in Thessaloniki."

No comments: