Thursday, July 21, 2022

Greece: In Drama, Remembering the Murder of Jews of Macedonia and Thrace

Drama, Greece. Holocaust Monument. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022

Drama, Greece. Holocaust Monument. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022

Greece: In Drama, Remembering the Murder of Jews of Macedonia and Thrace

By Samuel D. Gruber

I’ve recently written about Holocaust memorial monuments in the Greek cities of Thessaloniki, Chania, Volos. and Larissa. Those are places where there is a living Jewish presence, with still functioning synagogues and some Jews. There is no such life left in the former Jewish centers of East Macedonia and Thrace. The once thriving communities of Serres, Drama, Komotini, Xanthi, Komotini, Alexandropouli and  Didymoticho were entirely destroyed and their thousands of members murdered in 1943, when the Bulgarian occupying military, in coordination with German and Bulgarian governments, deported all the Jews from the region to Treblinka in Poland. The series of memorial monuments built in these towns by the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece since the late 1990s are as little known as is the tragic history they mark.

Twenty-five years ago, in 1997, public remembrance of this Holocaust history began the town of Drama. A memorial plaque was installed on the wall of the tobacco warehouse where the Jews of Drama had been imprisoned in 1943 on the edge of Agia Varvara (Saint Barbara) Park. 

Drama, Greece. Remains of tobacco warehouse at where Jews were impronsoed before deportation. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.
 
Drama, Greece. Remains of tobacco warehouse at where Jews were impronsoed before deportation. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.

Drama, Greece. Memorial plaque affixed to former tobacco warehouse at where Jews were impronsoed before deportation. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.

ΣΤΟ ΧΩΡΟ ΑΥΤΟ ΣΤΙΣ 3 ΜΑΡΤΙΟΥ 1943

On this site on the 3rd of March 1943

ΣΥΝΕΛΗΦΘΗΣΑΝ ΚΑΙ ΦΥΛΑΚΙΣΤΗΚΑΝ ΑΠΟ ΤΙΣ

Were arrested and imprisoned by the

ΓΕΡΜΑΝΟΒΟΥΛΓΑΡΙΚΕΣ ΑΡΧΕΣ ΚΑΤΟΧΗΣ

German-Bulgarian occupying authorities

1200 ΕΒΡΑΙΟΙ ΤΗΣ ΔΡΑΜΑΣ ΟΙ ΟΠΟΙΟΙ

1200 Jews of Drama who were

ΕΚΤΟΠΙΣΘΗΚΑΝ ΣΤΑ ΝΑΖΙΣΤΙΚΑ ΣΤΡΑΤΟΠΕΔΑ

Transferred to the Nazi camps

ΤΟΥ ΟΛΕΘΡΟΥ ΚΑΙ ΤΟΥ ΘΑΝΑΤΟΥ

Of calamity and death

ΤΡΕΜΠΛΙΝΚΑ ΑΟΥΣΒΙΤΣ-ΜΠΙΡΚΕΝΑΟΥ

Treblinka Auschwitz-Birkenau

ΟΠΟΥ ΚΑΙ ΘΑΝΑΤΩΘΗΣΑΝ

Where they were killed

ΑΙΩΝΙΑ Η ΜΝΗΜΗ ΤΟΥΣ

May their memory be eternal

ΔΗΜΟΣ ΔΡΑΜΑΣ

Drama Municipality

ΚΕΝΤΡΙΚΟ ΙΣΡΑΗΛΙΤΙΚΟ ΣΥΜΒΟΥΛΙΟ ΕΛΛΑΔΟΣ

Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece

ΔΡΑΜΑ 1 ΙΟΥΝΙΟΥ 1997

Drama 1 June 1997

 (translation courtesy of Elias Messinas)

Drama is a city awash with water (its ancient name Dyrama or Hydrama means "rich in water" and water gushes from natural springs at Agia Varvara Park, the center of local Holocaust commemoration. The park is a mix of land and water, with wooden walkways crossing wide water pools and streams. Nearby is the little church of Agia Varvara. 

Drama, Greece. Church of Saint Barbara on edge of Saint Barbara Park. This was the neighborhood where many Drama Jews lived before 1943. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022

Drama, Greece. Saint Barbara Park. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.

In 1999, a more substantial monument for all the Jewish martyrs of the Holocaust – but especially for those deported by the Bulgarians from Macedonia and Thrace - was erected in the park. It was dedicated on September 5, 1999. The monument acquired dubious notoriety in December 2020 when it was vandalized. Many people pass the monument daily, and it serve as the backdrop to Holocaust remembrance ceremonies.

The abstract black stone monument sits on a large base that sprawls outward in the shape of Jewish star. The monument seems like a stele about to take wing. A large, curved stone on top spreads to each side, humanizing the geometry of the form. On this stone in inscribed in Greek, Hebrew and English the admonition to "Remember and Do Not Forget." To me, the monument looks like a figure with arms outstretched. Perhaps an angel? Even the Angel of Death? A Christian might see a Tau-cross. A similar  monument in nearby Kavala - from where many more Jews were deported - is not nearly so well sited, and contain the dramatic upper stone.

Drama, Greece. Holocaust Monument. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022

Drama, Greece. Holocaust Monument. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022

An inscription on one side of the monument shows the locations of the communities of the region from where Jews were deported. On one side are listed the towns and the number of victims.

Drama, Greece. Holocaust Monument. Map of towns from where Jews were deported. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022

Drama, Greece. Holocaust Monument. "Jewish Communities murdered by the German/Bulgarian occupiers in spring of 1943."Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022

Drama, Greece. Holocaust Monument. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022

Jews in Drama

(summarized from the community history on the website of the Central
Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS)

Jews had been in Macedonia since at least the Roman period, and were settled in the cities of Serres, Drama, and Kavala during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, too.  Drama was mentioned by the Spanish Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela in the 12th century. He reported there were 140 Jewish families in the city. Jewish refugees from Hungary arrived in 1529, fleeing after the fall of Budapest. They settled in Drama and elsewhere in the region. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews settled in the region as part of the extensive development of countryside and city for cultivation and production centers for tobacco and silk. Both industries attracted Jewish investors and managers, especially Sephardi cJews from Thessaloniki. 

The Jewish centers of Drama, Serres, and Kavala were all linked by marriage and other family connections. When a fire swept Serres in 1913, many Jews from there moved to Drama. Jewish refugees continued to settle here in the early 20th century during the Balkan and the Greco-Turkish wars and subsequent population exchanges.  By 1925 there were about 1200 Jews in the city.

When Germans occupied Greece at the start of the World War II, they granted control of the area between Serres and Alexandropouli to their Bulgarian allies. After January 1942, German and Bulgarian forces began to plan the deportation of Jews in Bulgarian territories and a year later the Bulgarians announced the deportation of Jews from their occupation zones in Greece and Yugoslavia.

On the night of March 3-4, 1943, the Jews of Drama were forcibly gathered in a tobacco store house in the St. Barbara area, and from where they were transported by train to temporary concentration camps in South Bulgaria. On March 20-21, they were transported by train to the Bulgarian harbor of Lom on the Danube, and from there to Vienna by riverboat under horrific conditions. Finally, the exhausted and starved prisoners were taken to Treblinka in Poland ,where they were immediately murdered.

According to official documents, 1096 families of Greek Jews with 681 children under 10 years old, and a total of 4273 people, were deported from the Bulgarian occupation zone in March 1943. There were no survivors. The Bulgarian deportation of the Jews was an event of total annihilation. By 1948 only 39 survivors of the Holocaust had returned to Drama. The community could not be reconstituted and was dissolved.

Drama, Greece. Holocaust Monument. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022

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