A large number of marble headstones from a Jewish cemetery destroyed during the Nazi occupation of the Thessaloniki in World War II have been found. Greek police recovered 668 fragments after finding them buried in a plot of land in the center of the city. This is a find of major significance as the authorities have been searching since the end of the war for the remains of Jewish gravestones desecrated, broken and scattered by the Nazis and their local supporters.
The Jewish community in Greece was virtually annihilated in the Holocaust, and most of them lived in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city after Athens. Thessaloniki had had a majority Sephardic Jewish population since the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the only post-diaspora city of its size that could make such a claim. The Ottoman Empire welcomed Jews into its territories (not for altruistic reasons, mind you, but as part of its strategy to control rebellious locals), and Jews from all over Spain were followed by exiles from Italy, France and later, Ashkenazi Jews from Ottoman conquests in eastern Europe. By the early 17th century, the population of Thessaloniki was 68% Jewish.
Because they were such a strong majority, Jews in Thessaloniki didn’t have to deal with the segregation and professional restrictions under which most other European Jewish communities were forced to struggle. There were Jews in every profession at every socio-economic level, from fishermen to shipping magnates. The city was widely known for its high quality wool products, made using an old spinning method the Sephardim had brought with them from Spain.
After an economic decline in the 17th century exacerbated by war, plague and cheap wool alternatives from elsewhere in Europe, in the mid-19th century the city’s fortunes saw a revival. Again Thessaloniki became a capital of Jewish culture and learning, drawing Jewish intellectuals, educators and industrialists from all over Europe.
They soon started leaving, though, when in the early 20th century the Ottoman Empire passed laws requiring all subjects regardless of religion to serve in the military. Add to that a fire in 1917 that devastated Jewish neighborhoods, increasing anti-semitism in the region and the rise of Zionism, and by the late 1930s the Jewish population had dropped from 93,000 to 53,000.
Then Thessaloniki fell to German forces in April of 1941. As was their wont, the occupiers immediately set about forcing the city’s Jews into a ghetto conveniently located next to the train tracks. The city also had a concentration/labor camp used to intern members of the resistance and other “undesirables” of particular note.
In March of 1943, the deportations began. Of the 56,000 Jews still living in Thessaloniki in 1943, 43,000 were sent to concentration camps in mainland Europe where they would be led to the slaughter in the gas chambers. Another 11,000 were sent to forced labor camps. Most of them died too. Today there are only 1,200 Jews left in Thessaloniki.
Given its important role in Jewish history and the prominence of its Jewish population, the discovery of such a large cache of tombstones from the city’s main Jewish cemetery is of particular importance to Greek Jews and to the history of the city.
The head of the city’s Jewish community, David Saltiel, said most of the gravestones found dated from the mid-1800s up until World War II.
“This is our history,” Saltiel, head of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, told The Associated Press. “Apart from the names, the (gravestones) also include the person’s occupation. So this is a historic record.”