Israel’s president and Greece’s prime minister attended a foundation ceremony on Tuesday for a Holocaust memorial museum in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, which lost 97 percent of its Jewish community in German World War II death camps.
Reuven Rivlin and Alexis Tsipras symbolically planted two olive trees on the plot.
The planned six-story building will be built by 2020, next to the northern city’s old railway station, from which around 55,000 Thessaloniki Jews were forced into goods wagons for the camps. About 50,000 died there.
Tsipras said the museum will fulfill an old debt for the city, around 40 percent of whose pre-war population was Jewish.
Overall, about 90 percent of Greece’s Jewish population was killed by Nazi forces during the war.
“Jerusalem of the Balkans, so Thessaloniki was known, was a magnificent Jewish community, the largest in Greece before World War II,” said President Rivlin. “Jews were an integral part of the citizens of the Hellenic Republic. Exactly 75 years ago, on March 15, the first transport left for Auschwitz-Birkenau. In total, 90 percent of the Jews of Greece were wiped out in the extermination camps. No other operation to exterminate such a large community was carried out so quickly by the Nazi extermination machine.”
“The Holocaust is not only a Jewish issue, it is an international issue that touches every nation and people. Here too, in Greece, it is a national issue,” the President continued. “The Museum to the Holocaust to be built here will be a museum of remembrance and testimony. The Museum must express the rich history, the diversity and uniqueness of the Jewish community in Greece in general and in Thessaloniki in particular. It must give expression to the terrible moments in which this unique community was destroyed. It must show our duty to forge a world committed to swearing, Never Again.”
Later, the President placed a wreath at the foot of the monument to the Jews of Thessaloniki who perished in the Holocaust. The monument, located in the center of the city, was desecrated about a week before the President’s visit with anti-Semitic graffiti and the emblem of the extreme right-wing movement “Golden Dawn”.
“It is very important for Thessaloniki, for the Jewish community, and for humanity that the city is getting a Holocaust museum,” Auschwitz camp survivor Heinz Kunio said.
Kunio, 90, was among the first group of Thessaloniki Jews to reach the concentration camp in 1943, together with his sister and parents. All survived because they spoke German and were employed as interpreters.
“I will always remember the five great chimneys that belched black smoke 30 meters (90 feet) high,” he told The Associated Press. “And underneath there was something like white swirling steam. Above was the smoke from the bodies, and below from the souls of the dead.”
The museum will occupy a plot close to the former Jewish neighborhood of Baron Hirsch, turned by the Germans into a ghetto and transit camp. Designed by Israeli and German architects, its funding will include contributions from the German government and Thessaloniki’s Jewish community — currently about 1,300-strong.
Community leader David Saltiel told the AP that the project enjoyed strong backing from the city’s residents and officials.
“This city had been covered in a veil of silence,” he said. “Survivors (from the Nazi camps) didn’t find the best possible conditions when they returned, which is why Thessaloniki’s Jews were doubtful as to whether this project would go ahead. But now everyone wants it.”
Thessaloniki mayor Yiannis Boutaris said the museum would tell the story of Jewish communities from all over Greece and the southwestern Balkans.
“It will symbolize our shame,” he said. “For what happened, for what we did, and mostly for what we could not or did not wish to do … during and after the war.”
In his address, the Prime Minister of Greece said, “This Museum will be in honor of the thousands of Greek Jews who were wiped out. This Museum emphasizes that the crimes have never been forgotten. We have not forgotten about the perpetrators and we have not forgotten about the victims.” He added, “The Greek people keep the memory of this tragic page that was written here in terms of history with extermination of the Jews of Thessaloniki. The Greek people still remember that. The Holocaust Memorial Museum is part of us paying our duty. The city’s paying a duty of honor. We are not going to turn a blind eye to the shadows. Unfortunately, there are shadows appearing in Europe, racism is trying again to make impact and monuments are unfortunately again being vandalized. The Museum is part of our commitment to the rights of the people in the whole world to live in the absence of fear.”
(YWN / AP)