Greek Train Enthusiast Displays Rail Cars Used in Nazi Deportations of Jews

Thessaloniki Prepares To Mark 70th Anniversary of Atrocity

By JTA

Published March 10, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

It was spring in northern Greece, 1943. Efthymios Kontopoulos, 13, had come to Thessaloniki for the day when he saw Nazis rounding up the city’s Jews.

Train Man: Efthymios Kontopoulos, a Greek train enthusiast, believes he has the rail cars used to ferry Jews to death camps in 1943.
JTA
Train Man: Efthymios Kontopoulos, a Greek train enthusiast, believes he has the rail cars used to ferry Jews to death camps in 1943.

“My father brought me into town,” Kontopoulos, who is not Jewish, said. “We saw them being taken away. They were with their [yellow] badges.”

On March 15, 1943, the Nazis began deporting the Jews of Thessaloniki. Some 4,000 people were loaded onto cattle cars and shipped off to Auschwitz. Eighteen more convoys followed. By August, the Jewish community of the city, known as the Flower of the Balkans and a major center of Sephardic Jewry for 450 years, was no more. Of the 55,000 Jews in the city on the eve of the war, 49,000 were deported. Only 1,950 survived.

This month, as the remnants of the Thessaloniki Jewish community prepare to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportations, Kontopoulos believes he has a powerful symbol of the community’s destruction: four of the railway cars used in the transports to the death camps.

Kontopoulos is neither a historian nor a Holocaust expert. He’s a train enthusiast and collector who sees much of life and history through the prism of rail. Which perhaps explains his certitude in the provenance of the cars despite some doubts raised about their authenticity.

“My life is the wagons as they are,” says Kontopoulos, now 83 and the founder and curator of the Railway Museum of Thessaloniki. “That is history.”

After the war, Kontopoulos followed his passion and joined the Greek railway, spending his career as an engineer. After he retired in 1985, he turned his attention to memorabilia. He convinced the city to donate an old military railway building, which he renovated and filled with his collection of photographs, maps, uniform buttons, an Ottoman-era conductor uniform and Morse code devices. There’s even a bathroom set salvaged from the Greek royal railway carriage. The museum is open two mornings a week and entry is free.

But it’s outside where he has his pride and joy: a collection of rusty locomotives and carriages. A few stand out in stark contrast to the others.

One is an English carriage built in 1900 for the iconic Orient Express, which ran from Paris to Constantinople. A dining car with a full kitchen, bronze velvet tablecloths, rich leather seats, filigree wood panels and brass finishings, it conjures up the luxury and intrigue of the line that inspired plot lines in James Bond films and Agatha Christie mysteries.

On the other side of the yard stand four dilapidated wooden carriages. Some have panels missing; in others, the floorboards are gone. Inside one is an rusty iron ladder, a large plastic bottle of turpentine and a pile of of old lumber. Sunlight comes in through one tiny, barred window and through holes in the walls. In these, Kontopoulos believes, the Jews were sent to the gas chambers.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.