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.
“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.