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The Small But Mighty Greek Jewish Community Of Thessaloniki

From the street level, it is a nondescript gray building guarded by a single security booth. Inside however, there is a blend of rich Jewish culture, where an Orthodox rabbi leads services to a crowd of Sephardic Jews ranging in age from an infant to a 95-year-old woman humming along to his chants. Wine imported from Israel flows freely around the dining room.

This is the Jewish Community Center of Thessaloniki, where the melodic sounds of Hebrew echo through the crowded room of about 70, bumping into Greek, Spanish and Yiddish along the way. In addition to some travelers from Israel, invited to attend the weekly Friday night ritual, it’s a typical turnout for Shabbat (or Sabbath) dinner in the small but still alive-as-ever Jewish community of Thessaloniki.

Once called “The Jerusalem of the Balkans,” the second largest Greek city of Thessaloniki is trying to rebuild its Jewish identity on the very land where it was destroyed 70 years ago. At the railway station where 50,000 Thessaloniki citizens once boarded cattle cars to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, the new Holocaust Museum of Greece is set to begin construction at the end of this year, and will be open to the public in late 2019.

On June 15, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Nicos Anastasiades, the president of Cyprus, in an annual meeting. Mayoral adviser Leonidas Makris said they will likely make a statement of support for the new museum at the meeting, to take place in Thessaloniki.

Image by Courtesy Sophie Cannon

“The museum will narrate the history of the Jews in Thessaloniki, their significance to the life and prosperity of the city and their fate during the war,” said Meira Kowalsky, a partner at Efrat-Kowalsky Architects, based in Tel Aviv, Israel, one of the construction companies contracted to build the museum. “We hope that it will enhance dialogue and tolerance between communities based on a better knowledge and respect of the past.”

At the western entrance of the city, the old railway station will be transformed into a six-floor, circular building, spanning more than 75,340 square feet. In addition to the museum, there is a proposed education center set to be adjacent to the old rail station – though information on dimensions, scope and cost won’t be public until later this year.

The powerful symbolism of the location is one of the most important aspects of the space as it’s the exact station where 95 percent of the city’s Jewish resident were deported to death camps at the start of Nazi occupation in Greece.

The museum has secured funding from two different donors: 10 million euros (or $11.2 million) from the German government and the same amount from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, a private Greek philanthropic organization that funds projects geared toward arts, culture, education and social welfare.

In addition to the monetary sponsors, the Greek parliament is in agreement across party lines that there is a need for the museum, with support from the leading Syriza party as well as from the official opposition party, New Democracy.

“This is a dream we have had since 2013, with the mayor as well,” said Larry Sefiha, vice president of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, an elected board of local Jewish leaders. “We had a plan of making this museum, a good collaboration with the mayor [Yiannis Boutaris] and a design. We have assurance from the prime minister [Alexis Tsipras] and the head [president] of the Hellenic Republic [Prokopis Pavlopoulos] and also the head of the opposition party as well.”

Image by Courtesy of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki

The Jewish history of Thessaloniki runs deep within the historical framework of the city, despite the small Jewish footprint in Thessaloniki today. Sefiha said the city’s Jewish population is a fraction of what it once was.

“The community used to be vivid and vibrant,” Safiha said. “The majority of the population was about 70,000 of 150,000 total residents. Before the Holocaust, there were 50,000 after some moved out of Greece for economic reasons and after the war until today there are about 1,500.”

Nazis occupied Greece in 1941, decimating the Jewish community. The majority of the population was sent to Poland by train. The lucky few who were not caught by the Nazis hid in the mountains of Greece, awaiting news that the war had ended.

With a Jewish population slowly returning to the city, the next step is rebuilding the past and providing education for future generations. In addition to documenting the atrocities of the Holocaust, the goal of the museum is to educate and drive home the lessons learned from it.

“We want to not only depict the Holocaust as an event, but to educate and combat anti-Semitism, racist and any ‘anti-’ feelings,” said Marcel Hassid, administrator and employee at the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki. “To not only learn about the event itself but the underlying situation and its tie into the current situation is very important.”

That sentiment is vital in combating anti-Semitism around the world, and here in Thessaloniki as well. According to an Anti-Defamation League 2015 report, Greece’s anti-Semitic rating is at 67 percent, based on survey responses from a random selection of the population. This is compared to a 10 percent rating of the Americas. The majority of the population, 90 percent as of 2015, is Greek Orthodox.

“Greece comes in as one of the highest in anti-Semitism on paper,” said Erika Perahia-Zemour, curator and employee of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, which is dedicated to documenting Jewish life in Thessaloniki before the Holocaust and also serving as a small memorial. “It is because of the very power in the church, the influence of the church.”

While the rating is high compared to the U.S. and many other countries, mayoral adviser Makris said the anti-Semitism here in Greece is different and not generally expressed as violence as it is in other places.

“It is true that there are reports of high anti-Semitism in Greece. Our culture is more outspoken, not embarrassed or politically correct about our feelings,” Makris said. “If you take a survey of the average Greek about how they feel about the Jews, it is going to be negative. However, almost 1 million Jews are coming from Israel for holidays but no violent attacks have ever happened and it happens every day in Britain. Greeks speak loudly but do not react violently.”

While funding for the museum has been secured as of early this year, according to Makris, the project still has a way to go before breaking ground. The building permit is still entangled in the slow bureaucracy Greeks have become accustomed to.

“In Greece we go too slow, but this was big history. Ninety-six percent of the community is a lot to lose,” said Lili Antzel, guide and employee at the Monistir Synagogue, which is the only synagogue currently open in Thessaloniki. “It will be positive if it happens, though. People know the Europe side of history. The things about the Germans and France and Poland, but they don’t know about the Thessaloniki Jews.”

The Jewish population of Greece was largely Sephardic Orthodox, and originally came from places such as Morocco, Spain and the Middle East. The community spoke Ladino, a mix of Hebrew and Spanish, causing a majority of their history to be lost in translation. Ladino has practically gone extinct.

“They spoke Ladino until the day they left, so the language barrier prevents us from knowing a lot,” Antzel said. “We do know that they had schools, teaching Kabbalah (a Jewish mystic interpretation of the Bible) and other things. Prominent rabbis from all over came during the 16th to 18th century. It was always a multicultural city.”

The Jewish community of learned individuals, scholars and business people was wiped out, not once but twice – first when a fire in 1917 destroyed the city center of Thessaloniki, which housed most of the Jewish people, and again during Nazi occupation.

Most of the 1,500 Jewish people living in Thessaloniki are still Sephardic and Orthodox in practice.

“We are 1,000 members, 20 percent are Thessaloniki survivors and their descendants and the rest are people that came back after the war,” said Perahia-Zemour of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. “I’m not sure the community will continue. Numbers are diminishing. We hope we will hold like we did after the war.”

Despite the small community, there are still a few buildings in Thessaloniki devoted to serving the Jewish population and preserving its history.

“There were 42 synagogues in Thessaloniki, and all were destroyed except this one, as it served as the Red Cross warehouse during the war,” Antzel said of the Monistir Synagogue. There are also two others, Yad Lezicaron, housed inside the same building as the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki office, currently undergoing renovations, and another inside Modeano, a home for aging Jewish people.

Inside the Monistir Synagogue, besides the pews, everything is as it was before the war, from the arc that holds the Torah to the three crystal chandeliers hanging above the red velvet seats. Hebrew, a language not often heard in Thessaloniki, is the common tongue here – making this place stand apart from the rest of the city as a frozen moment in time, when the Jewish people were the lifeblood of society.

“All the celebrations of the families happen here. Bar mitzvahs, weddings…,” Antzel explained. “The community helps a lot too. Now that the economy is not so good, we all help where we can. We have Israel programs, donations to the poor. We give what we have to help.”

Upon completion of the museum, the government and the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki hope it will not only help empower the community in the city, but also help those who have connections to the Jewish population of Thessaloniki find the answers to their questions.

“Once the construction begins, it may take two to three years to complete the building,” said Kowalski, of the architecture firm, which has built other Holocaust museums around the world. “The project in Thessaloniki is particularly important since it would be the first museum to tell the story of the Sephardic Jews in the Holocaust. Our design for the museum is contextual and refers to the architecture of the city of Thessaloniki.”

While the number of practicing Jews in the city is small, the stories left behind are an integral part of the second Jerusalem’s past.

“We are not the ‘others,’” Sefiha said. “It’s a part of the history of Greece and has always been a part of the history of Thessaloniki.”

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