By George Gilson
When 44-year-old Leon Saltiel was growing up in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest, the Jewish community, which once constituted the majority group, remained introverted and did not talk about their Jewishness, even 40 years after the city’s Jews were deported and 95 percent of them were exterminated in Auschwitz.
Much of the city’s Sephardic community, including the Saltiels, traced their roots to the 1492 expulsion from Spain of the Jews who had not converted to Catholicism, under the Alhambra Decree, issued by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Yet, there was a Jewish presence in Thessaloniki even in antiquity, and the Apostle Paul preached in its synagogue in an effort to convert them to Christianity before being expelled.
Indeed, the first two of his many Epistles were addressed to The Thessalonians.
In its centuries-long history in the city, the Jewish community had a major impact on its social, political, economic, and cultural life.
During the Nazi occupation, however, the city’s authorities and institutions – municipal, civil, and religious – either remained completely indifferent or in many instances collaborated with the Nazis’ mass deportation of the Jews, as Dr. Saltiel documents in his book, “The Holocaust in Thessaloniki: Reactions to the Anti-Jewish Persecution, 1942-1943” (Routledge Editions, 2021), which received acclaim by top professors of history, from Yale’s Timothy Snyder to Princeton’s Alexander Nehamas (a member of the Academy of Athens) and Columbia’s Mark Mazower.
It was only in the last two or three decades that the history and plight of Greece’s Jews was slowly introduced into public discourse.
One of the most poignant televised and print accounts of an Auschwitz survivor, branded with number 77,102, was that in 2014 of the late Esther Cohen, then age 90, who died in 2020, taking her great, unanswered “Why?” to her grave.
“When they grabbed us from our homes and dragged us through the streets to take us to Germany, no neighbour even pulled their little curtain to see them dragging us through the streets. No one felt hurt, not a single tear was shed. What did we do to them? We were poor people, sir, the vast majority of us proper family people. We had not bothered anyone. We lived in Yannena for centuries [Ioannina was the centre of the ancient Romaniote Jewish community]. No one loved us,” she told the daily Kathimerini.
Her reminiscences stirred a deep public sensation and sympathy.
Though many Holocaust survivors have related their stories in the Greek media for many years now, very little has been written about today’s 5,000 strong Jewish community, how they live, the experience of the post-war years, and the fact that they still must deal with strong, lingering vestiges of anti-Semitism.
That was the motivation for this interview, and if there is one hopeful thing that emerges, it is that moves have been made to include the subject of the Holocaust and antisemitism in Greek high schools’ history curriculum, and the Orthodox Church of Greece has included in its continuing education programme for clergy a section on combating anti-Semitism.
Τhese moves offer hope that current and future generations can finally turn a page and put behind them the blot on the country’s history of anti-Semitism, which has not yet been eradicated.
Dr, Leon Saltiel with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou
The liberating force of acknowledgement
As Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou poignatntly suggested three months ago – after a march tracing the path, 79 years ago, on which Thessaloniki’s were taken to the train cars that transported them to Auschwitz – the acknowledgment of the responsibility of those who turned a blind eye or collaborated is the first and biggest step to a change of heart.
“It is extremely important that over recent years Thessaloniki has assumed its share of responsibility for actions and omissions of the past. It has recognised the historical wound created by the indifference, complacency, and anti-Semitism of the inter-war years, and has condemned in the most emphatic manner the Nazi and fascist ideologies that cultivate violence and racism.”
Today, Saltiel serves as the representative of the World Jewish Congress to both the UN and UNESCO in Geneva. He has focused on the uprooting of antisemitism internationally, and naturally in Greece, where an Anti-Defamation League and other surveys have found that 67 percent of the population still harbours anti-Semitic views and subscribes to Jewish conspiracy theories.
One of his focuses has been the role of the social media in disseminating antisemitic views and the role of civil society groups in combating the phenomenon.
Like Sakellaropoulou, he sees glimmers of hope in the moves of the state and its institutions to combat antisemitism in Greece, one step at a time.
What was it like growing up in Thessaloniki as a Jewish kid?
I grew up in the ‘80s and the Jewish community was quite introverted, so we would not express publicly our Jewishness or speak about it. People knew from my last name that I was Jewish. I wouldn’t participate in the religion course at school. I attended Anatolia College [an elite Thessaloniki private school] and I graduated in 1995.Other than that, there was not much awareness or much desire in society and in the Jewish community itself to speak about it. The opening up of the Jewish community happened in the ‘90s. The European environment was changing and people started to want to speak about what happened during the war.
Thessaloniki in 1997 was the EU’s European Capital of Culture and that is when the first Holocaust Monument in all of Greece was erected, so that epitomises the period in which the community became extroverted and also society at large was willing to listen.
When the Jews came back from the concentration camps, in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, it was difficult to restart life. In Thessaloniki, and Greece more generally, it was hard to reclaim Jewish properties, and the first post-war years were complicated. Greece wanted to restart the economy and the country after WWII and the Greek Civil War. The Jews also wanted to go on with their lives. Then you had the [1967-1974 colonels’] junta that also did not help one speak about it, so the Jews of Greece started speaking about the Holocaust and their experiences in the ‘90s, In France and the rest of Europe this started in the ‘80s. Before that, society was not ready and the Jews were also not ready.
How many Jews are there in Greece and how organised are they, for example in social, professional, and cultural groups?
There are around 5,000 Jews all around Greece. They are organised in eight active communities. Αccording to Greek law a community is comprised of at least ten Jewish families. They are in Athens, Thessaloniki, Larissa, Volos, Corfu, Chalkida, Ioannina, and Trikala. They all have a synagogue and in some cases a cemetery and a Jewish elementary school. Athens and Thessaloniki each have one, Larissa has a part-time Jewish school. They follow the Greek education ministry’s curriculum plus Hebrew language and religion courses.
These communities are also religious communities, so for them, as we are Greek citizens, the religious element is at the core of these communities and most of them have a rabbi. At the same time, they organise cultural events, including ones with wider public participation. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, recognised by the Greek Parliament and marked on 27 January, events are organised jointly by the communities and local Greek municipalities and prefectures. They organise various events, book presentations (and support for publishing books) and musical events among others, and they offer university scholarships. There is also a Jewish youth summer camp, which before the coronavirus period was at Litohoro, organised by all the communities together. There are also two Jewish senior citizens’ homes with at least a couple of hundred residents, one in Athens and one in Thessaloniki.
How many Greek Jews live in Israel? How close is there contact with Greece and how do they feel about Greece given the fact that the overwhelming majority were deported and exterminated by the Nazis?
There were different waves of immigration to Palestine or to Israel in the last 100 years. There was a big wave in the 20’s and 30’s, mostly from Thessaloniki. There were port workers, poor people, and some inspired by Zionism at the time. They were assimilated very quickly in the Israeli cultural environment. Today, they would know only that a grandparent came from Thessaloniki. After the war, a lot of orphans who lost their families migrated to Israel to start a new life. The ones that migrated 20 to 40 years ago had a Greek education or have family in Greece, and they tend to keep closer contact with Greece today.
Before WWII, did Thessaloniki’s Jews speak Ladino at home?
Yes. Although they spoke Ladino at home, those who were born after 1912, when Thessaloniki was incorporated into the Greek state, were taught Greek at school, and they were the ones who were exterminated in Auschwitz. We never actually had a generation of pre-war Greek-speaking Jews, because most were killed.
Over the years in Greece we have seen desecrations of Jewish monuments like the Holocaust Memorial in Thessaloniki and graves in Jewish cemeteries. Do you believe this is done solely by far right or neo-Nazi Golden Dawn types, or does it reflect something more broadly anti-Semitic in the fabric of Greek society?
There is widespread anti-Semitism in Greece. It has been measured in opinion polls and it ranks high compared to other European countries. One can go to the ADL’s (Anti-Defamation League) Global 100 Index [an Anti-Semitism survey that includes 102 countries and territories, which states that 67 percent of Greeks still harbour antisemitic views] This percentage is declining, because now the Greek government is investing considerably in education and awareness of Jewish life. Also, with the increase of Israeli tourism in Greece, interactions between the two peoples have increased.
Having said that, antisemitism in Greece has never been violent. Though the percentage is higher than in France or Belgium, in those countries we had physical attacks with deaths.
With such a high percentage of anti-Semitism in Greece, why do you think there haven’t been any physical attacks?
Anti-Semitism in Greece is mostly at the kafeneio (coffee house) level. People who discuss it speak mostly in terms of conspiracies, blaming the Jews for controlling the world or being too powerful, controlling the US, controlling the Greek government, being behind the bailout memorandums and such. All these are things that Greeks discuss and maybe some of them believe, but there has never been physical violence against Jews. In other countries, it is either the extreme right wing or extremist Muslims who carry out violent attacks.
We have seen vandalism of synagogues and cemeteries, but it is very hard to know who is behind it because there have been very few arrests. Rarely, we have seen neo-Nazi or nationalist emblems. Some desecrations happened during the Macedonian name issue protests [which were spearheaded mainly by far right or right-wing groupings] so we might link that to them. Sometimes it was done during mostly leftist anti-Israel protests, so there was likely an anti-Israel motive, and sometime they are linked to fringe church groups like Old Calendarists and others not part of the mainstream Orthodox Church of Greece.
It involves marginal elements of Greek society. It is not mainstream Greek society, many members of which, however, replicate and promote Jewish stereotypes.
Many Greeks are fond of conspiracy theories, so to what extent are Jewish-linked ones just one part of that, and to what extent are they distinctly different?
Conspiracy theories are popular in discourse in Greece, and at the heart of all of them you always find antisemitism. There is no conspiracy theory that does not lead to a Jew, or to a dark centre of control and decision-making. It often takes only 15 minutes during a taxi ride for the driver to bring up an antisemitic conspiracy.
A rivalry between the sense of victimhood of Greeks and Jews
I was part of a research group that studied antisemitism in Greece, and what emerged was the sense of victimhood. The Greeks believe that they have been the victims of history, as in the Pontian Genocide and the Asia Minor Catastrophe, but that their victimhood has not been recognised, whereas Jewish victimhood has been recognised internationally.
That creates a kind of friction, and you find in opinion polls that this spurs negative attitudes toward the Jews. If you ask, “Should we create a Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki?”, maybe 20 percent would say yes. If you ask, «Should we create a Museum of the Pontian Genocide?”, 80 percent will say yes. They always see the two as competing. If you speak about the Holocaust, the answer will be, “You are right to speak about it, but why don’t you speak about the Pontian Genocide?”. The two events are always seen in very competitive terms. So every time you speak about anti-Semitism, it is not discussed on its own merits, but always through a competitive lens.
Now that Greece and Israel have formed a strategic military partnership, there is a cooperation between the Jewish and Greek lobbies in the US. Are you aware of how that might be working?
Greece and Israel and Cyprus have created a trilateral strategic relationship which is beyond military cooperation. It includes, among other areas, economic, energy, scientific, and firefighting cooperation. Not long ago, Greek and Israeli research institutes signed cooperation agreements. Research projects take years to develop. Now they are laying the foundations for joint research institutions with sharing between students and professors, as well as academic conferences. I think very soon we will see the fruits of this cooperation.
One of the elements of this cooperation is exchanges between the diasporas and between Greece and Israel. American Jews and Greek-Americans are cooperating both in diaspora organisations and in Congress, where there is a joint pro-Greek and pro-Israel caucus. We once had a congresswoman of Greek-Jewish descent from Nevada for many years, Shelley Berkley [her mother’s family were Sephardic Jews from Ottoman-era Thessaloniki]. We have Jewish American and [five] Greek-American members of Congress who cooperate effectively in the caucus.
Greece now has its first Jewish mayor, and indeed the first Jewish mayor in Europe, Moses Elisaf [a doctor and professor of pathology at the University of Ioannina Medical School], but beyond that recent example we have not seen any Jews in the Greek Parliament or in elected political positions. Why don’t they get involved?
Before WWII, there were a number of Jewish MPs and Senators [the great Greek liberal statesman Eleftherios Venizelos when there was a senate in Greece had a Jewish senator in his party, Asser Mallach]. During the occupation, the Nazis executed two Jewish former MPs. They were the only Greek parliamentarians ever to be killed by a foreign occupier. After the war, the Jewish population dramatically decreased. They had other priorities and society wasn’t ready to hear what they had to say.
Things over the last years have been getting much better. Τhere was a Jewish governor of the Public Power Corporation (PPC), Raphael Moissis. Now we have some Greek Jews who are becoming prominent in the current Greek public administration.
In 1996 during the Simitis Administration, an ultra-right New Democracy MP named Yorgos Karatzaferis, in Parliament in a mocking tone called the deputy foreign minister, the distinguished Professor of Public and International Law Christos Rozakis, by his Jewish father’s name, Rosenstein. Rozakis, who later became Vice President of the European Court of Human Rights, resigned at the time, not over that but because of clashes with foreign minister Theodoros Pangalos. How do you assess that incident? Is antisemitism one reason Jews don’t run for office?
The question was why did it matter if your father was called Rosenstein or not? The sad fact is that almost nobody really protested at that time. Only two MPs from the left, Maria Damanaki and Fotis Kouvelis, reacted. The other parliamentarians remained silent. [When Damanaki asked the speaker to call Karatzaferis to order another ND MP asked her of what concern is it to her and whether she wanted to impose censorship in the chamber and she replied, though she is not, “I am a Jew and that is why I am interested, and as long as you attempt to let racism pass in this chamber I am a Jew.”]
That was over 20 years ago, at the beginning of an awareness in Greece about the Holocaust and the existence of Jews. I think if this happened today, there would be a strong backlash from the government and the parliament speaker.
How did awareness about the extermination of the vast majority of Greek Jews develop, and who was to blame for this tragic statistic? Is it a matter concerning the personal morality of Christian Greeks who could have done more to save Jews, or do you believe there is an issue of a national guilt ?
The issue is the attitude of mainstream Greek society during the war. In broad terms, and particularly in Thessaloniki which had the biggest concentration of the Jewish population, there was no official solidarity with the Jews in that period. We saw support of the Jews in other communities, but not there, and that is why more than 85 percent of the Jewish population [95 percent in Thessaloniki] was lost.
The expropriation of Jewish properties, state officials, institutions confronting antisemitism
After the war, we had the issue of Jewish properties. They were not returned in a timely and regular manner. Only recently have we heard this guilt that you mentioned being expressed by Greek officials.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou visited the Jewish Museum in Thessaloniki and spoke about the fact that she felt an emotion of shame knowing that the then Greek government did not do as much as it could have done. Former Thessaloniki mayor Yannis Boutaris also used similar language. [Boutaris faced a maelstrom of criticism from various quarters when he became the first official to strongly highlight the city’s Jewish past]. Only in recent years have we seen Greek officials using such language.
I think this also being internalised by the younger generation, especially now that the Holocaust is being taught in schools, and students are now investigating and discussing what their grandparents or great grandparents did during that period. After the 1990s, we have seen an explosion of memory in Greece.
In 2003, the Holocaust was recognised and 27 January was set as a national remembrance day by a unanimous vote of the Greek Parliament. Every year, we see more and more activities organised by the ministry of education and individual schools, teacher training, and visits of high school students to Auschwitz.
In recent years, three factors have led to a greater sensitisation of the Greek public toward these issues [of antisemitism and racism].
First was the rise of Golden Dawn, which in the context of the economic crisis reached almost 10 percent [9.39%] in the 2014 European Parliament elections. This really caused shame to a big part of the Greek population. This extreme group used very bad language and messaging, not in attacking Jews but rather the Greek Parliament, Greek democracy, and the rule of law, and actually killing people [migrants and anti-fascists] in the end. That made the Greek government realise that when you need to fight this kind of extremism within your society, you need education about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
Leon Saltiel with former Thessaloniki mayor Yannis Boutaris, who played the leading role in reviving the memory of the city’s Jewish community
Were you aware that the Orthodox Church of Greece in its continuing education and preparation for the priesthood programme includes instruction on combating antisemitism?
Yes, it’s part of the cooperation we now have with the Greek Church. Golden Dawn had borderline paganism and all these weird theories. If you want to build clergy and citizens that love democracy and the rule of law, respect minorities, and want to have peace in society, you need to speak about antisemitism. That’s what we [the WJC] do around the world, in Europe, and in Greece.
The second element that raises awareness is the relationship between Greece and Israel.
Thirdly, former Thessaloniki mayor Yannis Boutaris played a significant role. [Boutaris was the first Greek to highlight the illustrious past of the Jewish community of the city that was once known as La Madre de Israel (Mother of Israel)), as until 1912 the Jewish community was not only the largest in the city, but also of the entire world].
Going back to WWII, Greece was under Nazi occupation, the government was a puppet government, and a Greek citizen in order to save a Jew from the Nazi deportation scheme would probably put his or her life on the line. Is responsibility for saving very few Jews in the Holocaust an individual moral issue or do you believe that there is a blanket social issue that Orthodox Christian Greeks did not oppose or even supported the deportations?
In my Ph.D. thesis, I try to answer some of these questions, not so much the role of individual Greeks but of institutions. We saw that the institutions in Thessaloniki – the municipality, the Chamber of Commerce, and the university for example – didn’t do much for the Jews. In fact, they actively cooperated with the Germans on certain issues.
Did they have a choice?
Well, in Athens for example, the same Greek institutions did more to speak out against the plight of the Jews of Thessaloniki than the same authorities in the city itself did. In Athens, we see the petitions in support of Thessaloniki’s Jews signed both by Archbishop Damaskinos and by many heads of associations and unions to the German and Greek authorities. The equivalent in Thessaloniki does not exist. So that raises questions. Why did the Greek authorities of Athens do more to save the Jews of Thessaloniki than the institutions in their own city?
What is your answer?
There was of course economic competition. WWII was 30 years after Thessaloniki became part of Greece. It is very difficult in about one generation to build links of coexistence and solidarity among the population. Moreover, when Thessaloniki was part of the Ottoman Empire, it was run under the milliyet system [recognised ethno-linguistic groups that enjoyed a certain autonomy in their capacity as members of non-Muslim religions, whose leaders played a central administrative role], under which every community was responsible for its own affairs.
Unfortunately, this milliyet mentality prevailed in Thessaloniki even until WWII, and the Greek authorities saw themselves as responsible just for the Christian population, and they left the Jews on their own. We see that in official correspondence and various decisions.
The WWII and post-war Jewish property grab
Moreover, after the war we see that Greek Christians did not return apartments and properties that belonged to Jews, and they even took advantage of the destroyed Jewish cemetery on which the University of Thessaloniki was built. [The remains of Saltiel’s and others’ ancestors were part of the rubble from the Jewish cemetery used to create Thessaloniki’s Nea Paralia, the extension of the waterfront]. That is why it is very hard to speak of collective or individual guilt, because often these are elites.
People after the war wouldn’t return the properties, and when they saw the Jews returning many said, “I wish you had become soap. Don’t come back now to ask for the property.» The issue of guilt is a big discussion.
When did the efforts of Greece’s Jewish community to reclaim properties begin, what were the difficulties, and how successful have they been?
Greece was the first country in Europe to give up its claims to heirless Jewish property [under Greek law heirless property goes to the state]. Because of the magnitude of the Holocaust, the government didn’t want to be the heir of properties that were the result of a genocide. The properties were administered by a special organisation that had been created in 1945, The Organisation for the Care and Restitution of the Jews of Greece, which still exists today in Athens.
The problem was that once Greece passed the law, it was very difficult to implement it, not only because it faced a lot of political opposition from the people who were actually administering the Jewish properties at the time, who were Nazi collaborators, but also because Greek courts were asking for death certificates of your family members. Of course, the Nazis in Auschwitz were not issuing death certificates. Consequently, the path toward reclaiming properties was exceedingly complex.
It would appear then that this organisation and legal procedures were designed for certain people to profit from the sale of Jewish properties.
It is a complex issue, and only now are historians examining the evidence carefully. Most of the properties were rented and there were rent controls and you couldn’t evict tenants. The survivors could only reclaim properties to which someone else had acquired title. Most of the real estate properties were returned, but anything inside – furniture, machines, and merchandise represented 90 percent of the value – was completely plundered. Buildings and apartments were to a large extent returned, but even today there are pending court cases regarding heirless Jewish properties.
Who got the heirless Jewish property?
If there was a legal blood relation to the sixth degree with the deceased, it was the individual Jew. If there were no direct descendants, it was the organisation for the restitution of Greek Jews. In the Greek Cadastre [Ktimatologio, established in 2018], it is easy to trace heirless properties, because you can see who owned it before the war, what happened during the war, and what the status is today. There are a lot of lawyers who are looking into all this now.
Are their indications that Nazi collaborators or Greek politicians, as there were a number of Nazi collaborators in the post-war Greek political class, were involved in the seizure and sale of Jewish properties?
Of course. They got the biggest and most expensive plots. I haven’t found evidence of well-known Greek politicians at the time being directly involved or profiting. I found several indicators, but in my research I was never able to show that they actually profited by the building or the sale of Jewish properties.
Nazi collaborators, paramilitary units, and friendly politicians profit
The land was only 10 percent of the value and most of it was merchandise. The Nazis used the revenues from the sale of that merchandise as a way to finance their Greek collaborators, the paramilitary troop units they created, but also friendly politicians. So if any of that money went to these politicians – cash, gold, and merchandise – that I won’t be able to tell you. They did not get land registered in their name. It is very probable, however that they got gold, money, and resources, because the Nazis would automatically give funding to the Greek authorities and the people who were supporting them. That is very hard to prove because I wasn’t around to see shipments going to their houses.