The Jewish community of Salonica, Greece, in February sued Germany in the European Court of Human Rights, demanding $70 million it says was extorted from it by a Nazi officer during World War II.
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The community, today numbering around 1,500 people, says Germany violated the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, to which it is a signatory, forbidding torture and forced labor and affirming the right to fair trial and reparations in cases of human rights violations. Israeli lawyers Zvika Barak and Elad Man from Man-Barak Associates, a firm that specializes in international trade law and returning property, are representing the community in the court in Strasbourg.
“The Jewish community of Salonica is now seeking to right at least some of the injustice that was done and receive the ransom money,” Man told Haaretz.
The German Foreign Ministry said, "The subject of reparations has already been regulated by law,” referring to reparations that have already been paid by Germany to Greece for damage caused during World War II.
The claims in the lawsuit date back to the 1940s. On Saturday, July 11, 1942, or "Black Saturday," thousands of Jewish men dressed in their Shabbat best were rounded up and taken to the town square of Salonica, also known as Thessaloniki. The Germans, who had conquered the city a year earlier, humiliated and beat them for hours in the blazing sun, determining who was fit for manual labor.
Thousands were then sent to pave roads under harsh conditions. Many hundreds perished. Others were murdered as they tried to escape. The Jewish community came to their aid, providing food, medicine and clothing. At the same time, the community “signed a deal with the devil” with Dr. Maximillian Merten, the German officer in charge of dealing with the Jewish community of Salonica. The community agreed to pay Martin ransoms for releasing the Jewish workers from forced labor. Some of the workers were indeed released, but not for very long.
“I myself was there at one of the meetings with Merten when we negotiated with him," recalled Alfons Levi, who served as a Jewish community official in Salonica during the Holocaust. "He demanded exorbitant amounts of money, 3.5 million drachmas, and threatened to demolish our ancient cemetery,” Jewish community officials still have copies of checks given to Merten, which were included in the lawsuit filed, complete with signatures. The total sum paid to Merten was about 1.9 billion Greek drachmas. Merten deposited the funds in a Greek bank, but no one knows what became of the money.
On March 10, 1943, when the leaders of the Jewish community saw 300 caravans had been brought to the city, they approached Merten again and offered him property in exchange for cancelling the deportation. “The murderer said he would talk to Berlin,” says Levi. “The next day, I was told that Berlin accepted the requests made by the Greek residents of Salonica to take the Jews away.”
The deportation began on March 15. Nineteen groups, totalling 49,000 Jews, were taken from Salonica to Auschwitz. Only 2,000 survived the Holocaust. “What happened was unbelievable,” David Shaltiel, a leader of Salonica’s Jewish community, told Haaretz. “Who could believe the Germans would send people to forced labor, release them for ransoms and then send them to Auschwitz?”
According to one account, Merten even accepted jewelry, diamonds and other precious stones from Jews. All of the treasure, said to be worth about $2.4 billion, was loaded onto a ship, which was intentionally sunk near the Bay of Messinia in 1943. A Greek citizen passed this information along to the Jewish community about a decade later, though searches of the seafloor have turned up nothing.
Merten settled in Germany, where he worked as a lawyer. In 1957, he returned to Greece. It is unknown if he returned as a tourist, a businessman or perhaps to look for the money or jewels he left behind during the war. In May of that year, he was arrested by Greek authorities and put on trial in a Greek military court in Athens for war crimes he committed in Salonica during the Holocaust. He was charged with killing 680 Jews, torturing 9,000 people, extorting both money and property from Jews, demolishing the local cemetery, establishing the Salonica ghetto and sending 46,000 Jews to their death in Nazi camps in Poland.
Merten pled innocent, claiming to have saved Jews in the city. With regards to the ransoms, he claimed that he received the money as an official representative of Germany, in accordance with the orders he was given. In the end, he was convicted of some of the charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison. A short time later, however, in November 1959, he was released — after Greece granted amnesty to some German war criminals — and returned to Germany. Efforts made by the Jewish community to keep him in Greece and demand that he pay reparations failed.
He was arrested shortly after arriving in Germany but was not put on trial for his war crimes in Greece due to lack of evidence. Merten did not go underground. In 1961, he even testified in Germany on behalf Adolf Eichmann, claiming the mastermind of the Holocaust had been following orders. He offered to appear in Israeli court on condition of receiving immunity. Some of his testimony was read during the Eichmann trial. Merten died in Germany in the 1970s.
Merten’s name returned to headlines in the 1990s, when the Salonica Jewish community filed suit against Germany, demanding return of the ransoms paid to Merten. The issue was debated in Salonica courts for a few years. Eventually it reached the Supreme Court in Athens, which ruled that the German government was immune to lawsuits of that kind filed in Greek courts in accordance with international law.