The Holocaust exists in my mind as something that happened – past tense. But in Thessaloniki, Greece, where I lived for the past month as a U.S. Fulbright Specialist, I found the Holocaust to be extant – a topic of daily conversation, an event still traceable in the landscape of the city.
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It’s a memory in the minds of a generation of Thessalonians, whose parents told them what they witnessed in 1943, the year the city’s population of nearly 50,000 Jews was loaded on trains over the course of eight months and 19 shipments.
Pick any urban neighborhood in the world. For me, 50,000 is the equivalent of my own neighborhood, Boston’s Back Bay, being totally emptied of its inhabitants twice, and then some.
Most of the trains went directly to Auschwitz. At least one of those trains still exists today. I saw this train in use two times over the course of my month in Thessaloniki.
On the afternoon of March 31, a Tuesday, the old train had been prodded into functionality. It was on the rails at the city’s former passenger rail station, the station from which the city’s Jews departed during World War II.
In front of the train, more than 100 people – small children and awkward teens, sober adults and sorrowful elders – were making haphazard lines before the train. They were actors, dressed in dark suits and skirts, their hair disheveled. They had five-inch-wide Stars of David made of bright gold felt carefully hand-stitched to their lapels. Other people were dressed as Nazi soldiers.
Famous Greek filmmaker Manousos Manousakis had turned the old train station into a movie set. He was filming “Ouzeri Tsitsanis,” the story of a Christian and a Jew in love in Greece during the Holocaust.
A large Nazi flag wrapped the back of the last car on the tracks. It was huge, and new. The flag’s bright red stood out as strongly as the actors’ yellow stars against drab clothes and a very old train station.
In a particularly eerie twist, within blocks of the old train station a genuine Nazi flag, this one worn, hung from the sixth-floor offices of Greece’s Golden Dawn party, which has been able to increase its reach as the Greek economy has worsened.
This is the reality in Greece today. It’s not just the memory of Nazism that is alive in the minds of Greeks whose parents bore witness. The actual threat of Nazism is alive.
At one point on my trip, I met with a team of anthropology students at Aristotle University who had completed a thorough study of a neighborhood called Xyladika, which includes within its boundaries the old train station, the city’s Chinatown, immigrants from several nations, an area emptied of any economy but street prostitution and drug-dealing after dark, and the local offices of Golden Dawn. The students interviewed representatives from every group that would agree to an interview, including Golden Dawn. The students told me that the neo-Nazis they spoke with had taught their dogs to bark wildly at the command “black people.”
There is currently an effort to build a museum and research library on the old train station site. In 2013 the Jewish Community, the Greek Transportation Ministry and the Thessaloniki municipality signed an agreement providing land for such a museum and research center. Fundraising for such a project, though, is a years-long endeavor. Mayor Yiannis Boutaris has made significant efforts to embed Holocaust history in the city.
Many residents who live within walking distance of the proposed museum would like to see the project come to fruition. One man, Dimitris Tzekis, told me the story of his mother as he was giving me a tour of the neighborhood. He stood outside the train station wall, pointing to where he thought the museum would go.
His mother’s best friend from childhood had been a Jewish girl. In 1943, her friend disappeared. Ms. Tzekis looked everywhere for her friend, but with no success. Finally she found her friend very close to her own house, in a makeshift “camp” the Nazi forces had established across from the train station. Ms. Tzekis went there to visit her friend, who told Ms. Tzekis not to worry because she thought that she would be going somewhere better. Eventually the Germans would no longer let Ms. Tzekis in to visit her friend, and then later Ms. Tzekis couldn’t find her friend at all.
Ms. Tzekis was still searching long after her friend had likely died at Auschwitz. This is the story Mr. Tzekis carries. He’d like to see a museum erected.
The land on which his mother visited her friend is largely vacant today – a grassy strip across a six-lane highway, no longer owned by the Jewish community but not yet incorporated into the official city plan.
Many middle-aged Thessalonians, like Mr. Tzekis, keep their parents’ traumatic memories at the tips of their own tongues. Within days of my arrival in Thessaloniki, I began to notice that nearly every meeting I’d had included an unprompted discussion of the city’s Holocaust history.
I’d had several such meetings by the second time I saw the old train, once used to transport Greek Jews to Auschwitz. It was March 15, the date of the first deportation. Three years ago, on the 70th anniversary of this date, the city began commemorating the day with an annual march from downtown to the old train station. Upon arrival at the station, people set flowers between grates and poles on the deteriorating brown train cars.
The Jewish community of Thessaloniki estimates that 20 Holocaust survivors are living in the city today – seven from Auschwitz and 13 from Bergen-Belsen. Those who were able came to this commemoration day to walk, place their flowers, and hear the speeches and prayers.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She’s also a research affiliate at MIT Community Innovators Lab.