No Other Jews Like Them

A new volume on the destruction of Greece's Jews in the Shoah is a fitting reminder of how little attention the 'official version' of history pays not only to that subject, but also to the miraculous culture that characterized the Jews of Salonika

Leah Aini
Leah Aini

Greeks in Auschwitz-Birkenau by Photini Tomai. The Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs / Papazisis Publications, 191 pages

Jews are humiliated by the German occupiers in Liberty Square, Salonika, July 11, 1942. Credit: Courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Thessalonki

The year is 2000, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the place is Israel Radio's Reshet Aleph.

Announcer: Today we have as our guest in the studio a senior researcher from Yad Vashem, who will describe for us how the institution is organizing itself for the new millennium in everything connected to the Holocaust and Holocaust denial.

Researcher: We have begun a new research project, called "Rebirth." Our students are looking at cities, towns and communities in Europe, in order to learn about the vital Jewish life that thrived in these places before the coming of the Germans, and to bring back to life - to the extent that such a thing is possible - the community rabbi, the fishmonger in the market, the gvir, the tailor.

Announcer: Very nice. So you are going from one community to another: Vilna, Lodz, Sosnowiec, Salonika -

Researcher: Yes, yes. Well - Salonika, no.

Announcer: Why not Salonika?

Researcher: Um, no. No. They, there, they are conducting their own research.

That radio show, which is forever engraved upon my heart, and which I have rendered here somewhat freely, really did take place, and a recording of it can be found in the Israel Radio archive. You can check for yourself. It would also be worthwhile to check how it is that, out of 115,000 volumes about the Holocaust housed in the Yad Vashem library, only 34 are indexed under the heading "Greece," and under "Salonika," a mere 17, the most recent of which is from 1999. In contrast, about the Polish city of Lodz alone, to take just one example, there are 106 titles, 28 of them published during the past decade.

The situation on the educational front is also dismal: "Salonika is the second-largest port city in Greece, and the most important city in the north of the country. There were those who referred to it as the 'Jerusalem of the Balkans'" (emphasis mine), writes Efrat Belberg in a six-page appendix, "Jews of the Balkans," attached to a syllabus published by Yad Vashem this year. The topic is offered only as an elective to high school students studying the Holocaust, and teachers are asked to choose one Balkan country from the three dealth with by the appendix.

One might say: It's just a matter of numbers. There were more Jews in Poland, for example, and unfortunately more of them were killed. Yet, what normal state is expected to decide on the basis of numbers when it budgets time and resources for research on its murdered people and their history? Apparently, it is the responsibility of the Jews of Greece, 90 percent of whom were murdered, and whose principal city, Salonika, was Europe's largest Sephardic Jewish center until the Holocaust (and which between the 16th and 18th centuries was, without exaggeration, the largest Jewish center in Europe altogether), to research themselves. That's what is done today by a handful of Greek Jews in Israel and abroad who have taken the task upon themselves.

In light of all this, the book "Greeks in Auschwitz-Birkenau," by Photini Tomai, director of the historical and diplomatic archives of the Greek foreign ministry - a volume that includes eyewitness testimony, documentation, photographs and other research, at least some of which was new to me - is a significant event, even if it has its shortcomings. And as the book has been published in a nation where anti-Semitism is on the rise, it's important to establish the narrative of the Holocaust of the Jews of Greece, and in doing so to investigate the unique aspects of their specialness and otherness, especially as this specialness and otherness find almost no expression in Holocaust research and education in Israel.

Prior to the Nazi occupation, 77,000 Jews lived in Greece, organized within 25 different communities. The largest of them, the same "Jerusalem of the Balkans," was Salonika, with its 56,000 Jews, most of them descendants of those expelled from Spain in 1492. Salonika, which knew occupation, epidemics, fires and famines, had been a veritable empire of rare cosmopolitan experience, with a lively culture of tolerance, and it had served as a Ladino-speaking Jewish center for 450 years. Even after the Greeks liberated the city from Ottoman rule, in 1912, the Jews continued to be active in the country's social, political and military circles, according to the book, which mentions people like the senator Avraham Ben-Aroya, and military officers such as Col. Mordechai Frizis, a hero of the Albanian war.

The book also describes a flourishing Jewish intelligentsia; newspapers published in Ladino, French and Greek; Jewish theater, poets and writers; movements both socialist and Zionist; publishers and impressive libraries; a wide network of Jewish schools and community-run social-service organizations; a magnificent rabbinate; physicians and bankers.

But the book neglects what it was that made Greece's Jewish community unique, which turns out to have great significance when it comes to their situation and the way they coped during the Holocaust. Greece's Jews were the living realization of the vision of David Ben-Gurion and the Zionist movement: They were the "New Jew." The sea off of Salonika was home to Jewish fishermen, its ports employed Jewish stevedores - and when they rested on the Sabbath, the port was closed. The workshops of Salonika, many of which were Jewish-owned, employed Jewish craftsmen, and the city's streets were traversed by muscular Jewish porters, Jewish horse-drawn carriages, all organized in cooperative agreements that were fully honored in hard times. And with fraternal relations with their Christian brethren too, as the book characterizes them, they had a mentality that was Mediterranean. They celebrated life with good food, with song, dance and music, with entertainment, love and sports.

Among the letters and excerpts from memoirs filled with vitality I received in the wake of the publication of my last novel, "Rose of Lebanon," were those from the daughter of Yaakov Cohen. A Salonika Jew who immigrated to Israel before the Holocaust, Cohen wrote about a Jewish boxer by the name of David, who went by the nickname "Machista" and would make his rounds in the city with a large Magen David suspended around his neck. Such prizefighters later contributed another drop of life to Jewish and Christian prisoners who were ordered to watch them compete with Ukrainian bullies for the entertainment of the SS, and - heaven forfend - defeated them!

No, there were no other Jews like this in the Diaspora: Salonika's Jews were not weak, not assimilated, they were not forced to choose between religion and education. They were nursed on the harmony that was in the blood of the city, and blended body and soul. "A Jewish city unlike any other in the world, not even in Eretz Israel," wrote David Ben-Gurion in one of his letters, about the year he spent studying in Salonika. Wrote, and then forgot.

Forgotten facts

And yet, even in "Greeks in Auschwitz-Birkenau," some of the facts have been forgotten. There is no mention, for example, of the nationalism cultivated under the second term of prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos, between 1928 and 1933; of the development of a fascist movement, following the arrival of thousands of refugees from Turkey in 1923, whose members persecuted and abused Jews; of the anti-Semitic riots at Camp Campbell, in 1931; or of the Jews' expulsion from their positions and the emigration of some 25,000 of them, during the same period.

The book also contains a black hole with regard to the participation of Jews in the Greek resistance organizations. In other words: The heroism of Col. Pritzis was not a one-time phenomenon. His successors - even if not part of the national ethos of Greece - were educated young Jewish men and women who, left homeless after the arrival of the Germans, ascended into the hills to join the resistance against the invaders. Their contribution was decisive: "Captain" Sarika, 17, led her own women's corps against German targets, and her courage was widely known. And there were others who comported themselves with similar bravery. But their activism also found expression in instructing locals, including women, along with providing translation, supply, medical, agricultural and publishing services for underground anti-German tracts, as well as maintaining external links with the British and the Americans.

For further reading:

A great divide, forever divided
Holocaust Studies / A picture worth six million names
The silence was deafening

At their peak of activity, the Jews in Greek resistance organizations, together with those from other Balkan states, numbered about 1,000, according to Prof. Steven B. Bowman, of the University of Cincinnati, who spoke at a 2002 conference on the Jews of Greece at the University of Haifa. [Editor's note: Bowman is author, most recently, of "The Agony of Greek Jews, 1940-1945" (Stanford, 2009 ).]

And something else is missing from the current volume: "Greeks in Auschwitz-Birkenau" devotes only a few lines to the subject of the German occupation of Greece, and to Greece's division among Italy, Germany and Bulgaria. Tomai gives nearly equal weight to Athens under the Italians, where leaders and intellectuals refused to hand over the city's Jews, as opposed to Salonika, where most of the city's Jews were rounded up and, with the exception of a few instances of rescue on the part of Greeks, were handed over to the Germans, with almost total silence on the part of the Greek establishment.

Instead, the book "begins" with the transports, skipping over the long days of occupation, in which members of the Jewish community council were arrested, and over the suffering of Jews, whose property was confiscated and who were forced into the Baron Hirsch Ghetto. Forgotten too is the looting of the libraries of Salonika's synagogues (turned by the Germans into a library for the study of Judaism), or the story of the Black Sabbath of July 1942, when 9,000 of the city's Jews between the ages of 18 and 45 were humiliated for an entire day in Freedom Square, as well as many, many other events.

Moreover, according to the picture portrayed by Dr. Irith Dublon-Knebel of Tel Aviv University, whose research is presented in a book called "German Foreign Office Documents on the Holocaust in Greece (1937-1944 )," the occupiers too reacted to the Jews of Greece differently than they did to Jews of other national origins. So, for example, though the Germans entered Salonika in April 1941, the restrictions on the city's Jews went into effect only at the end of January 1943.

"The Germans felt an alien nature to their encounter with the Sephardic Jews," writes Dublon-Knebel. Indeed, and the Germans' postponement of measures against the Jews of Salonika actually motivated the Greek anti-Semite Laskris Papanaum to write a complaint to the German consul: "In all the countries of Europe and the Balkans, steps have been taken long ago ... to make ... the Jews harmless. Only in Greece, and especially in Salonika, have the Jews been left unharmed."

Twenty transports

On March 15, 1943, the first transport of Greek Jews left for Auschwitz; 19 others were to follow. The journey of 2,800 people crammed into cattle cars without food, with one bucket of water and one for waste, and with one stop, took seven days. For these Jews, the extermination process really began on the train. Only 10,000 of Greece's 77,000 Jews survived the Holocaust.

"In the concentration camp ... the Ashkenazim didn't believe that we were Jews ... because we were strong, suntanned from the sun of Saloniki ... 'Tfu, the Grecos, those Greeks,' the Yiddish-speaking Polish Jews said about us, and we were scared, thinking it was German they spoke ... We didn't understand a single word the SS shouted, and just for that we were beaten" (my father, Yizhak Aini, from the novel "Rose of Lebanon," and from life ).

Only 524 men and women were taken from the first transport from Salonika to the Auschwitz work camps and to the devilish project of medical experiments. All the rest were sent directly to the gas chambers. Because of this, there is very little information about them in German documentation. However, even if the situation was similar in the other transports, Greek Jews could be found in all the forced-labor venues of Auschwitz-Birkenau from the period before the crematoria: as forced laborers in construction of the Buna camp, in the Sonderkommando, in the camp orchestra. But their inborn pride and sense of freedom, their steadfast loyalty to their languages - Ladino and Greek - and camaraderie, patriotism and social cohesion, along with their singing, self-irony and cunning initiative, with which they were able to buy yet one more moment before descending into hell, quickly served to grant them a different pattern of survival.

While talking among the prisoners was forbidden, the Germans actually encouraged them to sing. "We changed the words of songs whose tunes the Germans liked, and included messages and words of encouragement instead," recounts Haguel Leon of Salonika in Tomai's book. On occasion, passing messages through song proved fateful. The Germans had located the crematoria far from the camp area, and housed the Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoners forced to work in the death camp facilities, gas chambers and crematoria ) in rooms above the ovens, in order to maintain secrecy. However, a Greek Jew with a strong voice sang one day from oven number 6: "Greek girls who can hear me, tra la la ... in these chimneys here that you see above, a death factory of the worst kind is operating ... thousands of Jews ... falling into flames ... and I know that I too will be burned ... Greek girls, please ... if you come out of here alive ... tell the world." Beri Nehemia, who worked in the Canada camp and heard the song, says she will remember it until the day she dies.

The brotherhood that existed among the Greek Jews was also well known. Only a few prisoners had positions that allowed them to save lives. But Aharon Rosa, a pharmacist from Salonika who was the only Jew working in the SS infirmary at Auschwitz, used to smuggle out medicine and other supplies to his friends, risking his life to do so. He was nicknamed "father of the Greeks."

But the most powerful testimony to the exceptionalism of the Jews of Greece may be found in the book "If This Is a Man" by Primo Levi, who was in the Buna camp for a year. Buna, located near Auschwitz, was the I.G. Farber factory, and served as a forced labor camp for thousands of Jewish and Christian prisoners.

As Levi testified: "Next to us is a group of Greeks, those admirable and terrible Jews of Salonika ... Those Greeks who have conquered in the kitchens and the yards, and whom even the Germans respect and the Poles fear. They are in their third year of camp, and no one knows better than them what the camp means .... And they continue to sing and beat their feet in time and grow drunk on songs" (from the translation by Stuart Woolf, Abacus Press, 1991 ).

Not for nothing was Buna the camp most identified with Greek Jews. It was built by 200 of them from Salonika who arrived at Auschwitz in the eighth transport, and within a year of its construction it housed about 3,000 Greek Jews. "The camp was the size of Salonika," relates Baruch Sabi,who worked in the camp with his brother Sam for seven months, in "Greeks in Auschwitz-Birkenau." But the work of Yaacov Handali, who dug tunnels in the frozen ground of Buna, was harder, and the food supplied at that camp the worst in all Auschwitz. Soon even the burly stevedores of Salonika were rotting in the oppressive labor of Buna. "They barely survived a month," said Handali, who was saved by his gaunt build, but who lost his brothers, Yehuda and Shmuel.

Primo Levi himself wrote that had he not been transferred from the job of dismantling steel beams to that of laboratory chemist, where he was protected from the cold, he would not have survived Buna. Again he testifies: "The professional merchants stand in the market, each one in his normal corner; first among them come the Greeks, as immobile and silent as sphinxes, squatting on the ground behind their bowls of thick soup, the fruits of their labour, of their cooperation and of their national solidarity. The Greeks have been reduced to very few by now, but they have made a contribution of the first importance to the physiognomy of the camp and to the international slang in circulation ... These few survivors from the Jewish colony of Salonika, with their two languages, Spanish and Greek, and their numerous activities, are the repositories of a concrete, mundane, conscious wisdom, in which the traditions of all the Mediterranean civilizations blend together. That this wisdom was transformed in the camp into the systematic and scientific practice of theft and seizure of positions and the monopoly of the bargaining Market, should not let one forget that their aversion to gratuitous brutality, their amazing consciousness of the survival of at least a potential human dignity, made of the Greeks the most coherent national nucleus in Lager, and in this respect, the most civilized."

Mass sterilization

"Greeks in Auschwitz-Birkenau" devotes important chapters to blocks 10 and 11 in Auschwitz, in which the most horrifying acts ever enacted by people upon their fellow human beings took place. Many of the women tortured in block 10 were young Jews from Greece. The purpose of the experiments was supposedly to research diseases such as typhoid and cancer or conduct trials of new drugs produced by Bayer. In effect, however, what was perpetrated there en masse was sterilization. The devil for 200 Greek Jewish women was Dr. Karl Klauberg, who removed their ovaries in terrifying ways, without anesthesia or antiseptics. Let us remember the names of some of his victims: Rivka Ari, Dora Cohen, Buena Bitran, Rachel Mordoch, Bella Malach ....

"They pulled my womb down and performed experiments. Afterwards I could never have children," says Elvira Kolado. Another type of experiment was intended for human embalming. "They chose ... Greek Jewish young women with long noses ... Afterwards, I saw several types of masks fitted to the face, a month later the young women were put on a train and never returned. People said they had been mummified," remembers Germaine Mano, who was tortured in block 10.

The chapter in "Greeks in Auschwitz-Birkenau" on the Sonderkommando revolt seems to highlight more than anything else the differences in treatment of the Greek Jews, as opposed to those from the rest of Europe. According to the Greek Foreign Ministry, it would appear that the revolt organized by the Sonderkommando on October 7, 1944, was planned and executed completely by Greeks, waving improvised Greek flags, and accompanied by the strains of the Greek national anthem. Moreover, according to Tomai, the revolt - which included the blowing up of Crematorium No. 4 and sending to a fiery death the Kapo commander and an SS soldier - was led by Yosef Baruch, an officer in the Greek army.

The sparks of the revolt were ignited when Baruch, who worked in the Sonderkommando - which was the worst of all labors forced onto the Jews by the Germans and whose survivors were perhaps the most tragic among all Holocaust survivors - discovered his own parents in the gas chamber. Together with other Greeks, Russian prisoners and the chief Kapo, Jakob Kaminski, and with the help of four women from the weapons factory who smuggled them dynamite, and notwithstanding a series of plans that went wrong, the revolt (which ended in failure, or as Marcel Nagari put it, "For a few seconds we were free" ) began with Baruch's battle cry. Four hundred and fifty rebels, out of them 300 Jews from Greece, were murdered on that day by SS fire; among them was Yosef Baruch.

In contrast, the book "We Wept without Tears: Testimonies of Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz," by Gideon Greif (Yale University Press, 2005), presents a more detailed and complex picture of the revolt, and a very different one. Even so, its description of the revolt also paints it with certain national colors while erasing others. Under the heading: "The Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau: Portrait and Self-Image," Greif writes: "The story is told in various versions, especially in regard to the heroism of the participatnts and the symbolism of the act. However, the testimonies of former prisoners allow us to reconstruct the uprising in its general contours." Later on he points out: "Among those killed were almost all the leaders of the uprising," before proceeding to list six men with Ashkenazi names. No Yosef Baruch.

But one Peppo-Yosef Baruch is mentioned by Greif, who acknowledges in the book that he began his research on the topic following his acquaintance with two Greeks, Shaul Chazan and Josef Sakar. In answer to the question, "What do you know about the Sonderkommando revolt?" Greif quotes the answer of Chazan, who was from Salonika: "With us was a Greek Jewish officer whom I'd known back in Greece, Peppo-Josef Baruch. He was in contact with two Russian prisoners of war who were being held in the camp. One of them was also an officer. Peppo and the Russian officer contacted the underground in Auschwitz-I. Very slowly they organized and brought explosives to Birkenau. They made all preparations for an attack and an escape. At some time they told us about the plans for the uprising.."

The historic distortion continues today even at the data resource center of Yad Vashem, where one can read how "Greek survivors of Auschwitz credited themselves [my emphasis] with the explosion of Crematorium 3: Nearly all the participants in the attack were killed singing the Greek national anthem." Well, the truth comes into balance only in the words of Prof. Bowman: "It is also fitting to mention here the participation of the Jews of Greece in the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944, and their contribution to the Sonderkommando revolt in October 1944. This was a suicide battle, but one that gave hope to the prisoners ... in the rest of the camps in the Auschwitz complex."

And it is my hope, filled with pain for all the victims and survivors - no matter what their origin - that the ultimate lesson of the Holocaust would be: Love your neighbor (and brother ) as yourself.

Leah Aini is a writer.



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid Is the Most Israeli of All

An El Al jet sits on the tarmac at John C. Munro International Airport in Hamilton, Thursday, in 2003.

El Al to Stop Flying to Toronto, Warsaw and Brussels

An anti-abortion protester holds a cross in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Roe v. Wade: The Supreme Court Leaves a Barely United States

A young Zeschke during down time, while serving with the Wehrmacht in Scandinavia.

How a Spanish Beach Town Became a Haven for Nazis

Ayelet Shaked.

What's Ayelet Shaked's Next Move?

A Palestinian flag is taken down from a building by Israeli authorities after being put up by an advocacy group that promotes coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, in Ramat Gan, Israel earlier this month

Israel-Palestine Confederation: A Response to Eric Yoffie