Following the angry reception that greeted him when he preached to the Jews of Thessaloniki, around the year 50, the Apostle Paul was spirited out of town by fellow believers in Jesus’ resurrection. They brought him to Berea, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) to the west. There too, Paul spoke in a synagogue, but in Berea the Jews “were more noble than those in Thessaloniki, for they received the word with all eagerness,” according to the account in Acts of the Apostles 17.
If nothing else, the New Testament reference to Veria (as Berea is known today) is proof that a Jewish community existed in this Macedonian town as early as the first century. That was the case for the following two millennia, albeit with interruptions, until 1943, when the Holocaust brought Jewish life in Veria to an abrupt end.
Today there are no Jews in Veria, a town of some 66,000 residents, but the quarter where they lived still stands (and is undergoing gentrification), and at its heart is a synagogue that draws a small but steady stream of visitors. Many of those who come seeking the synagogue are Jews, but there are also Christians who want to see the place where Paul preached the gospel 2,000 years ago. In fact, the current synagogue, which is perched above the Tripotamos river that runs through Veria, is less than 200 years old. But there is a belief, widespread though not substantiated, that the synagogue where Paul spoke stood at the same site.
If visitors are lucky, Evi Meska will be at the synagogue when they drop by, to describe the history of the building she has come to champion, and tell of her hopes to develop Veria – which already draws tourists interested in seeing the spectacular royal Macedonian tombs in nearby Vergina – into a mandatory stop on the Jewish itinerary of northern Greece. Part of her ambition is to create a memorial to the town’s Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.
Meska will also mention a modern legend about a mysterious Torah scroll that was supposedly in use at the time of Paul’s visit and was lost in the Holocaust. It’s an outrageous idea, but if you’re like me, you won’t be able to get that story out of your head.
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Evi Meska herself is not Jewish. But in 2002 she was working for the municipal tourism office, shortly after the synagogue underwent a partial renovation, and was asked to take around the building a group of Holocaust survivors from Veria who had come back from Israel to visit their birthplace. It was then that she learned firsthand about the destruction of the community.
Before they expelled Veria’s Jews from their town, on May 1, 1943, the Germans locked up some 300 of them in the synagogue. For three days, they were denied food and water. Those who survived were then deported, first to Thessaloniki and then to Auschwitz.
Hearing about the deportation “was a shocking moment for me,” Meska recalls. “The Holocaust went from being in my head to my heart.”
The ‘Da Vinci Code’ Torah
At the start of the war, Veria had a Jewish population of some 600 to 650, to whom were added about 200 Jewish refugees from other parts of the country. According to Giorgos Liolios, who has documented the Holocaust in Veria, 460 Veria Jews died in the Holocaust, 448 of them at Auschwitz. It is also known that 136 of the town’s Jews escaped deportation by fleeing to the mountains, and that 123 of them returned after the war. When they came back to Veria, however, the survivors found that their homes were occupied by newcomers and their possessions were all gone. Virtually all of them left, some of them for Thessaloniki, but the majority left Greece for either Israel or the United States. By 1970, Veria’s Jewish community was declared defunct, and management of its affairs was transferred to the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki.
In 2002, when the renovated synagogue was reopened, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece published a pamphlet containing a detailed history of the Jewish community of Veria. Appended to it was the text of an article published in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini in May 1951 that reads like a variation on “The Da Vinci Code.” That seems to be the source of the tale of the 2,000-year-old Torah scroll.
In precise, authoritative language, the anonymously written article describes how, during a visit to Veria in 1941, Isaac Kambelis, a senior representative of the Thessaloniki Jewish community, was shown an ancient Torah scroll. In the scroll’s margins was writing describing a visit by a “shaliah” – Hebrew for “messenger” or “apostle” – named “Saul,” who preached about the coming of the Messiah. When Kambelis described what he had seen to Thessaloniki’s chief rabbi, Zvi Koretz, the latter asked a respected Jewish scholar to travel to Veria to inspect it for himself. That scholar, “the wise Barouch Ben Jacob,” according to Kathimerini, confirmed, among other things, that the scroll appeared to date back to the second century B.C.E.
A plan to submit the scroll to further examination among foreign experts was interrupted by World War II, when, according to the same article, the Nazis confiscated all the religious objects belonging to Veria’s Jewish community and transported them to a four-story museum in Auschwitz. After the Russians liberated the death camp, they gave the Torah to Hungarian survivors, who, “even though they regarded it as passul [forbidden for ritual use, because it had been written upon], they used it for the purpose of religious ceremonies, because they did not have any other.” Eventually, says the article, it ended up in the hands of the survivor “Ernest Klein, a merchant from Budapest.” After that, its fate is unknown.
When Minna Rozen, professor emeritus of Jewish history at the University of Haifa, visited Veria a year or two ago, she too was shown around the synagogue by Evi Meska, and she too heard and was startled by the account of the “Paul scroll,” which she decided to check out, if only because “it was such a nice story.”
Prof. Rozen says she found no record of the visits of either Isaac Kambelis or Barouch Ben Jacob to Veria in the prewar archive of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki. She also notes that the reference to a Jewish museum in Auschwitz is “nonsense.” It is true, however, that the Germans shipped many of the ritual objects and documents they stole from Jewish communities around Europe to Prague for display in what was planned to be a museum of an “extinct” people.
She questions, too, the idea that someone would have gone to the trouble of documenting the visit of Paul to Veria in real time: “At the time that he came there, he was not an important person,” she points out.
But Rozen notes that the story doesn’t add up for a more basic reason: After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, in 1453, they forcibly brought to their new capital Jews, Muslims and Christians from all over the empire, to repopulate and rebuild the city after the decline of the final years of Byzantine rule. Among the groups who were transferred there was Veria’s entire community of Romaniote Jews, as the Greek-speaking Jews of the Byzantine empire were called. “And when they were deported,” notes Rozen, “they took their Torah scrolls with them.” And neither they nor their scrolls ever returned.
Lost history, restored synagogue
According to Elias Messinas, no physical evidence remains of the Romaniotes’ presence in Veria either. Less than a half-century later, however, their place was taken by Sephardi Jews, who “brought with them their own culture, language and religious traditions,” writes Messinas in his 2011 book “The Synagogues of Greece.”
Messinas, an Athens-born, Yale-trained architect who today divides his time between Greece and Israel, undertook to do a survey of the remains of the country’s synagogues for his doctorate. “By the 1990s,” he recalls, “in remote corners of Greece where no communities survived, synagogues and cemeteries were abandoned.” After spending months in surveying and documenting them, Messinas’ hope was to convince the Jewish leadership to preserve the sites, as part of the Jews’ cultural legacy.
In the case of Veria, a preservation program was attempted, with the support of the Getty Grant Program. In addition to the synagogue itself, which by the ’90s was in very bad repair, there was also the surrounding Jewish quarter, called Barbouta, and a cemetery just across the river, on what had once been the outskirts of town, but was now in the heart of a growing residential neighborhood.
The abandoned site of the cemetery was developed by the city as athletic fields, in return for establishment of a memorial to the city’s Jews on the site, to be created from the remaining gravestones – as was done some years later in Thessaloniki. The city also restored the synagogue façade in 1996 along with new pavement for the Barbouta area. A few years later, the interior of the synagogue was also renovated by the Jewish community.
Like Evi Meska, Giorgos Liolios is not Jewish. But there seems to be consensus among all concerned that he knows as much about Veria’s Jewish history as anyone. A lawyer and journalist by training, and a poet and novelist in his free time, Liolios has also written two Greek-language books about Jewish history – one about Veria, the other about the island of Sifnos.
In “Shadows of the City” (2009), Liolios says he attempted to reconstruct the events of the Holocaust in Veria, and more generally in Greece, and to name the “460 victims of the Jewish community of Veria.” In a written statement he sent to Haaretz, Liolios described the conversion of the cemetery into a sports facility as “an unholy act,” and “unacceptable if you consider the way we should manage the memory of the dead.”
He is no less disturbed by what he refers to as “the destruction” of the synagogue’s interior.
As the person who had painstakingly studied and published the history and architecture of the synagogue, Messinas was glad that the building was finally preserved, though he would have preferred if the work had been more accurate in preserving the synagogue’s original character. For example, the interior walls were repainted in blue instead of repairing the existing faux-marble – a traditional and unique decoration – and images depicting holy sites in the Land of Israel were added to the walls.
According to Liolios, both the plan to redevelop the cemetery and the manner in which the synagogue was renovated are examples of a larger, monument-based approach to Jewish memory that he sees as an inappropriate way to teach about the Holocaust.
“I believe,” Liolios wrote, “that we should be more interested in a systematic and persistent effort to manage and point out the memory of Jewish presence in the city and the Holocaust, with the help of various tools (mainly through school education).
“I would not, of course, oppose the installation of a Holocaust monument in Veria, but if it is to happen, it should be placed in a central part of the city rather than being ‘hidden’ in a remote corner of the city,” so that both locals and visitors will encounter and interact with it. Liolios says he wants to avoid the situation in which “Holocaust monuments are being set up just to say that we have repaid our debt to memory.”
Empathy and wonder
As a model of an effective memorial, Liolios points to the Stolpersteine project, in which small commemorative plaques are embedded in the sidewalk where Jews lived or worked before their deportation. The “stumbling stone” project began in Germany, but now has spread to everywhere Jews were persecuted during the Nazi period. Liolios believes they are an effective way to stimulate empathy and wonder. “Although there is generally a good climate in Veria,” he wrote, “there is still a large number of inhabitants who have anti-Semitic ideas or are suspicious,” and they need to be encouraged to empathize with the victims.
There’s some irony in the fact that the two great champions of Jewish commemoration in Veria are non-Jews, although it shouldn’t be so surprising, considering that no Jews live today in the city. For her part, Evi Meska would like nothing more than to see a memorial created in the basement of the Veria synagogue, which once housed the community’s mikveh, its ritual bath. She imagines bringing some of the tombstones from the former cemetery into the basement. “People died in the synagogue: it’s a place of memory,” she says.
Across from the synagogue, she proposes restoring a house and turning it into a museum: “I have pictures, stories, histories of the survivors, a lot of things to put in the museum.”
When I spoke with David Saltiel, a businessman who serves as president of both the Central Council of Greek Jews and the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, he said that he “hadn’t thought about” a museum in Veria, noting that creating such an institution requires money, content and dedicated professionals, all of which are in short supply.
Instead, Saltiel says his current priority is the expansion of the excellent Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki with an additional 500 to 600 meters of floor space. And adjacent to the train station of that city, which is where the Jews of Thessaloniki began their final journey to Auschwitz, the foundation stone was laid last January for a Holocaust museum. The major funding for that is also coming from non-Jewish sources: Greece’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the eponymous philanthropic organization established by the estate of the late Greek shipping magnate, and the government of Germany.