Devin Naar visits the new monument at the University of Thessaloniki commemorating the Jewish cemetery that used to exist there. Photo credit: Iosif Vaena.
This past fall in Salonica, I spoke on sacred ground about the past and future of Greek Jewish history.
Once home to the largest Ladino-speaking Jewish community in the world, Salonica (Thessaloniki), the second biggest city in Greece today, lost nearly all of its Jews as a result of the Holocaust, during which the Nazis deported close to fifty thousand people to their deaths at Auschwitz. Almost all the remnants of the centuries-long Jewish presence in this once cosmopolitan city—from the more than three dozen synagogues to the vast Jewish cemetery—were obliterated, partly at the initiative of local Greek Orthodox residents and leaders themselves.
Now, more than seventy years later, Salonica is undergoing a process of reassessing its past, rediscovering its Jewish heritage, and seeking to come to terms with one of its darkest chapters, as it, along with the rest of Greece, forges a path forward amidst the continued economic crisis and accompanying political turmoil.
Thanks to support from the American consulate, I travelled to Salonica in the autumn of 2014 to participate in an international conference about the Holocaust in Greece—the first one sponsored in part by the municipality itself—and to deliver a lecture at the city’s Aristotle University, one of the largest universities in the country whose campus sits exactly on the spot where the vast Jewish cemetery once stood. The Holocaust conference, which drew local researchers as well as some of the top scholars in the fields of Holocaust and genocide studies from across the world, constituted a turning point and a sign of the changing times. H-Net published a review of the papers. The gathering also symbolized a broader openness on the part of the city leadership and university administration to break the long-standing silence regarding the city’s Jewish past as well as its erasure from the urban fabric and official public memory. I’d like to think that my lecture at Aristotle University also contributed to this trend.
Salonica, however, sits at the crossroads of competing political and cultural trends, with the rise of the far right, outwardly xenophobic, antisemitic, anti-Muslim party, Golden Dawn. I described my observations about some of these trends in 2013 in a cover story for the Jewish Review of Books following my visit to Thessaloniki for a 2012 conference. In that essay, I lamented that approximately seventy years after the Second World War, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki still had not yet officially recognized the fact that its campus sat on top of the once expansive and historic Jewish burial ground; not even a small monument had been erected. My visit this past autumn coincided with the erection of the first-ever monument on the campus of the university that indicates the site’s previous use as a burial ground, but the wording and the actors to whom responsibility for the destruction is attributed has sparked another controversy.