Bodies Visible and Invisible

The Erasure of the Jewish Cemetery in Modern Thessaloniki

This essay began in 2002 when we were in Thessaloniki for a conference at the Aristotle University on the cultural history of the body. Hesse’s mother, a child of the region’s Jewish diaspora – her father was from Monestir and her mother from Castoria – had given us a clipping from an American Sephardi newsletter. In it we read, as we settled into our hotel,that the University, visible from our balcony, had been built on the site of a vast Jewish cemetery that was destroyed beginning in December 1942. The next day we discovered that all traces of it had disappeared. There was nothing – no explanatory plaque, no memorial, certainly no grave stones –  to suggest that half a million bodies lay beneath the university’s surface, and that many tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of gravestones had once crowded the spaces where now more than 65,000 students and their professors go about their academic business. Laqueur introduced his prepared paper on the dead body in eighteenth century Western Europe by briefly recounting what we had learned.

None of our highly educated and cosmopolitan Greek hosts, many of them natives of Thessaloniki, had anything but a vague idea of the destruction of what had once been the largest Jewish cemetery in the world. At their encouragement, we wrote an earlier and much shorter version of this essay that was published in a special issue of the Greek feminist journal Diniin 2004. Meanwhile an unpublished English version had a samizdat-like existence circulating among members of the Thessaloniki Jewish community, as well as among scholars who cited it in various studies on the destruction of the Jewish cemetery and its aftermath. In late 2014 the era of amnesia ended.

Visitors to the university are now, for the first time since 1942, alerted to a destroyed city of the dead underfoot. Interpretive signs, in Greek and four other languages, read: “The Nazis wanted to erase any trace of the Jewish presence in the city. To that end the destruction of the Jewish cemetery began in December 1942: a place of sacred memory.” It was the work of “the Nazi occupation forces and their collaborators.”

This is simply not true; neither here nor elsewhere in Europe were the Nazis interested in erasing all cultural traces of the people they were trying to annihilate. At worst, cemetery desecration was only an occasional sideline of Nazi activities. In fact, the Thessaloniki cemetery was destroyed entirely by Greek workman at the behest of an ultra-nationalist city council.

Before telling the story of what actually happened – and why it was so long forgotten – we begin with two general observations, and a particular one. The story of the erasure of the old Jewish cemetery – its complete physical and, until very recently symbolic erasure from the city – is unusual enough to demand explanation. Cemetery destruction in the modern world on this scale, like iconoclasm during the Reformation, is the nuclear war of cultural politics.

The second general observation is that the absence of the living does not make the erasure of the dead an almost foregone conclusion. One might argue that with the Jews gone from Thessaloniki – 94 per cent of the community was murdered –  the remains of their ancestors became culturally meaningless, rendering the cemetery a fleeting shadow cast by a void. But places of the dead are never demographically precise correlatives of the world of the living. They exist everywhere in a tenuous balance between the actual social world and an imagined one. All other major Jewish cemeteries of Europe from before the Holocaust survive as memorials to communities that once buried their dead there.

Finally, we should be more precise in formulating our questions because the answer to the first part – how the cemetery met its fate – has never really been in doubt. The history of the Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki was known and remembered within the Jewish community – by those who choose to know – because of Rabbi Michael Molho, who escaped deportation and bore witness to the destruction first hand. Various Greek scholars have also told parts of the story in a number of local histories. But this “known” history remained unassimilated in modern Greece. We ask the question of “what happened” again, therefore, both as an exercise in recovery and as an interpretative problem of understanding how something that is known can go unrecognised.

The cemetery had existed in some form for almost two millennia, the burial place of the descendants of Iberian Jews who fled eastward into the Mediterranean after the Christian re-conquest of Spain in 1492 – the Sephardim –and then of smaller numbers of Ashkenazi Jews who fled the pogroms of the Russian empire. By the late nineteenth century, it covered between thirty-five and fifty hectares (sources differ)  and was the most ancient of the city’s extant places for the dead.

In a very modest way, its demise – more specifically, its assimilation into the city – began in 1890 when the Ottoman government appropriated a small swath of the oldest section to build a grand boulevard and a palace that became the Old Philosophy Building, the first structure in the University. A 1917 fire that destroyed much of old, oriental Salonika accelerated implementation of an urban modernization plan to create space for a new university and a vast municipal park – at the expense of the Jewish and other adjacent cemeteries. In this regard Thessaloniki, as it was now called, was no different from any other European city in its hope to convert old cemeteries to new uses. For the next twenty years the Jewish community negotiated with the City Council about its land. There seemed no practical urgency: the university took very little land and the Jews – many fewer of them now than there were before the incorporation of Thessaloniki into Greece – continued burying as they had always done.

The arrival of the Wehrmacht on April 9, 1941 upset this desultory decline. Within less than a year, on December 6, 1942, representatives and experts of the Jewish Community met at the cemetery site with city architects and the civilian representative of the German occupation forces. An agreement was forged that gave the city and the university more land than they had gained in a 1937 agreement, but provided – or so the Jewish leadership thought – for an orderly removal of tombs of historical significance; for the safety of graves of those buried in the past thirty years; and for some sort of appropriate plantings. Alternative burial places were to be provided.

Yet no sooner was the meeting over when five hundred municipal workers began to lay waste to the entire site, setting the stage for its erasure. A few stones, whose owners managed to remove them before the impending destruction, made their way to the new, much smaller, Jewish suburban cemetery. A handful migrated to what is now the American Farm School. The Director of Antiquities appropriated those he thought of special archeological interest. The rest were incorporated with unseemly haste into various Greek building projects – as if the dead they had guarded belonged to some ancient, long since disappeared civilization that could be plundered at will. Six months after the deportations of the city’s Jews to Auschwitz began, the great Church of St. Demitrius took 500 marble slabs and 20,000 bricks, which it used for repairs. Many other parishes were in on the take as well.  And there were plenty of secular scavengers. Tombstones were used to pave sidewalks along Stratous Avenue and a square in front of the National Theater, and to build toilets for the Ioannideian School and a chapel at a nearby Christian cemetery. The Aristotle University Professors Association decorated the church in their summertime housing cooperative with fragments of Jewish tombstones. Intact slabs were used as dissection tables in the medical school.  Lots of fragments were used as rubble to extend the beach and raise an artificial hill for a new royal summer palace. Some went into the service of the occupation forces, including, as Molho chillingly documents, for the construction of a Wehrmacht swimming pool. Pillaging continued for decades after the war.

The dead and their names in stone were thus not so much forgotten – although that too – as built into the fabric of a world that had rejected them: stones stripped of their history and meaning. We are dealing here not with the looting of a Jewish cemetery by impoverished villagers – as happened in parts of eastern Europe – but of the systematic destruction and erasure of the world of the Jewish dead that had been a part of Thessaloniki for millenia. When the last traces of the cemetery disappeared we do not know.

Three Stories

The Holocaust

The most obvious explanation for the destruction of the cemetery is that it was part of the history of the Holocaust in Greece. As the account offered on the memorial site today says, the Germans did it, presumably as part of their war on the Jews. By omission, the authoritative United States Holocaust Memorial Museum implies the same thing. Its web page on Salonika opens with a picture of the destroyed cemetery and the following citation: “View of the destroyed Jewish cemetery in German-occupied Salonika. The tombstones would be used as building materials.” It was also at one time the view of the leading Anglophone historian of the period: “… in December the Germans began to demolish the great Jewish cemetery which lay on the Eastern side of the city,” wrote Mark Mazower in 1993.  They didn’t. (Mazower corrected his error in 2005).

But the question of the relationship of the destruction of the cemetery to the Holocaust in Greece is of some interpretive delicacy. The Nazi presence in the city unquestionably made it easier for others to grab land they had long wanted; it placed the status of the cemetery back into play after more than thirty years of desultory negotiations. During the summer of 1942, German occupation forces had forced 3,500 men from the city’s Jewish community into backbreaking labor under appalling conditions. Max Merten  – the civilian head of the Economic and Administrative Department of the German occupation –  thought that the 12 per cent mortality rate estimated by Rabbi Molho among those conscripted was low. In October, Merten and the leaders of the Jewish community negotiated a sum of money to be paid by the Jewish community that would be used to hire substitute Greek workers. A ransom: three and a half billion drachma. Two billion were to be in cash, and the rest, 1.5 billion, was to be in kind: the land of the Jewish cemetery. Many in the community rejected the deal, but there was little to be done in the context of unbearable psychological, economic, and cultural pressures from Nazi antisemitic legislation and a hostile local administration. The men were released. All through October and November, the German authorities made clear they intended to follow through on the bargain and to take the cemetery – although how quickly still seemed up for grabs.

On December 6, Merten met with members of the Jewish community and the Governor General of Thessaloniki at the cemetery and re-opened the negotiations about how the ransom would be paid. He decided to give the university a relatively small amount of land beyond what had already been transferred by the 1937 settlement; the rest would remain untouched for the time being. Instead the destruction began that very day. The final blow fell so fast that the community was essentially helpless: “the work of destroying the cemetery was done in such haste that very few Jews succeeded in finding the remains of their families and relatives,” wrote the United States Consul in Istanbul. “Recently buried dead were thrown to the dogs.” The deportation of Salonika’s Jews to the death camps the following March settled once and for all the question of ownership: by order of the Finance Ministry on October 14, 1943, the entire cemetery was considered forfeited on the grounds that it had been deserted by its owners. This became the legal basis for post-war municipal and other claims on its tombstones for building purposes.

So, yes, the destruction of the cemetery is part of the Holocaust in Greece – even though no Germans actually took part in it. The fact that the cemetery became an issue again was a result of Nazi occupation labour policy. The German presence in the city made possible and gave comfort to the Greeks who attacked and destroyed the cemetery.  But there is no evidence Max Merten or any men under his jurisdiction viewed the final solution to the Jewish cemetery question as a prelude to the deportations that Eichmann and his men organized three month later. Merten was, we believe, telling the truth when he testified at Eichmann’s trial that his own decision was “in line with a Greek law of 1936.” That is, while it involved some additional land, it followed more less the same principles of orderly exhumation and conversion to other uses. The German intention was to confiscate parts of it for instrumental reasons – and leave the rest as it was.

This is very much in keeping with Nazi policy, or more precisely the lack of a policy, toward Jewish places of the dead. The destruction or even desecration of Jewish cemeteries during the Holocaust was incidental. Nothing approaching the scale of what happened in Thessaloniki happened elsewhere. The Nazis programmatically murdered Jews; they pillaged their bodies for whatever of value they could get and then disposed of them as carrion; they had no compunction about desecrating graves on occasion for some particular local instrumental purposes. But they had only a passing and narrowly instrumental interest in the burial places of the ancestors of those they murdered.

In Germany itself, there had been some vandalisation of Jewish cemeteries as part of Kristallnachtpogroms on November 9-10, 1938. Generally, though, cemeteries fared far better than synagogues, both in pre-war pogroms and during the war. Nazi iconoclasm was directed at where living Jews prayed – not where their ancestors were buried. When a Leo Baeck student returned to Worms in 1948 he was offended to be offered postcards for sale of the ruined synagogue – but comforted by the cemetery, untainted, stones and candles on the graves left by other Jewish visitors. “It seemed,” he wrote, “to capture the memory of a thousand years as a beautiful and at the same time defiant picture.” There are of course exceptions to which one could point: the Nazis demolished two thirds of the nearly 7,000 tombstones in the old medieval cemetery in Frankfurt, which had been started in the thirteenth century and closed in 1829. But both the far larger and grander nineteenth century Frankfurt Jewish cemetery and a newer one opened in 1929—and still in use today – were left unscathed.

All of the major pre-war Jewish cemeteries inside Germany – east and west – survived the war, including those in the very heart of National Socialism: Berlin’s magnificent Weissensee, with rows upon rows of graves of Jewish soldiers of the Great War and verdant avenues of neo-classical tombs, and the more modest and overgrown, but still grand, Schönhauser Allee in the city’s Prenzlauer Berg, for example. Old picturesque cemeteries like Worms, with its mounds and crooked stones, were left intact.

The story is somewhat different in Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Yet no systematic destruction of Jewish cemeteries happened there either. A combination of poverty, opportunity, and antisemitism did lead locals in some places to scavenge the burial places of their absent, murdered Jewish neighbors for building materials. Germans and their collaborators also used Jewish cemeteries for mass killings and mass graves – less as acts of iconoclasm than for convenience: Minsk is the most infamous example. (The cemetery there finally closed in 1951 and most of the site was subsequently destroyed under communism. A few tombstones and a memorial stand there now.) They were used as places to inflict suffering: senseless soul–destroying work as in Labun where Jews were forced, day after day, to roll gravestones from one place in their cemetery to another. Fresh bodies in some Jewish cemeteries were dug up to be plundered of their dental gold. Others were selectively despoiled to help hide mass killing.

All of these are exceptional cases in which Jewish burial grounds were contingent, collateral damage of the Holocaust more generally. The Jewish cemeteries in the capitals and major cities of occupied or annexed western, central and eastern Europe are all still standing: Prague’s famous and much visited old cemetery – a major tourist site – and the new cemetery where Kafka is buried. The Warsaw Ghetto was annihilated, bombed and burned to the ground; the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery – the “Gęsia” – in its midst, with one hundred and fifty thousand graves, was spared.

To repeat: while the Nazi presence tipped the balance between the Jewish community and Orthodox Greeks in a local struggle over the Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki, the explanation for its destruction and subsequent erasure from memory has deeper and more complex roots. Extensive ruins survived in 1945 – or, more to the point, after the killings of the Greek Civil War had stopped in 1949 – enough to create a memorial park through which Greeks could have represented a vanished community amongst whom they had for so long lived. The question is why this did not happen. The answer is both general and particular.

Memory and Urban Planning

Cemeteries and churchyards have never been permanent resting places of the dead. Over the millennia they, like everything, fall prey to the “lone and level sands” of time. Les Halles, the main wholesale market in Paris, was built on the ground of the Cemetery of the Innocents, which at the time of its destruction in 1764 contained upwards of two million bodies. It, in turn, was replaced by a huge underground mall and transport hub in 1979.St. Pancras Station in London and the railway lines that enter it from the north replaced the churchyard of the local parish. The last remains of England’s first Jewish cemetery – dating from 1290 – survived until the building of the Barbican Center in the 1950s. Similar examples are to be found in every ancient land. In fact, the Thessaloniki Jewish cemetery itself sits on at least some of the ground that had been a Byzantine burial ground before the fall of the city to the Turks in 1453. Recycled ancient Greek gravestones, with Ladino inscriptions added on, remained until our era. In other words, the dead survive in place at the sufferance and service of the living.

In the modern period, both the creation of new cemeteries and the destruction of old ones grew out of a central tenet of western urban planning, beginning in the Enlightenment: move the dead away from the living and put something useful in their place. It is entirely in keeping with this history that when the Thessaloniki city planner Ernest Hébrard started thinking about how to build a modern city out of the ruins of the old, oriental one destroyed in 1917, he would take aim at the Jewish cemetery that abutted the old walls and stood in the way of progress and expansion. He was equally keen to be rid of other burial grounds. Joseph Nehama – principal of the local Universelle Alliance Israelite and the great historian of the Salonica Sephardim – wrote the British Jewish Deputies in 1931 that he thought “the Turkish, Greek, and Jewish cemeteries, which occupy the vast area beyond the White Tower from the sea-shore to hills that surround the town, must be transformed into a great public park.” But it is clear that while he understood the project of urban modernisation, he had no inkling of the locally perpetrated iconoclasm that was to come

Even before Hébrard, a clear-headed observer could have predicted that some places of the dead were vulnerable. By the end of the nineteenth century Thessaloniki was the last outpost of European orientalism, appreciated by western travellers for its picturesque eastern ambiance at a time when Athens and Belgrade had become western. Its days of exoticism were numbered. Already it had a tram and was connected to the rest of Europe and Greece by rail; its sea wall had been taken down; modern boulevards had been cut through crooked streets; grand hospitals, schools, and consulates in the latest European historical styles had been built in the last decades of Ottoman rule. Cemeteries were not to be spared in this march of progress.

That said, there was an animus evident in the destruction that began December 6, 1942, that is simply inexplicable in a dispute about urban planning – a fury well beyond the resolution of a long–smoldering dispute over land use. Yomtov Yacoel, who witnessed the destruction, recalled “the hurried manner and the excessive zeal shown by the Greek authorities make it obvious that it wasn’t only out of motives aimed at the city’s beautification that they were moved to dismantle the Jewish monuments so quickly.” The rapidity and purposefulness with which the vast Jewish cemetery was destroyed, the fact that its bones were left in the ground, and that all traces of its existence are gone, is as unusual in modern European history as it is in the history of the Holocaust and Holocaust commemoration.

In general the removal of the dead as a consequence of urban growth has been an orderly process. Two near–contemporary cemetery disputes help make the distinction clear. In both Rome and Bratislava, fascist regimes were interested in ridding the landscape of “foreign” presence and of using the land of Jewish cemeteries for urban renewal. Yet in both cities provisions were made for the orderly removal of remains. In Bratislava the bones of a couple of dozen famous rabbis remained – and are today part of a memorial.

The story is similar elsewhere. London’s Bunhill Fields, a burial ground in the heart of the City where many of the great “rabbis” of the dissenting tradition are laid to rest – Isaac Watts, John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe – became a park in 1867 and was rebuilt after war damage in the center of London’s financial heart. There is even a campus in England built on the dead: the magnificent nineteenth century Woodhouse Cemetery in Leeds went bankrupt in the late 1960s. The university acquired the land; rehabilitated the chapels; removed some tombstones; kept many others; and left all the bodies in the ground.

The dead are seldom safe from the demands of the living; but they are usually treated as if they were still part of the culture. In Thessaloniki, as well, the Orthodox Christian cemetery to the north-northwest of the Jewish one – like so many other European urban burial grounds – was reduced but not eradicated. The events of December 1942 in Thessaloniki were, and were meant to be, an act of iconoclasm – the violent destruction of a site sacred to someone else – not just a dispute over land use gone wrong, or the more or less orderly appropriation of burial land for other purposes.

The Jewish Cemetery and the Greek Nation

The presence of the Germans in Thessaloniki enabled the cemetery’s destruction; a long history of land disputes offers a context. But the violence of the attack speaks to the third of the stories through which to understand our problem: the willful undoing – the expunging – of a past. If places of the dead represent the social imagery of the living, then October 26/November 8, 1912 (the liberation of Salonika during the first Balkan War) and July 28/August 10, 1913 (the incorporation of the city and region into the Greek State under the Treaty of Bucharest that ended the Second Balkan War) is the starting point for what ultimately happened in 1942 and, more significantly, for the erasure until very recently of that day—and the weeks following—from national and local memory.

Thessaloniki, we need to remember, was a predominantly Jewish city during the years when the Jewish dead occupied so much land at its centre. Reliable statistics are not available, but on the eve of its incorporation into Greece in 1910, the number of Jews was roughly that of Greeks and Turks combined—65,000 Jews, 35,000 Greeks, and 30,000 Turks.  In 1928, the Turks were almost gone as were the Donme (followers of the 17th century Jewish mystic Sabbatai Tsvi, who converted in his last years to the Muslim faith); the number of Jews declined by perhaps as much as twenty percent through emigration. By the eve of WWII there were now 180,000 Greeks, comprising 70-80 per cent of the population.

The hard facts of demography were mirrored in the culture and politics of the early twentieth century. Elementary education in Greek became compulsory, replacing for many Jews an education in French sponsored by the Alliance Israelite. And of course there were other adjustments: debates in the early 1920s over whether Sunday should be the only day of rest – a measure meant to disadvantage the Jews who would have to close on their Sabbath as well – ended in compromise. With the Greek reconquest, the cultural landscape had changed for good.

So had politics: poverty and the day-to-day pressure on resources led to increased friction between the Jewish and Greek – especially Greek immigrant – communities. On the political level these pressures and ethnic national ideology led to the formation of the small – never more than 3000 member – antisemitic National Union of Greece (EEE). It was this organisation that fermented the so-called Campbell Riots in 1931 – one of only two antisemitic disturbances in modern Greek history – on a slight pretext regarding the participation of Jewish athletes in a Bulgarian political event that was construed as anti-Greek. Banned in 1936, EEE  was resurrected under Nazi occupation in 1941.

All this ferment was manifested in the struggle over the cemetery. The seeming imperatives of creating, very rapidly, a new national culture – given moral energy by national and local proponents of a thorough re-Christianisation of Greece’s “New Territories”– contributed critically to the destruction of the cemetery. And the coming to power of a fascist collaborationist city government sealed its fate.

But this does not explain fully its erasure from memory in the decades after liberation. By 1945, the land was no longer the issue. The tiny Jewish community that gathered in Thessaloniki after the war – no more than 2,000 at most – did not seek to reclaim its property for burial. It did not fight over a memorial space. And the Greeks had no interest in it either. The Aristotle University slowly covered every square meter of what had been the cemetery, leaving no sign of its relationship to the dead underfoot for more than seven decades.

In no other great city did the imperatives of modernity and nation-building telescope and converge so decisively with the crisis of occupation, genocide and the erasure of memory. Nowhere else were the communities of the living and the dead more completely sundered. Elsewhere, the reshaping of the social imaginary in the wake of the Holocaust has entailed the recovery of Jewish places as a reminder of a community that had once stood in its midst. One thinks of the lists of Holocaust victims in European cities, and the names of murdered family members inscribed on tombstones of relatives who died more peacefully. But on the site of the Aristotle University campus, we encounter a strange and inverted phenomenon: a vast terrain of bodies that no longer have names or any other sign that they once existed. It is a story unique in Europe.

This might be seen as a synecdoche for something larger in modern Greek history, a history that seems to write itself against an absence, an almost half a millennium gap between the fall of the Byzantine empire and the birth of a modern nation. It is part of a larger history of forgetting, a history impoverished by a lacuna that is, in fact, not really a lacuna at all. For the Jewish community, the incorporation of the true story of its magnificent cemetery – the largest of Europe – into the public history of modern Greece would allow it to mourn, specifically, for its eradication. More importantly, it would also allow Greeks in Thessaloniki to remember a community that lived in their midst for centuries (or in whose midst they lived); to remember a people for existing and prospering, not just for ceasing to exist through a genocide completed by “the enemy” in a matter of months. It would allow what happened on December 6, 1942, to become part of a Greek, and not only a German, story.

A longer version of this essay, with source notes, can be found in The Holocaust in Greece, Giorgos Antoniou and A. Dirk Moses, eds., which will be published in October by Cambridge University Press.​​

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