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40 years of active presence

Tuesday, November 28, 2023



    The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki
    From 1912, when the city was incorporated into the Greek state, until 1940, the number of Jews in Thessaloniki dropped from 75,000 to around 50,000 because of emigration, mainly to France and Palestine. The exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey multiplied Thessaloniki’s Christian population. Thus, from roughly 50 per cent of the total population in 1912, Thessaloniki’s Jews represented just 20 per cent in 1940. Furthermore, the urban redesign implemented in Thessaloniki after the fire of 1917 left many families homeless. In 1940, most Jews lived in clusters in specific new areas; some 40 per cent of the community’s members lived in
    specified neighbourhoods created by the Jewish Community specifically for the homeless. While the young had learned the Greek language in school, the majority of Jews were linguistically isolated, as they spoke only Judaeo-Spanish.

    The persecution
    In the two-year period spanning April 1941 to March 1943, antisemitic measures were taken in successive phases: (a) the control of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki by the Occupation authorities; (b) the strangulation of their financial liquidity and plunder through the imposition of forced labour; (c) the replacement of the appointed president by the chief rabbi; (d) the destruction of the Jewish cemetery and the use of materials from it
    in various construction projects; (e) the forced withdrawal of Jews from the city centre and their concentration in other parts of the city, the use of the identifying yellow star, curfews, the ban on the use of public transport and telephones, the expulsion from the rolls of professional chambers, associations, etc; (f) and, finally, the gradual deportation to Auschwitz as from 15 March 1943.

    The prelate
    Gennadios Alexiadis from Rhodes was elected Metropolitan of Thessaloniki in 1912, where he remained until his death in 1951. In 1969, he was posthumously awarded the honorary title of Righteous Among the Nations. He was one of the first to recognise the right to establish a Jewish national homeland. At the peak of the antisemitic events of 1931, he asked priests to declare from their pulpits the peaceful coexistence with the city’s Jews, thus censuring the attacks on Jewish neighbourhoods as a barbarous and unchristian act. When Chief Rabbi Zvi Koretz was arrested and deported to Vienna following the German Occupation of Thessaloniki, Gennadios issued a letter in support of him.

    Support and solace
    When the Baron Hirsch ghetto was fenced in on 5 March and Chief Rabbi Koretz was informed that the Jews would be deported to Poland, Gennadios immediately appealed to Max Merten, the military commander’s political advisor, to stop the deportations. But Merten replied that the orders could not be rescinded. Gennadios likely also submitted a letter, as a copy has been found in American archives. The letter emphasised that most Jews were poor or impoverished law-abiding workers who would die as a result of this poverty if deported.

    The famine of 1941–1942 claimed a proportionately larger number of victims in the Jewish population because of their lack of connections with rural areas.

    In April 1943, Gennadios intervened to set up the fruitless meeting between Ioannis Rallis, who had just assumed the office of prime minister on 7 April, and Koretz, the only result of which was the removal of the latter from his position as chief rabbi.

    Gennadios also mediated with the Occupation authorities on behalf of various Jews who appeared to have been baptised in the Christian faith.

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