Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

15 Elul 5764 - September 1, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Surviving the Inferno of Salonika

by Chedva Ofek

Part III

A plain building on Rechov Levinsky in Tel Aviv houses an organization called Concentration Camp Survivors from Greece. Moshe Helyon, at the age of 78, is still energetic and creative. The Holocaust in Greece? Few people know the country was involved. Yet 60 years after the first train left Greece packed with Jews destined for the death camps, Helyon tries to document the experiences of those who were spared from the Nazi inferno, presenting his own life story as an example.

In the first part Mr. Helyon described the weeks leading up to his family's deportation from Salonika to Poland. After they arrived in Auschwitz, they were separated into four groups: The first, elderly and disabled men limited in their ability to perform labor and walk; the second, young, able- bodied men; the third, elderly women and women with children; and the fourth, the rest of the women. He and his uncle went with the group of about 500 able-bodied men.

The second part described some of his experiences at Auschwitz, culminating in an awful selection from among the hospital patients that was carried out on Yom Kippur. Mr. Helyon was spared, and decided to get out of the hospital as fast as he could.


Notice of my discharge from the hospital came as a relief, but I was worried what Kommando I would be assigned to. I was very eager to get accepted to the builders' school. I had sent several requests with a young man from Salonika, Jakito Mastro, who worked in the camp personnel office and who was in a position to help in this matter.

While I was once waiting in the yard with the other prisoners, he stepped into the retinue attached to the person in charge of assigning us. I was sure I should not pass up this additional opportunity to speak to him. I stepped closer to where he was standing and at a certain distance I said to him in Ladino, loud enough for him to hear me, "Put me in the meorerschule! Put me in the meorerschule!"

I was sure he heard me, but he made no indication whatsoever of having heard. By the time my turn arrived to report to the selectors, I was very tense. The moment arrived, followed by their whispered consultations, and then they told me I would be transferred to the meorerschule, the school for builders.

The Last Remnant of the Family Perishes

I was in the school for builders until March 1944. This was an exceptional advantage because of the weather conditions. The whole camp was covered with snow and the temperatures dropped below zero. However we hardly ever had to leave the block, except for morning inspection. The instructors, who were almost all prisoners, were mostly Jews.

Once, after our studies had ended, I was returning from work, when a prisoner told me he had seen my uncle Yitzchok and he wanted to see me. I went straight to his block, but since I was not permitted to enter I stood in the adjacent square and called his name out loud. In one of the windows of the first floor of the block several heads appeared. My uncle was among them.

I was startled by his appearance. He was a "Musselmann" in the most extreme sense. [In Auschwitz parlance, the word "Musselmann," of unknown origin, was used to describe weak, helpless prisoners doomed for selection.] He broke into bitter tears.

"Morikus," he called out, using my old nickname. "I'm hungry, I'm sick, I have no strength."

I spent several minutes trying to boost his spirits. Then I returned to my quarters, took the 250 grams of black bread I had been saving out of straw mattress and brought it to him. My uncle thanked me and I promised to bring him more food.

Two days later, when I returned to my uncle's block, it was empty. I realized that all of its inhabitants, the sick prisoners, had been taken away for extermination. The last remnant of my family had perished! My heart shrouded in grief, I prayed to Hashem to spare me from the Valley of Death, to leave me as a last survivor from our entire family.

On one occasion, a prisoner from Salonika told me that one of my acquaintances, who used to be on friendly terms with me, needed my support and encouragement. The only way for me to help him was by sending a letter, because his block was very far away from ours. In my letter to him, I described the hardships visited upon Am Yisroel throughout the Diaspora, particularly the suffering of our forefathers in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition and their expulsion. Yet in spite of everything HaKodosh Boruch Hu matzileinu miyodom, "and with His help we will yet merit release from the horrors of death."

The letter was intercepted. The SS searched the deliverer and under their threats and blows he was forced to reveal who wrote the letter.

Now I was in real trouble. Contact of any kind between prisoners from different blocks was strictly prohibited. The next morning I was summoned to Block 11 to receive my punishment--25 blows. This block was infamous and every prisoner was seized with dread upon just hearing its number. Those sentenced to death for various transgressions were taken out to the courtyard in front of it.

When my number was called I went into the room. In the center, was a type of elongated wooden stand one meter long, 40 cm wide and 80 cm high, with a concave board on top. Two Kapos stood off to the side, each with a rubber bat in hand. They ordered me to bend down and lean against the stand, then they proceeded to strike me in turn. Although the 25 blows landed at a rapid pace and the ordeal took less than a minute, the pain was intense.

The punishment was over. Limping along, racked with pain, I stepped out into the corridor. I could barely walk down the stairs. Upon returning to the block I fell, exhausted, into my bed. I could hardly comprehend that the next day I would have to report for work. Thus, with all of the physical strain, I continued working in the Kommando until all work ceased and preparations to evacuate the camp began in January 1945, as the Red Army began to draw near.

Friendship on the Death March

The days leading to the evacuation of Auschwitz were filled with hope that soon the nightmare would be over. We could clearly see that the SS men were getting nervous. The condition of the Germany army was deteriorating from day to day.

At the beginning of January, it was already clear that the front was coming very close to the camp. Total disorder reigned. The kitchen and the storehouses were broken into and orderly food distribution had already broken down.

I, like many others, obtained clothing items from the warehouses that stood wide open. I wore them underneath my prisoners' uniform in the event that we were given an opportunity to run away from the cursed Germans. I also took a pair of high leather boots, an extremely important find which allowed me to do away with my wooden shoes which made walking very difficult.

During the second week of January, there were numerous alerts, and we often heard the echoing boom of artillery fire. Expectations of freedom reached their peak. But then we were notified we would be evacuated from the camp. We were also informed that parties had already begun to set out from the auxiliary camps for unknown destinations.

The final evacuation of Auschwitz took place at the end of January, in freezing weather. When the prisoners' census was complete, an order was given to head out.

We set out with several thousand prisoners, accompanied by about 200 Germans. Snow fell and a cold wind blew. Of course we were not informed of our destination. The more time went by, the louder the guards shouted at the prisoners stringing out slowly at the end of the line. Periodically we heard shots directed at prisoners straggling behind the ranks.

I marched with my friend Binio. Our thoughts focused on the march. We spoke very little. At a certain stage, I sensed his footsteps dragging, which opened a gap in the ranks. He told me he was short of breath and unable to continue walking. That was dangerous. I tried to persuade him to overcome the difficulty, but to no avail. I took his gear and it appeared to ease his effort.

We continued walking, but he started complaining again. His condition got worse and worse. I was not surprised when he told me he wanted to leave the ranks and sit down on the side of the road. We knew what his decision meant. I threw down the gear in my right hand and propped him up, helping him to walk, but I soon felt I would not be able to continue supporting him for long. I grew weary.

Then it came to me that the only chance of saving him would be to put him onto one of the wagons. I went up to the first group that came alongside me and proposed to its crew that they allow my friend to sit in the wagon and in exchange I would help push it. Only after much persuasion did they consent. I continued marching behind without any strength, nearly frozen from the cold. Without noticing, my hands fell away from the wagon. My footsteps faltering, I began to drop back.

The echoing shots announcing death had not ceased. I shuddered at the thought that my friend had been taken down from the wagon and left somewhere on the roadside. This distressed me further and made walking more difficult. Only towards midnight did we arrive at a large courtyard lined with straw, intended for our overnight lodging.

At the crack of dawn, we were awakened and instructed to prepare to continue the march. With difficulty, I managed to stand on my swollen legs and to my surprise, there was my friend Binio!

"You saved me," he said, embracing me with excitement and appearing to have recovered his strength. Now we drew encouragement from one another and continued the difficult journey together.

Around noon, I felt short of breath and unable to continue. This time it was Binio who propped me up and carried my meager pack. When the Nazis made an offer for those not feeling well to board the trucks I violated the unwritten rule of, "never volunteer and never refuse," and quickly climbed up. I couldn't have walked another step anyway.

Binio's eyes grew very sad. He must have thought they would take us away to be killed. But after a half-hour ride we reached the train station near the Polish-Czech border.

Years later when I went to visit the government-run museum at Auschwitz, a worker there told me that our march had been 60 kilometers (37 miles) long! Thousands froze and starved to death along the way.

The train took us to the Mauthausen camp in Austria and from there to another camp called Melk and finally to Avenza.

The situation in these camps was more or less like what I described in Auschwitz. I recall that at Avenza the hunger was particularly difficult. We ate locomotive coals, which were in abundance there. The coal tasted slightly sweet. It was crunchy and easy to eat, and staved our hunger pangs. But of course it was very hard on the body.

Soon my condition deteriorated drastically. My whole body was swollen, particularly my legs. Pressing any of the swollen spots would leave a deep concave impression for a long time. By observing other prisoners I realized that my condition was the worst of all -- and fatal.

But chasdei Shomayim did not leave me. Since our arrival at Avenza, rumors had spread of the severe defeats the Germans were suffering on all fronts.

On May 1st, we did not go out to work and news that Hitler had been killed spread quickly. On that same day, when the afternoon soup was distributed, the man in charge of the block announced that every prisoner would receive a pack of cigarettes owed to us from some past debt. For me this was a gift from Shomayim. I immediately exchanged my pack of cigarettes for food, which I badly needed.

We didn't go to work for the next two days. On Tuesday, a prisoner appeared in our hut and from the way he looked we could tell he was among the camp's VIPs. Speaking very briefly, the man said that during the muster role soon to take place with the camp Commandant, he would almost certainly offer to take us to nearby tunnels as protection against Allied shelling or aerial attacks. Emphasizing every word the prisoner said, "You must tell them you refuse!" Then he left the hut.

And indeed, when the Nazi commandant offered to bring us into the tunnels we refused, shouting, "We don't want to go! We don't want to go!" Without saying a word, the rosho and the soldiers surrounding us turned and left.

A display of joy broke out among us. It was hard to believe we had actually refused to obey an order by an SS man--not just any SS man but an officer who had supreme control in the camp--without punishment.

The next night, I awoke to the sound of loud explosions. It did not sound like the thundering artillery fire or the aerial bombing that we had been hearing over the past two days.

Alarmed, I ran outside along with the other prisoners. From where I was standing, I could see flashes accompanied by echoing explosions coming from the mountain slopes near the camp -- the same mountains where the tunnels were located! Obviously the explosions were taking place inside the tunnels themselves. Although they knew--or because they knew-- that Germany's fate was sealed they still plotted to kill us.

Freedom at Long Last

On the morning of May 6, 1945 there was great tension in the camp. Everybody went outside. The weather was nice and the sun, peeping out from behind the clouds periodically, not only warmed my body but also shone rays of hope.

Around noon, three tanks rolled through the open camp gate.

"The Americans! The Americans are here!"

Excited voices traveled from one to the next as a crowd gathered. There was a spontaneous outburst of genuine happiness. A powerful surge of hundreds of prisoners streamed toward the tanks, shouting with joy and waving their arms. Some ran while others walked, some limped while others trudged along heavily. Everybody yearned for freedom.

On the antenna of one of the tanks I saw a small Greek flag. It turned out one of the members of the tank crew was a US soldier of Greek origin. Numerous Greeks, including myself, gathered around him. We spoke in Greek, laughed, breathed in freedom.

During the first days after our liberation by the US Army, large quantities of food flowed into the camp and were distributed without limitations. The people descended on the food, but uncontrolled eating had grave consequences, apparently unforeseen by the new camp authorities. Approximately 1,000 prisoners died during the first three days after being liberated. The Americans quickly reduced the rations and altered the menu to dairy foods and vegetables.

I was suffering from severe dysentery and did not leave my bed at all. My block-mates pleaded with me to check into the hospital, but I adamantly refused, apparently due to subconscious fears lingering from my recent past. But an American doctor came to me, gave me various types of medications and soon I was on the road to recovery.

After being liberated, the camp residents began to visit the town of Avenza. I did not join them because of my fatigue, but I know that on one occasion, the American authorities forced a group of Avenza residents to tour the camp to show them the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

The people of the town innocently claimed they knew nothing of all this. We knew they were lying. The camp was very close to the town and there was no way for them not to see the prison Kommandos walking down their dirt roads every day on the way to and from work.

The Americans gave the residents of the town the task of burying those who died during the first few days after the camp's liberation. Cleaning work around the camp was performed by German captives.

We, the survivors from Greece, congregated in two huts. We began to discuss returning to Greece. The question of which route we would take was raised. The Communists in the group wanted to return via Yugoslavia, while their opponents favored traveling through Italy. The argument was not settled and eventually we divided into two groups. I was among the several dozen--all Jewish--who preferred to return via Italy.

We left blood-drenched Avenza at the end of June 1945, in the morning, riding on trucks to Italy. From there we were supposed to travel to Greece.

On the way, we saw military trucks bearing a Mogen Dovid insignia. The soldiers riding them also wore the emblem on their sleeves. At one of the stops we conferred with one another and they introduced themselves as Jews from Eretz Yisroel serving in the British army (the Jewish Brigade). We spoke to the soldiers in Hebrew using what we knew from our talmud Torah days.

Arriving in a town in Northern Italy, we were lodged in a large building.

Several Jewish soldiers came out to meet us. What was there for us to do in Greece? Who would we find there, after all our family members had perished? A civil war was raging in Greece, they said, and upon our return we would be drafted straight into the army. They suggested we make aliyah.

Twenty-five members of our group, including myself, decided to go to Eretz Yisroel. The soldiers transported us to a town in Southern Italy, where we stayed in a villa. In the area were several other towns where concentration camp survivors had gathered.

The course of events leading to the moment I first set foot in Eretz Yisroel is another story, which I believe warrants a separate article. I will say only that in August 1945, our group was united with groups from Eastern Europe totaling about 150 people. Some eight months later, we traveled to Rome, where we waited for two whole months until we were taken to a remote beach and at daybreak boarded an illegal immigrant boat. Despite the difficult conditions and crowding on board, we were glad to have set sail.

Seven days later, a British navy destroyer took over the boat near Cyprus. We were towed to Haifa and from there we were taken by bus to Atlit. Only on July 17th, 1946, were we released from the camp and finally merited freedom in the long-awaited Eretz Yisroel.

A Brief History of Jewish Salonika (Thessaloniki)

Part III

Part I discussed what is known about the very early times of Salonika. It is thought that a community existed there during the time of the Second Beis Hamikdash. Various groups arrived over the centuries, but the pivotal point was the settlement of 15,000-20,000 Spanish (Sephardic) Jews after 1492.

The second part discussed the impact of the Spanish Expulsion on the community in Salonika, which was very great. About 20,000 Spanish exiles settled in Salonika, establishing Salonika after it had been destroyed by Turkish conquest, and establishing Jewish Salonika. In 1519, there were more Jews than Christians and Muslims combined. For more than two hundred years, Jews from all over the world came to live in Salonika.


Ottoman files record 16 Jewish neighborhoods since the beginning of the 16th century.

The Jews separated into autonomous communities, according to their place of origin. The center of each community was the synagogue. In fact, it was not only a religious and administrative center, but also an indication of the tendency of each group of immigrants to preserve its individuality and autonomy with respect to each other.

As time went on, the communities came closer together. This unifying trend became evident in the joint establishment of the "Talmud Torah HaGadol" synagogue-school, in 1520.

From 1515 and onwards, the Ottoman State bought all its army uniforms from Jewish textile manufacturers in Thessaloniki. The synagogues themselves produced clothing, employing their poor members as workers. The profits from these businesses were used for charitable and educational institutions.

In 1568, a community delegation to Constantinople, under the leadership of Moshe Almosnino, succeeded in securing a new Sultan edict, reconfirming all the written privileges that were initially granted by Suleiman the Magnificent but were burned during a fire in 1545. Thereafter, the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki was treated as "Musselnik," i.e. an autonomous administrative unit, reporting directly to the Sublime Porte. It also secured the right to acquire raw materials at prices lower than market prices.

Thus the Jews of Thessaloniki enjoyed a period of prosperity that continued until the beginning of the 17th century, when the discovery of the new sea routes, the decline of Venice, and the involvement of the Ottoman Empire in destructive military campaigns brought ruin to Thessaloniki.

Shabbetai Tzvi ym"sh appeared in 1655 in Thessaloniki, declaring himself to be the Messiah. The Turkish authorities arrested him and condemned him to death in 1666, and he converted to Islam and was spared. Around 300 families followed him even into apostasy. They and their descendants came to be known as "Donmeh."

This group defection shook the community. Around 1680, the small independent communities formally united under the leadership of a single council comprised of three rabbis and seven lay members.

Around the middle of the 19th century, the destructive ideas of the Haskalah movement reached Thessaloniki. Also, for the first time, some civil rights were granted to all non- Muslim constituents of the Empire.

The city was modernized. Part of the Byzantine fortifications were torn down in 1869. Narrow streets were widened, fresh running water was introduced along with electricity. The streetcar, as well as the railroad, connected Thessaloniki with Constantinople to the East and Europe to the West, from 1870. In 1854, the first modern industrial complex was created: the Allantini flour mill, owned by the Allantini family, Jewish immigrants from Italy. Jews owned 38 of 54 commercial enterprises in the city and were the overwhelming majority of the workforce.

At the end of the 19th century, Thessaloniki had more than 70,000 Jewish souls, who were about half of the total population.

Thousands of refugees from the pogroms in Czarist Russia came towards the end of the 19th century, at about the same time as more than a million emigrated to America.

Twentieth Century

In 1908, the secular "Young Turks" launched their coup in Turkey from Thessaloniki. Using the city as their base, they overthrew Sultan Abdul Hamit II.

Following the Young Turk revolution, the Zionist movement surfaced in Thessaloniki. It had first appeared in the city in 1899, but it then operated under the cover of societies which had as their stated purpose the dissemination of the Hebrew language -- that is, a cultural, nonpolitical goal.

Around 1909, the Socialist Workers' Federation was born. It was independent until 1918, when it merged with other Greek leftist organizations to form the Socialist Workers' Party of Greece.

On October 26, 1913, Thessaloniki was incorporated into the Greek state. The jewish community leaders were immediately received by King George I, who promised full equality for the Jews, a promise subsequently reconfirmed and proven in practice.

The great fire of August 1917 was a particularly severe blow, from which the community was never able to fully recover: 53,737 Jews were rendered homeless and many buildings were destroyed, including the community administrative offices, those of the Chief Rabbinate and of various welfare institutions -- as well as thirty synagogues and eleven schools.

As a consequence, many Jews were forced to emigrate during the inter-war period. Nevertheless, the community numbered more than 50,000 souls on the eve of World War II. The Jews of Thessaloniki fulfilled their duty to the Greek motherland during the 1940-1941 war: 12,898 Jews served in the armed forces (343 officers among them). Their losses were 513 dead and 3,743 wounded.

The occupation of Greece by the Axis forces marked the beginning of the end. The Germans entered Thessaloniki on April 9, 1941. A few days later Jews were banned from public shops. The Germans imprisoned the members of the Community Council, occupied the Hirsch hospital as well as many Jewish- owned houses, and looted the community offices and the richest Jewish libraries.

On July 11, 1942, all Jewish men aged 18 to 45 in Thessaloniki were ordered to report to Liberty Square. There, after being subjected to indescribable humiliations, they were taken away for forced labor. The community had to pay the huge sum of 2.5 billion drachmas to the Germans, in order to set them free. By the end of the year, the Germans confiscated Jewish enterprises and desecrated and destroyed the immense, 2,000-year-old Jewish cemetery of the city.

On February 6, 1943, an SD committee (Sicherbeitsdienst- security service of the German Reich) arrived in Thessaloniki. It was headed by SS-Hauptstrumfurer Dieter Wisliceny and SS-Oberstrumfuer Alois Brunner (SS captain and first lieutenant).

They put in motion the mechanism for the final annihilation of the Jews: they were forced to wear the yellow Star of David, according to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, and to live only in designated neighborhoods (ghettos). The use of public telephones and transportation was prohibited.

However, they disguised their true intentions and claimed that their goal was the restructuring of the community into a self-administered entity, located in an autonomous area within the city, with its own mayor and Chamber of Commerce.

On March 6, 1943, the German occupying authorities prohibited the exit of the Jews from the ghetto. From the Baron Hirsch neighborhood, the human herds were delivered for slaughter. The first rail convoy departed on March 15 for the extermination camp of Auschwitz/Birkenau. Consecutive convoys every few days carried, in a few weeks time, the Jews of Thessaloniki, piled in rail cars designed for cattle, to their place of extermination.

It is worth noting that the Church (this is the Eastern Orthodox Church, headquartered in Constantinople, not the Catholic Church, headquartered in Rome), the National Resistance movement, and the State Police set an example, followed by ordinary people, of offering help and shelter whenever possible, revolting in horror at the crime being committed. The Chief of Metropolitan Police, Angelos Evert, issued thousands of false identity cards to Jews, helping them to evade the Nazis.

An official letter of protest signed in Athens on March 23, 1943 by Archbishop Damaskinos, along with 27 prominent leaders of cultural, academic and professional organizations, refers to unbreakable bonds between Christian Orthodox and Jews. It is noteworthy that such a document is unique in the whole of occupied Europe, in character, content and purpose.

Of 46,091 Jews who were deported to the extermination camps, only 1,950 returned alive.

Today, half a century after the irrevocable disaster, the Thessaloniki community numbers no more than 1,200 Jewish souls. The community still maintains two synagogues, a communal center hosting recreational, religious, literary and artistic events, a primary school, an old-age home, a museum, and a summer youth camp. The community is still prominent in the financial, social and cultural life of the city.

The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki is a legal entity under Public Law, under the jurisdiction of the Ministries of Education and Religion.

Since 1979, the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki has been operating a six-year primary school and nursery, attended by about 80 children. In addition to the national curriculum, Hebrew, English and French are taught, as well as Jewish Religion and History. The nursery admits children from the age of three-and-a-half.

This historical account is based on material from the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki and the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture. It is being used with permission.

The Heroism of Salonika Jews in Auschwitz

A little known story of the heroism of the Jews of Salonika came to light almost 30 years ago. The information was reported in the Jerusalem Post (January 29, 1975) and R' Yisroel Taub of England, who was also in Auschwitz, was kind enough to call it to our attention.

The information is based on the work of Mrs. Danuta Czech, a Polish historian who compiled a day-to-day record of events at Auschwitz.

According to her reports, on July 21, 1944, an assistant of the infamous Josef Mengele selected 434 "young and healthy" Jews to be sent to work at the crematoria. Of these, 400 were chosen to work on the Sonderkommando unit, whose duties were to bring incoming victims to the gas chambers, which were designed to look like showers. The Sonderkommando were to lie to the victims and tell them that they were going to wash, so that they would cooperate. After the gassing, the Sonderkommando moved the bodies to the crematoria.

Many of the inmates from Salonika had been port workers. It is well-known that the Salonika ports were shomer Shabbos for many years.

Many groups of Jews were chosen for this ugly task. They generally worked for about a month, when they were gassed themselves.

According to the German documents found by Mrs. Czech, all 400 Salonika men refused to join the Sonderkommando. They were gassed the next day.

R' Taub, who spend eight months at Auschwitz, said that he met a bochur from Salonika who was an impressive lamdan. He of course did not speak Yiddish, but loshon hakodesh. R' Taub said that most Jews knew either German or Yiddish, but not the Yidden from Salonika, who were the only Sephardic community to have been taken by the Nazis for extermination. The German soldiers used to get angry at the Salonika inmates when they did not understand their orders.

R' Taub said that from his experience, this mass refusal of the Salonikan Jews to do the Germans' dirty work is very unique.

Hashem Yikom Domom.


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