Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

1 Elul 5764 - August 18, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Surviving the Inferno of Salonika

by Chedva Ofek

Part I

A plain building on Rechov Levinsky in Tel Aviv houses an organization called Concentration Camp Survivors from Greece. Moshe Helyon receives us in his simply furnished office. Yet the Spartan surroundings belie Mr. Helyon's lively spirit. At the age of 78 he is still energetic and creative. Hanging on the walls of his office are huge pictures chronicling the Jewish community that was destroyed. "Within a matter of months," says Mr. Helyon painfully, "this glorious kehilloh that existed for two thousand years was wiped out."

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.


The general public is wholly unaware of the tragic history of the Salonika community. Reviving the memories is not easy. I was also among those who avoided speaking about it for years. But since I was selected as a board member of the Concentration Camp Survivors from Greece in Israel, my willingness to appear and deliver lectures on the Holocaust has increased. With my children, I have also opened the lid over my heart. Ever since then I have been undergoing a fundamental change.

In Salonika, where I was born, there was a Jewish majority for about 400 years, and for about 200 years, from the 1600s to the 1800s, it was home to the largest Jewish community in the world. The city was a place of rooted, enervated, organized Jewish life, earning Salonika the title of "the Jerusalem of the Balkans" and "a Jewish metropolis."

The German army entered Salonika in '41 just before Pesach, which fell on Shabbat that year. My father died during Chol Hamoed and a proper levaya could not be held. Fear prevailed in the captured city. Nobody followed behind the wagon carrying his aron. A handful of family members and friends, barely a minyan, went with me to the cemetery by trolley. We said the prayers quickly and rushed home.

Later, when I was subjected to horrors and suffering, I was comforted by the thought that although my father had passed away at the age of just 40, at least he merited a Jewish burial. Yet my father remained buried for only a short time. The Germans completely destroyed the Jewish cemetery of Salonika with its hundreds of thousands of graves. One hundred thousand gravestones were shattered in an uncommon display of fanaticism.

On Shabbos, July 11, 1942, the German administrator of Salonika issued an order: All the Jews between the ages of 18 and 45 were to report to Liberty Square for registration. A terrible threat was made against those who failed to comply with his order. I was not among the thousands who reported there because of my young age.

Within just a few hours, hair-raising reports of the Germans' abusive treatment of the Jews began to circulate. The crowd was kept in the blazing sun for hours. They were forbidden to drink, sit on the ground, cover their heads or wear glasses. Many of them fainted. They were forced to do difficult "calisthenics exercises," cruel blows fell on those who were unable to continue and dogs were set on them for no apparent reason. During the period following the registration, many of them were sent to difficult, forced labor outside of Salonika, and were provided scanty rations. Many of them contracted serious diseases and perished.

Now the Germans demanded that the community heads pay a ransom of 3.5 billion drachmas. The ransom was paid in part by handing over the Jewish cemetery to the Germans, which eventually resulted in the devastation mentioned above. In February 1943, the Germans published the race laws that would apply to the Jews of Salonika, including a threat of death to anyone who altered them. The orders caused great fear but the Germans took pains to allay concerns, through various means. For example, heads of the community appointed to lead us disseminated, perhaps without their knowledge, empty "guarantees" that we would not be harmed. Nobody considered the possibility of annihilation.

The community members moved into ghettos designated for them and lived in crowded, intolerable conditions. Rumors spread that we were about to be transported to Poland, to the area of Cracow. They gave us the impression that a Jewish autonomous region of some sort had been set up there, where normal life was conducted. That seemed logical to us then. The Germans claimed the Jews were a hostile element to them and because of the war they had to be concentrated in a single place. Few among us, if any, asked why they did not gather us somewhere in Greece itself, which was far away from the main German front. Why Poland?

Trying to Pacify the Public

The first transport of Jews from Salonika left on March 15, 1943. Nearly 3,000 people, including entire families spanning several generations, were loaded onto cattle cars and packed in, 100 per car. Two days later another transport set out under similar conditions. When they learned of the conditions on the trains, the Jews of the city raised a great outcry and directed it to the rav of the kehilloh.

In an effort to calm spirits, the rav called a gathering at the beit knesset. He and his entourage took their places at the bimah before the aron kodesh, and after tefillat arvit the rav stood up to speak to the packed crowd. Just then voices rose up. "How could children, babies, elderly people, the sick and the handicapped be packed into cattle cars?"

Others expressed opposition to the transports themselves. The rav tried to calm the crowd but he had no answers to most of the questions that were bothering everyone. Weeping and cries of helplessness were heard from every direction. The bodyguards hurriedly whisked the rav and his escorts out a side door.

Every few days a transport would depart for Poland. Now we were totally forbidden to leave the ghetto. Our family began to gather together and pack the items we were supposed to take along to Poland--winter clothing, bedding, books, etc., being careful not to exceed the permitted load of 20 kilograms per person, if I remember correctly. We took a sum of money to be exchanged for Polish zlotys. We also took a few steps to safeguard some of our property and other items of value that we would be leaving behind.

On April 5, 1943 we were scheduled to move to a special ghetto that housed the Jews designated to join the transports to Poland. We were seized with panic. Grandfather managed to obtain a wagon. A few of the non-Jewish neighbors parted with us sorrowfully, expressing hope we would return and see one another soon. My sense was that after a short time we would be back home.

We loaded our possessions onto the horse-drawn wagon and set out, proceeding slowly, the whole family strung out behind the wagon. Along the way, we met other Jews making their way to this ghetto, some with wagons and some carrying their belongings on their shoulders. At the entrance to the ghetto, we saw the place was in a state of chaos. New arrivals were roaming through the streets, where melee and shouting predominated, seeking a place to settle in. We found a small, vacant house and my uncle went to bring the rest of the family. We put the bundles on the floor, laid out blankets and took a short nap.

While my mother set about cleaning and arranging the house as best she could, my uncle and I went out into the streets. The ghetto consisted of dilapidated one-story houses, some of them on the verge of collapse, metal shacks, a locked beit knesset. We came to one of the edges of the ghetto, where a high fence prevented anyone from entering or leaving, but a hole in the fence indicated that there were some who slipped out.

Returning to our new home we sat down on the floor to eat what we had brought along: bread, canned food and fresh vegetables. It was early in April and night fell quite early. Kerosene lanterns spread a faint light around the room. My uncle disappeared for a few hours. Upon his return, he said he had left the ghetto through one of the holes in the fence and met a Christian peddler who gave him fruits and vegetables and arranged to come to the fence the next day with other foodstuffs. My mother warned him not to dare set foot outside the ghetto again. During the short time we had been there, we had already heard stories of heavy punishments imposed on those who were caught leaving.

The next morning, the adults in the family complained they did not get a wink of sleep all night long and that their bodies ached. Right away, they formed the opinion that we should make our stay in the ghetto as short as possible and head for Poland. Why continue this torment in the ghetto?

We had no doubt that the situation in Poland would be less difficult. We were aware of the insufferable conditions on the freight trains to Poland, but this was seen as another reason to hurry up and get this difficult period behind us, in the hopes the future would be easier and more comfortable. When we learned a transport was scheduled to depart for Poland within a day or two, we were sure we wanted to join it, although it would have been possible to evade it for a while.

Hopes for a Better Future in Poland

The next transport bound for Poland left on April 7, 1943, two days after our arrival in the ghetto. We joined it. A long line of people was marching toward the platform. We pressed forward. A locomotive was pulling a line of cars used to transport horses and cattle. The Germans shouted and forced us to board the cars quickly. It wasn't easy. Everybody tossed their belongings onto the floor of the car. Those who were able, quickly climbed onto the car to find a good spot. Shouts and noise and children crying prevailed everywhere. About 90 people boarded the car.

The crowding was extreme. It was impossible to move without stepping on someone or something. Once the car was full, the Germans shut the doors and latched them. A four-inch-wide space between the door and the wall of the car and two barred windows on either end were the only opening to the outside world. Our family found a place next to the door. We sat down on our bundles. The train rolled out slowly. Silence prevailed inside the car for a short period. The train picked up speed. I had never ridden on a train before and my eyes could not take in enough of the view through the vertical opening next to the door. Gradually my attention was diverted to events inside the car. People talked with one another, babies and children cried, mothers tried to comfort them, the sick groaned with pain, the handicapped complained that they could not stretch out their arms and legs. The train ride went on and on. Based on the names of the towns and stations I could tell we were already passing through Yugoslavia.

Toward evening, when the train stopped near one of the stations, the German soldiers escorting us organized guard shifts around the cars. Only once every two days would the train stop, at a distance from a settled area. The doors would slide open and we would get out to stretch our legs in the open field, with the soldiers posted around us.

The days and nights passed quickly. The journey had already lasted nearly a week and the situation in the car was becoming difficult. People grew more and more agitated and short-tempered. Although we were permitted to stock up on water during the stops, the taps were few and everybody descended on them at once so that few people had a chance to get water, and their thirst began to bother them. Meanwhile food supplies were running low. People who had consumed everything they brought along had to rely on others who were not always able to help. We were eager to finally arrive at our destination. We did not know the exact route of the journey, but we could tell we had left Czechoslovakia.

Wherever there were people along the way, they would stand and gaze at our train, as if seeing a bizarre sight. On the morning of the seventh day of the journey, a rumor spread that we would soon be arriving in Cracow. Feverish preparations for our arrival began. All of us anticipated a better future in Poland.

Who will Live and Who will Die...

A few hours before midnight the train stopped. The doors slid open. Powerful lights illuminated an open field where we saw numerous German officers and soldiers carrying guns. They were SS soldiers. Some of them had dogs. Further away, a line of vehicles, mostly trucks, could be seen. Yet our attention was drawn to unusual looking people engaged in various types of labor. They wore pants, jacket and cap with blue stripes on a light gray background. Were they prisoners? This sight came as a big surprise to me, and to the rest of the people on the transport, I'm sure. It was a strange sight, but we were not given much time to speculate.

The passengers, calling out the names of their relatives, got down from the cars, each of them carrying some of the family's belongings. My uncle Yitzchok and I helped our relatives down from the car and then we tried to ascertain where we were and what was going to happen. Questions were directed in different languages at the people with the strange striped clothing, but they did not reply. The Germans ran around shouting and sometimes striking people to get them out of the cars quickly. The chaos was terrible.

At a certain point, instructions began to issue forth from the loudspeakers, in a language we could understand, telling us to leave our belongings near the cars and walk toward the coordinating point. Later, we were told we would be brought to the designated place of residence and all of our belongings would be brought there, including what we had left in the cars. My whole family walked together toward the spot indicated. I'm not sure whether or not at the time anyone considered the question of how we would be able to find our belongings among those of the thousands of people on the train. I noticed that the people in the striped clothes began to unload the bundles from the cars.

As we proceeded toward the coordinating area, an order was given to divide 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. The groups of older men and women, we were told, would be transported to their destination in vehicles while the other two groups would walk.

Although the explanation for separating into groups sounded reasonable and there was no reluctance to carry it out, the actual execution caused considerable tumult. Every family had to quickly prepare to separate. Fathers passed children to their wives and family members divided food supplies and other items to split the load and to be prepared to meet their immediate needs until they were reunited. In the background were the voices of children who did not want to be separated from their fathers as well as conversations among family members exchanging final words of advice, making various arrangements and discussing how they would meet again later . . .

I saw a lot of indecision there. It was not easy for a young man to abandon his father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, after the hardships of the long journey. Or in the case of families with numerous small children, how could the father leave his wife to take care of all of the children alone?

The SS bore down on such bands with shouting and pushing, separating people and sending them off in different directions. Many people, after joining one of the groups, changed their minds and tried to go to another group. Some succeeded while others were caught by the Germans and sent back. In certain instances, when the person caught pleaded with the SS officer unrelentingly, he was allowed to move to another group, thus sealing his fate unknowingly.

It was obvious that my uncle and I would join the group of young men, my grandfather would join the older men and my grandmother, mother and aunt with her baby would join group of older women. But whether my 16-year-old sister Nina should stay with the other women in the family or join the younger group remained open to debate for a short time. In the end the first option was chosen (and later she was killed in the gas chambers, Hy'd).

When the excitement died down, we were able to make out four distinct groups of people. In our group were about 500 men. We were ordered to stand in rows and then a head count was taken. While standing in rows, we heard one of the members of our group had spotted acquaintances from Salonika in the striped clothes. He spoke to them and was told they had arrived in one of the earlier transports and had been working there. Their advice to us was to follow orders and carry them out quickly and without resistance, to avoid punishment.

In the meantime, we were ordered to set out. Armed soldiers surrounded us shouting, "Forward! Forward!" incessantly and spurring us to march at a running pace. After a long walk, a large iron gate appeared. The area all around it was lit with powerful floodlights. As we drew closer to the gate we could see large iron letters over the gate reading, "Arbeit Macht Frei." With the little German I knew I was able to make out the meaning. "Work is liberating!" We passed through the gate. Soldiers standing on both sides counted those who entered. We had arrived at Auschwitz.

End of Part I

A Brief History of Jewish Salonika (Thessaloniki)

In Greece, the city is known as Thessaloniki, but the Jews knew it as Salonika.

The first Jews in Thessaloniki may have arrived from Alexandria, Egypt, around 140 BCE, during the time of the Second Beis Hamikdosh. However, there is no conclusive evidence for this.

The first Greek Jew whose name is known was Moschos son of Moschion the Jew, a slave identified in an inscription dated to approximately 250 BCE. The inscription was unearthed in Oropos, a small coastal town between Athens and Boeotia.

The members of the ancient Jewish Community of Thessaloniki were called Romaniotes. They used the Greek language, while retaining several elements of Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as the Hebrew script. Paul, one of the early founders of Christianity, visited this community and left the first written record of Jewish presence in the city, just prior to the Churban of the Second Beis Hamikdosh.

During the Roman era, the Jews of Thessaloniki had autonomy, but after the East-West division of the Roman empire, some Byzantine emperors imposed special taxes and restrictive measures on religious freedom and worship. There were also a few attempts at forced conversion but they did not much affect the Jewish community.

The population of Thessaloniki exceeded 100,000 inhabitants in the middle of the 12th century. In 1159, Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela left from Saragossa, Spain, on a journey to Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean basin. In Thessaloniki he wrote: "After a two-day sea voyage, we arrive at Thessaloniki, a big coastal town, built by Selefkos, one of Alexander's four heirs. Five hundred Jews live here, headed by Rabbi Samuel and his sons, well known for their scholarship. Rabbis Sabetal, Elias, and Michael also live there as well as other exiled Jews who are specialized artisans."

Thessaloniki suffered from the Crusaders over the coming centuries as they waged their campaign of destruction. It was fully conquered in the Fourth Crusade.

The first settlement of Ashkenazi Jews was in 1376. They arrived from Hungary and Germany for the next 150 years.

A small group of Jews from Provence came in 1394, while from 1423-1430, when Venice ruled, Jews from mainland Italy and Sicily settled there.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, March 26, 1430, the army of Sultan Murat II appeared before the city gates, conquering it after a siege of only three days.

The pivotal point was the settlement of 15,000-20,000 Spanish (Sephardic) Jews after 1492, who would make a lasting and seminal contribution to the destiny of the Jewish Community, but also to that of the city as a whole.

End of Part I of the History

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.


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