rika benveniste

Return to Salonika1

The twin crushing stones of best-selling nostalgia and political rhetoric frequently embellish the violent loss of the world of the Jews in pre-war Salonika and obscure the harsh reality of the survivors’ return from the death camps to their city of birth.

Thessaloniki is liberated on October 30, 1944. Early in the afternoon, partisans of ELAS entered the city and two or three days later, the British arrived. Jews walk their city again. First, the few that had been hiding in the city, then a small number of partisans who had sought refuge in the mountains, in villages, inAthens – no more than 70 or 80 in all. When the first Auschwitz survivor reaches Thessaloniki in March 1945, the bad news quickly spreads: “The Germans burnt the Jews of Salonika in the crematoria.” At the end of spring, camp survivors reach the city. They are surrounded by a disquieting strangeness. Alienated and alone, their fate appears to have nothing in common with those standing around them. Cut-off from the certainties of the past, from their old belief systems, exiles from their own life stories. The nightmare is confirmed: who can believe what they have been through: hunger, cold, pain, fear, exhaustion, despair, death, all around, everywhere. No one who has not lived through it and witnessed it, wants to know about it. Who to talk to? Even worse, a cruel, perverse suspiciousness weighs heavily on them. Whoever did not experience the camps willingly believes that only criminals survived, or those ones who became criminals in there or even that the camps weren’t as terrible as all that, and the proof is the survivors themselves, since they’ve come back. Sometimes, suspiciousness isn’t absent even from their family relationships, as a scale of torment, a hierarchy of pain, comes to poison the desire for “normal life”. But what does “normal life” mean? Anger, pain, loneliness, responsibilities, undeserved guilt, hope – these are feelings endlessly succeeding one another.

In spring of 1945, a “tide of nomads”, millions of former prisoners, were coming out of prisons, camps, factories and hide-outs and embarking on the return journey by whatever means available. Many times, their wandering lasted for months, their itineraries also involving accidental meetings. Each one carried their own narrative of tribulations, their own adventure of survival. What might they be thinking of, at those times? From Siderokastron to Thessaloniki, first stop at the Pavlos Melas military camp. Some have someone waiting, others find support in an old neighbor, for many the only solace is the community that is being reconstituted. The last survivor returns to Thessaloniki in November of 1945.

Some opted not to return and remained in Germany, waiting for the much coveted visa for the USA or opted to migrate to Palestine. As if living in a “waiting room”, men and women are starting new lives, getting married and having children. Besides, for many the return to Greece turns out to be an intermediate station, once they realize that the place out of which they were ousted is no longer theirs, that here no relatives, no home and no property are to be found any more. Nowhere is life strewn with rose petals for refugees. In Palestine, the pre-war migrants treat the new arrivals from the camps, at times like lost relatives and, at other times, as partly to blame for the loss of their relatives. There, the material living conditions are limited to an iron bed, a mattress, a shared roof and a bit of money to start with. But across the Atlantic as well, the realization of the American dream passes through the sunless path of poverty and the knowledge that a city of migrants is a city where the locals have their ways of keeping migrants at a distance, keeping at bay refugees who, as Hannah Arendt writes, have lost their language, the naturalness in their responses, their simplicity of gesture and their emotional expressiveness. In Greece, the joy of Liberation is quickly overshadowed by a savage civil war. For some Jews that meant a continuation of persecution. For all Jews, that meant they would watch German collaborators buy off their impunity with an excess of nationalist sentiment.

For most Greeks, Jews or not, the post-war years were a time of great deprivation and lack of shelter. Many returning Jews can’t re-enter their homes, either because other unfortunates had found shelter there or because they had been usurped by collaborators. Families go under a shared roof, a shared courtyard. The annulment of the war laws should have meant the immediate restitution of their property; in actual fact, a drawn out process was involved, to which the unwillingness greatly contributed of municipal and judicial, which is to say of political, authorities. Even worse: by an ordinary perversion of logic, the claim for the restitution of properties is transformed into poisonous antisemitic discourse, to do with the alleged Jewish avarice, fuelling the notion that all Jews are rich and harbor hidden treasures. On 18.7.47 antisemitic comments in the press, prompt one article writer of the Evraiki Estia (Jewish Hearth) to note: “The Jews back from being hostage have received no care whatsoever by the official state. Worse still, they have encountered and are still encountering insurmountable obstacles in having their cause acknowledged and in any case, due to these difficulties as well as to government indifference, many Jews are still homeless and tuberculosis has so far advanced since the Liberation that the number of patients today is eight times what it was in 1945”. And though the war is over, the defiling of the Jewish cemetery continues into 1947 when on a daily basis, memorial plaques are transported on carts to different points in the city, fill the courtyard of the church of St. Demetrios and are used to pave the road connecting King George Avenue with the Military Headquarters.

From 1945-47, Jewish communities rise to the challenge of rebuilding. At the beginning of 1946 the first elections are held in the Thessaloniki community. In November 1947, the first Assembly is called in Athens of the representatives of Israelite communities. Bitterness and anger are hard to put aside and disagreements abound. The Jewish pess is following the international political scene and particularly the issue of migration to Palestine and the process of the emergence of the new state of Israel. It also reflects the new daily reality of the communities. In 1947 this includes issues such as the reconstruction of the internal gates to the synagogue, the distribution of unleavened bread (“brought from America”) for Easter, the replacement of the rabbi of Athens who is leaving for Egypt, the trip of the “moel”, the circumciser, from Athens to Thessaloniki by plane, “in order to perform circumcision on ten infants”. There is consent around childcare issues and they are given priority: in Thessaloniki a daycare centre is to open, while in the summer of 1947, the summer camps of Agia Triada are inaugurated: 72 children in two periods “spent twenty days in the clean sea air”, something necessitated by the health of many of them. There, among the children, differences are tempered, there, at last, the joy of living can take the reins. “Normal life” also means compromise: for some in marriage, for others at work, for yet others in the decision to resign from continuing their studies. Nevertheless, in its simplicity, life can be sweet too: The young again discover love, dancing. Black and white photographs immortalize a Sunday excursion to the sea. Young men and women meet at the neighborhood patisserie and they dance, with every opportunity given, they dance a great deal. The victims strive to stop being victims, to take an interest in life. Some seem to manage to leave behind the sorrow of the past for the sake of focusing on the future. Others cannot stop telling each other dreadful stories of trials and terror. Some draw courage by the quieting of emotional intensity. Others struggle to forget. The begetting of children becomes the miracle that allows entry into “normal life”. Marriages, preferably to a man with whom it isn’t necessary to explain in too many words what you’ve been through, to a woman who has known the crimes of which humanity is capable, as well as the generosity that may lie hidden; to a man who also has unbelievable stories to tell of humaneness and solidarity, hatred and treason, to a woman who, like everyone else, must rise to the demands and compromises of postwar life but also manage the weight of the loss of loved ones, the unbearable grief. Because, beneath the appearance of “normal life”, of work, family and recreation, those who survived were mourning. Because the day of commemoration of the dead at the camps was a day of mourning: on March 29, 1947, all Jewish stores remained closed and on their doors was posted the funereal announcement of the memorial service. The Synagogue was crowded and all in black, with the chandeliers covered up and hundreds of candles burning. The mass started at 10 am with Christian friends present, in addition to the “officials”. Speeches were delivered by rabbi Molho, president Menache, the lawyer Nahmias and “the elder historiographer” Joseph Nehama. And the crowd broke out in sobs. For some, there was never going to be a “normal life”.

The memory of the return faded among the painful memories of the Shoah, the nostalgia of the prewar years and the demands of the present. Nevertheless, in the return and the first postwar years explanations may be found about the world in which we grew up, the children of those who survived. And maybe we will gain a better understanding of the fears and the courageousness, the choices and the hesitations, the severity and the tenderness of our predecessors.

1. A version of this text was read at the Monastirioton Synagogue in Thessaloniki on the 8th of May, 2011 (Yom ha-Shoah).