Hundreds of marble headstone and other fragments from Jewish graves destroyed during the Nazi occupation have been discovered after a decades-long search, Greek police announced last week.
Some 668 fragments were found buried in a plot of land in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city.
The discovery comes after a 70-year search for the remains of graves smashed when the city’s massive Jewish cemetery was destroyed during World War II, according to the Associated Press.
Most of the gravestones found date from the mid-1800s up to World War II, said David Saltiel, the head of Thessaloniki Jewish community.
“This is our history,” said Saltiel, who is head of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece. “Apart from the names, the (gravestones) also include the person’s occupation. So this is a historic record.”
The Jewish community in Greece, most of which was concentrated in Thessaloniki, was all but annihilated in the Holocaust.
Indeed, the event represents the saddest chapter in the city’s rich Jewish tradition, which had waxed and waned for some 2,000 years.
St. Paul’s first epistle – First Thessalonians, believed to have been composed in 52 AD – was written to the Christians of Thessaloniki, and in it Paul mentions Hellenized Jews in the city.
More than a millennium later the city’s Jewish population took off as other European communities, particularly those in Western Europe, chased out Jews or forced them to convert to Christianity.
“Thessaloniki had had a majority Sephardic Jewish population since the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the only post-diaspora city of its size that could make such a claim,” according to The History Blog. “The Ottoman Empire welcomed Jews into its territories (not for altruistic reasons, mind you, but as part of its strategy to control rebellious locals), and Jews from all over Spain were followed by exiles from Italy, France and later, Ashkenazi Jews from Ottoman conquests in Eastern Europe.”
By the early 1600s, more than two of every three Thessaloniki residents were Jewish.
For at least two centuries, Thessaloniki was the largest Jewish city in the world, and was known as the “Mother of Israel,” according to Patrick Comerford, an Anglican priest and lecturer at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.
“Many non-Jewish people in Thessaloniki also spoke Ladino, the Romance language of the Sephardic community, and the city virtually ground to a stop on Saturdays,” Comerford added.
Unlike practically every other city in Europe, Jews in Thessaloniki didn’t face segregation and professional restrictions because they were such a strong majority, and there were Jews in every profession at every socio-economic level, from fishermen to shipping magnates, according to The History Blog.
The city suffered through a decline in the 17th century but was on the rise again by the mid-19th century, with Thessaloniki serving as a center of Jewish culture and learning, and drawing Jewish intellectuals, educators and industrialists from across Europe.
Another downturn began in the early 20th century when the Ottoman Empire passed military conscription laws. Add in the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 that left 50,000 Jews homeless, increased anti-Semitism in the region and the rise of Zionism, and the Jewish population had dropped from 93,000 to 53,000 by the late 1930s.
Thessaloniki’s Jewish population never got a chance to bounce back again, however.
German forces took the city April 8, 1941, and within two years had begun deporting Jews to concentrations camps.
Not long after the invasion, the Germans forced the closure of the Jewish cemetery, which held 300,000 to 500,000 graves, according to Comerford. The Jewish tombs were destroyed, and the cemetery was turned into a vast quarry, he added.
The living fared no better.
“Of the 56,000 Jews still living in Thessaloniki in 1943, 43,000 were sent to concentration camps in mainland Europe where they would be led to the slaughter in the gas chambers,” writes The History Blog. “Another 11,000 were sent to forced labor camps. Most of them died too.”
More than 95 percent of the city’s Jewish population perished in the Holocaust.
Today there are about 1,200 Jews left in Thessaloniki, or less than one-third of one percent of the city’s population.
(Above: A Jewish tombstone recovered recently in Thessaloniki, Greece, decades after being desecrated by Nazi invaders.)