January 27th, 1945. The Red Army liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp. This was the chosen day to honor and remember the victims of the holocaust, the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Jews, Soviet civilians and prisoners of war, Polish civilians, Sinti and Roma, Jehovah witnesses, criminals, homosexuals, and political opponents or from the resistance. These were some of the diverse categories of the victims.
Between June 1943 and June 1944, Germany’s military forces, occupying the Greek territory, killed more than twenty thousand partisans and imprisoned almost twenty-six thousand more. Eighty-one percent of Greece’s Jews were murdered in Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Roma and Sinti
Roma and Sinti people, often derogatorily nominated as “gypsies”, are members of an ethnic group that entered Europe between the eighth and tenth centuries. Today, these communities are spread not only in Europe but also in the US, being many of their members still completely marginalized. However, the Holocaust was truly a horrendous peak of their history of persecution.
Hundreds of thousands were killed during the Holocaust. Many more Roma were persecuted, subjected to forced labor, medical experiments and sterilization. They faced violence, terror and imprisonment. It is estimated that around five hundred thousand Roma were killed, but we cannot be precise about the numbers. Many more were murder, but those killings were often unrecorded.
Greece’s Roma were also persecuted by the Nazis, many being killed in the country or deported to Auschwitz. As mentioned before, the numbers are unprecise, but three hundred Greek Roma were detained by the German troops at the beginning of 1942.
A sense of “Antigypsyism” was already alive well before the arrival of the occupation forces. Although not so straightforward as in the 3rd Reich, the Roma faced institutionalized and social marginalization. They were not registered in any public archives; they didn’t have any IDs or documents in their possession since they were seen as “people without a homeland” by the Greek State. They lived mostly on agricultural lands or the fringes of the cities, struggling to survive.
However, due to this marginalization, it was hard to locate and present them to the Nazi forces. Usually, the Roma that were taken from Greece to Auschwitz-Birkenau were partisans among other Greek citizens. Many of them were part of the Greek resistance military forces: the Nacional Liberation Front and the Greek People’s Liberation Army.
The Jewish presence in Thessaloniki dates back to 315 BC, being the most significant periods of their history in the city the arrival of the Romaniotes during the Hellenistic Era, the arrival of the Sephardis in 1492, the prosperity times in the 16th century and the Holocaust.
After the 1917 Fire and the plan that followed it, the Jewish community was left extremely impoverished, marginalized, fragmented and resentful due to the discriminatory treatment by the Greek state. Later, political ghettoization came. Thessaloniki’s Jews had to vote in a separate electoral college.
Nationalist groups started to appear for the first time in Greece’s politics. In June 1931, their campaign intensified to extreme and ethnic violence erupted. On the 29th, the Campbell settlement, home to 200 poor Jewish families, was attacked.
On the 6th of April 1941, the Nazi troops attack Greece, three days later they arrive in Thessaloniki. By the end of the month, a puppet government was formed, and Thessaloniki was taken under German’s army control.
During the occupation, Thessaloniki Jews were subjected to forced labor, their businesses faced expropriation, several synagogues and thousands of tombs were destroyed. In February 1943, it was decided that every Jew had to wear the yellow star, mark their shops and move into a ghetto. A Jewish police force was also created to terrorize people.
According to the archive of Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, more than forty-eight thousand Jews left Thessaloniki to the extermination camps. Thirty-seven thousand died in the gas chambers of the camp, and many others due to the poor living conditions. Almost 20% of Thessaloniki’s population was murdered by the Nazi occupation. A minority was able to escape since they already joined the Greek partisan groups, had false ID’s or were hiding.