“A man who has no shoes is a fool”: The Salonikan Jews in the Concentration Camps
By Stefania Zezza *
In The Truce Primo Levi remembers what Mordo Nahum, his “super Greek” from Salonika, told him about the importance of having shoes.1 The two were facing their labyrinthine journey back home, after being liberated from Auschwitz. Mordo was respected by Levi as a wise, resourceful helper, who shared with him his skills and abilities, and whose superiority was undoubted.
To have shoes meant the difference between life and death in the camps, and Mordo had understood that. He was one of the few Salonikan Jews who survived the deportation: “those Saloniki”, whose “concrete, mundane, conscious wisdom” Levi admired and considered “the most coherent national nucleus in Lager, and in this respect, the most civilized.”2 Actually the percentage of losses among the Jews deported from Salonika was one of highest in Europe, similar to that of Poland. According to K.E Fleming,3 42,830 were deported from the city alone, and 38,386, were immediately murdered:4 “Records from Auschwitz Birkenau indicate that of the 48,974 Jews who arrived from Northern Greece in spring and summer 1943, 38,386 were immediately gassed.”5 Many of those who had been admitted into the camp died in the following weeks as a consequence of their being affected by malaria and of the conditions inside the camp.6
As a result, there were only about 2,000 Jews who survived and were living in Salonika in 1946.7 In addition to these figures it is important to point out that a number of Salonikan Jews, who had moved to France in the 1920s and 1930s, were deported from Drancy in particular after the Rafle des Grecs in November 1942.
The deportations of the Jews from the city were carried out between March 15 and August, 1943: nineteen transports left, one of them, including those who could claim the Spanish citizenship or who were members of the Jewish Council, was sent to Bergen Belsen in early August, the others arrived in Auschwitz usually after seven or eight days and suffered almost total annihilation. Some Salonikans, who could get or had Italian, Spanish or Portuguese citizenship, had managed to escape to Athens at the time of the deportations, but many of them were deported from there during the spring and summer of 1944.
The number of those who survived the first selection and were registered in Auschwitz was extremely low, especially if their percentage is considered in relation to the total number of inmates deported from other countries. Mark Mazower states that “no more than 12,757 men and women were admitted to the work camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau” and “by September 1944, it is likely that only 2,469 Greek Jews were still alive in Auschwitz.”8
The arrival of the Salonikans in Auschwitz Birkenau
The fate of the Salonikan Jews in Auschwitz was influenced by many factors which made their conditions both paradigmatic of the inmates’ life inside the camp and peculiar at the same time. It is quite evident that the main elements which shaped the experience of the Salonikans inside the camp depended, according to the data and the testimonies, on their conditions, on the time of their deportation and on their peculiar cultural and linguistical features.
First, it should be considered that the majority of the transports from Salonika arrived at Auschwitz between March 20 and June 1943, when the Nazis were improving the extermination process by building new crematoria: Crematorium II in Birkenau had been functioning for one week, Crematorium III was under construction and began operating in June. Thus the capacity of killing and disposing of the corpses had increased in a phase of contemporary massive arrivals from many occupied countries. 9 This was undoubtedly one of the reasons why so many Salonikan deportees were immediately sent to the gas chambers.
Also the duration of the journey played a significant role in the conditions of the weaker people, who perhaps looked older and unfit for work, once they got off the trains. Most of the Salonikan Jews had suffered from a long and hard famine during the previous months, therefore many of them were extremely debilitated. Actually, Dieter Wisliceny in his affidavit before the International Military Tribunal at Nurenberg on January 3th, 1946, stated: “I was present in Budapest in June or July 1944 at a meeting between Eichmann and Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp, at which they talked specifically about the percentage of Hungarian Jews that would be strong enough for labor. On the basis of transports previously received at Auschwitz and the supply of Jews inspected by him in collection centers, Höss stated that only twenty or at the most twenty-five percent of these Hungarian Jews could be used for labor. Höss said that this percentage also pertained to all Jews transported to Auschwitz from all over German occupied Europe, with the exception of Greek Jews who were of such poor quality that Eichmann and Höss said that all Jews unfit for labor were liquidated.”10
Another factor which needs to be considered crucial with regard to the moment of arrival was the Salonikans’complete unawareness of the place and the context where they were: in Salonika people were ignorant of what was happening to the Jewish communities in north-eastern Europe, they believed they were being sent to join the Krakow Jewish Community and to work in Poland. They even changed their drachmas into zlotys and bought the tickets for their transport by freight car.
In addition, as soon as the trains arrived at the camp, a major and serious problem occurred, concerning language and the efficacy of communication, which caused crucial consequences for the Salonikans who survived the selection inside the camp. The most commonly spoken languages in Auschwitz were Polish, Yiddish and German, which the great majority of the Salonikans could not speak. They used to speak Ladino, many of them spoke French, Italian, and Greek was spoken well by the youngsters.11 To understand the orders given by the SS or the suggestions which were whispered by the prisoners in charge of emptying the trains was a matter of life or death at the moment of arrival and later, inside the camp. According to testimonies also the difference between the Greek warm weather and the Polish cold climate played a significant role in the survival of the Salonikan Jews.
Yacov Handeli, a survivor, wrote: “Greek Jews suffered more than others […] The second reason was the language barrier. Ashkenazi Jews who knew Yiddish could understand the Germans. We could not understand them and had trouble adapting to the climate. These two factors caused deaths among the Greek Jews from the beginning. Within three months of our arrival in Auschwitz, fifty percent of us were no longer alive.”12 What happened on August 21, 1943, can be considered indicative of this situation. A selection was carried out among the female prisoners in Birkenau: the list, which is in the Auschwitz Museum’s Archives, comprised 498 names, 436 were Salonikans. The Polish resistance movement managed to smuggle it from the camp and to send it to Krakow. From the numbers of the women selected it is possible to verify that the majority of them had arrived at the camp with the first transports, between March and April. The conditions inside the camp were such that their resistance was over in three or four months.
Inside Auschwitz-Birkenau: those Saloniki
Once the few selected to work entered the camp, they had to cope with the diseases, hunger, the feeling of loss, the dehumanizing process, like any other prisoner, but their condition of inability to communicate and consequent alienation made it more difficult for them to bear the harsh living conditions within the camp. As one of the survivors stated: “We had to learn all the languages. We had to talk with our feet, our eyes, and our hands.”13
In addition, their relations with the Askenhazi Jews were initially problematic: there was a lack of understanding for a different form of Jewishness which was not even perceived as such, given their differences in language and in habits. “The Greeks’ appearance, their habits, and above all, their inability to speak Yiddish struck the Ashkenazim who dominated the camp as the least Jewish thing they had ever seen.”14 This led to a feeling of alienation which several of the Salonikans felt but which, at the same time, created a strong connection among them, a mutual support born from the will to resist together.
Elie Wiesel remembers that in his block “there were Jews from Thessaloniki. They didn’t understand my Yiddish and I didn’t understand Greek or their Ladino. But I liked to be around them all the same. They had good hearts. The solidarity between them struck all of us as amazing.”15
Actually then, the Salonikans’peculiarities brought about two apparently different images of them in the survivors’accounts. On the one hand they seemed annihilated by the cold, the shock and their sufferings: they “died like flies.” On the other, the majority of the accounts focused on their strength, their loyalty, dignity and ability, which made them recognizable also in the forced anonimity of Auschwitz. Some words in Ladino and Greek became part of the mixed language spoken inside the camp, as Primo Levi recalls: “Everyone knows that “caravana” is the bowl, and that “la comedera es buena” means the soup is good; the word that expresses the generic idea of theft is “klepsi-klepsi”, of obvious Greek origin.”16
It is interesting to point out that these words were extremely significant since they dealt with the most important issues inside the camp: food and survival. This means that the influence of the Salonikans on the camp’s jargon and in everyday life was visible and perceivable. Ladino was the language the Salonikan Jews had been speaking for four centuries, it had resisted the Hellenization process even after the annexation of the city to Greece: it was the sign of their identity as Salonikans and Sephardim, but inside the camp it became the symbol of their being Greek. They sang, in Ladino or in Greek, songs which the Germans liked and often asked them to sing: that became a sign of their identity in a place where anonimity and homogenization ruled. Sometimes they changed the words of popular songs to use them as a means to communicate what was happening in the camp with other inmates from Greece.
Language was also an important element on which depended the tasks imposed on the Salonikans. Many of them were transferred to the KL Warsaw Gęsiówka camp from September 1943, in order to remove the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto and to collect all the building materials which were later sent to Germany. In July 1943 Himmler had made the decision to erase any traces left of the former ghetto and to set up a park in the area. Non-Polish-speaking prisoners, among them many Salonikans, were transported to Warsaw in late August, October and November 194317: they were chosen because they could not speak Polish. “The transport was composed only of Greek people. The reason — because we don't speak Polish and the job was in contact with the Polish civilians and they don't want the Polish Jews.”18
The Germans thought that the language barrier would have prevented the prisoners from escaping. As a matter of fact the Salonikans managed to have contacts and to trade with the Poles. “Another thing that surprised me was that the Poles could communicate best with the Greek Jews, with whom they had developed a sign language. With the Polish Jews, who spoke the same language, they avoided contact.[...] Every day a hundred or so Poles would enter the ghetto to work at clearing away the ruins, and they all did business with the slaves of the Warsaw camp. They brought in food and carried off riches. The biggest ‘merchants’ were the Greek Jews, most of whom came from Salonika. They were specially talented at ‘organizing’, what they called ‘klepsi-klepsi’ – that is articles from ‘nonkosher’ sources such as thievery.”19
Despite the opportunity given by these contacts with the Poles, the conditions inside the camp were harsh: the lack of food, hygiene and proper housing caused the spread of typhus and the death of many inmates. As Moshe Salmon states: “We arrived in Poland, in Warsaw, we were transferred by train. . . there was another camp, some barracks. Just real, real primitive. No organized camp, no nothing. Just barracks. Everybody got a billet bag, for pillow, for blanket, for everything. . . . The disease started to spread in camp. My brother-in-law and I, we fell with the typhoid. . . . I don't remember how long we stayed in the hospital. People they used to die by drinking water, not clear water.”20
In Gęsiówka camp the Salonikans not only witnessed the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto but also experienced the first ‘death march’21 at the end of July 1944: while the Red Army was approaching Warsaw, the greatest part of the prisoners was evacuated to Dachau and its subcamps. According to Steven Bowman, only 280 Greek prisoners arrived at their destination alive.22 For the Greeks there was neither the opportunity nor the possibility to escape, as Yehiel Daniel recalls: “Where would you escape to? Do you know where to escape to? What escape? Who thought about escaping? You don’t know – Poland, not Poland, not Germany. Maybe you are between Poland and Germany. . . . You don’t know the language, you don’t know a thing. Also, it’s better to be together. . . . Exactly where I would go?”23
The prisoners were forced to walk to Kutno, from where they were loaded on freight cars towards Bavaria. In the survivors' accounts the trip was extremely hard: “Now, the march from Warsaw, the worst part, this was in August — hot. It was July, August, I don't remember exactly, but it was really warm. They wouldn't give you water, no water.”24
David Lea, one of the Salonikan survivors interviewed by David Boder in 1946, also described the transport as a terrible experience: “On a transportation that came from Warsaw, in 1944, when the Russians were approaching Warsaw. The biggest transportation, and the biggest disaster in Jewish history was in Warsaw where they deported us on train for 18 days. On animal trains, locked day and night, guarded by four barbarians of the SS, with their machine guns, no water, no food, and under the sun . . . And more than 8,000 people died. We were 8,726 people and 725 people returned to the Dachau camp. The 8,000 people were killed by starvation, or by the SS, or by the drought.”25 David Lea and the other prisoners from Warsaw were registered in Dachau on August 6th 1944 and were exploited as slave laborers in Kaufering and other subcamps until their liberation.
At the same time the few prisoners who were left in the Gęsiówka camp were liberated by the Polish resistance and willingly joined the partisans during the Warsaw uprising, fighting bravely. Some of them died, some others went into hiding and were liberated by the Red Army later.
Those who stayed in the Auschwitz complex also endured a peculiar fate: many of them, men and women, were employed in high percentages in Buna Monowitz or in the Auschwitz subcamps such as Jaworno, Harmeze, Gleiwitz, Fürstengrube where they were remembered as strong workers or, in the case of young girls, as aware of their destiny and decently resigned victims of the harsh conditions they had to cope with. Benjamin Jacobs recalls in his memoir, The Dentist of Auschwitz: “By the end of July, Greek Jews from Salonika were delivered to Fürstengrube. None of them understood German, but they proved themselves to be tougher than any of us.”26
Once again language turns out to be a crucial element in the testimonies about the Greeks, in general, and the Salonikans in particular. This language barrier could also have played a role in the selection of the Sonderkommando members on the eve of the arrival of the Hungarian Jews. Many of them, who became part of the eleventh Sonderkmmando on May 12, 1944, had arrived in Auschwitz with a transport from Athens on April 11. Some of them were Salonikan Jews who had fled to Athens in 1943, and were arrested there. Even though the operations which took place in the crematoria were quite known, many survivors stated that the Germans tried to keep the extermination process as secret as possible. From this point of view the linguistic issues of the Greeks in general, and of the Salonikans in particular, could have played a role, together with their reputation as strong workers, in their being selected as Sonderkommando members. Nevertheless, it is possible to suppose that the Greeks, recently arrived, unaware of the camp life, with evident language difficulties, were selected also because they happened to be those who couldn't communicate easily with the Hungarian deportees. They were used as means of the Nazis’ usual deceiving attitude towards the Jews, since the Nazis’ aim was to avoid any form of resistance. On the contrary, though, the Salonikans managed to communicate sometimes, especially because they could speak Greek and Ladino. Marcel Nadjari, a Salonikan member of the Sonderkommando, talked inGreek to a Hungarian ancient Greek professor in the undressing room; an anonymous Greek sang with a loud voice a song in Greek from Crematorium IV, he wanted to be heard by the prisoners who were inside the Kanada Kommando and let them know what was happening:
"Girls—Greeks—who listen to me,
I say everything by singing, so you will understand.
Here the chimneys you see are the biggest factory of death.
Thousands of Jews, old, young, children Fall into the arms of the flames.
I know they will burn me too.
After a while, I will not be around
To describe what my tired eyes have seen.
Do you hear me? Believe me.
It’s true, horrible, I live it every day.
Girls—Greeks—I beg you,
If you get out of here alive,
Tell the entire world the story I sing to you."27
Actually many Salonikan members of the eleventh Sonderkommando participated in the Sonderkommando revolt on October 7, 1944: Shlomo Venezia and the Gabbai brothers among them. Some of them survived Auschwitz and could later give their testimony on the event. The Germans were going to halve the number of the Sonderkommando members operating in the Crematoria IV and V. The revolt began when 300 prisoners, mostly Greeks and Hungarians, who had been previously selected to be murdered, were gathered in the courtyard of Crematorium IV. The revolt broke out and the Crematorium was blown up, in about one hour though the SS put down the rising and killed those who had revolted. Some of them managed to hide their being part of the Sonderkommando and were later evacuated during the death marches. Among the writings buried by some Sonderkommando members in the proximity of the Crematoria, there are also those written by Marcel Nadjari in November or December 1944. He was a Salonikan Jew whose manuscript was found in 1980 close to Crematorium III: “At Birkenau ... It does not matter to me that I will die, but only that I will not be able to avenge myself, the way I would like and know...”28
Actually, the time of arrival of the Salonikans, both in 1943 and in 1944, turns out to be one of the main elements explaining their fate inside the camp. This is true for what concerns the Sonderkmonnandos’selections and proves to be extremely significant also in relation to the high percentage of Salonikans subjected to medical experiments: in particular those on sterilization conducted mainly by Dr. Clauberg and Dr. Schumann in Blocks 10 and 2. About one hundred women, who were taken there as guinea pigs, were Salonikans who arrived with the ninth transport on April 17, 1943. Many others were added later. It was on April 1 1943 that Dr. Clauberg had set up the Experimental Block in Block 10 in Auschwitz 1, moving it there from Block 30 in Birkenau.
The high percentage of Salonikan victims, both young men and women, can therefore be explained both by a chronological reason and also perhaps by the need of secrecy about the activities in the block. Undoubtedly, as Israel G. Jacobson, representative of the JDC, said: “For some reason the Germans chose the Greek Jewish women to experiment on.”
A dreadful episode can confirm this. Between August 11th and 19th 1943, eighty-six Auschwitz prisoners, among them forty-six Salonikan men and women, were murdered in a small gas chamber in Natzweiler Struthoff and their corpses were sent to the Anatomy Laboratory of the Strasbourg University Medical School in order to be used for a Jewish skeletons collection. The Director of the Laboratory was Dr. Hirt. Although he was not a doctor, he was teaching at the University and had asked Himmler for some well preserved bodies for his work. That is the reason why those Auschwitz prisoners, whose biometric measures had been previously taken, were sent to Natzweiler –Struthoff and murdered: their heads were removed and their bodies were cut in pieces and preserved. The story was forgotten until a German reporter, Dr. Lang, investigated and broke the silence about it. The names of the victims could be known since Henry Pierre, Dr. Hirt’s assistant, had written their Auschwitz registration numbers at that time.
The visibility and the peculiarity of the Salonikan Jews, though, had also a different meaning. In the Auschwitz complex, where anonymity, indifference and the fight for survival prevailed, they were recognizable for their language, for their solidarity and mutual help. Primo Levi, who was the first to point that out, wrote: “Next to us there is a group of Greeks, those admirable and terrible Jews of Salonika, tenacious, thieving, wise, ferocious and united, so determined to live, such pitiless opponents in the struggle for life; those Greeks who have conquered in the kitchens and in the yards, and whom even the Germans respect and the Poles fear. They are in their third year of camp, and nobody knows better than them what the camp means. They now stand closely in a circle, shoulder to shoulder, and sing one of their interminable chants. [...] And they continue to sing and beat their feet in time and grow drunk on songs.”29
They are often remembered by other inmates for their singing, which was both a means of communication (they changed the words of Greek popular songs) and a way to feel their own humanity. “What helped me in the camp was singing. The Germans always told us, ‘singen’, and we used to sing. We sang all sorts of songs; we made up the words,”30 remembers a survivor.
Some Salonikans also joined the orchestra, which sometimes helped to save their lives, or obtained privileged positions as a result of their skills. There were two popular boxers, Shlomo Arouck and Jacko Razon, who had to entertain the SS and the prisoners with their matches. Jacko Razon, working in the kitchen, could help many of his fellow prisoners in Buna. They were later evacuated, together with thousands of prisoners, to Bergen Belsen, where they managed to help the Greek girls in the women’s camp.
The Salonikan Jews in Bergen Belsen
The Salonikan Jews were deported to Bergen Belsen with two transports from Greece in 1943 and 1944, and in other transports during the evacuations of the camps in the East in 1945. Bergen Belsen had been originally set up as a camp for exchange Jews with foreign citizenship or in privileged positions, who were kept in limited areas, the Sternlager and the Neutral Lager. The camp changed its functions gradually from 1944 when other sections were added, such as a rehabilitation camp for sick prisoners, a women’s camp and a section for thousands of evacuated prisoners in 1945.
The first transport included 367 Spanish citizens and seventy-four people linked to the Jewish Council: they got there from Salonika in early August 1943 and the Spaniards left the camp in February 1944 for Spain and later Morocco. A second group of Jews with foreign citizenship was deported on April 2, 1944 from Athens. The Spanish and Portuguese citizens were kept in the Neutral Lager, where they were not forced to work; the others lived in the Sternlager; both suffered from starvation, diseases like typhus, nonetheless they were not subjected to selections and extermination by gas.
Another group arrived in Bergen Belsen during the evacuation of Auschwitz and other camps in the East, when Bergen Belsen had lost its original function and had become the destination for thousands of prisoners during the death marches. People were left dying without housing facilities, food or water, since inside the camp, which had been originally designed for a few thousand inmates, there were about 60,000 of them at that time.
The Spanish and Portuguese Jews were liberated in April 1945 while they were being sent to Theresiendstadt as a result of Himmler’s attempts to find an agreement with the Allies. They had been put on three trains, only one arrived at its destination. One of the trains stopped near Farsleben where the American army found it. David Boder interviewed some of these Jews in Paris in 1946 and among them Nino Barzilai, a Salonikan Jew with Portuguese citizenship, told him:
"We were placed on a train and we were told we were to be taken to Spain, but we came to Börgermoor [The transcript of the recording is wrong because David Boder misunderstood the word as‘Magdeburg’]. There, there were a number of bombings by Americans, that lasted for a whole night. In the morning, when we woke up, we noticed the Germans had left the train and we had been left on our own in the camp [He means in the countryside] . . . completely abandoned. A number of us marched to some nearby German houses to see what was going on. We were looking for some food, because we did not cook, and we had eaten all the food we had been given for the journey. We found some potatoes and we came back to the train where we boiled them to eat something. Meanwhile, there was a rumor that the Americans had arrived. And some time later, we happily received the Americans."31
When the freedom came, I was quite alone, I remained quite alone...32
For the survivors the liberation and the end of the war represented the perception of the loss, which was both personal and collective. “We, the Jews of Salonika, came back to a city empty of Jews and Judaism. Our only joy was to encounter another Jew in the streets of Salonika. A surprise, an embrace with Jews we had never met before and an eagerness to enquire and weep together.”33 said one of the deportees. Many survivors could not bear the emptiness and the destruction of their former life, therefore they emigrated or never went back to Salonika. None of the seven Salonikans interviewed by David Boder in 1946 thought of going back. Others did, though, and had to deal with what had happened to their community and the reconstruction.
* Stefania Zezza is a teacher at Liceo classico Virgilio in Rome and a researcher. Graduated from the International Master on Holocaust Studies (Roma Tre University), she collaborates with it. This article is the result of a study on testimony and translation presented at the workshop on this topic at the Wiener Library in London in November 2015. She has recently completed research on the fate of the Salonikan Jews during the Holocaust, focusing also on the early testimonies and the work of David Boder: With their own voices: the interviews of David Boder with the Salonikan survivors. Her current research interests include the relation among trauma, memory, testimony and language.