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The Holocaust in Salonika, Eyewitness Accounts (review)

From: Journal of Modern Greek Studies
Volume 26, Number 1, May 2008
pp. 233-235 | 10.1353/mgs.0.0009

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In 1943, the Jewish population of Thessaloniki was estimated at 56,000 individuals. By the end of World War II, only 1,950 remained and/or returned to the city. The near decimation of the Thessaloniki Jewish community has recently become the focus of many studies. These studies can be divided into two major groups: those that analyze the various aspects of Holocaust in Thessaloniki and those that give voice to individuals who suffered during this period. Steven Bowman's The Holocaust in Salonika, Eyewitness Accounts is a compendium of three personal accounts: those of Yomtov Yacoel, Dr. Isaac Aaron Matarasso, and Salomon Meir Uziel. Bowman provides an introductory essay, and the personal accounts are translated from Greek and Judeo-Spanish by Isaac Benmayor. Benmayor also provides introductory comments and notes for each of the accounts. This book attempts to shed light on the events of the period, the internal conflicts within the Jewish community, and some of the hopes, fears, and suffering that the Jews experienced. The scope of the book, which comprises the first of a multi-volume series on the Greek Jewish experience during the Holocaust, is to include two categories of material: documents, reports, and memoirs of contemporaries during the period, as well as scholarly studies on the "Sephardi and Greek Holocaust" (p. ii). According to Bowman, this series attempts to overcome the lacuna in Greek Jewish Holocaust studies and provide scholars with material that can be used in broader Holocaust studies. In that regard, The Holocaust in Salonika provides excellent insight into the period. Scholars and students will find this compendium useful, especially if they do not know Greek or Judeo-Spanish.

The personal accounts of Yacoel, Matarasso, and Uziel provide ample material for analyzing both internal relations within the Jewish community as well as establishing a timeline of events during the German occupation. Yacoel was the legal counsel for the Jewish community of Thessaloniki and participated in negotiations between the community and the German authorities. His memoir is the largest of the three, and Bowman judiciously places it at the beginning for it provides considerable detail on the events that befell the Community as well as a good basis for comparison to the Matarasso and Uziel segments. Matarasso gives a brief overview of the forced labor situation and of the deportations. The major emphasis in his memoir is on medical experiments performed on the Jews in the various concentration camps. It is worthwhile to note that this memoir is one of the rare accounts that describes these experiments and their long term effects. The Uziel memoir is the shortest of the three segments and also the most controversial. Uziel was widely condemned by his fellow Thessaloniki coreligionists for allegedly collaborating with the Germans in the deportation process. He was also accused of personally profiting from leases of stores and other real estate. Uziel devotes his memoir to explaining his participation in community affairs (he was on the community's Central Committee), his deportation, his return to Thessaloniki, and the accusations leveled against him by members of the Community. Uziel concludes his memoir by showing how the accusations were groundless and how motives for the accusations stemmed from misplaced vengeance. Overall, the three memoirs provide ample material for analysis and also offer insight into the daily lives and activities of the Thessaloniki community.

One of the most interesting aspects of the memoirs centers on the debate concerning the Chief Rabbi of Thessaloniki, Zvi Koretz, and his role in the deportations. Both the Yacoel and Matarasso accounts discuss Rabbi Koretz; Yacoel focusing on Koretz's lack of leadership and action to avert the impending deportations and Matarasso examining the issue of whether or not Koretz could have known about the deportations at an earlier date. Yacoel's assessment of Koretz is expressed in his discussion of the forced labor program and the Community's attempt to negotiate a buyout of Jewish labor with the Salonika-Aegean Military Command. Yacoel considers a trip to Athens in 1943 to secure the remaining 500 million drachma payment for the buyout as an opportunity for Koretz to meet with Professor Louvaris and request his help in interceding with the German...