- Jews and Greeks Remember Their Past:The Political Career of Tzevi Koretz (1933-43)
The last chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Salonika, Rabbi Tzevi Koretz (1933–43), is engraved in the historical memory of the survivors of Salonikan Jewry and, by extension, in the collective Jewish memory as a foreign traitor who collaborated with the Nazis in order to save himself and his family. Newly available archives and a reassessment of existing material call for a revision of Koretz's role in this last chapter of the history of the Salonikan Jewish community. The background provided by the new material suggests that the way Koretz was portrayed in the Jewish historical memory was a function of the community's need to understand its unexpected and colossal tragedy. It substantiated the postwar Israeli ethos, and it served to allay any guilt that postwar Greece felt over the destruction of the Jewish community. This article seeks to shed light not only on the history of Salonikan Jewry in the modern era but also on our understanding of the tension between the assimilationist and nationalist trends among Diaspora Jewry, in general, and of the countries of the former Ottoman Empire in the first half of the twentieth century, in particular. It also adds a new dimension to the debate on the role of the Jewish [End Page 111] leadership under Nazi rule. But, first and foremost, it is a case study of the nature of human memory, and how it evolves.
The Building Blocks of Memory
The picture we have of Salonikan Jewry, as reflected in the available (particularly Hebrew) research material, is based mainly on the accounts of Salonikan Jews who immigrated to Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s.1 Another corpus of testimonies was provided by survivors who either remained in Greece or immigrated to Israel, the Americas, and France. Very few accounts were written at the time. Of those that were, the most important is the memoir of Yomtov Yacoel, the legal counsel of the community before and during the occupation. Yacoel escaped to Athens after March 1943, where he wrote his memoir just before being caught by the Germans and sent to his death (March 22, 1944).2 It is a detailed description of the community's history between April 1941 and the beginning of March 1943, on the eve of the deportations. It was left unfinished because of Yacoel's arrest. In fact, the Germans caught Yacoel as he was sitting and writing this document, and only by mere chance did not notice its significance.
The importance of this document lies in the detailed narration of the leadership's activities until March 1943.3 Daut (David) Levi, who served as general director of the community administration between 1919 and 1935, left us a memorandum he drew up during January– June 1942 on the community, its organization, its leadership, and assets for the period 1870–1940, based on his personal recollections. The memorandum was prepared at the request of Sabi Shealtiel, the community's president at the time, in a letter he sent to Levi on December 23, 1941.4 Alberto Nar, who evidently saw the original document, claims that the Nazis had demanded this information of Shealtiel. This contention is not entirely implausible, since they were constantly demanding information about the community—most of which they never used. In this case the report could have been of help to the Germans. The fact that Shealtiel, in his letter, specifically asked for information on the Jewish neighborhoods of Baron Hirsch, Kalamaria, Karaagatch, and 151 supports this conclusion.5
The Germans had a very good idea of the main nuclei of Jewish population in the city, and these neighborhoods were eventually turned into the Salonika Ghetto.6 Letters sent by a Salonikan Jew named "Neama" (Nehamah) to her sons in Athens between March 5 and April 10, 1943, reveal the anguish and fear that took hold of Salonikan [End Page 112] Jewry as well as the moral degradation that ensued upon their internment in the ghetto. No comment was made in these letters on the community leadership. Either this woman was so distressed by the...