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Last Updated: Friday, 28 January, 2005, 12:29 GMT
The lost Jews of Greece
By Irene Peroni
BBC News

Barbed wire surrounding Birkenau death camp
More than 50,000 Greek Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer went to Thessaloniki, Greece, on Thursday to attend a Holocaust memorial ceremony.

The percentage of Greek Jews exterminated by the Nazis was one of the highest in Europe, even though Greece is not the country that first springs to mind in connection with the Holocaust.

Their community was virtually wiped out: of the 80,000 Jews who lived in Greece before World War II, only about 1,000 survived.

But the persecution of Greek Jews had started centuries earlier. Many of them came originally from Spain, where Jewish culture had flourished under Moorish domination in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Muslims and Jews had been living peacefully together, along with their Christian neighbours.


But in 1492, the year Christopher Columbus landed in America, Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain issued a decree forcing all Jews to convert to Christianity or leave the country.

They had all their possessions confiscated and were threatened with death if they refused to renounce their religion.

It is believed that hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews fled the Iberian Peninsula.

Many of them found refuge in the area of the Ottoman Empire which is now modern Greece.

There they were warmly welcomed by Sultan Bayazid II, who offered them protection. He said Ferdinand of Spain had done the Ottomans a favour by expelling Jews from Spain.

The Sephardic Jews (from the Hebrew word "Sepharad", meaning Spain) introduced their Spanish-Hebrew language and traditions to their new home.

Thessaloniki became their most flourishing centre and one of the largest Sephardic Jewish communities in the world - so much so that it was dubbed "Mother of Israel".

'Trains of death'

But a far worse persecution - one which would virtually wipe out those communities - was still to come.

Nazi German troops defeated the Greek army in 1941 and divided the country into three zones, one of which - including Thessaloniki, Piraeus and western Crete - fell under their direct domination.

Bulgaria had annexed Thrace and Yugoslav Macedonia, and Italy controlled the remaining mainland and the islands.

After closing down all Jewish newspapers and introducing forced labour for Jewish men, the Germans started deporting Greek Jews in 1943.

As elsewhere in Europe, people were loaded onto convoys heading for Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Most of them were unaware of their destination and did not expect to end up in death camps, but just thought they were being deported to Poland.

It is believed that many did not escape because they wanted to stay with their families.

Others were saved by Greek resistance fighters or simple citizens trying to protect their Jewish friends and neighbours.

But few were lucky enough to survive the "final solution" and see the end of World War II.

Between 60,000 and 70,000 Greek Jews - nearly 90% of the total pre-war population - died, most of them at Auschwitz.

Today, Greece has nine Jewish communities in as many cities and towns.

But the synagogues, some of which can be found in ruins in towns with no Jewish presence, are a reminder of a much larger, thriving community wiped out by the Holocaust.

Survivors prepare to remember those who died

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