Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The rescued Jewish tombstones of Thessaloniki

After the ancient Jewish graveyard in Thessaloniki was
destroyed, the gravestones were broken up and used as
building materials in the city. Credit Renee Gross
The cemetery was destroyed during the German occupation:
Fragments of these headstones can be found all over the city of Thessaloniki, embedded in churches, buildings, even sidewalks. They all come from the old Jewish cemetery that used to be in the center of town. Rena Molho, a historian who studies the Jewish history in Thessaloniki, says the old cemetery was huge. “It had 350,000 square meters, and it had close to 350,000 graves,” she says. But during World War II, the Jews of Thessaloniki were forced to give up the cemetery as part of a payment to the Nazi occupiers, and almost all of the Jewish population was later deported to death camps. The local Greek government took the opportunity to knock down the stones and loot them for building material. Germans, local churches and members of the community also took tombstones to use for construction projects. Later, Aristotle University was built on top of the old graveyard. In 2014, the university erected a memorial for the Jewish cemetery, though few students today seem to know anything about it. Jacky Benmayor was at the opening of the memorial. He’s a 69-year-old retired businessman who knows Hebrew, Ladino and Greek. When he spots one of the old headstones in the city, he calls the government archaeological service to dig it out with shovels and a pickax. (Taking the stones without permission is technically illegal because they’re considered historical property.) Benmayor helps the architectural service read the inscriptions and then brings the stones to the newer Jewish cemetery, about a 20-minute drive from downtown.
Renee Gross, 'The rescued Jewish tombstones of Thessaloniki', PRI's The World June 19, 2017

listen to the story here

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