An Essay by Dr. Wolf Murmelstein
THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF SALONICA
DURING THE SHOAH
A CRITICAL RECONSIDERATION OF
The case of the Jewish Community of Salonica
shows indeed the strong cooperation of the German Military Commando,
so with the SS (Eichmann Staff) as with the local puppet government.
Only a critical reconsideration of historical data will make
possible a correct evaluation of the responsibilities for the
tragic fate of that centuries-old community, and allow to show
the real groundlessness of all the accusations against then Chief
Rabbi Zwi Koretz.
The Salonica Community had been established
by Sephardic Jews, who were compelled to escape from Spain at
the end of 15th century when the Ottoman Empire was a rising
power. For about four centuries, that Jewish Community had been
an important part of that commercial center. Things started to
change, as Salonica turned to Greece in 1912, and to worsen as
a result of the Greek/Turkish war of 1923 which took more than
a million refugees from Anatolia to Greece. The Greek nationalism
had also anti-Semite attitudes and many Jews preferred to emigrate.
In 1941, the Nazi occupation found a
Jewish Community with more than 50,000 members which had been
put under the "supervision" of the German Military
Commando. Chief Rabbi Koretz had been suddenly put under arrest
and taken to Vienna where he remained for several months. Meanwhile
the community clerk, Saby Saltiel, had been put in charge as
"president" and compelled to hand out the financial
funds of the list of the community members. Many Jews lost their
flats, became the subject of public humiliations, or were taken
as hostages; however, for several months, no general rules had
In the spring of 1942, the local puppet
government issued new identity cards stating the religious affiliation
of the bearer. The German Commando had thus obtained the possibility
of identifying and locating the Jews, at any moment, through
the records of the Greek police, a better method, indeed, than
using the community member lists.
On July 13, 1942, the Nazi armies were
marching forward so in Russia as in North Africa; 10,000 men
aged from 18 to 48 years had been called up for selection and
sent to hard labor in a chrome mine and in a marsh; the harsh
conditions led to many casualties. At the end of October
in North Africa, after the El Alamein battle, Rommel had had
to sound the retreat - the Military Commando accepted the sum
of about RM 100,000 and let the Jewish workers return home; objections
made by the chrome mine manager (workers strongly needed) had
not been considered.
In 1941 and 1942, the Eichmann staff
was strongly engaged in the Deportation of Jews from Germany,
where Gauleiter and City Mayors were urging action; in Vienna
and in Bohemia-Moravia, Heydrich had pledged a speedy solution
of the "Jewish question;" in the Netherlands, where
the Jews owned trading companies, there was an appealing loot,
etc. Furthermore, Salonica was at a long distance from Auschwitz.
In December 1942, the Military Commando
had to consider the possibility of an Allied landing, as in North
Africa, the German-Italian troops were holding Tunisia only,
and also in Russia, the retreat had been started; a strong Jewish
Community with many men working, and battle, age seemed to be
On January 30th 1943, for the tenth anniversary
of Hitler taking power, Eichmann could report the fulfillment
of deportations from Germany, Vienna, and Bohemia-Moravia. On
the first days of February, two Eichmann staff members
SS Captain Wisliceny, who had organized the deportations from
Slovakia, and SS Lt. Brunner, who had fulfilled the deportations
from Vienna, acting in a very hard way, and was also in Berlin
as an adviser reached Salonica to discuss the start of
the deportations with Merten, a civil official of Military Commando,
who was the "supervisor" of the Jewish Community from
the beginning of the occupation, the Police and SD chief Paschleben
and General Consul Schoenberg.
Chief Rabbi Koretz appointed as
Community Head in December 1942 had to face the trio -
Merten, Wisliceny, and Brunner - and receive orders expressed
in a very harsh tone and supposed to be obeyed in a very short
time. Promises and reassurances had been valid only if kept,
that is never.
Chief Rabbi Koretz, of Polish background,
had studied in Germany and had held the Salonica pulpit since
1932. It is stated that he had been supposed to improve the community
cultural level, but in the time of the Greek Republic (1923/36)
the appointment of an Italian rabbi did not seem wise.
The first order concerned the Yellow
Star, so for persons as for business and office facilities owned
by Jews. In the same month, February, the Ghetto had been established,
subdivided into several sections not connected with each other.
On March 15, 1943, the inhabitants of the first section, the
poor people, had to leave Salonica in a forty-cattle-car train.
Wisliceny stated that their destination was the Cracovia region,
where the local Jewish Community at that time already being
sent to the death camps - was ready to receive their fellow Jews,
and even Zloty notes had been made available. About eight days
later, this train, like the following ones, reached Auschwitz
- through Beograd, Maribor, and Vienna; Auschwitz was indeed
not too far from Cracovia. This way, Wisliceny had told the truth.
At the end of March, Merten assured Chief
Rabbi Koretz that Jews would not be in any way harmed while,
on the other hand, Wisliceny ordered him to work out and submit
the project of a new community organization. Chief Rabbi Koretz,
on his side, was afraid that deportation would go on and, through
the mediation of the Metropolitan, obtained a talk with the head
of the puppet government, Rallis, to entreat him to help stop
the deportations. The Greek cooperator answered that he was unable
to do anything in that matter, and after this meeting, Chief
Rabbi Koretz had been suddenly put under arrest.
The last deportation train left Salonica
on August 9, 1943; about 46,000 Jews had been deported from Salonica
and Northern Greece; only a very few survived. Besides those
Jews able to reach the area of Southern Greece under Italian
occupation, or to go into hiding, there are two other groups
The General Consul of Italy watched the
actions of the Merten-Wisliceny-Brunner trio with concern for
the Jews holding Italian citizenship, or eligible to obtain it
again, interpreting the Italian racist law in a very benevolent
way. After arguments, the General Consul put this group on a
military convoy which took them to the Italian occupation area
of Athens and Southern Greece.
In this Community, established by Sephardic
Jews centuries earlier, about 600 persons had taken advantage
of the Spanish law of 1924 which provided a kind of protection
for the descendants of Jews, who had been compelled to leave
Spain in 1492 and after, in order to flee the Inquisition. The
Spanish Government Franco! invoked this law and asked
that those persons should be exempted from the Deportation. After
long arguments, this group was taken to the Bergen-Belsen Camp,
where a special section under the command of SS Capt. Seydl,
former Commander of Theresienstadt, had been established for
the custody of Jews considered for possible exchange; 369 people
of that group were able to survive. In this same section - and
not in Theresienstadt which had been mentioned as a destination
for one of the transports - Chief Rabbi Koretz and some other
privileged Jews had also been taken.
The Military Commando got the financial
funds about RM 3,m500,000, while flats and businesses had
been handed out to the local puppet government. A fair deal indeed.
But the bill of the Railway Authority for the deportation trains
had not been paid.
Chief Rabbi Koretz dead suddenly
after the liberation has been the subject of heavy accusations
of being a traitor for having handed out the community member
list, permitting in this way, the location of his fellow Jews.
This accusation is clearly absurd and not consistent with the
two above shown facts:
The Community member list had been "handed
out" by Saby Saltiel at a time when Chief Rabbi Koretz was
being held under arrest in Vienna.
The puppet government issued, in 1942,
identity cards stating the bearer's religion; through the records
of the Greek police, the Nazis could easily identify and locate
The critical remark of Raul Hilberg,
blaming Chief Rabbi Koretz as a tool of the Nazi authorities,
does not consider the Rabbi's desperate attempt to call the puppet
government for help, nor that he had put under arrest suddenly,
after having met with Rallis.
The writer wonders what all the persons
expressing critical comments would have been able to do, facing
the hellish trio of Merten, Wisliceny and Brunner, or any other
DR. WOLF MURMELSTEIN