An Essay by Dr. Wolf Murmelstein



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 been issued.

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 a risk.

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 to consider:

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 Jews.

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 SS Commander.


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