Commentary Magazine

Greece: Unused Cakes of Soap


The fashionable phrase in Salonika for a Jew back from deportation is “unused cake of soap.” This brand of Hellenic wit requires a toughness of stomach more common among ancients. But a Salonikan comes up to antique measure in times of crisis, especially when he’s grown quite cozy in an abandoned Jewish home or shop, and the owner returns to life. Soap was an end product at some concentration camps of what was left over from the gas chambers.

There were 45,000 Jews in Salonika, once the most thriving Jewish city of the “Orient.” Now there are less than 2,000. The Germans had persuaded the Chief Rabbi Zwi-Hirsch Koretz to give up the registers of his congregations. This facilitated operations. Names were ticked off batch by batch and with very few exceptions Jews obediently came. The Germans were vague. They talked about colonists for new territories. They were somewhat brutal with colonizers, but they had been brutal for a long time. So the Jews filed into the Baron Hirsch Quarter. The choice of rendezvous was sardonic; the area originally had been built up to relieve Jewish residential congestion. Also it comfortably bordered the North Railway Station. Jews could be loaded into freight cars with a minimum of fuss. As one shipment was emptied out of the Baron Hirsch Quarter another came in through the far gates to be organized and packed. Nordic efficiency never worked so well—from March to May 1943 the Germans sent off 43,000 Jews, their destinations Auschwitz and similar “colonies.”

About 850 Jews have returned. The latest arrival came back last September and no more are expected.

Other survivors drifted in from the mountains or from Athens, or came out of Salonikan cellars. Today, over seventeen months since liberation, less than 5 per cent of them have been allowed to retake possession of their own homes.

Greek authorities have a pious defense. These houses and apartments, they say, are occupied by poor Greek refugees who fled from terrible Bulgarian soldiers in villages or whose homes were destroyed by fire, shell and bomb. They’re legitimate war victims. One surviving Jew returned to a house his whole family had once filled. Should Greek refugees be piled into the streets? Is a Jew entitled at best to more than one room? At a glance this argument has a modicum of social justice. Salonika did have many refugees. They poured in from Macedonia and Thrace where the Bulgarian occupation army was busy converting natives into live Slavs or dead Greeks. The influx was also great at Janina and Corfu because Albanians were doing their bit to establish their ethnic claim to northern Epirus by direct action on Greek inhabitants thereof. German and Italian commanders quartered fugitives wherever they could. The housing crisis continued so acute after liberation that the new government ratified all Axis requisitions in Northern provinces for Jewish and Gentile properties alike.

The official apologia for the housing scandal of Salonika, however, omits to say that this freezing of rooming allotments affected Jews mainly, since relatively few urban Greeks had been compelled to abandon their homes; that no serious attempt was made to find places for Jews; that no rent was paid by “tenants” to help destitute owners; that no single collaborator was expropriated to make room for Jews; and that many small-time quislings actually lived in Jewish flats. The Jewish lawyer, Yomtov Yakeel, whose niece I met in Athens, was pulled out of hiding and sent to a German crematory by an Armenian named Budurian who was in the Gestapo’s employ. When his niece, his only surviving relative, returned from Germany the family of Budurian was installed in Yakeel’s house.

Only two of fifteen public Jewish buildings—an orphanage and a day nursery—have thus far been returned to the community. They are now makeshift shelters for homeless deportees. As for Jewish shops and businesses, these were entirely occupied by Greek friends of Germans in reward for services rendered. Of 2,000 such establishments, only thirty-seven have been restored to their owners. The liberation government even extended the existence of the special bureau created by the occupation government to supervise properties parceled out to quislings. The point is that these tenants are a political force in Greece, and Jews are not. The former even organized an association for the protection of their common interests against Jews. Last May the nonpartisan (read “reactionary”) government of Admiral Voulgaris proclaimed the state’s desire to divert the property of Jews to the welfare of Jews. This was more affirmation than law and changed virtually nothing. In December the so-called liberal Sophoulis government summoned the Jewish Property Bureau to give a full accounting within a fortnight, so that their holdings could be restored to their heirs or, in their absence, to the state. Several days later the government postponed the execution of its own decree. The official pretext—confirmed to me in an interview with Sophoulis—was that the law had been poorly written, enabling one Jew to lay hands on many properties of distant defunct relatives. What really happened was that the tenants rushed a delegation down to Athens headed by an excabineteer who was prominent on the Salonika Liberal Party ticket in the impending elections.



The Jews of southern Greece got off much easier. The EAM spirited Rabbi Eliahu Barzilay away from Athens to the mountains before the communal registers could be pressured out of him. On March 24, 1944 the Germans finally deported 1900, but by that time the rest of the Jews were well under cover. Law Number 2 of the Papandreou government nullified quisling decree 1080 confiscating Jewish property in the south. Most of the Jews had already emerged from hiding and moved in anyway. But even here some were still forced to share homes with Greeks of dubious patriotism installed during the occupation. Ninety-five per cent of Jewish movable properties vanished; they had an estimated value of $154,000,000. Any cash, gold, jewels or furniture which the Germans had overlooked was looted by starving Greeks for sale in time of famine. Recovery was rare because the Jews were not on hand to watch the spoilation.

Greece’s Jewish population shrank from the 75,000 pre-war figure to scarcely 10,000. Of twenty-four surviving communities only Athens did not suffer a completely paralyzing blow; those deportees who failed to return were replaced by provincial Jews who took refuge in the capital and remained there after liberation, raising the population from 3,000 to 4,500. Other communities fall into three categories: seven which retained more than half their Jews; five with less than half, but with the minimum of twenty families required to give each community legal existence under Greek law, and eleven which dropped under even that minimum. A year ago I pilgrimaged sadly across the former Bulgar occupation zone where Turk, Greek and Bulgar wrangled for centuries and where Jew at last had ceased to care. The dirty, sun-scorched town of Kavalla had 2,000 Jews before the war, now has 42. Didymoteikhon dwindled from 1900 to 33, Komotina from 800 to 28, Xanthe from 550 to 6, Serres from 600 to 3. A sample breakdown by the Joint Distribution Committee in January of one such Jewish ruin (Didymoteikhon) shows “Shops restituted, 5, unrestituted, 75; houses restituted, 4, unrestituted, 160; facilities: synagogues, 1 destroyed; Hebrew schools, 2 occupied by government; dispensaries, 1 Greek; soup kitchens, none.” The Komotina card index reveals “All in need—only one pair shoes received from UNRRA; rations under subsistence.”

Almost 6,000 of the 9,000-odd Jews are classified as totally indigent. Another 700 get partial relief. UNRRA is barred by charter from giving special consideration to Jews. Jews and non-Jews together suffered from maldistribution of UNRRA supplies by the Greek authorities. Working under UNRRA, the JDC became the main support of shattered Jewry, aided by technical and administrative personnel of the British Committee for Relief Abroad and a Palestinian Magen David Adorn team. Expenditures of American Jews for their Greek brethren are now around $50,000 a month and are mounting. The Joint Distribution Committee made one miscalculation which throws shrouded light on the extent of the decimation suffered by Greek Jewry: they paid a non-Jewish asylum in advance for the maintenance of fifty Jewish aged and could only find eleven elderly Jews left in the entire country. Otherwise Joint Distribution Committee money is stretched as far as it can go—for food, clothing, shelters, medical care, education and emigration.

The greatest single drain on the budget for a long time, crippling the JDC’s effectiveness, has been the government’s insistence that relief dollars be converted at the official rate, despite inflation prices. The situation has improved since February when the government undertook various stabilization measures, but there is still no confidence in the drachma, and the Bank of Greece’s gold supply is dwindling. Disaster threatens both Greece and the JDC when the gold sovereigns are exhausted.



Greek Jewry is a convulsed microcosm of the Greek people, with all the stresses and strains now wracking the nation, plus some added refinements. There is conflict between Right and Left, between few rich and many poor, between deportees and non-deportees, between Zionists and non-Zionists. Concentration camps massacred the élite of Jewry. The physically stronger had the chance for greater survival. Most returnees therefore are simpler and less compromising folk. Like the harassed Greeks they distrust others and themselves; they lack leadership and the feeling of belonging. They expected a warm homecoming but the government ignored them. Non-deportees asked “Why did you escape the ovens and not my family?” Disillusioned, they have become aggressive. The JDC offices have more than once been stormed by deportees demanding impossible help. They have only one thought—to get away, no matter where.

Sixty Jewish families in all Greece managed to save the better part of their fortunes by camouflaging their control of corporations (aptly named sociétés anonymes) or concealing their merchandise. Their contribution to relief has been negligible. The JDC, for example, gave 7,500,000 drachmas for an orphanage, and the Greek Jews were able to scrape together only 200,000 drachmas as their share. The rich remember that money saved their lives when they used it to bribe non-Jews into hiding them during the occupation. They are afraid of leftists, Communists, Russians, everybody. They are turning drachmas into gold as fast as they get them and burying the sovereigns for a quick getaway after a Bolshevik revolution or Russian invasion.



I talked with three Jewish EAMites. One was a disabled veteran of the Albanian War, the second a doctor who had been with ELAS in the mountains, the third an escapee from Auschwitz. They claim that three-fourths of the Jews who stayed in Greece and survived the occupation owe their lives to leftist militiamen who protected them or leftist sympathizers who hid them. Five hundred Salonika Jewish youths joined ELAS, and 150 of them were killed in action. In Athens Rabbi Barzilay, no leftist, admitted to me that when he went into the mountains he saw ELASites resisting. Most of the property restitutions to the Jews were made while ELAS was in power before the civil war; there have been few since, and only after monumental litigation.

Jewish radicals now complain they have been frozen out of the direction of Jewish affairs. They charge that the autonomous Central Board of Jewish Communities, created by the Papandreou Government soon after liberation, has sabotaged Jewish interests by emphasizing the need for emigration and not pressing for justice in Greece. The leftists had four delegates to the original Central Board; two died in the civil war; one was later ousted; and only one remains. The conservatives systematically block all leftist proposals. They even tried to prevent an EAMite orator from participating in recent memorial services for the lost deportees.

The moderates do not agree with the extremists that the Board has been treasonable to the Jewish Community. But they do concur that it has been unrepresentative and inefficient. The Board is still “provisional” and loaded with appointees of reactionary governments. No election has yet been held among the Jews to set up a permanent Board, although the last of the surviving deportees has been home for more than a half year. It is alleged that the Board could have compelled the liberation government to nullify the property seizures in the north at the same time this was done for the south, but the first flush of generosity was allowed to die away through negligence. The moderates especially deplore the Board’s confusion of communal with Zionist policy, thereby encouraging governmental indifference to the plight of the Jews here and now.

There are no anti-Zionist Jews in Greece—not even the Communists, who are for a national homeland but insist that the Jews here are Greek citizens, not transients, and should recover what is due them. Relief agency people agree with the moderates that the frenetic Zionists, by trumpeting Eretz Israel as the only salvation, encourage apathy and discontent. The Larissa community, totaling fifty-one Jews, of whom at least thirty are believed tubercular, listened to one itinerant Palestinian agent and concluded rapturously that deliverance was at hand. Despite repeated JDC entreaties, the Jews of Larissa lived another full year in their windowless, roof-leaking, wall-shattered hostel before applying for help in repairs. The Zionists are further resented because they demand extra-special treatment of candidates slated for Palestine. When thirty-two tons of food and clothing arrived as a gift from the Jews of Argentina to the Jews of Greece, Jewish Agency representatives in Athens precipitated a near riot by clamoring for the largest share as the indisputable right of the hachsharoth, the “preparation” camps for aspirants to Palestine. I was told the hachsharoth give practically no training to the future colonists except an inadequate smattering of Hebrew and a feeble stab at potato-planting. Investigation confirmed this, but there seem to be some good reasons which it is not desirable to discuss here.



How justified, however, is the Zionist argument that Greece is not worth fighting for? The Jews undoubtedly have grounds for a grudge against the governments they have dealt with until now. Many private Greeks undertook to care for Jewish property, moreover, and later refused to hand it back. One Nikos Houvardas purchased a whole Salonika district from the Germans where 15,000 Jews had lived, razed it and sold everything therein, including the wood and timber. In the half-wrecked synagogue which is the only building still standing in the Baron Hirsch Quarter (except an insane asylum and the tower where German machine gunners stood guard), I saw rats gamboling over government stores of food-stocks. The chairs of several other Salonika synagogues, marked with the Star of David, are still in certain coffee-houses in the city. The Burla Synagogue was transformed into a cabaret, and even after liberation the Metropolitan of Salonika tried to protect the owner from expulsion. Jewish tombstones from the ravaged cemetery are still embedded in Salonika pavements.



But these desecrations are almost exclusively restricted to one city, and are tolerated by governments which do not represent the Greek people, as the large boycott of the elections at the end of March demonstrated. To cite one case, many of the Jews saved in Athens were sheltered by non-Jews at great personal risk, and only the rich had to pay. Archbishop (later Regent) Damaskinos was personally responsible for the concealment of 250 Jewish children in Gentile homes under the noses of the Germans. The governments since liberation have been vicious or pusillanimous. They have impeded economic recovery to the equal detriment of Jew and non-Jew. They have allowed collaborationists to go unpunished and terrorism to flourish. Even so, one of these governments (Sophoulis) had the distinction before quitting office of having decreed the cession to the Jewish community of the state’s rights over all unclaimed Jewish property—the first law of its kind in Europe.

Little good may be expected from the pro-royalist regime now moving in. The Sophoulis law may take some time getting implemented. One of the leading lights of this regime is Gonatas, who, as Macedonian governor-general, presided over the Kambel riots fifteen years ago when mobs set fire to 2,000 Jewish houses. But there is no pogromist tradition in Greece. Anti-Semitism is infinitely less deep-rooted here than in Hungary or Rumania, countries which I have recently visited and where the need for emigration is far greater. There is hope for Jewish security and recovery, if the Greeks themselves are allowed to have the democratic government they desire.

That is why many here feel the Zionists are misguided in crying “On to Palestine!” on all occasions. At best, the possibilities for entry there are limited. Since liberation, Greece has been alloted only 210 Palestine certificates. Another 212 Jews chartered a Greek ship and smuggled themselves safely ashore below Tel Aviv, though eight Palestinian Jews were killed trying to conceal the Greeks’ arrival from the British. Greek Zionists are stirring hopes which will take a long time to fulfill. Their critics contend that the campaign for total abandonment of Greece is also unfair to Jews of other even unhappier lands, in view of the over-all restraints on departure for Palestine.

Meanwhile life goes on for better or worse among Greek Jewry despite present distress and recollections of past horror. Last Sunday I attended a Sephardic wedding where the young groom was beginning another chapter three years after his first wife and baby, born in the Baron Hirsch Quarter, died at Auschwitz. The JDC has established a dowry fund to cope with the epidemic of marriages among the impoverished but energetic boys and girls of the hachsharoth. One day in February nine weddings took place simultaneously at the Patisia training camp. All nine brides were blooming—I mean blooming—but no shotguns were needed. The girls were big and happy, and wore veils made of mosquito netting. The JDC supplied wedding rings plus a full kit of kitchenware, including a kerosene stove. Layettes were also provided.

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