New Holocaust museum will preserve lost Jewish identity and history in Thessaloniki

Story by Sophie Cannon ·

*This story also lives at our main site at* 

THESSALONIKI, Greece – From the street level, it is a nondescript gray building guarded by a single security booth. Inside however, there is a blend of rich Jewish culture, where an orthodox rabbi leads services to a crowd of Sephardic Jews ranging in age from an infant to a 95-year-old woman humming along to his chants. Wine imported from Israel flows freely around the dining room.

This is the Jewish Community Center of Thessaloniki, where the melodic sounds of Hebrew echo through the crowded room of about 70, bumping into Greek, Spanish and Yiddish along the way. In addition to some travelers from Israel, invited to attend the weekly Friday night ritual, it’s a typical turnout for Shabbat (or Sabbath) dinner in the small but still alive-as-ever Jewish community of Thessaloniki.

Once called “The Jerusalem of the Balkans,” the second largest Greek city of Thessaloniki is trying to rebuild its Jewish identity on the very land where it was destroyed 70 years ago. At the railway station where 50,000 Thessaloniki citizens once boarded cattle cars to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, the new Holocaust Museum of Greece is set to begin construction at the end of this year, and will be open to the public in late 2019.

On June 15, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Nicos Anastasiades, the president of Cyprus, in an annual meeting. Mayoral adviser Leonidas Makris said they will likely make a statement of support for the new museum at the meeting, to take place in Thessaloniki.

“The museum will narrate the history of the Jews in Thessaloniki, their significance to the life and prosperity of the city and their fate during the war,” said Meira Kowalsky, a partner at Efrat-Kowalsky Architects, based in Tel Aviv, Israel, one of the construction companies contracted to build the museum. “We hope that it will enhance dialogue and tolerance between communities based on a better knowledge and respect of the past.

At the western entrance of the city, the old railway station will be transformed into a six-floor, circular building, spanning more than 75,340 square feet. In addition to the museum, there is a proposed education center set to be adjacent to the old rail station – though information on dimensions, scope and cost won’t be public until later this year.

The powerful symbolism of the location is one of the most important aspects of the space as it’s the exact station where 95 percent of the city’s Jewish resident were deported to death camps at the start of Nazi occupation in Greece.

The site for the new Holocaust Museum of Greece, built at the old train station through which the Jewish population was deported to concentration camps during the war.
Photo by Sydne Mass

The museum has secured funding from two different donors: 10 million euros (or $11.2 million) from the German government and the same amount from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, a private Greek philanthropic organization that funds projects geared toward arts, culture, education and social welfare.

In addition to the monetary sponsors, the Greek parliament is in agreement across party lines that there is a need for the museum, with support from the leading Syriza party as well as from the official opposition party, New Democracy.

“This is a dream we have had since 2013, with the mayor as well,” said Larry Sefiha, vice president of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, an elected board of local Jewish leaders. “We had a plan of making this museum, a good collaboration with the mayor [Yiannis Boutaris] and a design. We have assurance from the prime minister [Alexis Tsipras] and the head [president] of the Hellenic Republic [Prokopis Pavlopoulos] and also the head of the opposition party as well.”

The Jewish history of Thessaloniki runs deep within the historical framework of the city, despite the small Jewish footprint in Thessaloniki today. Sefiha said the city’s Jewish population is a fraction of what it once was.

“The community used to be vivid and vibrant,” Safiha said. “The majority of the population was about 70,000 of 150,000 total residents. Before the Holocaust, there were 50,000 after some moved out of Greece for economic reasons and after the war until today there are about 1,500.”

Nazis occupied Greece in 1941, decimating the Jewish community. The majority of the population was sent to Poland by train. The lucky few who were not caught by the Nazis hid in the mountains of Greece, awaiting news that the war had ended.

With a Jewish population slowly returning to the city, the next step is rebuilding the past and providing education for future generations. In addition to documenting the atrocities of the Holocaust, the goal of the museum is to educate and drive home the lessons learned from it.

“We want to not only depict the Holocaust as an event, but to educate and combat anti-Semitism, racist and any ‘anti-’ feelings,” said Marcel Hassid, administrator and employee at the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki. “To not only learn about the event itself but the underlying situation and its tie into the current situation is very important.”

That sentiment is vital in combating anti-Semitism around the world, and here in Thessaloniki as well. According to an Anti-Defamation League 2015 report, Greece’s anti-Semitic rating is at 67 percent, based on survey responses from a random selection of the population. This is compared to a 10 percent rating of the Americas. The majority of the population, 90 percent as of 2015, is Greek Orthodox.

Pamphlets from the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki in Greek, Hebrew and English to accommodate the many visiting Israeli and American tourists.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

“Greece comes in as one of the highest in anti-Semitism on paper,” said Erika Perahia-Zemour, curator and employee of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, which is dedicated to documenting Jewish life in Thessaloniki before the Holocaust and also serving as a small memorial. “It is because of the very power in the church, the influence of the church.”

While the rating is high compared to the U.S. and many other countries, mayoral adviser Makris said the anti-Semitism here in Greece is different and not generally expressed as violence as it is in other places.

“It is true that there are reports of high anti-Semitism in Greece. Our culture is more outspoken, not embarrassed or politically correct about our feelings,” Makris said. “If you take a survey of the average Greek about how they feel about the Jews, it is going to be negative. However, almost 1 million Jews are coming from Israel for holidays but no violent attacks have ever happened and it happens every day in Britain. Greeks speak loudly but do not react violently.”

While funding for the museum has been secured as of early this year, according to Makris, the project still has a way to go before breaking ground. The building permit is still entangled in the slow bureaucracy Greeks have become accustomed to.

“In Greece we go too slow, but this was big history. Ninety-six percent of the community is a lot to lose,” said Lili Antzel, guide and employee at the Monistir Synagogue, which is the only synagogue currently open in Thessaloniki. “It will be positive if it happens, though. People know the Europe side of history. The things about the Germans and France and Poland, but they don’t know about the Thessaloniki Jews.”

The Jewish population of Greece was largely Sephardic Orthodox, and originally came from places such as Morocco, Spain and the Middle East. The community spoke Ladino, a mix of Hebrew and Spanish, causing a majority of their history to be lost in translation. Ladino has practically gone extinct.

“They spoke Ladino until the day they left, so the language barrier prevents us from knowing a lot,” Antzel said. “We do know that they had schools, teaching Kabbalah (a Jewish mystic interpretation of the Bible) and other things. Prominent rabbis from all over came during the 16th to 18th century. It was always a multicultural city.”

The Jewish community of learned individuals, scholars and business people was wiped out, not once but twice – first when a fire in 1917 destroyed the city center of Thessaloniki, which housed most of the Jewish people, and again during Nazi occupation.

Most of the 1,500 Jewish people living in Thessaloniki are still Sephardic and Orthodox in practice.

“We are 1,000 members, 20 percent are Thessaloniki survivors and their descendants and the rest are people that came back after the war,” said Perahia-Zemour of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. “I’m not sure the community will continue. Numbers are diminishing. We hope we will hold like we did after the war.”

Despite the small community, there are still a few buildings in Thessaloniki devoted to serving the Jewish population and preserving its history.

A digital mock-up of the proposed new Holocaust Museum.
Photo courtesy of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki.

“There were 42 synagogues in Thessaloniki, and all were destroyed except this one, as it served as the Red Cross warehouse during the war,” Antzel said of the Monistir Synagogue. There are also two others, Yad Lezicaron, housed inside the same building as the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki office, currently undergoing renovations, and another inside Modeano, a home for aging Jewish people.

Inside the Monistir Synagogue, besides the pews, everything is as it was before the war, from the arc that holds the Torah to the three crystal chandeliers hanging above the red velvet seats. Hebrew, a language not often heard in Thessaloniki, is the common tongue here – making this place stand apart from the rest of the city as a frozen moment in time, when the Jewish people were the lifeblood of society.

“All the celebrations of the families happen here. Bar mitzvahs, weddings…,” Antzel explained. “The community helps a lot too. Now that the economy is not so good, we all help where we can. We have Israel programs, donations to the poor. We give what we have to help.”

Upon completion of the museum, the government and the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki hope it will not only help empower the community in the city, but also help those who have connections to the Jewish population of Thessaloniki find the answers to their questions.

“Once the construction begins, it may take two to three years to complete the building,” said Kowalski, of the architecture firm, which has built other Holocaust museums around the world. “The project in Thessaloniki is particularly important since it would be the first museum to tell the story of the Sephardic Jews in the Holocaust. Our design for the museum is contextual and refers to the architecture of the city of Thessaloniki.”

While the number of practicing Jews in the city is small, the stories left behind are an integral part of the second Jerusalem’s past.

“We are not the ‘others,’” Sefiha said. “It’s a part of the history of Greece and has always been a part of the history of Thessaloniki.”


Just a Small Town Girl…?

I have always been one for big cities, having grown up in one way too small for my liking. Boston called my name last year, a welcome escape from the suburbia of Edina, Minnesota.

Leaving Thessaloniki behind for the bigger and more well know Athens, I did not experience the same longing to be in the big city. Instead I felt a pang of sadness and a sense of nostalgia for the city I had only come to know in three weeks time.

Thessaloniki was not amazing because of its grandeur. Its skinny streets with half-closed shops and street cats did not shimmer with the foreign luster I desired when I first came to Greece. Instead, warn shop signs and tobacco scented air became the sights and smells of home. I knew the man at the gyro place down the street and the lady who worked at the deli counter who never once poked fun at my weekly visit for turkey and cheese (to pack school lunches for Asia and I).

As many of my friends here have mentioned, the boardwalk along the Aegean sea captured my heart from the very first (sweaty) stroll down its length. Serving as the compass rose for our small city, I always came back to the sea. While abroad in a new place, the moment I feel at home is the moment I realize that I know where I am and can make my way home from wherever that may be. On the boardwalk, eating a chocolate cake with Asia and Isabelle, I could turn to the left and remember when I chased protests with David and Bradley, to the right is where we took midnight boat rides and straight ahead is the old city, perched on the hill extending up into the horizon.

I am writing this blog post from Athens, in a humid hotel room with Paxtyn by my side, doing the same. I do not long for Thessaloniki, Alexandrias 124 or even the boardwalk, but they will forever hold a place in my heart. The three weeks spent there sounds like an arbitrary amount of time, but when you are dropped into a city and made to find stories, you learn the city quickly and soon after that, falling in love is inevitable.

While it is sad to say, I will most likely not return to Thessaloniki. I have a dream to travel the world, and that does not allow any time for do-overs. It is time for Athens now, a full two weeks to learn, map, explore and write about a new city. Athens is bigger and busier for sure, but after exploring for just four hours today with Theo (our guide of sorts) and Asia, I can tell my heart will be bruised when I must leave, just the same as it was when I left our first city.

Here’s to you Thessaloniki. Thank you for hosting me and helping me acclimate into Greece.

And to you Athens, here I am.


The smell of bleach going up the staircase is overwhelming, but I suppose that smell is far better then the stink of the camps from which these refugees turned residents came. They call them residents here, a word that humanizes the people, misplaced in a world where ‘refugee’ comes with the image of a dirt-smudged face and a malnourished body.

The group of white, American journalists standing in a semi-circle and barraging the guide with questions served simply as a hide-and-go-seek barrier for three small boys, ages 6 – 11 if I had to guess. Using my skirt as a shield before lunging out to run again, there was no fear of strangers on their faces, marked only with sun-kissed freckles and smile lines. I forgot for a moment that I was in a refugee resettlement apartment complex and not on a playground back in the States.

While the yellow and red mural overhead read “HOME” that is only a half-truth for the boys and the other 90 residents of the complex. The apartment serves as a sort of half-way house for refugees at the top of the ‘at risk list’. The end goal of the families is either relocation with their whole clan in Germany, Portugal or somewhere else, or reunification with the other members of their families, already settled somewhere safer in the European Union (EU).

The limbo between normalcy and what one would expect from a refugee hostel was something new to me. A sign for women’s yoga at 5 p.m. hangs in the lobby along with one for an Arabic class being held both Monday/Thursday and Sunday/Wednesday. A glance to the left and you are taken back into crisis mode with a barren bookcase and the counseling services number and emergency response contact posted in case of a conflict between residents.

The same is true in the basement level, used for storage and donations. Among the many boxes of clothes, toys and personal care items is assorted rubble, not bothered to be moved by the 5 volunteers working that day. An old bathroom door sits in the corner, off its hinges, with a faded “W.C” sticker on its center. Pipes and old plaster sit near the door, making up what appeared to be a restroom for ghosts.

Not to say that the whole room was abandoned. Far from it, the workers sorting clothes smiled at their humanitarian task and at me when I shyly said hello. An entire warehouse-sized room was filled with clothing for every age, shape and size, encouraging to see such a surplus. The same was said for fresh food, sanitary products and more so than anything else, there was no shortage of camaraderie.

Walking back out into the warm light of the late afternoon, we rounded the brightly colored building once more to find a middle-aged man, a women of around the same age and a child sitting outside, being watched by a brown basset hound in the olive grove across the yard. Again, I was back in the states with a family and not with a group of misplaced persons.

On the way back to the bus, having the luxury and privilege to return back to the life of an American tourist, I passed under the bright mural reading “HOME” and it made some sort of sense to me. Despite the lack of permanence of this home, the world keeps turning. Kids play hide-and-seek weaving in and out between the legs of strangers, a fully equipped barber shop sits across from a fertile olive grove and there is a list of tasks to be completed for the following week.





Despite Lack of Change, Greeks Take to Streets in Protest

By Sophie Cannon, David Harbeck and Bradley Fargo

full story with photo slideshow and video can be viewed at

THESSALONIKI, Greece – At a four-way intersection on a usually busy Greek street in downtown Thessaloniki, traffic has stopped for what appears to be a job fair for the disillusioned. Workers from all sectors of the economy, equipped with painted signs and flags, chant their grievances toward the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace, a towering four-story mansion also known as the “Government House of Thessaloniki.”

A band of Coca-Cola workers stands behind a sign saying, “We don’t drink Coke anymore.” They face the accounting union group, also protesting the government, but for the lack of healthcare. A union of clothing store workers is opposite them, making up yet another piece to the jigsaw puzzle that was the 24-hour May 17 nationwide labor strike. The unrest stems from the upcoming May 18 vote in Parliament on new austerity measures that would cut pensions and raise taxes on Greek people.

“We protest whenever we have to. It’s a chance to show every day what is possible. It is something for every worker,” said Giorgkas, 34, a member of the Organization of Communist Internationalists in Greece, who attended three protests this week. “You have to support it in a country with such high unemployment, but people are not participating as much.”

While one group shakes the gates of the government building, a young woman spraypaints “resistance and worker control” in Greek on the building’s outer barrier. Amid the chaos, Dimitrios Giogkas stands in the center of the street, occasionally echoing the shouts of a protester leading a call-and-response chant.

In the past week in Thessaloniki, there have been two other protests at Kamara, a famous square in the heart of downtown, leading up to the labor strike. “Tomorrow night after the vote I will be here again,” said Giorgkas, who works in a local bookstore.

The European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have imposed strict austerity measures, such as budget cuts and pension caps, on Greece’s government in an attempt to rescue the country from its ongoing government debt crisis. The crisis began in 2010, with the country’s troubles stemming from the 2008 worldwide financial crisis.

A woman paints a banner for a demonstration in Kamara Square, Thessaloniki.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

People in Greece are beginning to feel hopeless as the economic environment is showing little signs of improvement. Unemployment is at 23.2 percent, the highest in Europe, according to EU statistics. Youth unemployment is at 48 percent. These statistics coupled with the all-around economic turmoil in Greece have bred a culture of frequent protests and strikes.

It is no longer surprising for there to be six-month delays for Greek people to receive their paychecks. According to Georgios Anastasiades, an economist and adjunct professor at the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT), Greece has lost 50 percent of its income since the crisis. This frustration has caused workers to take to the streets almost daily, an option that was once powerful and is now a last resort.

“People are striking but not with particularly radical intentions,” Anastasiades said. “In the past, they thought they could do something. We have strikes without demonstrations. It’s supposed to be a strong weapon, now it’s at the drop of a hat.”

Large labor strikes, like the one on May 17 that attracted 6,000 people in Thessaloniki and 12,000 in Athens, according to published reports, happen a few times a year. In the past week alone there have been strikes by bus and ferry drivers, air traffic controllers, hospital workers and journalists. In addition to multiple labor unions across numerous industries, the May 17 strikes also saw participation from large numbers of communists and anarchists.

A protester leads call-and-response chants in the streets of Thessaloniki.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

“Greece is going through the most difficult [part] of its post-World War II period with dramatic consequences in various fields of the country’s social and economic life,” said Panagiotis Avramopoulos, the former president of the Trade Unions Center of Thessaloniki and member of the City Council of Thessaloniki since 2002. “Greeks are suffering [from] dramatic changes in their lives caused by the severe austerity measures. This difficult environment generates the need to protest.”

Since the crisis began, the constant strikes and marches have done little to nothing in terms of policy change and instead have disappointed and infuriated the people of Greece. The birthplace of democracy is now failing them.

“Many people nowadays are disillusioned, disoriented, disheartened by the fact that despite the protests, the outcomes they seek don’t always materialize,” said Maria Kyriakidou, the chair of Humanities and Social Sciences at ACT. “In 2012 you could find half a million people outside Parliament protesting. You won’t see these numbers anymore.”

Riot police stand outside the Turkish Consulate on May 12.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

Despite different governments voted into power since 2010, no party has been able to reverse the negative economic trends in Greece. The current party in power is the far-left Syriza party, but many people disassociated from the party in 2016 after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras agreed to an austerity package that significantly increased taxes and cut public spending.

“We believe in what we are doing. We are not out here for fun,” said Kalamara Garyfallia, the president of the clothing store workers’ union. “Left wing, right wing, we don’t care. We march whenever there is a law against us.”

Garyfallia is just one of thousands of the working class in Greece dissatisfied with the government. No matter the party that is in power, she said, the outcome is the same and no real changes are made to improve the lives of workers.

“Everyday life has been affected,” Garyfallia said. “It’s hard to make ends meet.”

Ioanna Katsarou is one example of a worker struggling to put food on the table for her family. “In many ways, we don’t have [what we need] to eat, don’t have [what we need] to pay the rent. It’s my right to have something to live, not [just] to survive,” said Katsarou, a native of Thessaloniki who attended the protest on May 17 with her husband. “I want to eat, to feed my children. I will fight for it today.”

Katsarou is a member of the Communist Party in Greece, and says that the community of like-minded thinkers that surrounds her is part of what makes her feel safe during the protests.

“I am here with persons that I understand and that understand me, so I feel at home,” she said.

The mob mentality usually associated with large protests and social groups like the anarchists and communists can serve as a family for disillusioned people. Despite differences in ideology, age, class and gender, the community aspect of protests have been sewn into a social fabric and developed into a protest culture of its own.

Workers dressed in their construction uniforms lead the May 17 protest down the street, followed by 6,000 other protesters from various groups.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

“Over the last years, protests rarely accomplish the reverse of negative and unpleasant developments,” said Avramopoulos, the Thessaloniki City Council member. “In any case, peaceful protests remain the lifeblood of our democracy.”

Gwendolyn Schanker also contributed to this report.

Humans of Greece: Street Fashion Pt. 1

“My whole house is full of flamingos. I want a concept in everything in my life. I love Alice and Wonderland. I have the cheshire cat on my back. I want to continue to make my tattoos look like a fairly tale. Backpack is from Ebay. I wanted something silly.” – Yiorgos Barbadenis, may he serve as a fashion icon forever.

“Oh my, can you take a picture of her taking our picture?” – Kelly, an Australian tourist in disbelief that someone would take her photo.

“Us?” “Guys, come with me” “You like our faces or our clothes?” – Three boys who walked away giggling before they gave me their names.

“Me alone? Im…happy? Honor.” -One of the three boys on the boardwalk.

“Only my shoes and not the whole outfit?” -Milos, 25, needed to Skype call a friend to translate how to say his age in English.

“I always wear short trousers and leggings. All different colors, the shorts and the neon leggings are the hipster thing to do. Im from Germany, but plan to live here for longer and keep wearing this.” -Dutt, 25, the coolest name ever.

“My hair is because of feminism. Black and purple is the color of feminism around the world I think. I’ve had it for 2 years now. No clue what the next color will be.” -Finn, 24, also amazing and planning to stay in Thessaloniki.