Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

8 Elul 5764 - August 25, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Surviving the Inferno of Salonika

by Chedva Ofek

Part II

A plain building on Rechov Levinsky in Tel Aviv houses an organization called Concentration Camp Survivors from Greece. Moshe Helyon, at the age of 78, is still energetic and creative. The Holocaust in Greece? Few people know the country was involved. Yet 60 years after the first train left Greece, packed with Jews destined for the death camps, Helyon tries to document the experiences of those who were spared from the Nazi inferno, presenting his own life story as an example.

In the first part Mr. Helyon described the weeks leading up to his family's deportation from Salonika to Poland. After they arrived in Auschwitz, they were separated into four groups: The first, elderly and disabled men limited in their ability to perform labor and walk; the second, young, able- bodied men; the third, elderly women and women with children; and the fourth, the rest of the women. He and his uncle went with the group of about 500 able-bodied men.

Minyanim in the Yards of Auschwitz

It was close to midnight. In the darkness was a voice in Ladino telling us what was about to take place. We were to leave our belongings next to the entrance door and were about to receive prisoners' uniforms. Each of us received a short jacket and cap made of striped fabric. My uncle caught sight of me and looked me over. Both of us found it difficult to absorb the fact we had become prisoners.

We were led to Building 8a and were ushered into a large room with long rows of three-tier wooden beds. Although I was overcome with fatigue, I couldn't fall asleep. Thoughts flit through my head. "Where am I? What is this place? Where is my uncle?" There was no way for me to find out, because we were warned not to get down from the beds and not to walk around the room. Disobedience was immediately met with cruel blows. Whispers passed from one bed to the next as Salonika exiles asked one another, "Why were we brought here?" Finally I managed to fall asleep.

Suddenly I heard sharp cries. "Get up!" I forced my eyes open. The lights were on. Why were we being woken up so early? We were exhausted. Most of the prisoners rose up lazily but those in charge immediately began walking past the beds, throwing off the blankets and landing blows on those still sleeping. We quickly realized that whoever wanted to steer clear of confrontation had better obey the people in charge. All of the prisoners were sent out of the block. Shivering from the cold, I pressed in among the other prisoners to stay warm. I gazed at my more distant surroundings. There were two parallel barbed-wire fences marked with images of a lightening bolt and the word, "Warning!" Guard towers stood between the two fences. Outside the prison camp were wide stretches of flat ground with a few houses, and avenues lined with white trees. Those in charge were carrying barrels of warm drink, large baskets filled with loaves of bread and closed containers.

Breakfast was distributed quickly, the line moving forward interminably. Everyone who stepped up to the distribution point received a quarter loaf of dark bread, an unidentified food item and a cup of warm drink. My uncle and I stood side by side, received our rations and went off to the side to eat. The second food item turned out to be a type of cheese with an unpleasant odor that we had never seen before. The drink was strange, too. Neither tea nor coffee, it was foul and tasteless. I wanted to pass it up, but I recalled that we had been told the tap water should not be drunk because it might be contaminated with disease.

Before we had finished eating, the sound of a whistle was heard and several overseers appeared. An interpreter explained that we must stand in rows and he would translate the orders. He pointed out that we, the Greek prisoners, must quickly learn to recognize the orders in German because this was the only time they would be translated. Based on his commands we stood in ranks and the orders began: "Stand at attention!" "Caps off!" and many other orders were drilled over and over again.

After lunch, which consisted of a bowl of thin soup and a few chunks of potato, we had our left arms tattooed with numbers. The first to undergo this said it was not so bad. Little pricks that were not particularly painful. My turn arrived. I stepped up to a table with the tattooer sitting opposite me. He was a prisoner too. He asked me to sit and carried out the procedure quickly.

We were only in Block 8a for two weeks. This was a sort of basic training during which they wanted to impress upon us that we were no longer human beings with individual wants but machines required to carry out every order immediately. Everything we were told to do from the moment we woke up until lights-out was aimed toward achieving this goal. Any delay, even if it resulted from a failure to understand the language, was punished with blows. If somebody dared to exhibit grievances he immediately received a cruel response.

During the period of basic training we mostly executed inspections and drills with amazing orderliness. Many of the block members, including myself, would gather three times a day in a corner of the yard to turn to the east and pray. We did not have siddurim, of course, so we had to rely on memory. One of the members of the minyan would serve as chazzan. The tefilloh would charge us with emunoh and strength during these days of madness.

None of us understood or correctly assessed the situation we were in. Proof of this was the fact that almost every evening before lights-out we were brought into the block room, where we would sing in unison along with the head of the block and sometimes the SS officers in charge of us.

On May 1, 1943 we began to get assigned to work groups, or commandos in the camp lexicon. Many men, including my uncle Yitzchok, were transferred to other camps. I was left in the block for another day or two until I received my assignment. I became the only member of my group to be placed in the gardening commando. Its task was to tend to the gardens surrounding the SS officers' homes or outside the work blocks. I was then transferred to another dormitory block.

In my new environment, I felt very alone. Early in the morning, we were ordered to arrange ourselves in rows of five and then the kapo (the head of the work groups) would join us. At his order, we would then start marching toward the camp gate. The sounds of music echoed in the empty space. We marched down several "streets" until arriving at the gate. To our left stood a large group of prisoners--the camp band with its conductor, playing brass instruments, violins, drums, cymbals, etc. They played a marching tune to the raised voices of the SS officers shouting, "Left-right- left."

The place of work was the front of a block at the end of the built-up area where the landscaping began. The SS officers fanned out all around. The non-professionals were given the "dirty work" of pushing wheelbarrows, while the professionals and the veteran workers laid garden beds, planted shrubs and trees, etc. Since I was new I had to haul soil to the garden by wheelbarrow from a spot 20-30 yards away. Although this was not hard labor by camp standards, for me it involved real exertion. Because my left arm was weak, the wheelbarrow would often tip to the side. On these occasions I would have to face terrible shouts and strain myself to straighten it.

Sick Call

One day I detected swelling behind my left ear. I knew it was from an ear infection, because I had suffered from one a few months earlier. This time the infection was painless so I did not go to a doctor. When I would lie down in bed I would wrap the area to try to warm it, but the swelling remained. Partly because I wanted to switch to another commando, which was only possible after being released from a hospital stay, I decided to report to the sick call.

Sick call was held every day after returning from work. This system was employed in order to reduce the number of people asking to be checked. The prisoners did not like wasting their free time standing in line to be checked, because they knew in most cases the visit would result in receiving medicine or treatment on the spot rather than being excused from work. I went to the clinic. The diagnosis was an inner ear infection with discharge. I was summoned to report to the hospital for an operation.

This was before antibiotics came into use, so my type of infection had to be treated surgically. And there was a chance my case would be used as practice for surgeons. On the day of the operation I was released from work. I reported to the hospital, went through the registration procedure and was left in the waiting room.

When I climbed onto the operating table I was surrounded by several doctors, most of them SS members, and nurses. On order from the head surgeon my arms and legs were tied to the table with leather straps. After administering local anesthesia by spraying some sort of liquid in the area behind my ear they began to operate. I did not feel the opening cut at all. Then they began to break my skull. The pain was excruciating. I howled. My arms and legs were held tightly in place and I could not object to my situation.

I do not know how long the operation took. When it was over and the straps were removed I walked to one of the rooms with two people supporting me. They laid me down on one of the beds and left me alone. For a day-and-a-half I lay stretched out on the bed, totally dazed. I burned with fever and suffered great pain. Once I had come to, I realized I was in a small room with a few two-tiered beds, unlike the regular dormitory blocks. I lay on one of the lower bunks.

I was very thirsty. Someone brought me tea. Suddenly I felt an urge to scratch my whole body. A rash broke out all over me. I had contracted scabies. Every day we were visited by doctors. My treatment consisted of changing the dressing that covered my head and spreading a cream where the surgery was performed. I was recuperating at a satisfactory rate.

Savior in the Form of a Polish Professor

One day a conversation--if our rough hand gestures could be called conversation--began between me and one of the other patients. He was a Polish Christian and he asked me where I was from. When he heard I was from Greece he told me he was a professor of Ancient Greek at a Polish university and he wanted to know whether there was a difference between ancient Greek and modern, spoken Greek. During our exchange, he asked whether I would be willing to give him lessons in spoken Greek. I answered affirmatively, but told him it would be difficult to carry out his request without books.

The next day he handed me a booklet containing a list of words in Polish. The first lesson began. At the end of the lesson he gave me a sugar cube, a valued food item I had not tasted in a long time. Later I learned that important Polish prisoners had the right to receive packages. Until I left the hospital, we would meet daily for a one- to two-hour lesson. He gave me mostly bread, a bonus ration worth more than gold in the camp.

After our release from the hospital, I would go to his block once a week to give him a lesson. At the conclusion of each of these sessions, he would give me a food item of some kind. I thank Hashem for saving me from the death camps. I have no doubt that His compassionate hand brought me the food bonuses I received from my non-Jewish pupil, which definitely contributed to strengthening my weakened body.

I was assigned to a new commando engaged in digging drainage ditches. This was harder than my previous job and I looked for a way out of this as well. I found out that the camp operated a school for builders designated for young prisoners. At the end of the training, the graduates served as apprentices to professional builders, many of them local Polish residents hired by the camp authorities.

The conditions at the school and at work were relatively good. When I had been at the camp for about two months, one day I met a good friend from home, Yona Yaakov (who we called Yonko), near the block where I slept. We talked for a while and he told me he had only been in Auschwitz for a few days, and before that he had been in Birkenau, an extension of Auschwitz located less than three miles away. "Then you must have seen my relatives," I said, "my mother and my little sister Nina."

He looked at me for a moment with a strange expression and after some hesitation said, "No, I didn't see them. In fact, I couldn't have seen them because they're no longer alive."

"What?" I cried out. "How do you know? What happened, did they die from some illness?"

"Dead! Dead! The Germans killed them!"

"That can't be!" I insisted. "Human beings aren't killed for no reason."

"Listen to me. It's true." He took me by the hand and tugged me to a corner of the block. Pointing at a large structure with a smokestack and surrounded by fencing he said, "See that building? It's a crematorium. All the dead are burned in it. At Birkenau, there are four much bigger ones. But there, before burning the people they kill them. They put them to death with gas. The crematoria at Birkenau operate night and day because the Germans kill the elderly men and women, the mothers and the children from all of the transports that arrive."

I thought he was hallucinating. How could the German people, the most advanced and refined nation in the world, do such a thing? Though since my arrival at the camp I had seen the cruelty and lack of humanity with which we were treated by SS soldiers, I thought this was limited to the brutes surrounding us. Under no circumstances could I absorb the possibility of systematic, planned mass murder.

I continued to doubt my friend's words after parting from him, but something was gnawing at me, for his revelations were consistent with remarks and hints I had heard previously. I discussed the matter with one or two men from my block and they confirmed my friend's assertions. I went to bed, covered my head with a blanket and cried. It was the only thing I could do.

A Fateful Yom Kippur

I spent September and October of 1943 in the Auschwitz hospital. It was my third or fourth hospital stay since my arrival from Salonika. This time I was admitted because of purulent sores all over my body.

On Rosh Hashanah, suddenly a sense of commotion was felt in the hall where I was lying. A prisoner the Germans appointed head of the block entered with his assistants and issued a command: "All Jews assemble!" The assistants spread out around the room in the aisles yelling, "Hurry! Faster!" The Jewish patients were to go to the treatment corner and stand in a line.

The hall burst into frantic activity. The patients who were able, quickly left their beds and ran, while those who found it difficult to walk were pushed and dragged roughly by the assistants. Once the task of gathering together the sick was finished, a group of SS men came in, including the officer assigned to our block -- a medical officer and perhaps Mengele himself. Whispers passed through the ranks of the sick and the word "selection" was on everybody's lips.

This scene was to determine our fate--who would live and who would die. When I returned to my bed I saw a card bearing my name lying on one of the two numbered stacks piling up on the table. Everybody knew one of them contained all the cards of those who had been sentenced to extermination while in the other were the cards of those who would be left alive for the time being, but which stack was which we had no way of knowing. We were in a state of tension and trepidation for several days following the selection. From the moment we woke up in the morning until lights-out, we expected something to happen. Even our conversations were conducted in hushed tones.

On Erev Yom Kippur the Jewish patients--especially those who had decided to fast--awaited the arrival of the holy day. Throughout the week before the fast I had saved a bit of my daily bread, which was already not enough to satisfy our hunger. Evening began to set in. The moment the fast would begin was approaching.

I do not recall whether it took place right before or right after Seudah Hamafsekes. Suddenly the door of our hall was closed and a guard was posted. The camp gong sounded, followed by orders to clear the streets and enter the blocks. The entire camp was under curfew! Through the windows, trucks could be seen lined up outside the gates to the hospital blocks. We knew this was it! A band of SS men entered our hall and ordered us to get into our beds. Then we were informed that the prisoners whose numbers were called must report with their belongings at the entrance to the hall. We were told these prisoners, whose health was particularly poor, were about to be sent to a rest home, but all of us knew what their real fate would be.

The reading of the numbers began and continued for a long time. Some took their few belongings and walked away without saying a word. Others burst into quiet sobbing. Some wept and cried out in a heartbreaking voice. Words cannot describe the atmosphere in the hall. It was as if people had stopped breathing. With every number called out I felt a twitch in my heart. It went on and on, as if it would never end. When the drama was finally over the SS men left, taking with them those whose fate had been decreed. I estimate there were about 100 men in our hall and about one-third of them were taken away.

For several minutes afterwards I stood in place, stupefied and barely able to grasp that my life had been spared. Then I climbed onto my bunk and lay down, staring at the ceiling in bewilderment. Not a sound could be heard. Total silence. It was as if every one of the men left behind was trying to make himself disappear lest they suddenly come back for him.

Leil Yom Kippur was now at its peak. In my memory the words of the tefilloh as we had heard them in the beis knesses came into my head: "Kel Melech yosheiv al Kisei Rachamim." Just then a great cry went up outside. I slid over to the edge of my bed and peeped out the window. The streets of the camp were empty. On the part of the street bordering the hospital buildings, in the light of the street lamps, I could see lines of prisoners being led toward vehicles with their headlights on. There was a great deal of noise, a mixture of cries of despair and weeping from the hundreds of prisoners removed from the various blocks of the hospital, along with the sounds of the soldiers prodding them along. My blood froze. I went back to my bed filled with grief and sorrow.

Why had this happened on Yom Kippur? Later I discovered that many of the murderers' actions were carried out on Jewish holidays. This was done with advance planning, yet another manifestation of the depths of their hatred toward our people.

I decided to do whatever I could to get out of the hospital as soon as possible and stay out, regardless of my state of health. The suffering and the difficult exertions outside the walls of the hospital were better than the threat of death that hospitalization entailed. The next day I asked to be released from the hospital.

End of Part II

A Brief History of Jewish Salonika (Thessaloniki)

Part II

Part I discussed what is known about the very early times of Salonika. It is thought that a community existed there during the time of the Second Beis Hamikdash. Various groups arrived over the centuries, but the pivotal point is the settlement of 15,000-20,000 Spanish (Sephardic) Jews after 1492.


A royal edict on March 13, 1492 (Sunday 5 Adar II, 5252) declared that all Jews must either convert to Christianity, or leave the country by the coming August -- 9 B'Av. Around 50,000 Jews were baptized and remained in Spain. The rest, probably more than 250,000 but the number is not known with certainty, opted for exile. The majority settled in the Ottoman Empire. Around 20,000 went to Thessaloniki.

With their arrival, the city, which had been almost deserted since the Turkish conquest more than 60 years previously, woke up and became a major financial center again. The first printing shop in Thessaloniki was established by the immigrants in around 1510 (5270).

Thessaloniki also became an important center of Torah studies, attracting students from around the world. In 1537, Thessaloniki was called "Mother of Israel" by Samuel Usque, a Jewish poet from Ferrara. Many Jews from Sicily and Italy, also persecuted by Ferdinand and Isabella, followed the exiles of 1492.

On December 5, 1496, the Jews of Portugal were ordered to either convert or leave. Portuguese Jews left at the end of October 1497, and many went to Thessaloniki. Many of the so- called Conversos or Marranos who stayed behind were forced into exile between 1536 and 1660.

New waves of refugees arrived during the 16th century from Provence, Poland, Italy, Hungary, and Northern Africa. "Until the end of the 17th century. I, it was very rare for a ship to dock at the Thessaloniki seaport without a few Jews disembarking," writes P. Riscal (J. Nehama).

In 1519, according to Ottoman archives, 1,374 Muslim families and 282 single people -- in all, 6,870 persons -- lived in Thessaloniki. The Christian population was 1,078 families and 355 singles, with a total of 6,635 persons. The Jews number 3,143 families and 530 singles, or approximately 15,715 persons -- more than the Muslims and Christians combined.

End of Part II of the history

This historical account is based on material from the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki and the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture. It is being used with permission.

Salonika Today

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

In Salonika, where 1,000 of the country's 5,000 Jews live today, the synagogue has a regular minyan and younger Jews gather at the local Jewish community center.

The war was a disaster for the community. The German army occupied the city on April 9, 1941. In early 1943, all of the city's Jews were herded into ghettos; later that year they were deported.

All told, 43,850 Jews, 95 percent of the Salonikan Jewish population, were deported from Salonika. Out of 77,377 Jews in Greece, only 10,000 survived the Holocaust.

Today, there are nine active Jewish communities in Greece: Athens; Thessaloniki, or Salonika; Larissa; Chalkis; Volos; Corfu; Trikala; Ioannina; and Rhodes.

In the former three communities, synagogues hold services regularly, and in Athens and Salonika there are also Jewish schools.

The umbrella organization of Greek Jewry is the Central Board of Jewish Communities, known by its Greek abbreviation KIS.

The Jewish Museum of Greece, founded in Athens in 1977, preserves the heritage of the community.

Intermarriage is unfortunately common among Greek Jews, who are generally assimilated and well-off and work in business or in white-collar professions.

Many observers say that antisemitism in Greece today is on the rise. Most instances of antisemitism have appeared in fringe papers and electronic media of the extreme right.

Even some mainstream papers, such as Elefterotypia and Ta Nea, do occasionally carry antisemitic cartoons, mainly when they are trying to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or Israeli policies.

International Jewish groups have criticized the Greek government for not reacting to increased antisemitism, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center urged Jewish travelers to avoid visiting Greece for the Olympic Games, which got under way last week.

Greece recently announced that it would establish a national day of remembrance for Greek Jews who died in the Holocaust. Greece's Interior Ministry said it plans to make January 27, the day prisoners were liberated from Auschwitz, a "Day of Remembrance of Greek Jewish Holocaust Victims."


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