On May 8, 1943, 149 pupils at the First Boys High School in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki were officially ‘expelled’. In the following months they were transported, along with their families, to concentration camps – the vast majority to Auschwitz. Only six survived, most of them hiding in Thessaloniki, and only 2 survived the concentration camps.
While the whole world is aware of the atrocities that took place during the Second World War, what has always astounded me is how recently, historically, the horrors of Nazi Germany took place. Only 72 years have passed since the majority of Europe was reduced to a pile of rubble due to the barbaric views of one individual.
The Stolperstein, literally meaning ‘stumbling stone’ in German, is a monument created by the German artist Gunter Demnig and its main purpose is to commemorate individually the victims of Nazi oppression during the Holocaust. They have been created in memory of the countless Jews that were murdered as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Romani, and all others who were blacklisted by the Nazis.
A Stolperstein consists of a simple cobblestone with a bronze head cover. The text on the cover is always in the national language of the state, with the individual’s name, their year of birth and date of death or, to be more tragically blunt, the year they were murdered. Even stones for survivors are put in place, since surviving the camps was literally a journey to death and back. Approximately 56,000 Stolpersteine can now be seen in more than 650 cities and 20 nations throughout Europe making the project the world’s largest memorial.
However, one country, until now, has yet to join the growing list. Greece played a pivotal – although sometimes forgotten – role in the Second World War. Their resistance during the Greco-Italian-German War in 1940/1941 and during the occupation with hundred of thousands of Greek civilian and military victims is legendary. It is therefore remarkable and inexplicable even, that Greece has taken so long to join the list of countries in which Solpersteine have been placed.
The history of Jews in Thessaloniki stretches back over two millennia. When the Nazi occupation of Greece began in 1941, they began to persecute the Jews as they had done in much of mainland Europe. Within 7 months, almost 60,000 had been deported and murdered thus causing a near wipeout of the community in the city, which has never truly recovered. Today, the number has dwindled to 2,000. A city, which, prior to the world war, had more than 36 synagogues, now has just a handful. It is said that Apostle Paul, during his travels across Greece, visited one of Thessaloniki’s synagogues to preach in the synagogues that Jesus was the Son of God.
Thanks to the determination of one individual, Apostolos Dereklis, who has fought for the Stopelsteine to be placed outside the school for decades, he finally saw his perseverance rewarded in September last year. The first Stolpersteine have now been placed outside the front sidewalk of the public school building of the High School (the other will be unveiled later in January) and a bronze lane on the front of the premises of the headquarters of Nazis Adolf Eichmann and Alois Brunner in Thessaloniki.
Apostolos, an alumnus of the High School and son of Thessaloniki, has overcome numerous hurdles in his mission to see Stopelsteine placed outside the building. Greece is known for its interminable bureaucracy and this was one of the main obstacles. There were also unfortunate side events, such as the new Jewish memorial monument in the city of Kavala being vandalized just a few weeks after it was unveiled. The unveiling had already been delayed by city officials, which caused dissonance amongst the Greek-Jewish community. The opening ceremony finally took place after pressure on Kavala’s mayor from the Greek government and international groups. After the vandalism, city officials acted swiftly to repair the monument in order to prevent further criticism and distress.
While Apostolos has endured three years of efforts, his initiative has not been in vain. Fifty two Stolpersteine now line the sidewalk outside the school – a long overdue reminder of those children who were murdered. The Mayor of Thessaloniki, widely known for his open mindedness, representatives of the Jewish Community and the German Consul to Thessaloniki were present during inauguration. The next lot of 29 Stolpersteine will be unveiled in a ceremony on January 28th, and by the end of 2017, 149 Stolpersteine, one for every victim and survivor, will line the sidewalks in 2017. In his own words, it is our moral and civic duty to keep alive the memory of those murdered during the Holocaust and to pass on to future generations, the belief in the possibility of human co-existence without any kind of discrimination.
Apostolos’ vision is simple. Rather than dwell on the numerous setbacks to get the Stolpersteine placed in Thessaloniki, he wishes to look forward. He once observed ordinary members of the public walking past the stones shortly after the first unveiling. Some walked by without noticing, immersed in their daily commute to and from work. Some did notice and leant over for a closer look. Upon reading the names one by one, followed by their year of birth and death, the shock on their faces was evident. The realisation of how young these children were serves as a timely reminder of the atrocities that once went on in their own city.
Apostolos has achieved his mid-aim, albeit with difficulty. He has provided a springboard for current and future generations. He intends that in future, the process for those wishing to do the same will be a lot less time consuming – there should be no need for the bureaucracy that he had to contend with. Everyone feeling the need to commemorate relatives and friends should be able to through fast track permission to place the stone in front of old living premises, work places or study institutions. Apostolos’ next step is to enable descendants and friends of the victims to install with no big bureaucratic efforts their Stolpersteine in front of the old premises, work places and study facilities of victims all over Greece.
For this particular city, this is an overdue process of looking back on its history and educating the youth. Greece has now joined the list of other European nations of this ever growing project and Stolpersteine now finally line the sidewalks of Thessaloniki.