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Episode 9

Elias Recanati

“I was born in Salonika, Greece, on March 30, 1932. My mother’s family was, uh, Spanish. And, uh, it was agreed between the Spaniards and the Germans that, uh, my mother, my brother, and myself would be spared if the Spaniards would give us a visa to go to Spain. Uh, however, in order for us to be able to achieve this, we had to escape from Salonika into Athens”

                       

When the Germans took control of the Greek city of Salonika, Elias Racanati’s family had one chance to escape—his mother’s family hailed from Spain. But they had to cross German-occupied Europe to get there.

Photos and Artifacts

Undated wedding photo of Elias’s parents. Credit: Via Geni.com.

The Roman Arch of Galerius at Egnatia Street in Salonika, 1930. Credit: Gichristof/Wikimedia/CC BY 2.0; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thessaloniki,_Greece_-
_1930.jpg.

Three Jewish children wearing the Star of David, Salonika, March or April 1943. Elias Recanati, 11 years old, is on the right. Credit: Archive of Elias
Recanati.

German tanks rolling through the Arch of Galerius, Salonika, April 18, 1944. The vehicles were called Sturmgeschütz (colloquially known as StuGs), which
means “assault gun.” Credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo.

Arrival Document for Elias Recanti

By Dr. Samuel Kassow

At the height of the Holocaust, the Germans sometimes spared Jews who had foreign passports. As a result, frantic Jews spent their last savings in order to buy documents that might grant them the right to stay alive. But this was a devil’s game: many documents that seemed safe turned out to be worthless. Hundreds of Polish Jews who bought Uruguayan, Paraguayan, and Guatemalan passports, after spending months in the limbo of internment camps like Bergen-Belsen or Vittel, eventually met their deaths in the Auschwitz gas chambers. On the other hand, documents that at first seemed much less impressive, like Palestine visas, actually helped their owners to survive.

Elias Recanati and his older brother and mother survived the war thanks to their Spanish passports—Elias’s mother was a Spanish citizen before she married her husband, who was Greek. While the Germans sent the Jews of Elias’s hometown of Salonika, Greece, to (mainly) Auschwitz, they allowed Elias’s mother to travel with her two sons to the safety of Spain.

That was by no means a given, however: in most cases, even a Spanish passport was not enough to avoid deportation. As historian Sarah Stein points out, when the deportations from Salonika to Auschwitz began in March 1943, the city had about 860 Jews with foreign citizenship, out of a total Jewish population of approximately 55,000. That number included 511 Jews with Spanish passports, 281 with Italian passports, and six with Portuguese passports. When the Germans asked the Spanish government whether it was prepared to admit “its Jews” into Spain, Madrid failed to send a clear reply. As time ran out, Spain’s ambassador, Sebastián de Romero Radigales, managed to send 150 Spanish nationals to Athens, which was under joint German-Italian administration. Some of the rest reached Bergen-Belsen, but many died in Auschwitz.

It was the Spanish ambassador who asked the German authorities not to deport the Recanatis. Spain’s Salonika consul, Salomon Ezratty, himself a Spanish Jew, watched over the Recanatis at the request of the ambassador to make certain that the Jewish or Greek police, who were collaborating with the Germans, followed the ambassador’s request. (In 2014, Yad Vashem posthumously honored Sebastián de Romero Radigales as a Righteous among the Nations.)

Salonika was a special community, the center of Sephardic, Ladino-speaking Jewish culture in the Balkans. In fact, it was once known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” From the middle of the 16th century until the 1920s, Jews formed a majority of the city’s population. Jews had lived there since Roman days, and the legendary Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela mentioned a community of 500 Jews when he visited Salonika in 1170.

A major turning point in the history of Jewish Salonika came in 1492, with the expulsion of Spanish Jewry. Most Spanish Jews sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire, and Salonika, a port city on the Aegean Sea, seemed especially promising. By the middle of the 17th century, 30,000 Jews lived in Salonika. By 1900 the Jewish population had increased to 80,000. Most of the Jews of Salonika spoke Ladino (Judezmo), the Judaeo-Spanish that their ancestors brought with them from the Iberian peninsula. 

During the second half of the 19th century, Jewish merchants and entrepreneurs took advantage of growing rail links to make Salonika a major economic hub that supplied the entire Ottoman Empire with textiles, tobacco products, and hides. The total volume of the port doubled between 1880 and 1912. But rapid economic development also led to wider social differences. Alongside the city’s prosperous merchant class, there were many poor Jews who eked out a meager living as petty craftsmen and dock laborers. The working poor remained a significant segment of the community up until World War II, and many of these Jews became devoted members of Greece’s growing communist party.

During the last quarter of the 19th century, new political trends, such as Zionism and Marxist socialism, gained supporters in Salonika. The Alliance Israélite Universelle established a school that attracted many students and popularized the French language and culture. Ladino newspapers and theaters greatly enhanced the city’s cultural life. Many middle-class and upper-middle-class Jews acquired Spanish, Italian, or Habsburg citizenship. Yet the majority of Salonika Jewry remained religiously observant and traditional in outlook. 

Under Ottoman rule, which lasted until Greece took over the city in 1912, the Jewish community enjoyed wide-ranging autonomy and extensive legal protection. With the beginning of Greek rule, the political situation of the Jews became more complicated. Many Greek politicians resented the presence of a Jewish population that spoke a different language and was suspected of insufficient Greek patriotism. The widespread support among Jews for Zionism and communism in the interwar years also aroused suspicion in the minds of many Greek politicians. But slowly many sectors of the Jewish community began to accept a Greek identity. While the Jewish community was still overwhelmingly Ladino-speaking, the younger generation now learned Greek and often attended Greek schools. The new chief rabbi, Zvi Koretz, and many members of the Jewish elite established good relationships with the royal family and leading Greek politicians.

Interwar Salonika Jewry never fully recovered from one of the greatest disasters in the city’s history: the huge fire that broke out in 1917 and that engulfed much of the city, including the main Jewish neighborhoods. The conflagration destroyed synagogues, cultural institutions, and most of the communal archives dating back centuries. The vast majority of the Jewish population became homeless. The rebuilding of the city replaced the old Jewish sections with new neighborhoods that were largely populated by Greek refugees fleeing Turkish rule in Asia Minor. 

The aftermath of the fire and the influx of refugees served to make Salonika increasingly Greek. Relations between Jews and Greeks remained strained during the entire interwar period, and in 1931 an anti-Jewish riot broke out. While tensions slowly eased, Greek-Jewish relations were much more fraught in Salonika than in Athens and other cities, and during the Holocaust, Jews in Salonika received much less help and sympathy from their Gentile neighbors.

Salonika’s economy never entirely recovered from the 1917 fire either. Furthermore, the demise of the Ottoman Empire created new national boundaries with Bulgaria and Yugoslavia that isolated Salonika from its traditional commercial hinterland. Jews began leaving Salonika for Latin America, the United States, France, and Palestine. By the beginning of World War II, the Jewish population had declined from 80,000 to approximately 55,000—just under 50 percent of the city’s total population.

In November 1940 the Italians attacked Greece, but they were pushed back by the Greek army. When Germany attacked Greece in April 1941, however, the Greek army quickly collapsed. Many Salonika Jews fought in defense of their country, and over 600 were killed in action.

The Germans seized Salonika on April 9, 1941. Greece was divided into three occupation zones: Salonika was under German occupation; Athens was jointly administered by the Germans and the Italians; and much of Salonika’s immediate hinterland fell under Bulgarian control. During the course of 1941 and 1942, about 3,000 to 7,000 Jews left Salonika for the Italian occupation zone. This group included many of the wealthiest members of the community.

Both Jews and non-Jews suffered terribly from the famine that gripped occupied Greece in 1941 and 1942. Salonika Jewry also witnessed the Nazi looting of the community’s cultural treasures, including old books and manuscripts. The Germans closed the Jewish hospital, arrested many community leaders, and began to confiscate Jewish property. They appointed Sabi Saltiel to head a Jewish council tasked with ensuring that the Jewish population obey all German orders.

On December 10, 1942, the Germans replaced Saltiel with Salonika’s chief rabbi, Zvi Koretz. Koretz was an Ashkenazi rabbi, and even before the war he was disliked by many Jews in the community. Koretz bowed to German demands, handed over lists of the Jewish population, and counseled the Jews to obey German orders. After the war, many survivors accused him of collaboration—a charge that responsible historians consider overdrawn, although they agree that Koretz was weak, gullible, and lacking in leadership qualities. 

Salonika’s Jews were trapped. Few Christians were prepared to hide them. Unlike in other cities in Greece, including Athens, the Greek elites and the church leadership in Salonika were indifferent and even hostile. They still regarded the Jews as an alien element. Nor could Jews easily leave the city. Where would they go? In the surrounding mountains, they would simply starve to death.

The first violent persecution of the community occurred on July 11, 1942—known as “Black Sabbath”—when the Germans ordered about 6,500 Jews to gather on Liberty Square to register for forced labor. Compelled to stand all day in the boiling sun, they were harassed, beaten, and humiliated by German soldiers and police. Jews were sent out of town for forced labor; about 700 died.

In January 1943 Adolf Eichmann dispatched his trusted helpers Rolf Günther and Dieter Wisliceny to prepare for the murder of Salonika Jewry. Beginning on February 6, all Jews were required to wear a Yellow Star; on February 25 they were ordered to move into two ghettos. On March 1 they had to submit detailed lists of their property. Rabbi Koretz told the Jews to obey German orders and hope for the best. Helping to herd Jews into the ghettos was a force of 200 Jewish police whose brutality and callousness earned them the hatred of their fellow Jews. 

The deportations to Auschwitz (and Treblinka) began on March 15, 1943. By the end of the year, more than 48,500 Jews had been deported to Auschwitz in 19 transports.

This is the historical background for Elias Recanati’s gripping testimony, which relates the last years of Jewish Salonika through the eyes of a young boy. Elias’s memories offer great insight into a unique Jewish world on the eve of its destruction.

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Additional readings and information

Elias’s unedited testimony at the Fortunoff Video Archive (available at access sites worldwide): https://fortunoff.aviaryplatform.com/collections/5/collection_resources/2094.

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