15 March 1943: Deportations from Salonika to Auschwitz begin

On 15 March 1943, thousands of Jews in Salonika, Greece, were deported from ghettos to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Registration of Salonika Jews in Central Square Ⓒ Bundesarchiv

Sephardic Jews, who are descended from the Iberian Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century, constituted the majority of Jews in Balkan countries, as well as Greece and Turkey. Before the beginning of the Second World War, Salonika, the second-largest city in Greece, was the centre of Sephardic Jewish life in Europe, with a Jewish population of approximately 50,000.

Following Germany’s invasion of Greece in April 1941, the country was partitioned, with Salonika and the wider region placed under German control owing to its strategically useful location. Within a few weeks of the occupation, Jewish homes in the city were requisitioned and communal centres such as synagogues and Jewish libraries were looted. Men were made to gather in the city square to register for forced labour and were beaten and humiliated by occupying forces on what came to be known as ‘Black Shabbat’. This was followed by Jewish businesses being seized and the destruction of Salonika’s Jewish cemetery which, at 35 hectares, was one of the largest in Europe.

Preparations for the extermination of Greece’s Jewish population accelerated in January 1943, when Adolf Eichmann dispatched his close advisor, Dieter Wisliceny, to Salonika, ‘to make arrangements with the military administration to find a Final Solution for the Jewish problem there.’* The persecution of the Jewish population intensified, with Jews ordered to start wearing a yellow star and mark their businesses as Jewish. Two ghettos were established in February 1943, one in the east of the city and one in the west, which Salonika’s Jewish population was forced to move into.

Saloniki Holocaust Memorial Ⓒ Seth G (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Deportations from the ghettos to Auschwitz began on 15 March 1943. A total of 19 transportations were completed, carrying 42,830 Jews. 38,386 of the arrivals were immediately murdered upon arrival at Auschwitz. Although it is estimated that around 500 Jews managed to escape Salonika before the transportations began, Jewish life in the city was devastated. Greece lost at least 81 percent of its Jewish population during the Holocaust.

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*Mazower, M., 2005. Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950. 1st ed. London: Harper Perennial.

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