You are on page 1of 7

Sites of memory of Second World War in Greece through the lens of oral history.

The impressive revival of memory studies in the last two decades has been accompanied by significant advances in the research methods of collective memory processes. One of the most influential attempts to understand the function of memory is the work of a pioneer of memory studies, Pierre Nora, entitled Lieux de Mmoire. Treating a variety of objects, places and concepts as sites of memory, a term invented by him in order to signify the materiality of memory, Nora argued that these sites have become the fixed, externalized locations of what was once internalized social collective memory. In spite of the worldwide progress in the field of memory studies, in Greece the study of memory and the development of memory sites of the Second World War occupy a marginal position. Unfortunately, in Greece, and mostly in its capital, Athens, the visitor must search intensively among the ruins and the abandoned or recently reconstructed and diluted historic buildings in order to find a hint of the recent past. In this announcement I wish to address the jewish memory of the Second World War focusing on lieux de mmoire. To do so, I examine two concentration camps and prisons, focusing on the two major camps in Greece, that of Chaidari and Pavlos Melas. My aim is to outline the importance of the reciprocal circularity of oral history and memory and to reconstruct the daily life of Jews at these camps through audiovisual testimonies from Visual History Archive (funded by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, created by Steven Spielberg in 1994), that help us to track down the official silences of the historiography. The University of Athens, as well as the Aristoteles University Thessaloniki, at 2011 gained access to the Visual History Archive. The selection criteria for the historical sites analyzed at this announcement is based upon personal choice. The biographies of these sites of memory reveal the complicated historical, political and aesthetic axes on which public memory is being constructed, a point that I found very interesting to highlight, as sites of memory always seem to have changing lives and many dimensions. According to Mark Mazower, Second World War remains invisible for the visitors who flow into Greece during the summer, relaxing on the sunny beaches or getting accustomed to the ancient ruined temples and theaters. But for those who know where to seek, behind the fences of the old abandoned Jewish villas in Thessaloniki or

at Chaidari, where the new block of flats hides the view to the so-called Bastille of Greece, the scars from the wounds of the Nazi occupation era still exist.1 As it is not possible here to give an exhaustive historical account of what happened at these sites of memory, this account will be restricted to describing the experiences of the interviewees that represent the daily life at the nazi camps at Greece. Chaidari camp The concentration camp of Chaidari has so far occupied a marginal position in Greek historiography. Chaidari is a densely populated area on the western side of Athens. The symbol chosen by the municipality of Chaidari was inspired by the camp and depicts Block 15, its isolation ward and prison. During the Italian occupation of Greece, which began in 1940, a military camp was built in the area, which operated for only a few days before the Nazi occupation began in April 1941. Sicherheitdienst (SD), a special Nazi security service, had command of Chaidari which initially served as a transit camp to major concentration camps in Europe, especially Auschwitz and Dachau. It functioned primarily as a detention centre for internal political opponents and resistants to the Nazis. Though it did not have the character of an extermination camp like Auschwitz, the function of the camp was expanded to serve as an execution site for certain categories of prisoners, such as Partisans and Jews. We do not have the exact number of people that were kept there as official documents have been destroyed, but we do know that three major deportations of Jews from various places in Greece took place at Chaidari and that approximately 21,000 prisoners were kept there up to the end of the Nazi occupation, among them some 4.500 Jews. 73 interviews from Visual History Archive mention Chaidari. The most dramatic deportation was that of Jews from Rhodes. They were in very bad shape, they stayed for 3 days there and then they were deported to camps in Europe. Anna Almeleh, a Jew from Rhodes that was deported to Chaidari, says: People was suffering, it was very hot in July in Greece. I never saw my mother and father and brother again.2 Lucie Amato was also from Rhodes and says that people were crying for food and water.3 Mpotton Anry also talked about the fate of Jews from

M. Mazower, Stin Ellada tou Hitler. I empeiria tis Katoxis [Inside Hitlers Greece. The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944], Athens 1994, p. 407. 2 VHA, 06738-21, 16/11/95. 3 VHA, 14687-21, 8 May 1996.

Rhodes: This was a hell for them. Matilde Capelluto recounts the day she arrived from Rhodes to Chaidari: They undressed us, we were completely nude. It was a shock for us because we lived in a very traditional environment.4 Claire Codron remembers that they all wanted water, everybody was starving because the terrible journey by ship lasted for days, and they were screaming and screaming.5 One secondary use of the camp was the exploitation of prisoner labor. Block 15 had a capacity of approximately three hundred people. Its walls were full of messages written by prisoners registered by a special unit after the liberation. The record of these writings was stored at the Criminological Museum in Athens. Unfortunately after the collection was transferred to a new building, everything that was stored was mysteriously destroyed, including the record of the Chaidari writings. About the Block we have many accounts. Matina Allalouf says: We were stacked at a Block, the one next to the other, we were beaten up and there were always inspections.6 Antzel Rassel remembers from Haidari only a huge confusion, nothing else and Flora Benveniste mentions the hard conditions at the Block: We had no blankets, no food, we slept on the floor. There was only a soup and a piece of bread. We were waiting and waiting for 15 days.7 She then went to Bergen Belsen. The destruction of the archives and of every proof concerning the camp of Chaidari did not end here. According to the oral and written testimonies of the doctor and camp prisoner , Antoni Flountzi, the Greek Red Cross had a list with the names of the prisoners for the whole period of the SD command of the camp. Flountzis searched for these lists in vain. He states: I cant believe that this material has been destroyed. It must be buried somewhere and must be found. After the recognition of the Greek Resistance and the decision of the municipality of Chaidari to erect a museum in the camp, this issue has acquired great significance.8 The intergenerational Holocaust impact at the survivors of the Shoah is obvious at their interviews, where an emotional breakdown is very common as they remember the time at the camps. Sam Nehama tells of his life at Chaidari: It was one of the worst periods, worse than Germany. I didnt work so hard in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It was hard labour, I was moving rocks from one side to another, there was constant
4 5 6 7 8

VHA, 18735. VHA, 44115. VHA, 48964-62, 23/11/98. VHA, 47902-0, 12/11/98.

beating and torture. 9 Before Chaidari, he was interrogated at the headquarters of SS and Gestapo at Merlin Street. The building was demolished during the 1980s and was never officially recognized as a conservable monument of contemporary history. On the contrary, it was converted into a large beauty store, even though prisoners graffiti on the basements walls of the headquarters demonstrated the importance of the building. Sam Nehama recounts: They drove us to Gestapo headquarter at Merlin street. They put us in a dungeon, they throw us. brother.10 About the food at Chaidari we have different accounts, although almost all indicate that the Jews were starving. Sam Nehama mentions that food was supplied by the Red Cross, and that there were much more and better feeding conditions from outside: The food was good, in contrast to the other testimonies. He even says that at night they were served a full greek meal (macaroni)! On the contrary, Morris Venezia, a Jew from Athens, says that there was not a chance for food and water: We were animals, not human beings.11 Violence was typical to Chaidari. The experiences were so difficult to talk about, because of the pain involved for the survivors, thats why for so many years the survivors chose the silence. How could one describe the indescribable? Lya Cohen was sexually abused in Chaidari from an officer, she was only 14 years old. She mentions that the girls didnt have their period, the Germans put something to the food.12 Mpotton Anry also speaks about the violence at the camp: There was an unnecessary violence of Germans every day, abuses, flogging, violent dogs and the older people that could not move were beaten as if they were no human beings. They were killing us every single day. The Jews were destined for another sort of death. 13 Revekka Aaron saw at Chaidari for the first time an execution, she recalls: I cant describe to you how bad it was for me to see that. My mother was also beaten, I was so scared.14 Mpotton Anry recounts the event that lead to the execution of Napoleon Soukatzidi, the translator of the camp and a person that everyone recall as the hero of

My grandmother was mourning. At the

interrogation my mother was beaten in front of us. They started beating me and my

Visual History Archive, 687, 1/25/1995. Visual History Archive, 687, 1/25/1995. 11 VHA, 20405-1, 24-October-96. 12 VHA, 450. 13 VHA, 42858. 14 VHA, 45239, June 23, 1998.

the camp. The Germans wanted to execute a retarded shepherd and Napoleon offered himself instead, it was so tragic. In other accounts, survivors mention the cruel commander of the camp, Kovacs and Radomski. Mpotton Anry recounts: We had Kovacs with his 3 dogs, a bastard that tortured. He was very inventive in finding new ways to torture us, he was ferocious, sadistic. He thought he ruled the earth. He wanted blood. So, death is a common topic to the testimonies, something that structures the whole experience of Chaidari camp. Since the liberation, Chaidari has been used as a camp by the Greek army. The Ministry of Defence administers the camp, with the exception of Block 15, which the efforts of Melina Merkouri, minister of Culture, managed to wrest from the Ministry of Defence so that it now belongs to the Ministry of Culture. Until 1982, the year of the official recognition of the Greek Resistance after thirty two years of endless controversies in Greek public history, entry to the camp was forbidden to everyone, even to the old prisoners of the Nazi occupation. Today, the visitor is not allowed to make a tour of the entire camp as the army conducts military exercises there. A visit to Block 15 reveals the bad condition of the monument, which is randomly visited by neighbouring schools. This must be ascribed to lack of information concerning the camp since no reference is made to Chaidari in the school books which deal with the Nazi occupation in Greece. The plaque in front of the Block cites: Block 15, 19431944. Site of sacrifice and torture of resistance fighters. Starting place and trench of the struggle for the freedom of the Greek nation. The fact that apart from the Greek resistance fighters approximately 4,468 Jews were held captive there has been suppressed. The only guided tour offered to a local high school - by a signals officer of the camp in 2007 - provided the students with false or deficient information about the role of the camp and its groups of prisoners. In 2007, the minister of Defence promised to get up a scheme for the creation of a National Resistance Museum at Block 15, but no specific schedule has been settled. The citizens of Chaidari have repeatedly demanded the camp be closed and turned into a memory site accessible to visitors. Pavlou Mela camp The Pavlou Mela camp was opened in spring 1941. It held prisoners of various nationalities: Yugoslavs, Albanians, Jews, British, Poles, Russians and French, and later

Italians, Bulgarians and Germans (for draft evasion, stealing from the army and other offences). The first execution took place on December 17, 1941 and the last on September 16, 1944. The camps guards, doctors, nurses and cooks were greek. Pavlou Mela was liberated on October 21, 1944. In Mico Alvos narrative, the living conditions at P.V. were not so terrible. He recalls that the hardest was during the night, that the Germans came and took people from them for executions and for reprisals, because there was a sabotage at a village.15 In other accounts about P.M., death is very present, in contrast to Mico Alvos testimony. David Frances narrates: I was in very bad shape. The food was not enough, the living conditions were bad, we had malaria, and thats why the Germans left us free, because they were afraid of the contagion of malaria. After 25 years, because of the malaria, I had a serious heart disease.16 In her narrative, Lena Russo recalls a painful event at P.M.: Rebecca was pregnant and she started having pains. They took her, the Germans, and said that they took her to the hospital. But we never saw Rebecca again. After the war we found out that she gave birth to a baby. She said to the nurse please take my baby because she knew that they would kill her.17 From this narrative, we see that a survivors history crosses with other life histories of the camp, in order to put things in a narrative sequence that sheds some light to the general living conditions at the camps. Buena Mevorah after an emotional breakdown recalls the question that the prisoners at P.M. had: Why do they take us to Poland and they dont kill us instead here at P.M.?18 There is nothing today that reminds the people of Salonika of Pavlou Mela camp, all there is is ruins and walls covered with graffities. If we want to contextualize the above narratives, we come to the obvious conclusion that memory of the camp experience is painful and intrudes the survivors lives for many decades after the war. Their cultural memory preserves the store of knowledge from which Jews of Greece derive an awareness of their unity and peculiarity.19 Strangely enough, silence was not the most appropriate response and the interviewees analyzed their terrible experience of the camps vividly and openly, in
15 16

VHA, 12990. VHA, 7792. 17 VHA, 37218. 18 VHA, 44732. 19 Jan Assmann, John Czaplicka, Collective Memory and Cultural Identity, New German Critique, no. 65, p.130.

contrast to the past. The places of trauma, as Aleida Assmann named the scars of the survivors that cannot heal, the traumatic memory of the life at the concentration camps, was reconstituted, narrated and incorporated into the general life history of the survivors. As Bea Lewkowicz notes, the cultural memory has transformed a traumatic past into a narratable past,20 and from that past we can reconstitute the biographies of the unknown to most of Greek sites of memory. As the study of history is not only an inquiry into what happened but also into how it has passed down to us, the study of commemorative forms of past events must form part of the historians work. Monuments, museums and days of remembrance must play their essential part in the historical inquiry, since sites of memory represent the materiality of a past that has no other way of being handed down. And at the Era of the Witness, as Annette Wieviorka called the era that we live in,21 Holocaust testimonies can pose new challenges to historians of Second World War.


Bea Lewkowicz, The Jewish Community of Salonika. History, Memory, Identity, Vallentine Mitchell, March 2006, p. 242. 21 Annete Wieviorka, The Witness in History, Poetics Today, 27:2, Summer 2006, p. 385-386.