When the Nazis Desecrated the Jewish Cemetery of Salonika

Human bones and broken tombstones were used as building materials, desecrating 500 years of Jewish history and half a million gravestones.

A swimming pool for Wehrmacht soldiers made out of Jewish tombstones

The Jewish cemetery of Salonika (also known as Thessaloniki) was an anchor of the long standing Jewish community of that city, the largest Jewish community in Greece before the Holocaust. The cemetery was established at the end of the 15th-century, when Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal arrived in Greece. The Jews who survived the expulsion and the long journey, buried their dead in a plot of land that would become the Jewish cemetery of Salonika, as precious and important to the community as their synagogues.

Holocaust survivors gathered for the “Mourners’ Kaddish”

The process of expropriating the land belonging to the cemetery did not begin with the Nazis.

Decades prior to the Nazi occupation, the non-Jewish residents of Salonika sought to take the land and use it for their own benefit. In 1886 a Turkish Ottoman gymnasium was established on the cemetery ground and famously, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki was founded in 1925. The university took over from the gymnasium when Greece gained independence. In the 1930s the city administration officially decreed that the Jewish cemetery would be expropriated and given to the expanding Aristotle University. The plan never came into effect, but fear of demolishment motivated the Jewish community to give the university a section of unused cemetery ground.

In 1941 the Nazis came, and with them, total destruction of the Jewish cemetery.

By the end of 1942 cemetery grounds were confiscated by the city’s administration, which was controlled by the Nazi occupiers. A Jewish family who had relatives buried there and wished to have the grave exhumed was forced to do so through the city administration. In December of 1942 the city pushed for a quick demolishment and within days gravestones were destroyed and human bones were gathered in unmarked piles. When the Jewish community heard of what had occurred it was too late. All they could do was take the remains of their family members and re-bury them in a mass grave, outside the city of Salonika.

Exhumed bones and desecrated tombstones

The desecration of the dead was part of the Nazis plan to dehumanize the living. With the destruction of the Jewish cemetery, the Germans swiftly began transporting the Jews of Salonika to the death camps.


View the entire album here:

Fifty thousand of Salonika’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, 96 percent of the city’s Jewish community perished.

When the survivors returned they found that the broken tombstones were used to build pools for Wehrmacht soldiers, pave the streets of the city, and even rebuild Greek churches that were harmed in the war. They took photographs, documenting the destruction and desecration and demanding compensation from the newly liberated Greek government, to no avail.

A pool lined with tombstones built by the Nazi occupying forces for Wehrmacht jackboots

 The Jewish cemetery of Salonika was a victim of modernization and city development as well as anti-Semitism and Nazism. The photos taken by the survivors were put together as an album, a testament to what had occurred to the living and the dead during the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. The album was donated to the National Library of Israel in 1949 by Rabbi Michael Molho.

Along with the remaining Jewish community, Rabbi Molho founded the Institute for the Research of the Jews of Thessaloniki, which operates to this day.

Rabbi Michael Molho examining broken tombstones

Irene Harand: One Woman’s Answer to Hitler

​One of the most despicable books in human history ever published is Mein Kampf. This is the story of Sein Kampf (His Struggle, An Answer to Hitler), and the woman who wrote it.

Portrait of Irene Harand beside the German title of "His Struggle"

In 1935, an obscure book was published in Austria titled Sein Kampf (His Struggle, an Answer to Hitler). The author, Irene Harand, went through Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle) and tore to shreds the book’s antisemitic claims, allegations, and ideology which swept through Germany and Austria from the time of its first publication in 1925.

Harand’s book, translated into English in 1937, is full of refutations of the antisemitic libels which Hitler used liberally in Mein Kampf. Harand rips into “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”:

The text of the Protocols from beginning to end is nothing but a mess of lies and forgeries.

Any reflective individual who reads the Protocols will see at first glance that they are criminal fantasies of the worst order, and that the Jews have had no possible connection with them. The Nazis cannot Produce one iota of evidence that they are authentic. (pg. 175.)

Page 175 from “His Struggle”

Harand also attacks the idea that Jews are without a culture of their own and infiltrate societies for the sake of their own self-preservation:

Hitler maintains that the Jews never possessed a culture of their own, but always borrowed their intellectual substance from other peoples.


These Hitlerian comments on cowardice, lack of idealism and self-sacrifice in the Jews are totally devoid of any truth. (pg. 118.)

Page 118 from “His Struggle”

Harand, a Catholic Austrian, had no qualms about bringing to the forefront the ways that Christianity itself drove antisemitic ideas – ideas that became entrenched outside of religion and into social bias regarding Jewish people. She deconstructed these ideas throughout her book Sein Kampf in clear and easy language, giving examples, and exposing the fabrications of stereotypes and lies.

Between 1933 and the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, Irene Harand worked tirelessly and endlessly against the antisemitic incitement that swept through Austria after Hitler’s rise to power. She became a thorn in the side of the Austrian Nazi party for her activism and efforts to denounce Nazism and antisemitism.

Part of Irene Harand’s activism included a lecture circuit that took her all over Europe. During the Anschluss she happened to be in England. It was then that she decided against returning to Austria and ultimately immigrated to the United States where she used her connections to provide visas for over 100 Austrian Jews, helping them escape from the hands of the Nazis.

In 1968 Yad Vashem recognized Irene Harand as Righteous Among the Nations.

This article was written with the help Dr. Stefan Litt of the Archives Department of the National Library.

You Will Never Believe Who Turned Down the Author of “The Three Musketeers”

When Rachel Félix met her childhood idol, the famous writer Alexandre Dumas, she could not contain her excitement. It didn't last.

William Etty, Portrait of Rachel Felix, c. 1840

In 1832, at just 11 years old, the young Rachel Félix, a Jewish girl from Switzerland, left her home for Paris. There, she enrolled in one of France’s most prestigious schools for the performing arts, she also acquired broad literary knowledge. Despite her great love of the classics, her favorite writer of all time was the contemporary, best-selling author of The Count of Montecristo and The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas père.

Alexandre Dumas père, in a photograph from the 1850s (photo by Félix Nadar)

It took Rachel a little over a decade to become the most famous stage actress of the day for her roles in the classic tragedies of Racine and Corneille. By the 1840s, she had become the most celebrated actress in Paris, the European theater capital of the time. While vacationing in Madrid, she happened to meet the idol of her youth, and at the end of their brief encounter Dumas invited her to join him for lunch at the seashore. Excited at the opportunity to dine in the company of the famous author, she also accepted Dumas’s proposal to continue to correspond with him after her return to Paris.

The great dramatic actress quickly became disillusioned. Her reply to Dumas reveals the great miscalculation on both of their parts regarding the intentions of their mutual correspondence: whereas Rachel was certain that the much admired author was interested in an intellectual exchange, his intentions were clearly amorous in nature.

Deeply offended, Rachel was determined to beat him at his own game, and penned a response laced with equal measures of dry sarcasm, wonder and sincere regret. Using the words “fraudulent interpretation” in the letter she sent him on 17 July 1848, she expressed her bewilderment at how such a pleasant afternoon spent in each other’s company could have led Dumas to draw conclusions, “so far from my own thoughts.” She asked to immediately end their epistolary exchange, “which has wounded me deeply.” She also wanted to make it clear to him that while she had indeed been very honored to conduct a correspondence with someone whom she viewed as the greatest living author of the day, she now regretted the direction Dumas had chosen to take things.

As the letter progresses, we see Rachel’s anger rise along with her feeling that an affront to her honor had been committed, which becomes apparent in the small grammatical errors, and especially in the multiple underlines she includes for emphasis. Toward the end of the letter, Rachel launches her final salvo: “I knew that with stupid folk one must consider one’s every word, but one need not be so careful with intelligent, intellectual people.”

Rachel’s letter to Dumas, 17 July 1848, from the Rachel Félix Archive at the National Library of Israel. Rachel’s underlines are evident throughout the entire last part of the letter

Dumas’s response did not take long, since in a second letter also written in Rachel’s hand and now found among the National Library of Israel’s treasures, she disdainfully quotes from a telegram Dumas sent her: “Madame, If you truly desire it, we shall leave things at that. This will always be a part of the path we have traveled together, with utmost regard, your friend, Dumas.”

The temptation was too great for Rachel, and she added a short retort of her own. She asked to apologize, sarcastically, of course, for having apparently misread Dumas’s intentions, and now scolded him, in light of the flirtatious letter he had sent before. “If you have jotted down these lines from your inkstand by mistake, in the midst of your endless duties – I am indeed honored to receive them,” she concluded. Then, she erased a number of lines she had written and sent off her undated, indignant response to Dumas, without bothering to compose a new one.

Rachel’s second and final letter to Dumas, undated. From the Rachel Félix Archive at the National Library of Israel


Our story could easily end here. In fact, the missing pieces might even add an element of mystery to the entire affair.  And yet, in the Library’s collection there is one more letter that was sent by Rachel, this one to her sister Sara. The letter is undated, leaving it for us to decide when it might have been written and sent.

What’s in it?

Stated simply, Rachel asks that her sister inform Dumas that she cannot meet him on Sunday and would, therefore, be happy if he would choose another day during the week.

When was it sent?

Based on the two letters described above, the meeting referred to in this third letter would have to have been written after Rachel and Dumas’s initial encounter in Madrid, which was the event that triggered the exchange of letters that had so deeply offended Rachel.  In other words, we don’t precisely know.

Did Rachel eventually respond to Dumas’s advances? Did they ever make up and become friends?

In all likelihood, we will never know the answers to these questions either. Melodrama, mystery, lovers’ quarrels and reconciliation, were, no doubt, all integral parts of daily life in nineteenth-century France.



Adolf Eichmann’s Secret Visit to Palestine

Years before Eichmann was brought to Israel to stand trial, the notorious mass-murderer visited Mandatory Palestine in 1937 while disguised as a journalist.

Eichmann at his trial. Photo: David Rubinger

In 1937, years before he became one of Nazi Germany’s most notorious mass-murderers, Adolf Eichmann visited Mandatory Palestine undercover as a German journalist. Eichmann’s second visit, twenty-four years later, was organized for him courtesy of the Israeli Mossad.

What was Eichmann hoping to find in Palestine before the start of the Second World War? Why was it important for him to see the Jewish yishuv with his own eyes? And the last and most frightening question of all: what conclusion did Eichmann draw from his visit? The answers to these questions are discussed below.

Eichmann reported from his visit to the Land of Israel: The creation of a Jewish State must be prevented“, a headline in Maariv, 28th of April, 1961

Long before the “Final Solution” was conceived at the Wannsee Conference, Hitler and the upper echelon of the Nazi regime had hoped to resolve the “Jewish problem” through forced emigration of the Jews living in Germany. Almost three years before the outbreak of World War II, in 1937, a nondescript German bureaucrat by the name of Adolf Eichmann was sent on a covert visit to Mandatory Palestine, together with his direct supervisor in the Nazi party’s intelligence service (the notorious SD), in order to explore the possibility of deporting Germany’s Jews to the region.

A clandestine meeting had taken place in Berlin between Eichmann and Feivel Polkes, an unofficial representative of the Haganah, one of the precursors of the Israel Defense Forces. They discussed the possibility of shipping off the persecuted Jews from Germany to Palestine. The Nazi officer wanted to see the Jewish community in Palestine for himself and to personally examine whether the plan was actually feasible.

On October 2nd, 1937 the Romania docked at the port of Haifa, carrying the two Nazi officials who travelled incognito, disguised as a German journalist and a student. Their application to properly enter the country was denied by the Mandatory authorities. It is not clear whether the two had been identified or whether their entry permits had aroused the suspicion of the customs officials. In any event, they were given a temporary entry permit for one night only. Disappointed by the failure of their mission, the two toured Haifa and spent the night on Mount Carmel. After the time they were allotted was up, they sailed for Egypt where they met with Mufti Amin al-Husseini and the representative of the Haganah.

I paid a British officer […] to evict Eichmann from Haifa“- Feivel Polkes took credit for Eichmann’s visit being cut short, Maariv, 21st of December, 1966

Even though the two Nazi representatives had been within the borders of Palestine for less than a day, Adolf Eichmann considered himself a qualified expert on the future of the state-in-the-making. In a detailed report to his superiors, Eichmann wrote that the economic situation of the Jewish settlement was dire, and it did not appear that it would improve any time soon. He did not tie the difficult situation to either geopolitical or material conditions but (as befitting a good Nazi) blamed it on the Jews’ devious and destructive nature – they had to settle for cheating each other as there were no Aryans around to cheat instead.

​Eichmann’s great fear was that the expulsion of the Jews from Germany would contribute in the future to the establishment of a stronger and prosperous Jewish entity that would rely on the great wealth which the deportees would bring with them to Palestine. Eichmann feared that over time, that same Jewish state would become a threat to Nazi Germany.

Eventually, the outbreak of the Arab revolt and the opposition of the regional Arab leadership to forced Jewish emigration put the kibosh on the plan. The fact that the British were working to limit Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel, even stopping it completely with the start of the war, had not helped matters.

Following the crushing defeat of Nazi Germany, Eichmann, who by then had become one of the primary architects responsible for the Holocaust, was captured by US forces. With help from his old friends he was able to escape the POW camp under a false identity and make his way to Argentina. In 1960, the Mossad discovered his whereabouts, abducted him and brought him to the State of Israel to face justice. Following a long trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death. In the early morning hours of June 1st, 1962, he was executed by the Jewish State, whose establishment he had feared even before the war.


The Eichmann trial. Photo: David Rubinger


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