A city avoids its past through film

On 11.7.1942, 9000 Jewish men aged 18-45 were ordered by the German army to come to Eleftheria (Freedom) Square in Saloniki to be registered for forced labor. For six hours there were forced to stand in the sun and suffer from abuse and humiliation by the German soldiers. The Jews named the incident the “Black Sabbath”. On 11.7.1942, 9000 Jewish men aged 18-45 were ordered by the German army to come to Eleftheria (Freedom) Square in Saloniki to be registered for forced labor. For six hours there were forced to stand in the sun and suffer from abuse and humiliation by the German soldiers. The Jews named the incident the “Black Sabbath”.


The recent 25th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival has again demonstrated how difficult it is to make documentaries about the Holocaust in Thessaloniki. For years there have been multiple festival entrants about the Jewish history of Thessaloniki and the murder of its Jews. With the notable exception of the documentaries of Periklis Kortsaris, many of these films avoid the city’s central, and most “difficult,” issue—the fact that the many Greek Christians collaborated with the Germans and enriched themselves at the expense of their Jewish neighbours. Worse, some films promote historical distortions and inaccuracies.

While the large number of documentaries has broken what the previous mayor Yiannis Boutaris called Thessaloniki’s “unjust and guilty silence”[1], most do not confront the Holocaust directly. The historical films have a similar format. Historians explain, there are old photographs, vintage footage, some period music, and then piano and violin music to evoke the tragedy of the Holocaust. These documentaries are often based on weak historical research. For example, “A story of Thessaloniki: The Jews and the Holocaust”[2] (2015) uses Holocaust imagery unconnected to Greece.

Another common feature of these historical documentaries is their claim to reveal the “unknown” story of Greek Jews, as if they had discovered America. What these documentary makers do not ask is why is the story of the Thessaloniki Jews so little known in their own city. Who imposed the “unjust and guilty silence”? Historical amnesia is not a natural phenomenon, it is an act of will. Thessaloniki chose to forget the past and to treat the history of Jews, and other minorities, as historical rubbish.

Documentaries in the two most recent film festivals were even more superficial, falsifying history. The 24th Festival in 2022 featured the artistically pretentious and historically distorted “The city and the city”[3]. The film starts with impoverished Turkish-speaking Jews moving to Thessaloniki in 1931. These foreign Jews arrive in time to become victims of the Campbell pogrom. The migration of Turkish-speaking Jews to Greece in 1931 is historical nonsense. Turkish Jews in 1931 did not move to Greece. Turkish Jews at the time for the most part, and like many Muslims in Turkey, did not speak Turkish. Such twisted history reinforces the widely held prejudice in Greece that the Jews are foreign. “The city and the city” touches upon the issue of collaboration in a superficial manner, showing a man wearing a Greek gendarmerie hat during the round up and humiliation of the Thessaloniki Jews in July 1942. Actually, the Greek police participated in the roundup and subsequent anti-Jewish measures, lending local manpower to the German effort. Perhaps the worst scene in the film portrays a Jewish Holocaust survivor having sex with a prostitute in a barrel. Whatever the “artistic” intent, the scene dehumanizes the survivors, again playing into another stereotype.

The historical distortions in this year’s entrant “My People: The Jews of Greece” are worse. Directed by Anna Rezan, “My People: The Jews of Greece”[4] engages in the kind of fabrications that have become common in Poland in recent years. The film invents stories of “righteous gentiles” and tales of non-Jewish suffering. “My People” claims that the Germans sent hundreds of Greek Orthodox clergy and civilians to “the death camps for helping Jews”—without providing a single example. The film states that the Germans forced all of the children of Zakynthos into labour camps in retaliation for the Jews of the island evading deportation—another evidence-free claim. Some of the inaccuracies in the film are foolish rather than sinister. The documentary states that The New York Times and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum were among its sponsors, which both organizations have denied.

By engaging in such historical fiction, “My People” commits an injustice to the survivor interviews which appear in the film. The survivors speak in horrifying detail about their experiences in the German extermination camps. Isaac Mizan recounts that after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen he used his fellow prisoners’ corpses as pillows. Had “My People” confined itself to interviewing survivors it would have contributed to Holocaust education in Greece. Instead, the film delivers the truth of the survivors’ experiences in a wrapping of falsehoods and propaganda.

The only film in 2023 that displays moral courage is Periklis Kortsaris’ “Restor(y)ing”[5]. The documentary discusses the theft of Greek Jewish property by their Christian fellow citizens during the Holocaust. “Restor(y)ing” communicates the callousness with which some Christians in Salonika treated Jewish survivors. One survivor, Josef Florentin, relates how a neighbour regretted that Florentin’s family survived the war because it meant that the neighbour had to return their possessions. Maria Kavala informs us that Greek Christian fellow citizens stole 3,500 to 4,000 homes, along with 6-7,000 other properties, with priority given to the Germans’ collaborators. Kavala and Stratos Dordanas explain how the Greek state and courts deliberately failed to apply the law on restitution. Panayiotis Samios provides the example of Vasileos Exarchos, professor of theology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, a collaborator who served brief prison sentence after the war. Exarchos was an enterprising antisemite. He managed to steal a Jewish house and obtain a pension from the German government.

“Restor(y)ing” juxtaposes drone footage of a seemingly empty Thessaloniki with interviews in which experts discuss the Greek Christian theft of their Jewish compatriots’ homes and shops. The aerial shots, which have no sound, seem to show a largely empty city, conveying to the viewer the silence about the issue in Thessaloniki and the moral vacuum of its history during World War II.

“Restor(y)ing” is the second documentary that Kortsaris has submitted to the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. His first documentary, “By-standing and Standing-by”[6] in 2012 (in Greek “Ektos Istorias” meaning “Outside history”), with the filmmaker Fofo Terzidou, discussed the issue of collaboration and the impact of antisemitism on contemporary Greek society, two unwelcome topics in Thessaloniki.

What Kortsaris demonstrates is that the problem of films and the Holocaust in Thessaloniki is not cinematographic but moral. There is a growing body of historical research available that provides a rich understanding of how officials in Athens and Salonika assisted the Germans in the murder of the Jews. Many films, however, ignore the advances in the historiography of the Holocaust in Greece of the last 20 years. Our understanding of the destruction of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki has improved significantly. We know the mechanisms of collaboration, we know who the collaborators were, and we know how much they stole. Good documentaries can act as a bridge between academic research and public consciousness, making historical research widely known.

Filmmakers have the tools with which to confront any issue. The question is whether cinematographers can be bold enough to recount stories that the city would rather not hear. On recent evidence, such audacity is in short supply.


[1] https://bit.ly/3VpAqpl

[2] https://bit.ly/3HtQosZ

[3] https://bit.ly/3LN5Lzc

[4] https://bit.ly/3NvRubE

[5] https://bit.ly/42hMpaH

[6] https://bit.ly/3p4oQDZ