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The Jews of Veroia are no more by Dr. Joseph Stroumptsas - 12.00

Just before the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish community of Veroia numbered almost 640 people. Most of them lived in the Jewish neighborhood in houses built around a small square or courtyard in a defensive way with only two entrance gates. There was a synagogue and elementary school. Everyday life for the Jews was quiet and in harmony with the Christians of the city. We woke up from our tranquillity when first the Italians and then the Germans attacked in 1941. The persecutions began as soon as the Germans entered the city. The measures in the beginning were mild but insidious, such as confiscation of merchandise from shops and furnishings from houses, especially radios. Later on we were forced to wear the yellow star. I remember that we boys were wearing them with pride. In the last months of the year 1942 came the news of the expected deportations to Poland. We were worried, then scared to death. Long discussions started as to how we should react. At home, in the community, and in the synagogue the subject was the dilemma: to follow the road to exile, or escape and go to the nearby mountains of Vermio and Pieria where the partisans were active? Of course, if we would have known what was taking place in the concentration camps, there would be no such dilemma. Almost all the Jews of Veroia could have been saved in the mountains. We tried hard to gather information. The officials of the Jewish community of Salonika and especially the Chief Rabbi Koretz, gave us assurances that we should not be alarmed. The people listened with great disbelief. Every night we listened to the Greek BBC broadcasts on the radio. We never heard about the German death camps. Now we know that the Allies knew. Why did the Allies with their silence tranquilize the Jews into inaction? This is my great question! What prompted us to reach a decision was the the chief of the Veroia police Stavridis. In a conversation with my father he said he believed that all that was happening was concealing something sinister. He strongly advised him to go to the mountains. He actually said: "Follow my advice and stop the deliberations." In a question as to what to advise the others, he replied. "Nothing. But whatever you do, they will imitate." He also provided us and many others with false identity cards. From Joseph Stroumptsas I became Petros Stavridis. One day in March 1943 after sunset, but before the night curfew started, we left our house from the back courtyard. We spent that night in the house of a friend, Menelaos Papathemou. Before sunrise we left toward the village of Sikia in the Pieria mountains. After approximately ten hours of hiking we reached the village, which had about 40 houses. The village priest Nestoras Karamitsos took us under his protection. We lived in this village for 15 months. In June 1944, during one of the last German attacks against the partisans, a villager betrayed us to the Germans (we learned later, that he had been tortured by them). They arrested all 50 people of our group, my family and other Jews who had followed us. They marched us in a brutal way to the nearby village of Palatitsa, where they systematically began their brutal interrogations about the partisans. Later they collected our gold coins, jewelry, and civilian clothing, which they needed to avoid capture. After three or four days the Germans left and we were turned over to their Greek collaborators, whose behavior towards us was relatively good (they were preparing their alibis for the expected liberation and the accusation of collaborating with the enemy). They took us to the village of Kouko in the area of Katerini, which was their headquarters. In this village we welcomed the news of the liberation. On foot, exhausted, hungry, but without terror, we returned to Veroia. We found our houses looted, the synagogue in a horrible state, the tombs destroyed. Slowly, we organized our lives and waited for the return of the others. Of those who went to the mountains, 154 people survived, with the exception of three who were captured and executed. Of those who were deported by the Germans, some 450 people, none returned. We learned that early in April 1944 a special unit of Germans and Jewish policemen arrived from Salonika. They imprisoned all the Jews in the synagogue. After 2 -3 days they formed a tragic procession. Loaded with their few possessions and wearing the yellow star of David, they passed from the central street of the market place on their way to the train station. On both sidewalks many people were watching in silence. After a stop in Salonika they were taken to the death camps. We were eagerly waiting the return of our relatives and friends for days, weeks, and months, but nobody showed up. We desperately tried to revitalize our community. The only rabbi who was saved was Rabbi Hanania Sabetai Azaria. The synagogue services were a tragedy. We looked at the empty seats which waited in vain for the return of Simon, Alberto, Yeouda, or Moiz. They remained empty forever! Of those who survived some left for Israel, and cities where they could be close to relatives; others emigrated to foreign countries. They all abandoned Veroia. This is how, after 2,000 years, the Jewish communion of Veroia was extinguished.

Dr. Joseph Stroumtsas was born in Veroia, Greece, in 1929. His father, Menachem, was a prominent citizen of Veroia and the President of the Jewish community. He is now retired living in Thessaloniki with his wife Roula and their sons Mikis and Michel. Translated from Greek by Dr. Michael Matsas. The text has been edited.


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