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Greek Jews Want Failed Nazi Ransom Back

In 1942, the Jews of Thessaloniki paid in vain to release 10,000 Nazi prisoners

Hannah Dreyfus
February 25, 2014

In 1942, the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, Greece paid 1.9 billion drachmas (roughly $69 million today) to the Nazis for the release of 10,000 Jewish men captured and forced into slave labor. The money was accepted, but the deal was denied. Soon after, the city’s entire Jewish population was sent to Nazi death camps.

Now the largest Jewish community in Greece wants their money back.

According to the Associated Press, the Thessaloniki Jewish community said Monday it has taken Germany to Europe’s top human rights court in order to regain the large ransom paid in vain. Aside from financial reimbursement, the Thessaloniki Jewish community is seeking “moral vindication.” The legal battle for the ransom’s return first began in 1997; however, in December, the country’s Supreme Court rejected the bid, claiming a “lack of authority” on the matter. Today, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is reinvestigating the suit.

David Saltiel, the current community leader, told the AP that about 10,000 men were used as slave laborers, building roads and fortifications or repairing railways. The conditions were brutal—the mortality rate was 12.5 percent in less than three months.

“What happened is unbelievable,” Saltiel said. “Who could have imagined that (the Germans) would send men to work as forced laborers, that they would free them on payment of ransom and then lead them into the trains going to Auschwitz?”

Amid the disturbing climate of rising anti-Semitism in Greece, this case is particularly pertinent. Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi political party, received seven percent of the Greek vote in the 2012 elections—750,000 votes—and currently hold 21 of the 300 seats in parliament. “The new dawn of Hellenism is rising,” Golden Dawn’s founder said in 2012. “For those who betray this homeland, the time has come to fear.”

Hannah Dreyfus is an editorial intern at Tablet.