In Thessaloniki we visited the Aristotle University in the centre of the city.
The university is young, a child of the second half of the Twentieth Century.
The Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki dates back many centuries. Sages, leaders, rabbis, porters, dock workers, Jewish people of every station were laid to rest in that cemetery. Some 400,000 Jewish dead were buried there.
The cemetery occupied the present site of the university until WWII, when the Nazis desecrated the site. They seized headstones and used them for profane purposes, including building toilets. Headstones of marble were valuable: these the Nazis kept for sale.
So far, so foul, so normal in Nazi practice. What followed was unique. At the bidding of local gentiles, the Nazis then set about clearing the vast area of bodies. The ancient dead and the freshly dead were disinterred, bones and bodies exposed, food for dogs.
The dead died a second time. Nowhere else did the Nazis expend manpower on such atrocity. Their focus, their energies, lay with the living.
The Nazis deported the fifty thousand living Jews to Auschwitz. A few hundred of these were to survive.
The son of one of these few spoke to us of the literally unspeakable experiences of his father.
The city that thronged with Jews was now free of them. The occupants of vast and precious real estate in the city centre had been ‘evicted’. The university built, memory of the Jews extinguished.
This evening I entered a supermarket on the Island of Rhodes to buy fruit juice.
A tall man reached the checkout just before me. He paid for his purchases and I went to pay for mine. The checkout chap said, Nothing to pay.
I looked up, nonplussed. The vendor indicated the tall man. This man, he has paid, he said.
More nonplussed still, I turned to my benefactor. You don’t need to pay for that juice. It’s for me!
It’s nothing, said the tall man in English. It’s done. Forget it.
The tall man was young, fair, mild of manner. He smiled a small smile. Forget it, he repeated.
I can’t forget it, I said. What’s your name?
Where are you from, Leon?
He offered his hand, did Leon of Wales. I took his hand, which swallowed my own. His handshake was gentle.
I said, Thank you Leon.
It’s nothing, he said, and walked away.
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