The extermination of the Jewish community of Drama (1941-1943)

I. K. Hassiotis
Professor, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

(Lengthy extract from an article published in Chronika, 25/178 (March-April 2002), p. 6–12)

There is historical evidence of the presence of a Jewish population in Eastern Macedonia in general, and in the Drama district in particular, from at least as far back as the early centuries of Turkish rule. This presence becomes more marked in the 19th century, a period when Drama and its neighbouring cities of Serres and Kavala were developing into notable production and trade centres within Northern Greece. Indeed, it is highly significant that some of the Jews of Drama, breaking to a certain degree with the tradition that identified them always and exclusively with urban craft and commercial trades, were associated with economic sectors directly dependent on rural activities – particularly so on tobacco cultivation. This change was marked in the early years of the 20th century by an increasingly broad rapprochement between Christians, Muslims and Jews in the occupational sector, after centuries of socio-religious demarcation.

This rapprochement continued during the difficult period of the first Bulgarian occupation (1912–1913). It is worth noting that this convergence, which constituted a kind of defence against the persecution of the new rulers, was encouraged by the religious leaders of all three communities, with Metropolitan Agathangelos of Drama, an enlightened Orthodox prelate, taking the lead on the part of the Christian community. The admirable concord among the three communities continued into the period of Greek sovereignty, which began in the summer of 1913. But the peace was to be of short duration, for in August 1916 (during World War I) the Bulgarians renewed their onslaught, this time with German military support. With its mass persecution of the Greek people, that first German-Bulgarian collaboration was an ominous portent of the fate that was to befall the entire population of Northern Greece, and particularly Eastern Macedonia, twenty five years later.

In October 1918 the defeated German-Bulgarian forces finally withdrew from the territories of Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace. A few years later, with the exchange of populations that took place between Greece, Bulgaria and – chiefly – Turkey between 1919 and 1923, the remaining Bulgarian (and Muslim) populations left Eastern Macedonia, making way for the influx of Greek refugees from Eastern Thrace, Asia Minor, Pontus and Caucasia.

The arrival of these refugees and their dynamic entry into certain sectors of the economy, notably the cultivation, processing and marketing of tobacco and other local products, was bound to generate in Drama and the surrounding area the same tensions that existed between Christian and Jewish merchants in other urban centres across Macedonia, and particularly in Thessaloniki. Here, however, the transfer of Ottoman property to the Christian and Jewish population took place relatively smoothly. The Jews bought land, houses, shops and tobacco sheds both in the city of Drama and in the surrounding region (especially in Horisti, Prosotsani and Doxato). But competition in the commercial sector – in most documented cases, at least – continued to obey the customary rules of relatively harsh but productive rivalry. It is interesting to note, in this context, that in Drama a number of important Christian-Jewish business partnerships were formed straightaway (e.g. the Mezian-Andreadis factories, the Anagnostou-Benveniste-Boemo grocery business, the Savvopoulos-Benveniste tobacco dealership, etc.). And despite the serious financial and the successive social upheavals of the inter-war period, the almost idyllic picture of peaceful co-existence among the citizens of Drama, regardless of their religious origins, was to continue for approximately another twenty years. The Jews maintained their own school, their synagogue and their community life, but without isolating themselves from the activities of the rest of the townspeople.

This state of affairs, however, was once again to change dramatically, this time carrying Drama and its environs into the darkest – from the point of view of material devastation and loss of life – period of its history to date. On 21 April 1941, thirteen days after the Germans had entered central Macedonia (the Greek army having by this time essentially capitulated), the Bulgarians occupied the entire region embracing the prefectures of Serres, Drama, Kavala and Rhodope and much of the prefecture of Evros. The occupation was originally intended to facilitate the German occupation of Greece, but the ultimate aim of the Fascist government in Sofia was to seek the incorporation of these Greek territories into Bulgaria once the war was over. The same thing happened with the occupation, by Bulgarian forces and in the name of the Bulgarian-German Axis, of Yugoslavian Macedonia and the Pirin region. This is something that must be borne in mind in any attempt to interpret the apparently contradictory policy followed by the Filov government in Bulgaria with regard to the Jewish population of Bulgaria and of its newly-acquired Greek and Yugoslav territories.

The resulting situations in the two occupied zones, however, were fundamentally different. The majority of the inhabitants of Yugoslav Macedonia, who had not yet undergone the process of “Macedonisation” that was to develop later, were Bulgarian-speakers and by and large Bulgarian-minded, and were thus, as it turned out, willing to accept incorporation into the Bulgarian nation. In Greek Macedonia, by contrast, after the voluntary exchange of populations between Greece and Bulgaria in 1919 and, to a lesser degree, the relatively isolated population shifts that occurred during the interwar period, there were no longer any sizeable Bulgarian-speaking enclaves. The resistance of the population was therefore intense, and the refusal to accept the new and exceptionally boorish regime universal. This fact forced the Bulgarian authorities to replace the entire machinery of government in the occupied territories “from the highest officials to the door-keepers”, in an attempt to bring about radical change not only in the administrative but also in the educational, linguistic, ecclesiastical, financial and, in a second stage, demographic and ethnic situation. The deportations, then, the economic bloodletting, the diverse social restrictions, began directly with the Bulgarian occupation, and were followed in a later phase by displacements, forced enlistment in labour brigades and in general every kind of action likely to bring about an ethnic alteration of the Bulgarian-held zones. The situation became untenable after the insurrection in Drama and Doxato on the night of 28 September 1941. This dramatic event gave the occupying forces a pretext for mass executions of thousands of people (the number of victims is estimated at 2–3000 for the city of Drama alone and 5–6000 for the prefecture as a whole). In addition, the reign of terror that followed forced another 25,000 people (both Christians and Jews) to abandon their homes and seek the safety of the German-occupied areas, most of them heading for Thessaloniki. 23,000 of these refugees came from the Drama region.

The persecutions of 1941 extended to the Jewish community in Eastern Macedonia, which suffered similar tribulations and corresponding losses. Indeed, as we have seen, the rapid convergence of the Christian and Jewish populations since 1913 had tended to unite the two communities alike in their joys and in their afflictions. Some Bulgarian officers, indeed, having other political ends in their sights, disagreed with the deportation of the Jews; but in the end these objections were overridden by orders from their superiors in Sofia.

In August 1942, ten months after the first mass persecutions in Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, the body known as the “Jewish Affairs Committee” was set up in Sofia. This development was a sequel to the anti-Semitic laws that had been enacted by the Filov government in the summer of 1940, that is, even before Sofia had definitively hitched itself to the Axis wagon (in March 1941). Moreover, the majority of the members of this state organisation (starting with its leader, Alexander Belev) were former associates of the rabidly anti-Semitic Fascist organisations (Legionaries, Ratnitsi) that had been active in Bulgaria in the 1930s. The first objective of the “Jewish Affairs Committee” was the degradation and extermination of all the Jews in all Bulgarian-occupied territories. This cataclysmic project began with new economic persecutions, successive confiscations of property, strict prohibition of movement and, by early 1943, the marking of Jewish homes and shops and the compulsory wearing of the yellow star. It was obvious that the Bulgarian authorities were gradually implementing the tactic already being applied by the German command in the rest of Greece.

This tactic was finalised following a special German-Bulgarian treaty signed in Sofia on 22 February 1943 between Belev and the German SS officer authorised for the purpose, whose name was Dannecker. The treaty provided for 20,000 Jews to be displaced from the Bulgarian occupied territories in Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace and Southern Yugoslavia, and fixed the details of their identification, arrest and transport to the camps in Eastern Europe – by Bulgarian railway as far as the Danube and thence by boat to Vienna.

The man responsible for carrying out this unhallowed operation in Drama was Gruev, the chief of the Bulgarian police, who secretly ordered his men to arrest all the Jews in the city on the night of March 3rd 1943. Virtually simultaneously, the Bulgarian police and military authorities rounded up the rest of the Jewish population throughout the entire Bulgarian Occupied Zone. Most of those arrested were held in the local tobacco sheds. The Jews of Drama were packed into the Tobacco Monopoly building.

The figures show just how far-reaching – and how precisely carried out – this operation was. Of the total of 592 Jews living in Drama on the night of the arrests, 591 were taken! In addition, 4,058 of the 4,273 Jews living in Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace were also deported at that time, but this number does not include the dozens of others who were despatched to the death camps directly from the German-held zone of Orestiada-Soufli and other parts of Greece (particularly via Thessaloniki). What we are dealing with here, in other words, is the total extermination of the Jewish population of Drama (about 1200 souls) and the other Jewish communities in Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace. Nor is this all: the total tally of victims must also include many of those who had gone to Bulgaria shortly before the outbreak of the war. Almost to a man these people were assigned by the Bulgarian authorities to road gangs, 200 were drowned when the ship that was taking them to the Middle East sank, and a fair number died of unknown causes – chiefly want and hunger – in the various labour camps and labour brigades in Bulgaria.

The Jews displaced from the Greek provinces under Bulgarian occupation were transported by train first to Sofia and then on to Blagoevgrad, where the 7144 Jews who had been arrested in March 1943 in Bulgarian-occupied Yugoslav Macedonia and occupied Serbia had also been sent. The wretched conditions in which these thousands of people were transported also caused the first deaths: initially during their transfer (18–19 March) by train to the port of Lom, on the Danube, and from there, packed into 4 barges, on to Vienna. Continuing our chronicle of this fateful journey, we follow the condemned human herd as they are shipped out of the Austrian capital by train on April 5th, first to the Polish city of Katowice and then on to their final, fatal, destination: the death camp of Treblinka.

The second objective, pursued in parallel with the extermination of the human victims, was the looting of their property. No sooner had the deportation of the Jews of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace been completed than the Bulgarian authorities carried off their moveable assets and sold them at auctions in Bulgaria, the proceeds going for the most part to Bulgarian state organisations. Virtually all the real estate belonging to the Jews of Drama was also made over to the Bulgarian government.

What, if any, are the special features of the extermination of the Jewish population of a Greek provincial town within the global history of the Holocaust? The first question to preoccupy research historians is the contradictory nature of Sofia’s policy regarding the “Jewish question”. The Filov government, applying a double standard to the Jews under its authority, managed in the end – using a number of artifices – to save those who were Bulgarian nationals from the death trains. The same tactic, it should be noted, was followed by the other pro-Axis governments in the region, namely Romania and Hungary, which avoided arresting their own Jewish citizens but rounded up and deported Jews from the occupied territories of Bukovina, Bessarabia (in the case of Romania), Vojvodina and Transylvania (in the case of Hungary). By contrast, the governments of those countries that had resisted the Nazi occupation – e.g. Greece and Yugoslavia – did not manage to save their Jewish citizens: in the case of Greece, the catastrophe took place in the teeth of opposition of the occupation government in Athens (not to mention the vigorous and brave – for the times – protests of the country’s religious and academic leaders).

In the case of Yugoslavia, things were more complicated, on account of its partition: in the zones occupied by Bulgarian forces the arrest and displacement of the Jews followed, as we have said, the pattern of the Bulgarian-occupied Greek provinces. In the purely Serbian territories the Jews suffered the same fate as their co-religionists in occupied Greece: by May of 1942 they had been virtually exterminated. In the case of Croatia, which was of course at that time a German satellite, the situation was the same as in Germany: concentration camps within Croatia and the extermination of tens of thousands of Jews (but also of Orthodox Christians), in this case with the blessing of the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Croatia. In the Italian-occupied territories of Albania and Kosovo, finally, things were less harsh, and generally similar to the situation in most parts of Greece, which were being administered by the Italians. The programme of extermination of the Greek Jews in the Italian-occupied zones was essentially begun by the Germans themselves, and not until after the volte-face in Italian policy and their belated defection to the Allied camp.

It is therefore quite obvious that the treatment meted out to the Greek Jews in the Bulgarian-occupied territories was singularly selective. And the reasons for this terrible singularity are associated primarily with the policy of the Bulgarian authorities towards the global population of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace. The Jews in those provinces had begun to identify themselves and their destiny, at least from the Liberation onwards, with their Christian neighbours. It is no coincidence that Greece’s entire Jewish population, including of course those in Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, had made a significant contribution to the 1940 war effort (the Greek-Italian war) and to the Greek Resistance. Consequently, identified as they were with their Christian compatriots, they were subjected to the same programme of ethnic cleansing. It is characteristic that if, much later, the policy of the Fascist Filov government towards the Greek Jews was severely criticised, it was not because of its inhuman treatment of the Jewish population, herded onto cattle trucks and dispatched to the death camps, but rather because it did not seek to win them over in order to use them later in possible post-war Bulgarian claims to Greek territory.

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