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Book Review: Talking until Nightfall: Remembering Jewish Salonica 1941-44

Updated: Sep 26, 2020

Rony Alfandary

Talking until Nightfall: Remembering Jewish Salonica 1941-44

Isaac Matarasso, trans. Pauline Matarasso

Bloomsbury Continuum, pp. 256, $28

The facts are stark, if little known. Before World War II the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, Greece (Salonica, in its old Ottoman name) numbered over 50,000. Jews were this Mediterranean port city’s most numerous ethnic minority and had shared in many of its past glories. When the war was over only 5,000, less than 10 percent, of the Salonica Jews survived. Between March 15 and August 10, 1943, the local Greek police, supervised by the SS, arranged the deportation of 45,000 men, women and children in 19 convoys, most of them bound for death at Auschwitz-Birkenau. My grandmother’s family were among them.

Talking until Nightfall is a grim and gripping family saga. It compiles the testimonies of three generations of the Matarasso family. The first is Dr Isaac Matarasso (1892-1958) who remained in Salonica throughout the war. In 1948, he published the first memoir of the four-year Nazi occupation to be written by a Greek Jewish survivor. His account of those years, as well as other shorter pieces, are the heart of this book.

The second testimony is from Isaac’s son, Robert (1927-1982) and daughter in-law Pauline (b. 1929), who moved to England after the war, translated Isaac’s work and added their impressions of Isaac’s stories as well as their own experiences. The third testimony is the reflections of Robert’s and Pauline’s son, François Matarasso (b. 1958), who co-edits Talking until Nightfall with his mother.

This multi-generational cast creates a richly moving and very personal story. Isaac, who survived because his medical skills were needed, records mesmerizing first-hand testimonies of the fate of the Jews of Salonica from ‘partial toleration’ by the Germans, to forced labor and deprivation, and then deportation. Isaac Matarasso records the fate of the last eight Jews in Salonica, killed by the Nazis on September 8, 1944 with the aid of Greek collaborators led by the notorious executioner Dangoulas, an illiterate chauffeur known as ‘the beast of Salonica’. Matarasso knew all eight, and names them all.

Thessaloniki’s chief rabbi Zvi Koretz (1894-1945) was accused by Holocaust survivors for allegedly assisting in the deportation of the Jews. Matarasso, though a witness, refrains from taking a definite stand in this debate. But, significantly, he describes the excruciating process whereby Koretz advised on the ‘selection’ of Jews for sending to Bergen-Belsen which, offering ‘better conditions’ than Auschwitz, raised their chances of survival. Koretz was himself deported to Bergen-Belsen. He caught typhus and died three months after liberation in Tröbitz, Germany.

Isaac Matarasso wrote parts of his memoir during the Nazi occupation and immediately afterwards, when the survivors returned to find their houses stolen by their Christian neighbors. Though this is not a work of high literature, it has a direct emotional immediacy and contains the human details that are often missing from conventional, archivally-based histories.

‘The departure of the first Transport raised the terror among the Jewish population to new levels... no one on the [Jewish] council who dared to contravene the German orders. The Germans published a list of 102 rich Jews who would serve as hostages in the event of disobedience or sabotage. Panic swept through all social classes.’[CLOSE INDENT QUOTE]

Isaac’s daughter-in-law Pauline salvaged the memoir for publication in 1953. In a thorough introduction, Pauline describes the history of the Thessaloniki Jews and recounts how she helped Isaac to remember and write more and more stories. Pauline treads very carefully around the question of whether Matarasso’s role as a doctor involved a form of collaboration. She delicately recounts Matarasso’s comings and goings, including his arrest by the Jewish ghetto police. Matarasso and his son survived imprisonment and torture, and lived because the Greek resistance smuggled them out of the city to the andartes (guerrillas) in the mountains.

Isaac’s grandson François is the last and third voice. He asks some difficult questions about his grandfather and father’s accounts. As a second- and third-generation Holocaust survivor, he faces the enormity of comprehending what happened. He describes his sense of deep loss and bewilderment when trying to come to terms with the testimonies, and at times struggles to comprehend what happened.

What remains for the second and third generation Holocaust survivors is the devastating and last impact of having been betrayed by one’s homeland. Jews had for centuries been integral to the life of Salonica, the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’. But their neighbors swiftly betrayed them with little encouragement from the German occupiers. My grandmother survived because she had emigrated to Palestine in 1933. Her sister Ines married one Moise Matarasso. They and their three children were murdered at Auschwitz.

This is an important book. It is not an academic interpretation or analysis. It is a powerful and unique, a first-hand account that also describes the lasting impact of the Greek Holocaust on one of its few survivors and his heirs.

Rony Alfandary lectures at the University of Haifa, Israel. His book on Salonica Jews, The Ghost Cohen Family: A Tale of a Holocaust Postmemory, is forthcoming from Routledge.

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