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This month, as the remnants of the Thessaloniki Jewish community prepare to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportations, Kontopoulos believes he has a powerful symbol of the community’s destruction: four of the railway cars used in the transports to the death camps. After the war, Kontopoulos followed his passion and joined the Greek railway, spending his career as an engineer. But it’s outside where he displays his pride and joy: a collection of rusty locomotives and carriages. One is an English carriage built in 1900 for the iconic Orient Express, which ran from Paris to Constantinople. Kontopoulos gives tours of his rail collection with an infectious energy and enthusiasm, frequently skipping from topic to topic mid-sentence when something else catches his attention.
Thessaloniki's Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in railway cars like this one, currently on display at the city's Railway Museum.
Efthymios Kontopoulos, 13, had come to Thessaloniki for the day when he saw Nazis rounding up the city’s Jews.
He’s a train enthusiast and collector who sees much of life and history through the prism of the rails.


A dining car with a full kitchen, bronze velvet tablecloths, rich leather seats, filigree wood panels and brass finishings, it conjures up the luxury and intrigue of the line that inspired plot lines in James Bond films and Agatha Christie mysteries.
Due to a lack of documentation, there is isn’t sufficient evidence, historians say, to prove that these cars were the actual ones used in the deportations.
Within the Greek railway, he said, it was well-known that these carriages, built in Belgium in 1873 and having registration numbers beginning with Z-1, were the ones used to carry Jews to the camps. But Greeks traditionally are not strong on paperwork, and there is no official documentation to back up the claim. Because of the lack of documentation, the community is reluctant to officially embrace Kontopoulos’ claims.
Undeterred by age or lack of resources, the old collector wants to finish restoring them and put up a plaque so the cars can stand as a testimony to what he saw 70 years ago.
Which perhaps explains his certitude in the provenance of the cars despite some doubts raised about their authenticity. He convinced the city to donate an old military railway building, which he renovated and filled with his collection of photographs, maps, uniform buttons, an Ottoman-era conductor uniform and Morse code devices.


Inside one is an rusty iron ladder, a large plastic bottle of turpentine and a pile of of old lumber. He has plans to renovate them and build a shelter, he says, but it’s just him and a few volunteers. But, in an an acknowledgment of the raw power of these carriages and their ability to evoke the horror of the transports, they take Jewish visitors to see them.
By August, the Jewish community of the city, known as the Flower of the Balkans and a major center of Sephardic Jewry for 450 years, was no more. Since Greece’s economic crisis erupted five years ago, the donations he relied upon have dried up.



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