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admin 18.09.2015

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. Jewish prisoners were treated like cattle; packed tightly into cattle trucks and locked inside for days as the trains travelled to camps across Europe. These prisoners are being packed into open trains for their journey to Chelmno; little do they know that it will be their final journey.
These Jewish prisoners have just arrived at Auschwitz Birkenau at the end of their journey from Hungary. The packed railway wagons would often be shunted around from one railway siding to another for days on end, and for what must have seemed like an eternity. Eventually, after days of travelling in the most cramped conditions, the railway carriages arrived at a camp. Under German guidance, the Hungarian authorities decreed all Jews should wear the yellow star of David.


The Warsaw ghetto uprising - Jewish fighters resisted the German attempt to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto. In the Netherlands, Jews were required to wear a yellow Star of David on their outer clothing.
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.
Individuals, families and whole communities together with their personal belongings were packed into cattle trucks.
They did not know where they were going, the length of the journey or what would happen to them when they eventually arrived at their destination.The conditions on the journey were appalling.


Many of the very young, the old and the sick would die because of the inhumane conditions during the journey.
The doors of the carriages would be pulled open to give the prisoners their first glimpse of daylight, at a place they had never seen before.
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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