Institute News

Visual History Archive comes to Greek town with deep Jewish roots

For centuries, the Jewish people in the ancient Greek town of Thessaloniki thrived, and by 1902, nearly half of its residents were Jewish. But by the end of World War II, 96 percent of its 50,000 Jews had been killed and now, barely more than 1,000 remain.

But the area’s connection to its Jewish past remains strong. Making that connection stronger -- and bringing its history to new generations – the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki recently became the latest access site for USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive. There are now almost 150 access sites throughout the world – a figure that has nearly tripled since 2016.

On hand to commemorate the occasion last month were USC Shoah Foundation Senior Director of Programs and Operations Kori Street and Director of Global Initiatives Karen Jungblut.

The launch was attended by about 140 people at a standing-room only event that included community members, university students and faculty.

Under arrangements made by ProQuest, which licenses the Visual History Archive to universities and museums, access sites will also be available at a yet-to-be-built Holocaust museum and a local Jewish organization.

Aristotle University Professor Giorgos Antoniou spearheaded the effort to bring the Archive to his university. He is passionate about educating the town’s young people about its past and its connection to the Jewish community.

“He has been championing the importance that today’s Thessaloniki remember the strong Jewish history of the city,” Street said. “For him, it’s about the Jewish history of Thessaloniki.”

The university has a special connection to the town’s Jewish roots; it was built on the site of a Jewish cemetery that was mainly destroyed by the Nazis during the war. And antisemitism remains strong in Greece. In fact, just weeks before the Institute’s visit, a Jewish memorial on the campus was desecrated, an incident that added urgency to Antoniou’s efforts.

Antoniou has been using the Archive for several years and he has seen the power it can have on his students. As the chair of the university’s Jewish Studies Department, he is committed to its continued use at the university.

“For us, using the testimonies is a duty and an opportunity to connect the education of our students with what is handed down,” he said. “It’s probably the best source I use. No other primary source has better results. It’s impressive how much the students connect with it and want to continue. Even after they finish their projects, they come back to listen to more.”

The team also showcased the Institute’s Dimensions in Testimony interactive biography initiative, which enables users to ask direct questions to Holocaust survivors and receive instant pre-recorded videotaped answers, as well as its IWitness educational platform.

While in town, they also met with the German and US Consul Generals as well as the mayor of Thessaloniki. During a demonstration of Dimensions in Testimony in the mayor’s office, the group experienced a deeply moving interaction between a mayor’s aide and Pinchas Gutter’s testimony when she asked if and how Pinchas has told his children about the Holocaust.

“She was quite taken in the way Pinchas answered her question about the importance of talking about the Holocaust to the next generation,” Jungblut said. “She said it took her not only by surprise that he answered her question but that his answer touched her quite deeply as well.”