The city of Thessaloniki shines bright curved around the coast of northern Greece. The second city of Greece with a population of just over one million it is often overlooked by its larger neighbour in the south but does possess hidden charms. A city with a colourful and tragic history once was a crossroads of the Balkans where various cultures, nationalities and religions lived and worked together to build a prosperous and multi-cultural city. Today Thessaloniki is still a vibrant and lively city thanks to it’s university, one of the biggest in Greece. The waterfront with its White Tower which has become the symbol of the city is at its most vibrant at sundown as citizens and visitors stroll alone the promenade. The multi-layered history of Thessaloniki can be most vividly captured in the history of one its oldest buildings The Rotunda which survives amongst a sea of modernism.
The distinctive round building was originally constructed as a Roman Temple in 309 AD by the Roman Emperor Galerius. Later it became a Christian Church, then under the Ottomans a Mosque, with a minaret added to the original building. After the Ottomans left it became a Greek Orthodox Church with beautiful frescos now it is a heritage site and visitor attraction. Nearby is the Arch of Galerius which also dates from the same period and was constructed to celebrate the victory over the Persians in 298 AD.
King George 1 of Greece (Prince Phillip’s grandfather) was assassinated near the White Tower in March 1913 by a gunman with unknown motives and
Greece and WW1
In October 1915 the 10th Irish Division disembarked at Salonika (Thessaloniki) Port. Having suffered heavy losses in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign during the Summer of 1915 they were redeployed to Northern Greece in an vain effort to assist the Serbian army which was under attack from the Austro-Hungarian army in the north and the Bulgarian army to the east. Greece was at the time a neutral country but it’s loyalties were divided. The Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos, a Cretan, supported the Allies while the King Constantine was more favourable to the Axis Powers, he was, after all, married to the Kaiser’s sister. However despite the country being neutral Allied troops including the 10th Irish Division were allowed to land and use the city of Thessalonica as a base. The Irish soldiers were moved north into Northern Macedonia where they soon came into conflict with the Bulgarian army. They suffered heavy casualties in the winter of 1915 as they engaged the enemy in sub zero conditions. For the next two years the soldiers of the 10th Irish Division became very familiar with the port city as they spent time there recovering from wounds and sickness and on short leave breaks from the Front. 15 soldiers of the 5th battalion Connaught Rangers, who died of wounds of disease between October 1915 and March 1917, lie in the beautifully maintained corner of the Lembet Road Military cemetery in the city.
One of those Sgt Michael Rafter from Ballina, Co Mayo died of wounds received in action on Sunday December 12th 1915. He was 28 years old and came from Ardnaree in the town.
Unfortunately the White Tower, dating from the Ottoman period, would probably be the only part of the port side the side of the city that survives from the WW1 period as a large part of the lower city was destroyed by a fire in August 1917.
King George 1 of Greece (Prince Phillilp’s grandfather) was asiantated near the White Tower in March 1913 by a gunman with unknown motives and
Greece and World War 2
The German army handed over most of Greece to adistered by the Italins but certain strategic areas came under their direct control. German troops marched into the city on April 8th 1941 and began their occupation. The Nazis soon forced the Jewish residents into a ghetto near the railroad.
The deportations of the city’s Jews began on and on March 15th 1943 as they were hereded to the railway station to begin their journey to north to Poland. All Thessaloniki’s Jews went to Auschwitz and nearby Bergen-Belsen death camps. Most were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Of the 45,000 Jews deported to Auschwitz, only 4% survived.