The Schindler’s List escape room was set up with all the trappings of 1930s Europe: An antique sofa stands against the wall. A lamp casts soft light over a wooden desk, the likes of which Oscar Schindler may have had in his factory office. Two smoking pipes on a coffee table reek of stale tobacco. I brought my husband along with me for the experience, and for 60 minutes, the two of us searched for clues in an old armoire, a trunk with a false bottom, and on a shelf full of books with yellowing pages. We struggled to open a Meilink-type safe; after we tried and failed five times, the attendant asked if he could come in to help. Ten minutes before our time was up, our remaining final objective — “a list of innocents” — was still missing.
There was something else missing. The Schindler’s List escape room is located in the heart of where Thessaloniki’s Jewish community thrived for centuries — just a block away from both the Jewish Museum and the offices of today’s Jewish Community Center. As we played, however, I realized that the creators of the escape room had completely erased Jews from Oscar Schindler’s story. When the “list of innocents” finally materialized, it was a blurred imitation of lists seen in the movie. But the game never mentioned deportations, or the Final Solution, or the fate of Thessaloniki’s Jewry.
And yet the Holocaust was undeniably present. It was in the Auschwitz references in the introduction; in the old pair of wire-frame glasses, lenses missing, used as a prop; and in the chilling acoustics of people screaming, dogs barking, and Germans shouting. A suitcase, the likes of which deportees carried, sat under a couch; spent bullet shells were lined up on a table; and a metal-mesh fence ran the length of the room. Hints were announced by a gunshot, sometimes two. Every time one rang out, I flinched.
Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece. Located about 500 kilometers north of Athens, it’s famous for its beautiful waterfront, illustrious history, foodie culture, and its people — friendly, warm, and welcoming. While this description could apply to many places in Greece, one thing sets the city apart: For five centuries, Thessaloniki was such a vibrant center of Jewish life that the 16th-century poet Samuel Oskuhe referred to it as the “Mother of Israel.”
Although it’s believed that Jews had settled here almost since its inception, the turning point in the city’s Jewish history came in the 15th century, when Spanish Jews landed on the city’s shores. Expelled from Spain, they were welcomed by the Ottomans; by the time World War II started, 50,000 Jews lived in Thessaloniki — more than a third of the city’s population. “Salonica [has always been] home. It was a place where Jews were never prosecuted, never had a ghetto, never had restriction for their profession. They lived like free people, like everybody else,” says Erika Perahia, a resident and the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. But all that changed on April 9, 1941, when the German army occupied the city.
For two years, the Nazis humiliated Salonica’s Jewish citizens, looted their shops, and confiscated their property. Transports to Auschwitz-Birkenau began two years later; over the course of the next six months, almost 44,000 Jews were deported. Of them, just a small handful survived. By the end of August 1943, the city that was once known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans had lost its entire Jewish community.
A game this shouldn’t be. And yet it is.
“Ethical behavior is grounded in respect and empathy for other people,” says Victoria Barnett, director of Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “To take an experience like the Holocaust that was dehumanizing for the victims and to turn that into a game trivializes not just the event, but it trivializes their suffering.” Auschwitz survivor Heinz Kounio agrees. Deported from Thessaloniki at age 16 on the very first transport, he still speaks about his experiences whenever asked. “You cannot play with such tragic happening — play a game with it,” Kounio says. For him, the Holocaust should never be reduced to a game. To create entertainment out of tragedy is to demean, disregard, and forget the suffering of its victims.
But forgetting is exactly Greece’s problem. For decades, the country remained silent about the Holocaust. “After the war, Greeks [engaged in] mnemocide. They erased everything,” says Elias Matalon, the son of Holocaust survivors. Confronting history often meant acknowledging the benefits many Greek Christians reaped from the annihilation of their Jewish neighbors. Deportations were convenient — with Jews gone, their businesses, homes, and belongings were there for the taking. After the war, survivors who returned to Thessaloniki — about 2,000 of them — didn’t feel welcome. “There was this feeling that [Jews] don’t belong, that they were strangers,” Perahia says.
Today, the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, about 1,300 members in all, takes an active role in speaking about the city’s Jewry. “We are trying to share our legacy, to make people know the history of Salonica’s Jews as being part of the history [here],” says Larry Sefiha, vice president of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki. That includes remembering the Holocaust. A memorial to Thessaloniki’s Jewish victims now stands on the same square where thousands were humiliated in 1942, and a Holocaust museum is being built on the spot from which Jews were deported.
The patrons, I was told, didn’t think of it as insensitive or offensive, and the owners considered it educational.
To educate the youth, the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki offers workshops to teachers and guided tours to students. “We start with ‘what is a Jew,’” says Lucy Nachmia, executive secretary of the museum. She lists the common stereotypes she hears on a regular basis: “[Jews] have a big nose, they have curly hair, they all wear a kippah, they have a different skull.” This is still a society where prejudices run deep, stoked by centuries-old hate, neo-Nazi parties like Golden Dawn, and by the Greek Orthodox Church, which continues to blame Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus.
For David Saltiel, president of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community, eliminating this hate is a priority. “Books in elementary school say we [killed] Christ. If children are poisoned when they are [young,] how can you change their ideas when they are [older]? In a way, it’s a language of hate against the Jews,” he says. According to a 2015 ADL Global Survey, anti-Semitism levels in Greece are the highest in Europe. This animosity, coupled with ignorance due to decades-long obliteration of Holocaust memory, creates a fertile ground for games like the Schindler’s List–modeled escape room.
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