The mere fact that Mathilde Benveniste was able to speak at a Dec. 7 Lunch and Learn session of the Holocaust Council of MetroWest speaks to a miraculous quirk of history.
She was born in Salonika, Greece, after World War II into a Jewish family who were among the remnant — only 4 percent — of the city’s Jews to survive the Holocaust.
In 1941, Salonika had 55,000 Jewish residents. A postwar census in 1946 counted only 1,220 Jewish individuals.
“It was the lowest survival rate in all of Europe,” Benveniste told a roomful of survivors and others at the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
Motivated by the stories she learned as a child from her mother, which she then augmented with her own research as an adult, Benveniste spoke with pride and sadness of her people and their history.
For centuries, Salonika was one of Europe’s most prominent Jewish communities. Historians date it back to 316 BCE, when Jewish artisans from Egypt were recruited to help build the new city of Thessaloniki.
Some 15,000 to 20,000 Jews arrived there after being exiled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition in the late 15th century.
By the early 1900s, Salonika had some 80,000 Jewish inhabitants.
“For four centuries, the Jews of Salonika made up more than 50 percent of the city’s population. They were the majority of that city, culturally and commercially, and they were far from being the marginal, harassed minority seen elsewhere in the world,” said Benveniste, illustrating her talk with vintage graphics through a PowerPoint presentation.
Their status changed when the Nazis invaded the city in April 1941.
“Jews were forbidden from owning a radio, using the telephone, or even leaving the ghettoes to which they were confined, keeping them virtually ignorant of the genocide taking place in other parts of Europe,” she said. “They were restricted by curfews and forced to sell much of their property, presumably for reuse of the funds when they were moved to a new Jewish community in Poland.”
That “community” turned out to be Auschwitz-Birkenau. Between March and August 1943, much of Salonika’s Jewish population “was packed in cattle cars like animals. Seventy-seven percent were gassed upon arrival,” said Benveniste.
A few managed to escape to Athens or to the mountains, where they joined the Resistance. The vast majority perished. Among them were her maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles, a seven-year old cousin, and some distant relatives.
“My parents were not planning to go into hiding,” she said, until a friend of her father’s who worked for the railroad told him about witnessing the first transport to Poland.
“They were loading the people onto the cars as though they were not meant to arrive alive. So hearing that, my father decided he was not going to go.” At the risk of being shot, her parents and grandparents removed the stars of David from their coats and settled into a room they had rented on the city’s outskirts. Her pregnant mother walked for miles to get there.
Although they assumed Greek names, the family risked capture. Their everyday tongue was Spanish.
“My grandmother did not speak much Greek, so she pretended to be deaf and mute. But when Nazi collaborators in the police visited during an inspection of their home, she started screaming in Spanish at the top of her lungs for help because she had been accidentally locked inside the kitchen alone.”
That incident, and her father’s Spanish-inflected Greek accent, might have revealed the family secret. “But their landlord was very helpful to my father when there were searches,” said Benveniste. “He would warn my father.”
Her family was never detected.
The Germans left Salonika in October 1944 “after deporting or executing every Jew they laid eyes on, including American-Jewish citizens,” she said.
Today, Benveniste is a resident of South Orange, an inventor of telecommunications technology, and a consultant on intellectual property.
Benveniste said she was always curious about her unusual heritage.
“For years after the war I would see my mother stop strangers in the streets who had numbers tattooed on their arms to ask if they had seen her family at the concentration camp,” she said.
“My mother would tell us about our family from pictures and how the Germans had killed some of them, but she was very careful not to frighten us because we were little children.”
Years later, after moving to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania, Benveniste continued the exploration and, she said, “I learned the true facts of what had happened.”