The last stop on our Greek tour was the military cemetery of Zeitenlik, located near the center of Thessaloniki. With its history dating back to the mid 20s, this is a monument to the soldiers who died in the First World War on the Salonika front. More than 8000 Serbian soldiers found their final resting place here, along with their French, English, Italian and Russian combatants.
Everything started in 1926 when an idea of a common graveyard for all Allied casualties from the nearby Salonika front. Savo Mihajlovic, a Serb, was appointed as the leader of the team that collected all the remains of the fallen soldiers. Going through more than 250 cemeteries they found and exhumed more than 20000 bodies. Since the majority of fighters were Serbian nationals, the design of the graveyard was done by Serbian architects.
After going through the heavy iron gate you can only feel the enormous transformation in the atmosphere. The mood instantly goes from the bustling, loud and fast Thessaloniki street to quiet and respectful resting place. In the center a giant monument made of stone was built in honor to the soldiers who defended their homeland. Surrounded by tall cypresses it stands as a memory to all the families that lost their loved ones.
As we climbed the stairs to the memorial in silence a small, but fast old man approached our group. Dressed in a Serbian military uniform, this eighty-something man is the keeper of the graveyard. His name is Djordje Mihajlovic, the grandson of the before mentioned Savo, the founder of Zeitenlik. He is the third generation of cemetery caretakers. Despite his age he is a pretty agile old man with a great charisma and an even greater life story.
Born and raised at this graveyard (which if you ask me is not at all spooky) he has a great insight into the history of the place. He told us that a total of 8000 Serbian, 8000 French, 3500 Italian, 13000 British and around 500 Russian soldiers found their eternal rest here. Of the 8000 Serbs only about a fifth of them is buried in the immense fields of crosses around the stone monument. The remains of the rest 80% can be found in the underground crypt. As he recited the poem dedicated to the fallen ones he lead us to the entrance into the underground ossuary.
Slowly descending beneath the memorial I didn’t know what to expect. How much space do you need for more than 6000 dead soldiers? It turns out that you don’t need much of it. Entering the narrow and high corridors I realized all the walls were made of 40×40 cm marble plates. Behind every plate were the remains of a warrior. The labyrinth of claustrophobic corridors revealed endless rows of these marble rectangles. On each of them personal information of the soldier behind it was displayed. Some had all the information, like name, place and date of birth, rank etc. Others were not so lucky. They only have their first of last name or in some places the plate just says ‘unknown’.
At one point I just stopped. I was surrounded by the bones of more 6000 people in the narrow and dark passages of an underground crypt. That thought was overwhelming. While everybody just stood there in silence, frozen by the tragedy that lived here, our host continued his story.
During his life all Serbian presidents and marshal Tito came to visit him. Along we them came the highest ranking priests of Serbian Orthodox church. Everybody came here with gifts that are exhibited in the ossuary. After the brief introduction about all the celebrities that came here he told us about the notebooks. The notebooks are located at the entrance and contain the names of all the known soldiers that lay here. A lot of them have families that came down here and left pictures, notes and other things on the graves of their loved ones.
When our group came out of the underground tomb we were speechless and shaken up by the history of Zeitenlik. As a Serbian tradition, Djordje, the graveyard caretaker, poured a glass of homemade rakija (a Serbian drink made in the deepest parts of hell that we all love and consume responsibly) for everybody so we can drink for the dead.
When my mind came back to reality after the rakija shot at 10am, which felt like I got hit by a cannonball, we wandered around the multinational cemetery. Each country had its own religion, its own tombstones and order. Different traditions and histories were combined and now coexist in the same place. They all died for the same cause together and now they lay here, also together.
The graveyard of Zeitenlik is a very important chapter of history of the Salonika front, one of biggest battlefields of the First World War. The cemetery caretaker is full of interesting stories and very eager to tell them to anyone who wants to listen to them. Although I don’t know if he speaks English, or any other language than Serbian. For anyone who is into modern history and the First World War this is a great place to visit.