The organizers of Saturday's march from Thessaloniki's Freedom Square to the old rail yards near the Greek city's port, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the first deportation of the town's Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau drew over 3,000 participants. The large number of marchers, the great majority of whom were not Jewish, surprised the organizers. Holocaust commemoration in Thessaloniki has never been a major public issue.
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The fact that the Jewish population – an integral part of the city and its economy for over 2,000 years – was almost completely destroyed at the hands of the Germans in only five months in 1943, has received very little public recognition. Aside from a rather small memorial statue at the edge of Liberty Square (which serves as a parking lot), the 53,000 Jews who lived in Thessaloniki on the eve of World War II, over 90 percent of whom perished, are commemorated only by a few plaques inside the city's two synagogues (there were once over 50). Until now all memorial events have been held quietly within the community.
So why were things different this weekend – with a march led by Thessaloniki's mayor, a special service attended by Greek's prime minister and promises for city-sponsored new memorials?
Yiannis Boutaris, the outspoken mayor, answers bluntly. "They should have done something already in the fifties but the people of the city did not want to confront what had happened, that the reality was that all their friends and neighbors had suddenly disappeared." But he believes there was also a political motive behind this past repression. Thessaloniki was until 1912 under the rule of the Ottoman empire and for centuries the Greek population of the city had been a minority. In the past century, successive local and national governments have done everything to emphasize the Greek identity of Thessaloniki and Macedonia, and while this nationalist sentiment was mainly anti-Turk, it had little room for the city's Jewish heritage either. Mayor Boutaris is eager to change this. "The truth is that this was always a multinational city. It was Greek, Jewish and Turkish, and you can change the order to Turkish, Jewish and Greek, it doesn't matter. This city will only thrive in the future as a multinational city."
Boutaris hopes that a greater openness about Thessaloniki's Jewish past will also encourage residents to be more open about the town's Turkish heritage. He is interested in Israeli and Jewish tourism to boost the city's flagging economy but the real potential is the Turkish market just over the border. After all, Thessaloniki is the birthplace of the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But before Boutaris can attract Turkish tourists to his city he has to first confront some demons.
Greece's financial crisis and political instability has led to the rise of the Golden Dawn party, openly racist and neo-Nazi in its policies, and currently the fourth-largest party in the Greek parliament with seven percent of the votes. Many Greeks have been shocked by the party activists' violence towards immigrants in Greek cities and the party's attempts to penetrate the police forces and set up its own ultra-nationalist schools . But few politicians have dared to openly confront the party. Mayor Boutaris is one of the few speaking out against them and has been served with libel charges for saying that there is no place for Golden Dawn in parliament. He sees the march in memory of Thessaloniki's Jews as part of the struggle against the Holocaust-denying party. "We are sending a message here that there is no place for people who do not respect human beings and democracy," he said. "It is a march against Nazi ideology and I certainly include Golden Dawn in that."
The rise of Golden Dawn was also the reason behind the World Jewish Congress's decision to participate in the commemoration and help sponsor a much larger series of events than the local Jewish community originally envisaged. The Congress held its executive committee meeting in Thessaloniki on Sunday afternoon, and as Prime Minister Antonis Samaras left the service at the Monastiriotes Synagogue on Sunday morning, one community member muttered, "he wouldn't have come if so many Jewish leaders hadn't arrived from around the world and he wasn't so interested now in ties with Israel." Samaras promised in his speech (which did not directly mention Golden Dawn) that his government would "continue to legislate towards complete intolerance of violence and racism," but the WJC leaders who met with him later were not satisfied with the vague proposal to bar genocide deniers from running in the elections.
Greek-Israeli relations are now flourishing, partly as a result of the ongoing crisis between Israel and its former strategic ally and Greece's old enemy, Turkey. There are those in the local community who believe that in the past, when Greece was seen as being the most pro-Palestinian member of NATO, the governments of the day were less eager to commemorate the Holocaust.
The Jews themselves have also kept a low profile. David Saltiel, president of the Greek Jewish community, said that few Jews who returned to the city after the Holocaust "just wanted to build their lives and their families." The considerable amount of property claimed by the Jewish community may be another reason for the reticence about the past. Much of the private and communal property was returned to Jewish hands. But the giant ancient Jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki, destroyed in 1942 by the Germans and its hundreds of thousands of tombstones sold as building material, is now the site of the largest university in Greece. Aristotle University only agreed last year to compensate the Jewish community in some way for the loss of its cemetery though it has yet to be announced what form the compensation will take. On Saturday night, at a concert of Ladino songs in the university's main auditorium, the rector for the first time announced that a memorial to the city's Jews would be built on university grounds.