Monday, March 18, 2013

Thessaloniki Jews commemorate deportations to Auschwitz

From JPost, 17 March 2013, by HADAS PARUSH:
Seventy years later, Jewish community in Greece's second largest city fears far-right Golden Dawn party.Thessaloniki Jews march Auschwitz deportation
Thessaloniki Jews march Auschwitz deportation Photo: Hadas Parush
THESSALONIKI, Greece – It is exactly 70 years since the first deportation of Jews from Thessaloniki (Saloniki) to Auschwitz, and the small community that remains in the second largest city in Greece will not let anyone forget.
Thousands marched in Thessaloniki starting at Liberty Square, where Nazi occupying forces assembled Jewish men aged 18 to 45 in 1942. There they were subjected to humiliation and beatings, and then registered and sent away to forced labor. The march continued to the old railway station where, on March 15, 1943, the Nazis first began sending Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps.
The Thessaloniki Jewish community, together with the World Jewish Congress and the Israeli Embassy in Athens, and at the initiative of Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris, invited members and representatives of Greek and other Jewish communities for a weekend of events marking the anniversary and the memory of almost 50,000 Thessaloniki Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
“We have to give a strong message to all of Europe and to Greece that we will never permit this terrible thing to happen again,” said David Saltiel, the president of the Thessaloniki Jewish Community. “If we want to be alive, if we want to have a democratic country, we have to stand against all this.”

A combination of circumstances brought about the idea to create this event for the first time.
“We have here in Thessaloniki an intellectual mayor who feels the responsibility of his city to the victims of the Holocaust,” said Victor Eliezer, of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece. Eliezer said that the Jewish community of Greece decided that now is the time, while Holocaust survivors are still alive and able to share their stories. Another factor, he added, is that the Greek government seeks to assure its Jewish citizens that there is no danger of anti-Semitism in Greece.
This was reinforced by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who attended a concluding ceremony on Sunday in the Monastir synagogue, the only one of almost 60 synagogues that was not destroyed in the war. During his speech, Samaras emphasized he will not let anything like the Holocaust happen again in Greece.
“The reason we are here today is because we remember,” Samaras said. “We will continue with legislative acts to fight violence and racism. I commit myself and everybody in Greece to the saying: ‘Never Again.’” Samaras, who also spoke of the importance of the Jewish community to Greek civilization, as well as the good relationship between Greece and Israel, is the first Greek prime minister to honor the Jewish community with his presence in a synagogue.
Perhaps the most pressing issue that pushed to the organization of commemorating the first deportation is the continued rise in support for Golden Dawn, a far-right political party which recently climbed up to 10-15% in a popular vote.
Often described as neo-Nazi and fascist, the party’s extreme nationalist views and anti-immigration rhetoric, the use of a very slight variation of the Nazi swastika symbol on the party flags, and its custom of greeting like the Hitler salute, all send a clear signal to the Greek Jewish community.
Although for the time being Golden Dawn supporters’ main target is the African migrants, with gangs beating them up on the streets of Greece, Jews can’t help but feel they might be next.
Just last week Golden Dawn made a statement calling for the creation of special schools only for Greeks, and other schools for non-Greeks.
“It was a clear racist declaration. The political system knows very well the danger of the neo-Nazi party,” Eliezer said, adding that such statements are unacceptable in a modern country such as Greece.
“Big parts of the Greek society do not feel yet the danger of the extreme Right, because the poverty and the financial crisis in Greece made many people desperate, and Golden Dawn actually goes to the desperate.”
“I do not think that this is acceptable,” Eliezer said, referring to the public acts of violence against African migrants. “Let’s say that this is the apathy of the simple people who are walking in the streets and somebody is beaten and nobody cares, and the police does not care. I would say that the Greeks are feeling the danger but do not yet know what to do about it.”
During Sunday’s commemorative event, the Monastir synagogue was filled over capacity with people from the local and European Jewish communities, presidents and representatives of Jewish delegations from around the world, local and international media, as well as Mayor Boutaris and Prime Minister Samaras, by whom the words “Never Again” were repeated countless times throughout the two-and-a-halfhour ceremony.
“The financial crisis and ignorance are creating prejudice and leading to a revival of anti-Semitism. Even in the Greek parliament we can hear voices calling to harm foreigners,” said Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. “We cannot let the events which led to the greatest disaster in history, the Holocaust, to recur here in Greece.”
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, reminded the participants that “the Nazi party started as a splinter party,” and referring to the rise of Golden Dawn, he said “Jews have something to worry about today.” With the prime minister sitting behind him, Lauder concluded his speech saying that Greece can be the first to set an example to the rest of the word by outlawing Golden Dawn.
The Jewish community of Thessaloniki was the biggest community destroyed in the Holocaust, losing 97% of its population. Only some 1,000 Jews survived and returned to Thessaloniki to rebuild their lives. But the void of the rich and thriving community, described as an integral part of both the economic and cultural life of the city, seems to hover like a black cloud over the second and third generations that live here today.
“The excellent relations that are still building between Greece and Israel and having here with us representatives of the World Jewry,” Eliezer said, “is a message that Greek Jewry is not alone and a message of Jewish solidarity against any danger from the extreme Right.”