NEW YORK, Nov. 23 (JTA) – Greece has dedicated a memorial to a once-thriving community of Jews who perished in the Holocaust – a move that some said was aimed at repairing the country’s ties with Israel. In a moving ceremony Sunday in Salonika, Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos unveiled the monument dedicated to the approximately 50,000 Jews from the northern port city who were killed during the 1941-1945 Nazi occupation of Greece. The 10-foot-tall menorah-shaped bronze monument – in which a group of people are depicted reaching heavenward from the flames of the death camps – was erected in a central square in Salonika where local Jews were rounded up before being deported to concentration camps. Greek Holocaust survivors, three Greek ministers, a U.S. congressional delegation, Israeli representatives and Jewish communal officials from around the world attended the ceremony. Israeli Health Minister Yehoshua Matza, referring to Salonika’s large prewar Jewish population, told attendees, “It is no coincidence that the city” was known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” A message from President Clinton was read at the dedication ceremony: “I commend the Greek government, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece and the Jewish community of Salonika for their vision and dedication in erecting this powerful monument.” Greek government officials said the memorial would help ease a series of misunderstandings with Israel and put an end to accusations that Greece fostered anti-Semitism. “It is an important event of historical memory, but also a settlement of misunderstandings” between Greece and the Jewish state, Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos told reporters. Greece, which has close relations with most Arab states, did not recognize Israel until the early 1990s and has been at odds with the Jewish state over a number of issues. Most recently, Athens was upset by a defense agreement reached between Israel and Turkey. Greece and Turkey have long been engaged in disputes over territorial rights in the Aegean Sea and over the divided island of Cyprus. Some Jewish leaders maintained that the monument was delayed for decades by successive governments in Athens and by the Greek Orthodox Church. Last year, a Holocaust memorial was unveiled in the northwestern Greek city of Kastoria to commemorate local Jews who perished at Auschwitz. The monument was erected at the place where the Nazis, on March 24, 1944, gathered Kastoria’s 1,000 Jews for deportation to Auschwitz. Only 35 survived the Holocaust. Jewish communities in Greece date back to the sixth century B.C.E. Salonika’s Jewish presence rose dramatically during the 15th century when a large number of Jews arrived from Spain to avoid the Inquisition. At the start of the 20th century, there were some 75,000 Jews in Salonika – about half the city’s population. During the occupation of Greece, the Nazis destroyed nearly all of Salonika’s Jewish sites. Approximately 67,000 Greek Jews were exterminated by the Nazis. Today, about 1,000 of the country’s 5,000 Jews live in Salonika.
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