THESSALONIKI, Greece (JTA) — Antonis Samaras stood in the pale morning light coming through the stained glass windows of the only Thessaloniki synagogue to survive World War II and vowed, “Never again.”
For Greek Jews marking the 70th anniversary of the destruction of this city’s historic Jewish community, the Greek prime minister’s words were long awaited. So was his presence — the first time a sitting Greek premier had set foot in a synagogue in 101 years.
“We have to be very careful to remember the message of ‘Never again,’ ” Samaras said at the March 17 commemoration. “The fight against neo-Nazis is more important than ever.”
Greek Jews had the past on their minds on the weekend of March 15 -17 as they gathered to remember the beginning of the Nazi deportation of Thessaloniki’s Jews to Auschwitz. But they were also mindful of the present, in particular the sudden rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party that erupted on the political scene last year, coming from nowhere to grab 18 seats in the Greek Parliament.
Greece’s government, besieged by an economic crisis and unwilling to confront an emerging populist party, has said little about Golden Dawn’s violent activities against immigrants and anti-Semitic outbursts. But Samara’s presence in Thessaloniki, and his vow to be “completely intolerant to violence and racism,” appeared to mark a shift.
“For me this was something that I saw now for the first time,” said David Saltiel, president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece. “It was the first time for a prime minister in a synagogue, and also for him to be so clear that he wanted this to symbolize his tough decision not to permit racism and anti-Semitism.”
Greece’s small Jewish community has watched in horror as Golden Dawn has grown in popularity over the past year, garnering more and more public support. Greek Jews had hoped there would be some pushback from the country’s leaders in the face of attacks on immigrants by black-shirted gangs and anti-Semitic statements by party leaders. But there has been little.
Samaras, heading a shaky coalition government, put all his efforts into dealing with Greece’s massive economic crisis; the unpopular austerity measures he forced through left him very little political capital for taking on the populist party. And the weary Greek public dismissed rising support for Golden Dawn as just a protest vote, turning a blind eye to its violence and ideology of hate.
But the commemoration weekend in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece with an area population of nearly 800,000, included several signs that change is in the air.
A public march from its Liberty Square, where the Jews were first rounded up, to the Old Railway Station, where 50,000 were put on cattle cars to Auschwitz, was organized by the city’s dynamic and controversial new mayor, Yiannis Boutaris. It was the first such display by the Jewish community since the end of the war.
An unorthodox, chain-smoking, straight-talking businessman with a stud in one ear, Boutaris, 71, has shaken up Thessaloniki since becoming mayor in 2011. One of his main thrusts has been to revive Thessaloniki’s cosmopolitan history, embracing a city important to Turks for its Ottoman past and to Jews, who once were a majority and a center of Sephardi and Ladino culture.
“For the first time we have a mayor who dares to say we are all one family,” Saltiel said. “For the first time we have a mayor who is not afraid.”
About 2,500 people took part in the march, according to police estimates, most of them were not Jewish. They walked the two miles in silence until they reached the station before scattering flowers on the rails. Keeping watch were busloads of riot police blocking off the route and military snipers on rooftops.
“This is the least we can do to honor the citizens of Thessaloniki who lost their lives in the concentration camps,” said Boutaris, who is also working for further restitution of Jewish property.
Much of the shift in attitude can be attributed to sustained pressure from Jewish communities in Greece and abroad, and to Samaras’ desire to maintain relations with Israel that have flourished in the past three years.
“The prime minister realizes the danger Golden Dawn poses to Greece and used this as the perfect opportunity to send the message to Greek society,” said Victor Eliezer, a member of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece and a frequent political commentator. “He also wants to take Greece out of the group of European nations that are allowing neo-Nazis to flourish.”
Standing at the podium in the synagogue, Samaras was surrounded by the heads of the World Jewish Congress, the European Jewish Congress, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the ambassadors of Israel and the United States.
“In our talks with [Samaras], we made it very clear that the rise of extremist, neo-Nazi forces in Greece is not acceptable and must be fought vigorously by all democrats,” said WJC President Ronald Lauder, who urged Samaras to enact tough legislation against Golden Dawn and even outlaw the party.
Golden Dawn responded to the Thessaloniki commemorations by branding them “part of an international Zionist plan to destroy Greece and reestablish the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans.’ ”
“Little Antonis put on his kipa and went to the synagogue … to worship Zionist capital,” said a statement on the party website, which also suggested that Lauder “deal with the problematic behavior of the State of Israel and not ‘worry’ about the rise of the Golden Dawn.”
For Greek Jews, who now number about 5,000, perhaps the most heartening incident came from outside the commemorations.
On the evening of the march, soccer player Giorgos Katidis celebrated his winning goal by ripping off his shirt and giving the crowd a Nazi salute. Condemnation was swift; the Greek soccer federation handed Katidis a life ban from representing the national team. In the past, Greek society has simply shrugged off similar acts or displays of Nazi symbolism.
“This is why we say something is changing,” Saltiel said. “There is no longer a tolerance for such Nazi styles. And this is very good for Greece.”