Shame on the Municipality of Thessaloniki
Posted by Abravanel, the Blog στο 24/07/2008
Thessaloniki has been maybe the most important town of the worldwide Shefardic Judaism. The presence of the Jewish Community dates back from when Apostle Paul preached in the local Etz Haim Synagogue for 3 consecutive Sabbaths in 50 C.E., while the bulk arrived in 1492 when Jews of Spain where expelled and moved mainly to the Ottoman Empire.
Thessaloniki constituted a unique example in the whole Jewish world: an important city (second largest in the Ottoman Empire and more important than Athens) where Jews where the majority of the population but also were dominant in all social strata. The visitor arriving in Thessaloniki would notice that the port remained closed in Saturdays and not Sundays, that jewish port workers would unload his baggage, shop from jewish lower middle class shops in the streets teamed with jewish workers heading for huge jewish factories. All this earned Thessaloniki the title of Madre d’Israel – Jerusalem of the Balkans, while even David Ben Gurion visited the town to see how a real jewish city looked like.
When the Greek Army liberated the city in 1912 the majority of the population was jewish and christians only the 3rd largest religious group after the muslims. The population exchange in 1923 removed the muslims from the city, while a mass influx of Asia Minor Greeks shifted the demographic balance. The economic depression of Thessaloniki, zionist immigration and antisemitic riots caused 10.000 thessalonicean jews to immigrate but the community still remained strong at the eve of WW2. The Shoah caused the extermination of 55.000 jews and while some christians helped their compatriots, many more profited from their plight appropriating jewish property. An example is the destruction, by greek initiative, of one of the largest jewish cemeteries in the world, home to 350/500.000 tombs and the confiscation of the land. This attitude bears a striking difference to the one in other greek cities like Athens where the local Jewish Community was helped by a myriad of organizations and personalities like ArchBishop Damaskinos, or even Zante where the whole community was saved due to the help of the local population.
Why I make this brief historic synopsis? So that all can understand the size of the historical ignorance and intollerance towards the thessalonicean jews, that the Municipal Council has shown in a recent deliverance. A small minority group presented a request that the Municipality of Thessaloniki joined the association of greek cities, «Association of Martyr Towns«, which suffered great losses during WW2 due to the german, italian or bulgarian occupiers. The City Council rejected the proposition on the grounds that:
- The extermination of the Jews happened on foreign soil, ergo Thessaloniki is not a martyr town.
- The Jews of Thessaloniki arrived only in 1492.
The city council forgets that the Jewish Community, as I stated before, has a presence of 2000 years in this city. I won’t comment on the disgust that the first justification provokes me. I will only mention that the first murders of Jews, part of the Final Solution, happened during forced labor in greek soil in the nearby areas of Chalkidiki (maybe near the villas of the city councilmen, given Chalkidiki being the favourite holiday spot of thessaloniceans), Olympos, Sedes etc. At the same time the City has no problem to honour events who do not regard directly thessaloniceans and happened in other countries, like the greek participation in the Korean War (!).
This is not the first act of the Municipality of Thessaloniki which shows a disrespect towards the memory of the thessaloniceans exterminated in Auschwitz. The Monument to the Holocaust/Shoah was built only in 1997, fearing the international outcry when Thessaloniki was elected Culture Capital of Europe. Until then the Municipality had refused categorically! Despite the Jewish Community refusing to protest openly in fear of retaliations I have in my hands a leaflet where the Community offers to plant 54.000 trees to honour the 54.000 dead and the Municipality refusing! Unfortunately the current City Council follows the sad moral tradition of their antisemitic forefathers who were the materially responsible for the destruction of the jewish cemetery during WW2. The antisemitic hysteria of that City Council arrived at the point that as soon as the Jews were on their way to Auschwitz they changed all the jewish names of streets of the city!
It is also unfortunate that there are also other incidents of intolerance in Thessaloniki. The worst examples include marches against the offices of the Jewish Community organized by the Communist Party, the bowing to antisemitic hysteria of Mt.Athos monks during a museum exposition in 1997, the vandalism of the Monument, the point blank refusal of the University of Thessaloniki to erect a monument to honour the half a million tombs on top of which the University was erected etc
The Jewish Community has limited means of protesting. Last time when it protested over the defacement of the monument, it provoked a violent demonstration against it’s offices. Also in the past it has been ignored when asking for a Monument or even «pressures» when raising subjects like the stolen communal properties. The response of the City included «friendly advice» or «problems» arrising in matters of everyday life like the functioning of the jewish elementary school etc. I admit I cannot proove anything, other than the official proposition of creating a monument in 1992; it boils down to whether one can believe these things can happen in Greece or not. Still all this has resulted to the smothering of the reflexes of the Community which works hard but is still governed by the mentality of «waiting for the storm to pass» – a cautious but sometimes too cautious strategy.
I do not list all these events to show that antisemitism reigns in Thessaloniki – I will not fall to the trap to forget all the brave thessaloniceans who counter these efforts to erase the jewish past of the city and are proud of their city’s history. Neither do I claim that the citizens of Thessaloniki are more intollerant or antisemites because their elected officials are; most of them are simply utterly ignorant of the history of the city and the vast majority of them comes from other greek towns or resided in Asia Minor until 1923. My aim is to show that there is a constant effort to erase the Jewish past of the city, forget their exterminated compatriots, minimize all surviving jewish presence and operate in a decent mode only when pressured by external events. This municipal deliverance by itself is not as important as other matters like the destroyed Jewish Cemetery or the fact that only a handful of schools have visited the Jewish Museum – to tell the truth I, personally, have qualms on the Association which appears with serious flaws. It is only a material proof of the intentions which we see in other occasions but cannot prove – I’m sure that the City Council will only regret the fact that they were exposed in such a lame way and didn’t act in the discreet ways of always.
My compliments go to Panos Zervas for bringing the matter to surface. Also Anemos, Argos, Roides, A Lord of the Night, P.Dimitras, Gerontakos the newspaper Avgi wrote about it and to them also go my thanks for not letting the Jews of Thessaloniki alone.
Again I would like to repeat that the matter of joining the association or not is not the point here; personally I am doubtful advisability of joining the specific Association. The problem are the ideology, ignorance and intolerance towards the jews that are evident in the motivations of the deliverance and characterize the conduct of the Municipality and the Greek State in Thessaloniki in general. The response to the public outcry should be more visits of the schools to the Jewish Museum, the institution of a chair of Shefardic Studies in the University, a Jewish festival in town and the re-institution of the jewish memory in the collective memory in ways such as naming the new subway station as «Old Jewish Cemetery/Εβραικά Μνήματα». But all these matters are to be discussed in post of their own…
We are not the only ones in this. Also Thodoris Goutas, Jungle Report, Stratos Kersanidis, while Argos included the reply of the JCT in his new post and Panos the one of the Mayor. Metajournalism comments on the refusal of the local newspapers and TV stations to deal with the subject and how it took an athenian journalist to write about it