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March 29, 2013     Heritage Florida Jewish News
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PAGE 12A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MARCH 29, 2013 Holocaust commemoratior! marks shift for Greek Jews in fight against neo-Nazis Michael Thaidigsmann/WJC Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris, third from left, leading the march in his city from Liberty Square to the Old Railway Station. By Gavin Rabinowitz 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 commemo- ration. "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 Thes- saloniki'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, be- sieged 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 Thes- saloniki, and his vow to be "completely intolerant to vio- lence and racism," appeared to mark a shift. "For me this was some- thing 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 com- munity has watched in horror as Golden Dawn has grown in popularity over the past year, garnering more and more public support. Greek OA K00fl00) NTE AT LAKE MARY The Wait Is Over.., Now featuring the Cordova! Brand New Assisted Living and Memory Care Community Oakmonte Village provides a quality lifestyle as a beautiful luxury senior living community in the heart of prestigious Lake Mary. Our campus includes Independent Living apartments, Tuscany influenced villa homes, assisted living and memory care. Oakmonte Village 407-732-5800 I021 Royal Gardens Circle Lake Mary, FL 32746 www.OakmonteVillage.com Michael Thaidigsmann/WJC More than 2,500 people, many of them non-Jews, participated in the march to mark 70 years since the deportation of the Jews of Thessaloniki. 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 cos- mopolitan 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 si- lence until they reached the station before scattering flow- ers on the rails. Keepingwatch 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 Thessaioniki 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 Michael Thaidigsmann/WJC Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, second from right, meeting with Jewish leaders, from left, David Saltiel, Ronald Lauder and Moshe Kantor in Thessaloniki in March 2013. Michael Thaidigsmann/WJC Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras at Thessaloniki's Monastiriotes Synagogue addressing a memorial service for the 50,000 Jews of Thessaloniki deported to Nazi death camps. can be attributed to sustained pressure from Jewish commu- nities in Greece and abroad, and to Samaras' desire to maintain relationswith Israel that have flourished in the past three years. "The prime minister real- izes 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 [Sama- ras], we made it very clear that the rise of extremist, neo-Nazi forces in Greece is not ac- ceptable 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 Thessa|oniki com- memorations 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 syna- gogue ... 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 com- memorations. On the evening of the march, soccer player Giorgos Katidis celebrated his win- ning 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 some- thing is changing," Saltiel said. "There is no longer a tolerance for such Nazi styles. And this is very good for Greece."