CULTURE

The French president and his Greek connection

There was a juicy news item in Parliament’s visitors’ gallery: A married couple were leaning over the barrier to watch French President Nicolas Sarkozy give a master class in political oratory and emotion as he addressed the Greek Parliament – especially when he said, «My grandfather left Thessaloniki when he was young, without knowing that his grandson would one day be welcomed to the Greek Parliament as president of the French Republic.» The couple looked at each other and smiled, full of emotion. And they had every reason to, because Mrs Loukia Saltiel, the wife of Mr David Saltiel, president of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community, is Sarkozy’s cousin. On Sarkozy’s first visit to Athens some years ago, they had met in private at the French Embassy. They told him about their family history in Thessaloniki and they gave him a leather-bound album with old photographs of grandfather Benico Mallah and his cousin Solomon Mallah, who was Loukia’s father. One of their family members was a senator and member of Parliament in Eleftherios Venizelos’s party. Sarkozy’s great-grandfather, Mordechai Mallah, is buried at Stavroupolis, from where the remains of people buried in the Jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki were moved to make way for the building of the city’s new university. Loukia’s father Solomon served in the Greek army in Egypt, and fought at El Alamein. Her mother is Nelly-Susanne Beresi. Nearly the entire family was killed at Auschwitz, with only Nelly-Susanne returning at the age of 14, with a number tattooed on her arm. Her grandmother and mother were among those who died. Now we know why the French president, who is a Catholic, loves and honors his Greek roots in Thessaloniki, which suffered so much during the Holocaust. His grandfather Beniko Mallah left Thessaloniki for Paris with his mother when he was 14 years old. There he finished school, studied medicine and served in the army, where he met nurse Adele Bouvier. He fell in love and became a Catholic in order to marry her, taking the name Benedict. With Adele he had two daughters, Susanne and Andree, who is the French president’s mother. Andree married a handsome Hungarian emigre called Paul Sarkozy, and when they divorced little Nicolas was raised by his grandfather Benedict (Benico), who told him stories for hours about beautiful Thessaloniki. Nicolas visited the city as a young man, to take care of some property matters. He was impressed by what he saw and learned there. His Greek roots became important for him, as they were for his grandfather. Now Loukia Saltiel is his bond with Thessaloniki.