THESSALONIKI (AFP) – Israeli President Moshe Katsav yesterday traveled to the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki to pay homage to a once-thriving center of Jewish culture in the heart of the Balkans. On an historic official visit to Greece and accompanied by his Greek counterpart Karolos Papoulias, Katsav placed a wreath at the city’s Holocaust memorial, erected in 1997 to honor some 50,000 Jewish citizens of Salonica who died in Nazi concentration camps from 1943 onward. Some 96 percent of the city’s Jewish community perished in the camps. A plaque was added to the monument to commemorate Katsav’s visit, the first ever by an Israeli head of state to Greece. The two heads of state later visited the Thessaloniki Jewish Museum, inaugurated in 2001, which traces the local community’s history from early settlement in the second century AD to extermination during the German wartime occupation of Greece. Following the visit, Katsav praised Salonica’s importance in Jewish history. The port city was known as the «Jerusalem of the Balkans» during the 19th century, numbering among its citizens the maternal grandfather of French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy and the founder of dairy giant Danone, Isaac Carasso. Katsav was later yesterday scheduled to host a reception at the city synagogue in honor of the present Jewish community, which numbers fewer than 2,000 people. He is due to return to Tel Aviv today. Greece only formally recognized Israel in 1990, and began to honor the memory of its Jewish community about a decade ago.