The ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’

The ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’

The once-strong presence of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki and its economic, social and cultural contributions over the centuries, is part of the multicultural footprint of the nation’s second largest city.

In this light, Greece in general, and Thessaloniki in particular, have every reason to highlight this special – and in the process, painful – part of the city’s history.

The catalytic role played by the Sephardic Jews gave Thessaloniki its cosmopolitan character; it made it an important commercial center of the Mediterraneanand created a rare and special heritage.

The plans to create a parking garage in the historic Eleftherias Square, the site of the 1942 martyrdom of the city’s Jewish population, do not protect this heritage; they are an insult to it.

The strength of this square’s symbolism, which is an integral part of the city’s and Greece’s history, demands its preservation. The square must become a site of memory, highlighting the timeless multicultural side of Thessaloniki.

It should be obvious to every well-meaning, sensible Greek, regardless of political beliefs or religious faith, that a properly designed memorial square, as well as an impressive Holocaust Museum, is a necessity. It would not only be a tribute to the victims, but also a powerful lesson for our children.

This should be obvious to those responsible, from the central government in Athens to the municipal authorities in Thessaloniki.

When it comes to history, there is no room for pettiness. The emotional speech by then-mayor Yannis Boutaris on the Jewish Martyrs’ Memorial Day in 2018, may have been very powerful and came as a belated tribute to the Jewish community that was exterminated by Hitler, but that does not mean that the current mayor cannot continue on the same path. There is no room here for personal quarrels or partisan antagonisms.

Thessaloniki, like any big city, clearly has a major traffic problem. But it is impossible to think that there are no alternatives, no other places to build a parking space, than at this particular site.

The Jewish community has put a mark on the history of Thessaloniki, socially, economically, religiously, even architecturally, and that fact deserves to be communicated.

The preservation of Eleftherias Square is first and foremost a historical obligation. Secondarily, it also happens to have an important economic, touristic and, most importantly, geopolitical dimension. Those failing to see this are either blind or borderline foolish.

History will not forgive those whose decisions and actions denied the innocent who were massacred by the Nazis the respect they deserved.

As Greeks – Christians, Muslims and Jews – we have an obligation to protect and highlight the uniqueness of the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” 

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