Letter from Thessaloniki

«Oh, please, tell me when it’s over! I cannot watch this relentless depiction of torture! I’ll keep my eyes closed until the flogging is over!» whispered a terrorized Alexandra, sitting next to me, with whom I went to see Mel Gibson’s edgy film «The Passion of the Christ» last Friday. Our Dimitris Bouras, one of the film critics of this paper, has described it as «a striking demonstration of sadistic violence.» Most other Greek critics did not like it either. There are also those who fear this film will fuel anti-Semitism as it makes its way around the world. They are right to be alarmed, for there are still Greeks who believe that the Jews are forever guilty of the murder of our Lord – and that non-believers should be punished in the here and now as well as in eternity. The relentless depiction of bloodthirsty Jewish priests and mobs manipulating a weak-willed Pilate and the curse upon the Jews that appears in the book of Matthew as it is cried out by the film-mob, condemning Jesus, could have its effect in this very city, still known to some as «Madre de Israel» (Malkhah Israel) or the Queen of Israel, as the Spanish Jews, the Ladinos, proudly called Salonica. Sephardic Jews, fleeing the Inquisition in Spain, came here in the 15th century, settling in such large numbers that for a time the city was known as a «second Jerusalem» – at least until World War II, when the Jewish community was annihilated by Nazi occupiers. The prewar Jewish population of Greece was about 76,000, some 55,000 of whom lived here in the historic center of Sephardic Jewry. Now there are just some 1,200. One day in early July 1942 at 8.00 a.m., all Jewish males between the ages of 18 and 45 were ordered to assemble in Eleftherias Square and forced to stand at attention for hours in the midsummer Mediterranean sun. On Sunday March 14, 1943, a series of convoys, the first of which was to leave the following day, were being readied to transport the Jews to their «resettlement» in Cracow. Yet the city’s professional, cultural and intellectual Christian elite, who might have spoken out, remained silent. And not just this: Newspapers the following day proudly described the indifference of the Christian Greek observers. Alas, scripta manent! So does the Good Book: The first Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians («the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us») falls just short of being an anathema («… in flaming fire taking vengeance on them»). Now, were the Thessalonians during the Nazi occupation following the Pauline injunction, and were they genuinely anti-Semitic? Rhetorical questions seldom get answered, though sometimes they are posed. «I walk around with a cap because there have really been some problems. There is anti-Semitism in Greece.» The man who says this is a 30-year-old rabbi, the Greek-born Mordechai Frisis, who grew up in a traditional Zionist home in Athens and moved with his wife to Thessaloniki last year. In an article published on February 8 in The Jerusalem Post, signed by Michael Freund, the young rabbi declared that he has already found his calling in life: to save what remains of the city’s Jews from extinction. «If the assimilation and intermarriage continues, along with late marriages and the low birthrate, then the community’s future looks brief,» he said to the paper. Further on, the article mentions that the average age of the city’s Jews is over 50 and that living in Greek society is no easy task for a religious Jew, as anti-Semitism is rampant. About a year ago, journalist Helena Smith also detected, in an article she penned in the Guardian, «a whiff of anti-Semitism in some Greeks’ support for the Palestinians.» Not mere coincidence. Sure enough, there are some historic facts that cannot be ignored. In 1821, the Turks killed the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople and forced some Jews to throw his body in the sea. When this became known in Greece, the Greek Jews were massacred. Obviously public attitudes have changed since those vigorous times. The rabbi also noted that more than a year ago, while visiting the community, Frisis was attacked and beaten at the city’s train station. «Someone came over and without saying anything, began to hit me. I started to hit him back to defend myself, and then other people came over and separated the two of us,» he recalled. Greece, he went on, «is a very traditional Christian society, and they blame the Jews for killing Jesus. There are still people who believe that Jews drink the blood of Christians on Pessah.» As a student at a Greek high school, Frisis said, «there were people who said this openly to me.» In spite of all that, Frisis is optimistic about the future. Even though «Greek Jews are generally ashamed to be Jewish or to admit that they are Jewish, my objective is that if I can work and save something, it should be the youth,» he said to the Jerusalem Post. «I want them to have joy that they are Jewish, and pride that they are Jewish.»

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