Letter from Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki is a city that has been rightly called «Madre de Israel» and «Little Jerusalem.» At the outbreak of the Balkan Wars, Jews here outnumbered Christians. When in April 1941, the Nazis captured this port city, once also known as the «Pearl of Israel,» and wiped out its Jewish population, the Jews were still the second largest community after the Greeks. Up to that time, the city was the world cultural capital of Sephardic (Spanish) Jewry. After World War II, out of a Jewish population of 56,000, 54,050 – an incredible 96.5 percent – had been exterminated at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen. Last week, Holocaust survivors from Greek-Jewish communities marked the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer himself attended the ceremony here, and warned against complacency in fighting anti-Semitism, calling the Holocaust the «ultimate crime against humanity in the 20th century.» What about the 21st century? Mr Fischer tactfully omitted this ominous detail. Furthermore, a visiting Israeli Cabinet minister said those who helped the Jews deserved to be honored as well. «In the darkness of Nazism, there were shining examples in Thessaloniki where many risked their lives to save their fellow citizens,» said Israel’s Transport Minister Meir Shetreet. Indeed. The relationship between Greeks and Jews has been a rich and complex one, providing an example of the «serious and cooperative solidarity» which Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens and others described in 1943 in a courageous letter to the German ambassador in Athens, Guenther von Altenburg. The Jews flourished during the times of vast empires – the Roman and the Ottoman. Yet, under the Christians, who had sprung from a sharp and furious schism within Judaism, their status as citizens slid from favored minority to that of outsiders within. Life for the Jews in the twilight years of the rigorously Christian empire was complicated indeed. It was not easier later either. In 1917, a great fire destroyed the entire Jewish quarter of Thessaloniki, the home of the largest Sephardic community in Europe, along with 34 synagogues. The port closed on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) until 1923, when Greek law forced it to open. The almost five-centuries-old Jewish necropolis was desecrated on several occasions. It was located where today’s new university stands. Exactly on this spot, 10 days ago, at the campus of Macedonia University, Israel’s most prominent living author, the crusty, blunt and pragmatic Amos Oz, spoke of the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obsessed with a resolution of the crisis, Amos Oz characterized it as a fight between two refugee camps, a fight where the right of one side conflicts with the right of the other. Last Friday, speaking to Pantelis Savvidis of ET3, he said: «You know what is one of the common traits between us Jews and you Greeks? It is that we both have the tendency to feel sorry for ourselves…» And he added: «We both feel the burden of a very long and not especially happy history. We have much in common indeed. It is a shame that we never sat down to talk to each other for many years now.» Has that time come for Israelis to make common cause with Greeks, perhaps? We had many chances to do that in the past. It was here that in the year AD 53 the Apostle Paul – who adopted the new name and the new faith of the Nazareth messiah on the road to Damascus – preached the new doctrine at the Tes-Haim synagogue in the then-Roman city. Some consider that the quick Christianization of the Greeks of Thessaloniki by Saint Paul, or Saul of Tarsus, in AD 54 can be attributed to their long exposure to Jewish monotheistic ideas. Yet it was not until the expulsion of the Sephardim from the Iberian peninsula in 1492 that large numbers of Jews began to settle, mostly in the towns of northern Greece, along the ancient Roman Via Egnatia. Both Greeks and Jews have been living together here since the time of Alexander the Great. Never very close, though. At a discreet distance. The question which now arises is: Can the Greeks of Thessaloniki be faulted for their inaction, can they be blamed for staying onlookers during the Holocaust? Yes, they surely can. Yet let’s return to today. «Anti-Semitism today sometimes takes the form of rejecting the state of Israel, as a consequence of accepting the Palestinians’ right to acquire their own state,» Antonis Karkayiannis remarked some days ago in his Kathimerini column. Oz also spoke about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. According to him, we belong to that mindless majority who divide everything between white and black. «What I hate is aggression.» In America and in Europe, he says, «People divide the world between good guys and bad guys. You get up, you sign a petition in favor of the good guys, you launch a demonstration against the bad guys, you express disgust and go to sleep. With me, it’s more of a hospital emergency-room attitude. Stop the bleeding, stabilize the patient and then maybe you can heal the wounds and scars. It’s less important who takes the blame than to stop the blood-letting. When you get to the scene of a car accident, the last thing you do is ask who’s responsible. You get a stretcher.» This is Ozspeak. Today, 60 years since the end of the war, with less than 1,100 Jews living in the city – and whose numbers are still falling – the question continues to be whether humanity has found vindication or historical truth. My conclusion: Identity to most Thessaloniki Christians and Jews seems nowadays to be rather a genetic accident, and not a cultural condition. After all, today’s distinctions in the city have to do more with class and money than with religion.