Letter from Thessaloniki

«In the drawing rooms of the Association where we, the young men educated at the Lycee, gathered afternoons, the old carefree lightheartedness had given way to concern about the future. «How was all this to end? What else was in store for us and for our city? What was Salonica, once the outlet for a vast hinterland of thousands of kilometers, destined to become, with the restrictions of boundaries reaching down to its very doors?» The scene, thus described by Leon Sciaky, a Jew born in Thessaloniki, was that the city at the time was a genuine oasis in a swirl of conflicting powers and interests: the turn of the 20th century. It is from his autobiographical «Farewell to Salonica – City at the Crossroads» (Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia, 2003). At the outbreak of the Balkan Wars in 1912, Salonica was the Ottoman Empire’s most cosmopolitan city, its gateway to the West. It was also home to some 70,000 Jews, of whom 55,000 were Ottoman subjects, as loyal to the sultan and to Istanbul as the Jews of Austria-Hungary were to the kaiser and to Vienna. Now, the answer to the question «what’s in store for us and our city?» that was posed more than 90 years ago could have been answered yesterday in a lead article in the cultural section of Kathimerini. The once-vibrant place of varied people has now deteriorated to «a city which has become the synonym of a most conservative spirit,» according to the publication. As a Thessalonian who has only very recently abandoned the city permanently, I can only say: Oh, yes, how true. Circumstances oblige me to do something that I find stupid. All the same, I shall quote myself. On October 17, 2004, I was writing from this very spot: «If only the mayor of Thessaloniki, Mr Vassilis Papageorgopoulos, were more like Dora Bakoyannis, the mayor of Athens; if Thessaloniki’s municipal leader had the Athenian’s will to make a reluctant party see the need for change in this city, her knack for talking ordinarily to ordinary people, her sheer persistence… But, alas, no! Mr Papageorgopoulos, in his long cavalcade of mediocrity, is not Mrs Bakoyannis, and that could be well felt albeit his assurances of «No favors to the government» in his interview yesterday in the local Angelioforos. With municipal elections looming later this year, things could come to even worse. Last week, Giorgos Karatzaferis (59) a far-right politician, leader of the Popular Orthodox Rally (L.A.O.S.) and a member of the European Parliament often accused of harboring a xenophobic and extreme nationalist agenda, announced his will to be a candidate for mayor of Thessaloniki. Karatzaferis, who was expelled from the New Democracy Party for opposing party policy, is seeking to attract the votes of extreme rightists and fundamentalist Christians. Local polls grant him the largest percentage in Greece: 14 percent. Some days ago he also held his party’s third congress at the Porto Palace Hotel, away from the center of the «city of ghosts,» as historian Mark Mazower refers to Salonica. Years ago, Karatzaferis made headlines when he claimed there were no Jews among the victims of the World Trade Center attacks, for which he implied Israel was responsible. Incidentally, last week Israeli President Moshe Katsav, whose visit to the city caused havoc with security measures, diplomatically characterized Thessaloniki as the city of tolerance and cohabitation. He pointed out that in no other city in the world did the presence of the Jewish community date as far back as 2,200 years and in no other city did the Jews knew such economic growth as in Thessaloniki. He also praised Thessaloniki for opening its arms embracing the Jews who were forced to leave Spain in the 15th century. This truly happened, only with one significant difference. Contrary to popular belief, Muslims have always been more tolerant toward other nationalities and other faiths than has the Christian world – Greeks included. The Turks, who hardly made an effort to assimilate the non-Muslims and did not even attempt to impose their Koranic laws upon them, were happy to receive the well-off Jews. The pre-war Jewish population of Greece was about 76,000, some 55,000 of whom lived in Salonica, the historic center of Sephardic Jewry; «Madre de Israel» (Malkhah Israel), the Queen of Israel, as the Spanish Jews, the Ladinos, proudly called the city. Only 1,200 live here now. On April 8, 1941, German armored columns occupied Thessaloniki and almost immediately started a discriminatory policy against the Jews of the city. However, the city’s professional, cultural and intellectual Christian elite who might have spoken out at the time (1942), remained silent. Let’s face it: relations between Greeks and Jews were never extremely cordial. And yet it was mainly the Jews who gave the cosmopolitan atmosphere which the city misses nowadays so very much. Constantly suspicious of Athenian governments in general, Thessalonians feel victims of chronic centrosclerosis. «When you are inactive, that is how you see things. It is easy to put the blame on others!» says entrepreneur Yiannis Boutaris, another mayoral candidate who opts for the «thinking part» of the citizens, as he declares. In a place where the passe notion of right and left, south and north, in politics as well as in business is still alive and kicking, it is especially difficult to predict the outcome of elections or anything else. Seizing the opportunity of yesterday’s article in Kathimerini on ailing Thessaloniki, rumors have already circulated here that Macedonia’s oldest and most revered daily, appropriately entitled Makedonia, will take up the subject and examine how ailments could be cured.

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