Letter from Thessaloniki

«If what is being written or reported by most journalists on the war in Lebanon expresses the public opinion in our country, then I conclude that what interests us is not to look more closely into the real problem of the affair. We merely wish that the Jews may lose, and that’s all,» a commentator noted yesterday in To Vima newspaper. And the paper’s popular Pandora column concluded by remarking: «How strange that composer Mikis Theodorakis, who has maintained that ‘Jews are at the root of evil’ has not spoken out yet.» Well, let’s face it, one cannot call it systematic anti-Semitism. But there is unquestionably a «time-honored antipathy toward Jews,» as Kathimerini commentator Pantelis Boukalas once expressed it. Let’s admit it for once: There is anti-Semitism in Greece and it is not just prevalent now that Israel is pursuing a successful and predatory course of military expansion and it is not just among extreme rightists and leftists, but is embedded in mainstream society. Well, at least in Thessaloniki. There are figures to prove this: Something less than 5 percent of this city’s Jewish population escaped deportation compared with a big-hearted 50 percent in the Greek capital in the years 1943 to 1944. Having lived in Thessaloniki – a city that has been called «Madre de Israel» (Mother to Israel) – a place which once had the largest and most prosperous Jewish community of the diaspora, I still have memories of Holy Easter Saturdays and our Christian «custom» of burning an effigy of Judas in the courtyard of several churches. (In general practice, if not in actual statute, the official Greek Orthodox Church has repeatedly condemned the action.) My ears still ring with all those conspiracy theories I heard as a child in which Jews were the protagonists. And I still remember hearing them referred to as «Theoktoni» (God killers). Sure enough, Christian Greeks and Thessaloniki Jews have lived for centuries together in this city, though never too close. A careful society has always tended to keep a proper distance between the two. «Salonica’s Jews had given the victorious Greek army a cool welcome,» comments Mark Mazower in his monumental study «Salonica, City of Ghosts» when describing the liberation of Thessaloniki in 1912, possibly with the divine assistance of the city’s patron saint Dimitrios, as some maintain. At the time, many Jews had serious doubts about a future Greek administration. According to Mazower: «Warning that annexation by Greece would be economically disastrous, cutting off the city from its traditional markets, some Jewish leaders proposed instead that Salonica and its environs should, in effect, become an autonomous statelet guaranteed by the Great Powers, a Jewish-run metropolis detached from the rivalries of its Balkan neighbors.» It was the time when one of the founders of the World Zionist Organization and author of some controversial books («The Conventional Lies of Our Civilization,» «Degeneration» and such), Max Simon Nordau (1849-1923), exhorted Thessaloniki’s Jews to «favor the barbarous Bulgarians rather than the civilized Greeks.» Yet how is one to measure barbarism, civilization and Theodor Herzl-styled Zionism? In Istanbul a Turkish-Jewish-Vlach-Macedonian Committee was formed to promote the idea. Furthermore, some prominent Jewish Ottoman sympathizers may have gone even further and promised the Ottoman government financial support if it continued to fight against the Balkan states. Similar events can be neither be forgotten or forgiven. This could eventually explain the more or less general indifference when the city’s Jews were gathered for their no-return voyage to a Polish concentration camp. «The silence from Salonica’s professional classes was deafening,» notes Mazower. «From the university professors and students, the business and lawyers’ associations, there was barely a whisper.» And in his book «In Memoriam» Michael Molcho adds, «The rumor circulated insistently in Salonica, especially among the Jews, that the government was not entirely opposed to the idea of deporting the Jewish element, and this because the government sought thus to attain a double end, that of assuring the racial homogeneity of the population and of facilitating the settlement of refugees from Thrace and Macedonia who had flooded the city.» Yet it was not just the Greek «anti-Semitism» or «the German SS officials whose harsh behavior seemed so frightening,» notes Mazower, a Jew himself. «The Hirsch camp became notorious as a place where the leaders of the Jewish police tortured, exhorted and killed their fellow-Jews in order to force them to reveal where their possessions were kept.» Furthermore, the role of the town’s chief rabbi Koretz remains unclear to this day. Opinion polls may have revealed signs of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny and homophobia over the years – and not just in Greece – yet it all depends on whose sympathetic ears a well-informed propaganda campaign may fall.