Letter from Thessaloniki

Will Saint Demetrios once more defend his city against all those who covet it, against those who plot to destroy it? Will he support the Thessalonians in our – despairing – struggle to protect our identity as Greeks and as Macedonians? Will he help the Greek government, which is in a mess and will probably remain a mess whether or not a miracle happens? These thoughts surely passed through the minds of the faithful when Saint Demetrios’s icon departed his basilica on Saturday for its triumphant parade through the city streets escorted by detachments of Greek soldiers in full battle dress. They were followed by navy officers and elite commandos in camouflage uniform against the phalanx of Orthodox clergymen in their black robes, cylindrical hats and full beards. A flock of local dignitaries – there is so much to Greek religion that it is not easy to know where to begin – followed his holiness Thessaloniki Metropolitan Bishop Anthimos and Prefect Panayiotis Psomiadis, nicknamed Panikas and known mainly for his scorching wit and sometime sailor’s tongue. Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos gazed at him with the amused curiosity of someone at a circus. Everyone fluttered to and from the basilica as an Air Force brass band struck up a slow march and the bells of St Demetrios burst into excited tolls. Rubbing their eyes as if awakening from a spell, Greeks gaze at the economic minefield that lies ahead, praying simultaneously to St Demetrios the Megalomartyr (Great Martyr) and Myrovlitis (one whose tomb gives forth a sweet fragrance) to intervene miraculously and stop this potentially devastating series of bank collapses. From Friday to Tuesday, Thessaloniki celebrates both her warrior patron’s name day as well as the rejection of a most shameful – for Italian history at least – ultimatum presented to the Greeks on October 28, 1940, the legendary «Ochi (No) Day.» On October 28, 1940, the Italian ambassador arrived in the early morning hours at the home of the Greek dictator, Ioannis Metaxas. He handed Metaxas, who was still dressed in a bathrobe, an ultimatum from Benito Mussolini demanding the Italian occupation of Greek territory. Metaxas, an ardent royalist who had created his own version of the Third Reich in Greece, replied in French: «Alors, c’est la guerre» (So, it is war) and this was translated into Greek as a laconic «Ochi» (No) and thus Metaxas went down in history as one of the greatest Greek leaders. Despite Italian superiority in numbers and equipment, determined defenders of Greece at first drove the invaders back into Albania. Today, when centrifugal economic forces are threateningly at work, one cannot help recalling that those turbulent days at the start of World War II were one of the rare moments that found the Greek people, their government and the opposition entirely united. In the 1940s, Hitler was forced to divert German troops to protect his southern flank and he overran Greece in 1941. Following a very severe German occupation in which many Greeks died (including over 90 percent of Greece’s Jewish community), German forces withdrew in October 1944 and the government-in-exile returned to Athens. Thessaloniki had known war long before that. At the outbreak of the Balkan Wars in 1912, the city was the Ottoman Empire’s most cosmopolitan city, its gateway to the West. Armenians, Bulgarians, Turks and «Frangi» – Italians, French, Germans – all lived here. It was 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. To be frank, relations between the Greeks and Jews were never extremely cordial in this city. And yet it was mainly the Jews who gave the city the sophisticated atmosphere that it misses so much today. Strange as its sounds, the city’s professional, cultural and intellectual Christian elite, who might have spoken out at the time (1942), remained silent when the Jews were deported. On April 8, 1941, German armored legions occupied Thessaloniki and almost immediately started a discriminatory policy against the Jews of the city. When former Israeli President Moshe Katsav visited the city a few years ago, he 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 that in no other city did the Jews know such economic growth as in Thessaloniki. He praised Thessaloniki for opening its arms to embrace the Jews who were forced to leave Spain in the 15th century. The prewar Jewish population of Greece was about 76,000, some 55,000 of whom lived in Thessaloniki, 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. Nowadays, the once-vibrant place of varied peoples has deteriorated into a city that has become synonymous with a most conservative spirit. A «city of ghosts,» as historian Mark Mazower characterized Thessaloniki. Can the city be revived? Holding with great effort onto the franchise begun by his uncle, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, whose parliamentary constituency is here in Thessaloniki, missed his big chance last September at the International Fair to present himself in a more positive light. His government’s handling of the Vatopedi land exchange affair presented the spectacle of a ruling party with no coordination whatsoever, and, moreover, a party that is afraid of itself. Some cynics note that the global economic crisis presents the government with an opportunity to blame external bogeymen. Now, unless something very odd, or truly wondrous, happens between today and the end of the year, ruling New Democracy is in great danger. Will Saint Demetrios be so generous as to save his faithful once more?