Greece at last honours forgotten Jews

The Greek city once known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans has at last honoured the thousands of Jews who perished in the Second World War. The delay of half a century is not the result of amnesia but reflects the twists and turns of Greece's foreign policy
Click to follow
The Independent Online
After waiting more than half a century, Holocaust survivors gathered yesterday in Salonica, the city once called the "Jerusalem of the Balkans", to unveil a monument to tens of thousands of friends, relatives and neighbours killed in Nazi death camps.

"Better late than never," said Amir Mois, 85, one of the estimated 40 camp survivors who are still alive in Greece, a remnant of a Jewish community that traces its roots in the city back 2,500 years.

The Greek government last year approved the monument to the nearly 50,000 Jews of Salonica killed during the Nazi occupation of Greece. More than 17,000 Jews from other parts of Greece also died in the camps and today there are fewer than 5,000 Jews left in Greece, and only about 1,000 Jews in Salonica.

People wept and placed flowers on the Holocaust monument, a 10ft-high bronze menorah in a central square where Jews were rounded up before being shipped to concentration camps. The design resembles a group of people reaching up as they are burned in the death-camp fires.

Some Jewish leaders complained of the long delay in a government-backed memorial, which the Jewish community first requested 43 years ago.

"There was a great delay, but now is not the time to analyse the reasons why," said the Greek foreign minister, Theodoros Pangalos, who was among 400 or so officials and Holocaust survivors at the ceremony.

Some Jewish leaders believe the memorial was held up for decades by the Greek Orthodox Church, the officially recognised religion, and by the policies of successive governments towards Israel. Greece, which for decades has had warm ties with Arab states, only recognised Israel in the early Nineties.

Evangelos Venizelos, the culture minister, said the monument healed misunderstandings which had "unjustly and badly harmed the credibility of the country".

The Jewish community in Greece dates back at least to the sixth century BC. Many arrived in Salonica during the 15th century from Spain to escape the Inquisition. Salonica blossomed as a centre for Balkan Jews at the start of the 20th century, when the community made up half the population of about 150,000.

"It is no coincidence that the city came to the named the `Jerusalem of the Balkans'," said Israel's health minister, Yehoshua Matza, who said he can trace part of his family to northern Greece.

During the occupation, Nazi occupiers eradicated almost all of Salonica's Jewish heritage. The Jewish cemetery was ploughed under and destroyed, and the city's university was built later on the site. Only two synagogues remain.