‘Jewish heritage part of our past and future’ says mayor of Thessaloniki

As Thessaloniki intends to open a Holocaust museum, its mayor wears a Star of David in defiance of neo-Nazi Greek party.

May 4, 2019 21:44
2 minute read.
‘Jewish heritage part of our past and future’ says mayor of Thessaloniki

A man walks past a graffiti dedicated to the Holocaust in the northern port city of Thessaloniki. (photo credit: ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS/REUTERS)

The mayor of Greece’s second city of Thessaloniki Yiannis Boutaris spoke on Thursday of the importance he holds in highlighting his city’s rich Jewish past as a way of bolstering social harmony.

Boutaris was in Israel on a three-day visit that included participating in the Holocaust Remembrance Day closing ceremony of Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Boutaris said that before the Holocaust, Jews, Greeks, Turks, Slavs and others lived together in Thessaloniki and that this vibrant social tapestry should serve as a model for coexistence and tolerance today in a Europe which is experiencing political and social tension.

Boutaris, who took office in 2011, has made recognizing the Jewish contribution to Thessaloniki, once known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans, a prominent feature of his administration, and is now seeking to boost Israel’s ties with the city.

In one of his first acts as mayor, he held a ceremony in the municipal council commemorating the 27 Holocaust survivors in the city who were alive at the time, the first time that the city officially recognized and paid tribute to them.

At the beginning of his second term in 2014, Boutaris demonstrably wore a Star of David during the opening session of the council in protest the election of two council members from the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party.

He has also advanced the establishment of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Thessaloniki, which he has said will stand as “a beacon against racism and fascism,” and has helped raise €30 million for the project, which will break ground by the end of this year.

But Boutaris said that the museum is designed “not only to present the horrors” of the Nazi genocide but also to highlight the more than 2,000 years of Jewish history in the city and in particular the last 500 years before the Holocaust in which the Jewish community flourished.

“These are facts which we have to raise and educate our fellow citizens about,” said the mayor.

“We don’t know what Thessaloniki was [anymore]. I said to my fellow citizens, you cannot know your future until you know your past. And Jewish heritage is part of our past and part of our future.”

The Jewish community of Thessaloniki, known as Salonika when the city was part of the Ottoman Empire, is one of the oldest in Europe. While dating back some 2,000 years, the community was enriched following the 1492 expulsion of Sephardi Jews from Spain.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Jews were the largest ethnic group in the city and constituted about half of all its inhabitants. More than 95% of Thessaloniki’s 55,000 Ladino-speaking Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

Boutaris said that the murder of the city’s Jewish population “deprived the city of the most active, energetic part of Thessaloniki from all classes, workers, professors, medics, doctors, and industrialists.”

Speaking of the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony to which he was invited by Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, Boutaris said that he accepted because he felt a duty to remember those who perished.

“I feel very close to the Jewish community. I feel obliged to honor the survivors, and restore the relations of the Israeli community in general with the community of Thessaloniki,” he said.

“Above all, I want to teach our fellow citizens what it means to live together with people who are not the same religion and do not have the same heritage.”

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