Thessaloniki mayor hopes to attract Israeli tourists

“We cannot look into the future without knowing the past. Not for nothing was it called the Jerusalem of the Balkans."

thessaloniki 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
thessaloniki 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris has always felt close to the Jewish community of his city, he told The Jerusalem Post at the Israel Trade Fairs Center on Tuesday.
“My first lover in high school was Jewish,” the white-haired mayor, who exudes an air of sophistication, recalled as he lit up a cigarette. “She later got married in Paris, but I had several Jewish friends in class.”
The dapper Boutaris wants to bring Israeli tourists to Thessaloniki to observe its rich Jewish heritage and taste the port city’s cosmopolitan atmosphere.
“Thessaloniki is looking back and accepting its identity,” Boutaris said earlier at a press conference. “We cannot look into the future without knowing the past. Not for nothing was it called the Jerusalem of the Balkans, and it could be that again.”
Sitting beside him was Hasdai Kapon, one of the city’s seven deputy mayors and its first senior Jewish municipal official since World War II.
“About 1,300 Jews live in the city,” Kapon said. “There are two synagogues and a small but very good Jewish community, a Jewish elementary school and well-preserved cemeteries. We have Jews come and visit from all over the world.”
Jews are believed to have first settled in Thessaloniki in ancient times, but the arrival of Sephardic Jews after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 rejuvenated the community, and for the next several hundred years it often had a Jewish majority.
Their prominence was such that the city’s port would officially close for Shabbat.
“There were 50,000 Jews before the war,” Boutaris said.
“Sephardic Jews who started arriving 500 years ago found a home in Thessaloniki. The Jewish element was very important in commerce and culture – and let’s not forget that the leader of the socialist movement in Thessaloniki was a Jew.”
Thessaloniki lost its Jewish majority around the turn of the 19th century due to immigration into the city by Greeks and Turks from the countryside, and emigration by its community members to places like North America, which offered better financial opportunities.
During the Holocaust, about 96 percent of the Jews of Thessaloniki were murdered by the Nazis in concentration camps – a loss that Boutaris said left an indelible scar on his city.
From his earring and the tattoos of his astrological sign (Libra) on his knuckles, it is apparent that the current mayor of Thessaloniki is not your average politician. Born into a family of winemakers, he has a degree in oenology.
Before entering politics, he was a businessman, and his first steps in public life were as a conservationist and animal rights activist.
“In Greece we had a practice of abusing brown bears,” he said. “We pushed the Agriculture Ministry not only to prevent their abuse, but also to preserve their habitat. You cannot save the bears without preserving the forest.”
Following his involvement in a successful campaign to protect a landmark building in Thessaloniki, he decided to run as an independent candidate in the mayoral elections last year and, with the backing of the socialists, emerged triumphant.
Israel is one of the first places Boutaris has visited since he was sworn into office on January 1.
“I was last here in 1975 and went to two kibbutzim – I know they aren’t doing well now – to import drip irrigation to Greece,” he recalled. “Back then, Tel Aviv didn’t have all these high-rise buildings. I love the research and development Israel has done and the Bauhaus architecture.”
The campaign promoting Israeli tourism to Thessaloniki comes at a time when the number of Israeli tourists to nearby Turkey has dropped dramatically because of political tensions between the two countries. But Israelis who choose to go to Thessaloniki to avoid interacting with the Turks might end up disappointed.
“We have many Turkish tourists who come to Thessaloniki,” Boutaris said. “After all, it is the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal,” the father of modern Turkey.
A group of American Jewish leaders is currently on a five day visit to Greece. The delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations visited a Holocaust memorial Tuesday in Thessaloniki, and is due to meet Prime Minister George Papandreou in Athens on Thursday.
Greek and Israeli officials say the two countries are in preliminary talks on potential energy deals involving Israeli offshore natural gas deposits.
AP contributed to this report.