The prime minister of Greece, Antonis Samaras, promised Jewish leaders who gathered last weekend in Saloniki to mark the 70th year since the start of deportations to the death camps from the city, that his government would enact new laws to proscribe neo-Nazi parties.
Only 1,500 Jews live in Saloniki today but the port city in northern Greece has a Jewish history going back 2,200 years, and for hundreds of years it was the location of the largest Jewish community in Europe. Over 90 per cent of the 53,000 Jews who lived in Saloniki on the eve of the Second World War were murdered by the Germans in the death camps, and the events this weekend were the first-ever large-scale commemoration of the deportations to take place in Greece.
Mr Samaras made the first visit to a synagogue by a serving Greek prime minister when he attended a memorial service at Saloniki’s Monastiriotes Synagogue. He said at the service that “Greek society has been infected by voices that seek to resurrect racism” and that “neo-Nazis have reappeared once again in Europe”. Despite promising his government would “continue to legislate towards complete intolerance of violence and racism,” Mr Samaras refrained from directly referring to the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party which won seven per cent of votes in the last Greek election.
Many of those involved in the commemoration events acknowledged, however, that they were taking place partly in reaction to the rise of Golden Dawn.
It was unclear what the new laws being proposed by Mr Samaras would look like. The leaders of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), who held an executive committee meeting in Saloniki in a display of support for Greece’s Jews, demanded a law barring Holocaust-denying parties such as Golden Dawn from running in the elections. But it did not seem that Mr Samaras was prepared to go that far. In a closed meeting with WJC representatives and leaders of the local Jewish community, Mr Samaras made more detailed commitments to push through legislation against Golden Dawn, but one of the meeting’s participants said: “I am still not convinced he has the political willpower for an effective law to be enacted.”
In his speech at the memorial service, WJC President Ronald Lauder was the only speaker to mention Golden Dawn by name, saying that “they think like Nazis, they speak like Nazis, they act like Nazis. They are Nazis.”
Golden Dawn has so far pursued a mainly anti-immigrant agenda and president of the Jewish community in Saloniki, David Saltiel, said this week that “they are not at present physically attacking Jews, but we must see every attack on immigrants as if it is an attack on Jews and demand the government does everything to prevent them”.