Thessaloniki’s mayor wants his Greek city to remember its vibrant Jewish past

“I am proud to be a Vlach,” says Yiannis Boutaris, the mayor of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city.

Ostensibly, we’re here at the Washington Hilton to discuss Boutaris’ bid to put the Jewish back in Thessaloniki, a city — perhaps best known as Salonika —once home to the largest numbers of Jews in Greece.

But I’m the one who brought up the Vlachs, a dwindling minority of speakers of an ancient Latin dialect, scattered throughout the Balkans. When he ambles over, I greet him with the “Ci fac?” I have learned from my wife’s family. Pronounced “Tzi fatz,” it more or less means “what’s up?”

His eyes widen a little. “Gini!” he says, he’s fine. He looks at his aide, Leonidas Makris, with a look that suggests, “I thought you told me this guy was Jewish?”

I explain my connection, through marriage, to the Vlachs, insular shepherds whose descendants, starting a century ago, assimilated throughout Balkan societies. He asks me where my wife is “from.” I know better than to say Washington, and I tell him Perivoli, the tiny village in the Pindar mountains where our family has summered. He smiles, recognizing the village as one of a constellation of mountaintop Vlach summertime refuges, even before I have completely pronounced it.

Boutaris, a youthful, wiry 74, was here in June to be honored by the American Jewish Committee at its annual Washington conference. He is among 508 American and European mayors who have signed on to the AJC’s Mayors Against Anti-Semitism pledge.

Boutaris stands out among the mayors, though, for his commitment to his city’s Jewish meaning. At his most recent inauguration, he wore a yellow patch reminiscent of the ones forced on Jews during the Holocaust. It “was received as a definite position against the Golden Dawn,” Greece’s anti-Semitic, ultranationalist party, he said.

“Everyone knows what the yellow star was,” he said.

The gesture also infuriated the city’s powerful and at times intrusive Greek Orthodox leadership.

Boutaris, a vintner by trade, enjoys recounting his bouts with his city’s prelates. He recalls his first election campaign, spearheading an alliance of left-leaning parties in 2010. “I said in a public speech, ‘the archbishop acts like the mujahedin!’” he said, referring to the Muslim jihadis in various countries.

On Thessaloniki’s national day, October 26, the archbishop warned him, “‘you will never see the municipality chair’!”

The next month, Boutaris won the election handily. Of the archbishop’s expressed enmity, he says: “I think this helped a lot,” although he hastens to add that he has since achieved a détente with the church.

Boutaris’ city, an Ottoman haven for Jewish refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions, was famous for centuries for its Jewish plurality. Its reputation for tolerance diminished when the city was riven by nationalist struggles as the Ottoman empire collapsed in the early part of the 20th century, and then by a devastating fire in 1917 that drove many Jews to emigrate.

Thessaloniki was a haven for Jewish refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

There remained a vibrant community nonetheless, even as the ethnocentric Greek nationalist movement exerted pressure on minorities – Turks, Jews, Vlachs – to repress their languages and identities and become Greek. Two of my Jewish grandparents were born there. In 1941, the Nazis occupied the city and in short order deported over 95 percent of the community to death camps and labor camps. Salonika’s Jewish past is a faint echo now, recalled only in the occasional neighborhood name – like the Modiano market, named for a prominent Jewish family.

Boutaris, like the other 188 European mayors who signed onto the AJC pledge, casts it as a means of containing the anti-Semitism reemerging on their continent.

Boutaris and the other signers “are individually and collectively sending a powerful, if not unprecedented, message to their larger communities,” David Harris, the AJC CEO, told JTA in an emailed statement.

He and Makris, his assistant, are not comfortable discussing Greece’s status, according to Anti-Defamation League surveys in 2014 and 2015, as the continent’s most anti-Semitic country. Some 67 percent of the population hold anti-Semitic views, the more recent survey said. The mayor and his assistant believe the survey is vastly exaggerated.

Makris tries to explain the results as a product of a deeply pessimistic Greek political culture, where poll respondents are likely to believe the worst about their leaders, immigrants, minorities, their next-door neighbors — just about everyone — but otherwise behave in a welcoming manner.

“There is an ambivalence among Greek people,” he says, noting how Greeks simultaneously cast the flood of refugees from Syria as a burden — and yet have turned out en masse to assist them.

Boutaris says that Israel’s conflict is keenly felt in a country that has ancient ties with the Arab world, and that has been influenced in recent decades by close relations between Arab nationalists and the Greek left. “Greeks wonder why they can’t find a way of living together,” he says of Israel and the Palestinians.

Yet the obsession with Israel among some Greeks clearly frustrates Boutaris, in a way that Israel’s leaders would appreciate. Every country deals with internal and external threats, he says, some in ways that make Israel’s actions pale by comparison. “You have to sit down and see what’s happening in Syria!” he exclaimed.

There is a deeper, more resonant dimension to Boutaris’ Jewish outreach, one that aligns with his origins as a Vlach, a people disappearing into Greece’s forcefully monolithic culture.

Boutaris wants Greeks to remember that their country was once not so monocultural, that there were other peoples that once thrived here. He has proposed a monument to the Young Turks, who emerged in Thessaloniki in the first decade of the 20th century and whose uprising eventually led to Turkey’s transformation in the 1920s into a secular state.

His focus in Washington is raising awareness about a Jewish cultural center he hopes to found. (The city has a small Jewish museum.) He has raised $20 million so far; he needs another $5 million or so for operating costs.

The one thing he does not want it to be is another Holocaust memorial; instead, he wants a monument to a community that thrived in Thessaloniki for 500 years and that helped define the city.

“Enough with the Holocaust, enough with the mourning, although we will never forget,” he says. “We want to bring up the Jewish heritage, which should not stop with the Holocaust.”

I bring up with Boutaris another personal connection to Thessaloniki: an incident from my first visit to the city, in 1996, that still haunts me.

A newly met Greek friend plied me and my then fiancée with a little too much retsina, the sweet and potent Greek white wine, during a visit to his house.  When I conked out and lay down, I overheard him, through a haze, ask my fiancée what had become of me. She told him I was sleeping it off, and he laughed and began to sing “Durme, Durme,” the Jewish Ladino lullaby that at one time would have been familiar to the city’s Jews and non-Jews alike.

I asked our Greek friend afterward if he understood the lullaby’s Jewish origins; he had no idea. It was a song. It was another echo of a disappeared Jewish city.

Boutaris gets it, before I have even finished pronouncing “Durme, Durme” – he knows the lullaby. “Attention must be paid” might as well be his mission statement. “No one knows what Thessaloniki could have been,” he says, “if it hadn’t lost 95 percent of its Jewish community.”

Golden Dawn’s gains in EU election signal failure of Greece’s crackdown

The picture of Golden Dawn leaders being led away in shackles by masked policemen last September was supposed to be a defining image: Greek authorities cracking down on the country’s neo-Nazi party as a harbinger of its demise.

Instead, soon there will be a new iconic image: three members of the party taking their seats in the European Parliament.

Golden Dawn — supposedly persecuted, prosecuted and in tatters – made substantial gains over the weekend in European elections, capturing 9.4 percent of the popular vote to emerge as the third-largest political party in Greece. Leaders of the party, which won 7 percent of the vote in the 2012 national elections, hailed the weekend vote as a clear triumph.

“We are the third political power in Greece,” jailed Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos wrote in a message to his followers. “We are the upcoming Greece.”

[Related: Why is Greece so anti-Semitic?]

For Golden Dawn’s opponents, including the small Jewish community in Greece, the election was deeply frustrating, signaling the apparent failure of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ strategy for dealing with ultranationalist party.

“It is a vote that makes us very uncomfortable,” said David Saltiel, the president of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece. “I think the Greek government needs to find ways to explain to the voters that the Golden Dawn is a Nazi party of killers.”

For the embattled Greek government, already struggling to pull the country out of a massive economic crisis amid a harsh austerity regime imposed by Europe, the vote is another blow. Samaras’ center-right New Democracy party, fearful of alienating the right wing of the party, until now has balked at outlawing Golden Dawn or bringing a tough anti-racism bill to parliament.

Instead, the government went after Golden Dawn in the courts, arresting most of its lawmakers. Six were jailed and stripped of their political immunity and state funding.

Samaras had been forced to act following widespread outrage and protests in Greece in the wake of the Sept. 18 killing of anti-fascist rapper Killah P by a suspected Golden Dawn member. Party members also have been accused of being behind dozens of violent attacks on immigrants in Greece.

Prosecutors have said the party, with its Nazi swastika-like flag and Holocaust-denying leadership, has a structured organization that operates along military lines and is inspired by the ideals of National Socialism.

Some of the leaders since have been released on bail while others await their trials. No dates have been set; Greece’s legal system often operates extremely slow.

Much of the government’s credibility with the public evaporated in April when a top aide to Samaras was forced to resign following the release of a video that appeared to show him telling Golden Dawn lawmakers that the government was only pressuring the courts to jail party members in order to stem the loss of New Democracy votes.

Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris released the video during a parliamentary debate on lifting his immunity.

The elections for European Parliament, the EU’s legislative branch, also have undermined the Greek government’s central tenet — that exposing Golden Dawn members for what they are would drain them of support.

This was clearly a fallacy, said Victor Eliezer, the secretary general of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.

“Now no one can say that they did not know, no one can say that it was a vote of protest,” he said. “This time, to my sorrow, the votes for Golden Dawn are clearly ideological; they are votes for a neo-Nazi party.”

For Greek Jews, the question remains of what can be done?

Some, like Saltiel, believe that only by tackling the underlying problems that affect Greece can they truly deal with Golden Dawn. A recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League showed that Greece has Europe’s highest rate of anti-Semitic viewpoints, with 69 percent of Greeks espousing anti-Semitic views. That’s nearly twice the rate as the next highest country, France, where the rate was 37 percent.

“Golden Dawn is a symptom of the sickness,” Saltiel said.

Some of Golden Dawn’s support comes from the role it has played in filling a vacuum created by the economic crisis.

While the government has slashed salaries and pensions, and unemployment soared to nearly 30 percent, Golden Dawn has stepped up by distributing food, medicine and other supplies to ethnic Greeks and providing security patrols in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods. Some of the patrols have resulted in violence against immigrants. Greece has seen a huge influx of immigrants in recent years who have used the country as a gateway to the rest of Europe.

“I think the government has to work to see the real problems of the people and see why people are voting for this extremist Nazi party,” Saltiel said.

Greek authorities have not said what their next steps will be, except for a brief statement from government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou reiterating that the government needs to do a better job explaining the dangers of Golden Dawn.

Others say it’s time that neo-Nazi extremism is addressed on a wider level. They point not just to the far-right surge in the European Parliament elections but to an uptick in extremist violence across Europe – including Saturday’s attack at the Brussels Jewish museum that left four dead.

“European leaders must address this problem urgently and come up with a strategy to fight extremism,” said Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress.

Lauder said he wants European leaders to find a “credible plan” to combat the problem.

“The future of European Jewry is at stake if these forces are not reined in,” he said.

Thessaloniki Jews to mark 70th anniversary of Nazi deportations

The Jewish community of Thessaloniki in northern Greece will hold a series of events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the first deportations of the city’s Jews to Auschwitz.

On March 15, 1943, the Nazis sent the first convoy of some 4,000 Jews from Thessaloniki to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. By August, 49,000 out of the city’s pre-war population of 55,000 Jews had been deported. Fewer than 2,000 survived.

The events will include a march on March 16 from the city’s Liberty Square to the Old Railway Station where a memorial ceremony will be held. That will be followed by the main commemoration ceremony on March 17 at Thessaloniki’s Monastiriotes Synagogue, where Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is expected to speak.

The Jewish community will also inaugurate a photographic exhibit about the deportations and hold a concert at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, which was constructed on the site of a destroyed Jewish cemetery.

The Jewish community of Thessaloniki was one of the most important centers of Sephardic Jewry for 450 years following the expulsion from Spain. Known as the Flower of the Balkans, it was the center of Ladino culture in the region.

Following the deportations, Jewish property was looted, synagogues were destroyed, priceless Ladino libraries were shipped to Germany and Jewish cemetery headstones were used as construction materials.

Also March 17, the World Jewish Congress will hold a special meeting in Thessaloniki, headed by Ronald Lauder, as part of the commemorations. The gathering is part of the organization's efforts to support vulnerable Jewish communities, the World Jewish Congress said in a statement

Today, about 1,000 Jews live in the city and they are “adversely affected by the country’s deep economic problems and by the rise of the extremist Golden Dawn, a movement whose leaders openly deny the Holocaust,” according to the World Jewish Congress.

Community Briefs: Greek and Jewish Concert, British Chief Rabbi Address Jews, Solar Power

Greek and Jewish Concert Benefits College

For nearly two centuries, Thessaloniki, Greece, reigned as the largest Jewish city in the world. Sephardic Jews expelled from their homes by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain found refuge there and even referred to the area as the “Mother of Israel.”

Dario Gabbai was one of thousands of Sephardic Jews living in Thessaloniki in the 1940s. But like so many others, his time in Greece was cut short. By April 1944, Gabbai found himself riding in a cattle car with his family to Auschwitz.

The Nazis had invaded, and the city would never again be the same: More than 95 percent of its Jewish population would be lost. Among them were the Jewish students at Anatolia College.

Today, Anatolia College functions as an elementary school, secondary school and a private nonprofit university in Greece, chartered by the state of Massachusetts and accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. But back then, the more than 90 Jewish students enrolled in the institution perished.

On Monday, approximately 300 people — Jews and Greeks alike — gathered at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel for “An evening of Greek and Jewish Music,” hosted by former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and his wife, Kitty. The fundraiser will benefit the college, helping create two memorial classrooms at the school, as well as support Holocaust education at the institution and in the city at large.

“We wanted to do it in memory of them,” said Kitty Dukakis, referring to the Jewish Anatolia students who were lost during the Nazi invasion.

Kitty Dukakis, who is Jewish, said the idea for the event began when she visited the school’s campus nearly two years ago but also stemmed from seeing the traveling photo exhibition, “Hidden Children in Occupied Greece,” which told the stories of 16 Jewish children in Greece who managed to escape death during the Nazi occupation, thanks to the Christian families who were willing to take them in.

“It was there that Kitty and I said … ‘Maybe we can do something. Bring the two communities together again,’” Michael Dukakis said at the start of the evening, while noting that he himself was often mistaken for being Jewish on the campaign trail, although he is in actuality Greek.

Consul General of Israel Yaacov Dayan and Consul General of Greece Dimitris Caramitsos-Tziras joined the Dukakis family on stage before the music started.

“We will not be silent. And when we speak, we do it on behalf of all the silent communities around the world,” Dayan said.

Craig Taubman, a local Jewish artist who has also composed music for television and films; Cantor Alberto Mizrahi, a Greek-born tenor and cantor at the Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago; the Rev. John S. Bakas, dean of the Saint Sophia Cathedral and the Greek Orthodox Community in Los Angeles; and Anna Vissi, a leading Greek recording artist, made up the eclectic group of Jewish and Greek musicians who entertained the crowd for the evening.

Gabbai, now 86, sat in the front row of the concert hall, far from the Nazi crematorium he was once forced to work in but managed to survive.

“It was a very beautiful evening, a good time” he said. “The singing brought me back to many younger days.”

Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

British Chief Rabbi to Address World Jewry in Webcast on Commandment to Learn Torah>/b>

Thousands of Jews at 350 locations worldwide will hear a lecture this Sunday by England’s Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in a synchronized webcast to commemorate the biblical commandment of gathering Jews to learn Torah.

Sacks’ lecture about freedom, hope and unity is sponsored by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), the adult educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, in honor of the upcoming Passover holiday and the Hakhel year, or Jewish year of gathering. In biblical times, the entire nation would gather in the Temple’s courtyard every seven years to hear the words of the Torah.

People from six contents and numerous time zones will gather at Chabad houses and other Jewish centers at the same time on March 29. Groups will begin assembling as early as 6 a.m. in Australia and as late as 9:30 p.m. in Europe and Israel. Groups will gather at around 11:30 a.m. in several locations throughout California.

Rabbi Sacks’ lecture is the second in JLI’s four-part “Unity Lecture” series. The first was given in January by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who is best known for his Hebrew translation and commentary on the Talmud.

The next lecture will be delivered in June by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel.

Sacks has been chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth since 1991 and is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading contemporary exponents of Judaism.

For times and locations, visit

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer

Solar Power to Light Eternal Lamps

Twelve Southern California synagogues will simultaneously flip the switch on new solar-powered Eternal Lamps on Tuesday, April 7, at 10 a.m., in honor of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to recite a special prayer over the sun.

Jews bless the sun in a ritual known as Birkat Hachamah once every 28 years, when tradition holds the celestial bodies are aligned just as they were when they were created. The Southern California Board of Rabbis, with a $10,000 grant from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, is celebrating the ritual by installing solar panels in synagogues to illuminate the Eternal Lamp, or Ner Tamid, which stays lit above the ark containing the Torahs at all times.

“Birkat Hachamah and Passover are times of spiritual renewal for the Jewish community, and we believe that harnessing solar energy is a powerful symbol of that renewal,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, one of the participating synagogues, will celebrate the event with distinguished guests and a children’s choir. The synagogue will bury a time capsule containing children’s essays and pictures about their hopes and visions of what energy sources we will be using by 2037 — the next time the Blessing of the Sun ceremony will be celebrated and when the time capsule will be reopened.

For a list of participating synagogues and more information, visit

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer