Antonis Samaras stood in the pale morning light coming through the stained glass windows of the only Thessaloniki synagogue to survive World War II and vowed, “Never again.”
For Greek Jews marking the 70th anniversary of the destruction of this city’s historic Jewish community, the Greek prime minister’s words were long awaited. So was his presence – the first time a sitting Greek premier had set foot in a synagogue in 101 years.
“We have to be very careful to remember the message of ‘Never again,’ ” Samaras said at the March 17 commemoration. “The fight against neo-Nazis is more important than ever.”
Greek Jews had the past on their minds on the weekend of March 15 -17 as they gathered to remember the beginning of the Nazi deportation of Thessaloniki’s Jews to Auschwitz. But they were also mindful of the present, in particular the sudden rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party that erupted on the political scene last year, coming from nowhere to grab 18 seats in the Greek Parliament.
Greece’s government, besieged by an economic crisis and unwilling to confront an emerging populist party, has said little about Golden Dawn’s violent activities against immigrants and anti-Semitic outbursts. But Samara’s presence in Thessaloniki, and his vow to be “completely intolerant to violence and racism,” appeared to mark a shift.
“For me this was something that I saw now for the first time,” said David Saltiel, president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece. “It was the first time for a prime minister in a synagogue, and also for him to be so clear that he wanted this to symbolize his tough decision not to permit racism and anti-Semitism.”
Greece’s small Jewish community has watched in horror as Golden Dawn has grown in popularity over the past year, garnering more and more public support. Greek Jews had hoped there would be some pushback from the country’s leaders in the face of attacks on immigrants by black-shirted gangs and anti-Semitic statements by party leaders. But there has been little.
Samaras, heading a shaky coalition government, put all his efforts into dealing with Greece’s massive economic crisis; the unpopular austerity measures he forced through left him very little political capital for taking on the populist party. And the weary Greek public dismissed rising support for Golden Dawn as just a protest vote, turning a blind eye to its violence and ideology of hate.