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But the commemoration weekend in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece with an area population of nearly 800,000, included several signs that change is in the air.
A public march from its Liberty Square, where the Jews were first rounded up, to the Old Railway Station, where 50,000 were put on cattle cars to Auschwitz, was organized by the city’s dynamic and controversial new mayor, Yiannis Boutaris. It was the first such display by the Jewish community since the end of the war.
An unorthodox, chain-smoking, straight-talking businessman with a stud in one ear, Boutaris, 71, has shaken up Thessaloniki since becoming mayor in 2011. One of his main thrusts has been to revive Thessaloniki’s cosmopolitan history, embracing a city important to Turks for its Ottoman past and to Jews, who once were a majority and a center of Sephardi and Ladino culture.
“For the first time we have a mayor who dares to say we are all one family,” Saltiel said. “For the first time we have a mayor who is not afraid.”
About 2,500 people took part in the march, according to police estimates, most of them were not Jewish. They walked the two miles in silence until they reached the station before scattering flowers on the rails. Keeping watch were busloads of riot police blocking off the route and military snipers on rooftops.
“This is the least we can do to honor the citizens of Thessaloniki who lost their lives in the concentration camps,” said Boutaris, who is also working for further restitution of Jewish property.
Much of the shift in attitude can be attributed to sustained pressure from Jewish communities in Greece and abroad, and to Samaras’ desire to maintain relations with Israel that have flourished in the past three years.
“The prime minister realizes the danger Golden Dawn poses to Greece and used this as the perfect opportunity to send the message to Greek society,” said Victor Eliezer, a member of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece and a frequent political commentator. “He also wants to take Greece out of the group of European nations that are allowing neo-Nazis to flourish.”