The remnants of Greek Jewry has just marked the seventieth anniversary of the 1943 deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Thessaloniki – Greece’s “Little Jerusalem” – of all except those Jews who escaped to the mountains to fight the German occupiers. In his memoirs, Henry Levy – then a young Greek Jew who later survived the death camps – recalled how, jailed temporarily in Thessaloniki’s Eptapyrgio prison, he met an “andarte” (Partisan fighter), “a young priest from a small village near Polygyros.” Levy wrote, “[He] admitted to and apologized for his misconceptions regarding the Jewish people. It was hard for him to believe that we were Jews because his religious teachings portrayed us as criminals and manipulators and ‘where were our long noses?”
In 2011, the Holocaust Memorial of Thessaloniki – where 46,000 Jews were rounded up and deported by the Nazis in 1943 – was desecrated. Tragically, seven decades later, too many young Greeks have unlearned the lesson not to demonize Jews.
At the start of Greece’s economic meltdown around 2009, Greek Jews already thought their country was in a bad way politically when the extreme right-wing Popular Orthodox Party (LAOS) came out of virtually nowhere to win seven percent of the national vote. Back in 2001, LAOS leader and MP Georgios Karatzaferis had raised the question of Jewish complicity in the 9/11 attacks in Parliament, stating that “the Jews have no right to provoke, because they have filled the world with crimes.”
“There were no ovens. This is a lie. I believe that it is a lie…There were no gas chambers either.”
But worse was to come. LAOS has now been overshadowed by Chrisi Avgi or “Golden Dawn,” a party that that bolsters its grassroots support by demonizing Jewish ghosts: Its high-flying leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos declares: “There were no ovens. This is a lie. I believe that it is a lie….There were no gas chambers either.”
Winning 5.3 percent of Athens’ municipal vote in 2010 (and as much as 20 percent in some neighborhoods with large immigrant communities), the Golden Dawn Party exploited economic chaos to make a national electoral breakthrough in 2012. It gained 21 parliamentary seats in the May elections and ended with 18 after a follow up vote one month later.
Golden Dawn’s flag closely resembles the Nazi swastika. It campaigned heavily on an anti-immigrant platform under the slogan: “So we can rid this land of filth.” Golden Dawn’s leaders proudly unleashed the Nazi salute and its charter limits membership to “only Aryans in blood and Greeks in descent.” With the impunity granted by his parliamentary immunity, Golden Dawn MP Ilias Kasidiaris approvingly read excerpts from that notorious forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, into the parliamentary record.
The Greek Socialist Party (PASOK) – no longer as hostile to Israel as it was during the heyday of Premier Andreas Papandreou – has joined the new “unity” government. Into the vacuum on the opposition left has stepped the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), now Greece’s largest opposition party with around 25 percent support. The problem with the main opposition? The vehemently anti-Zionist SYRIZA promises to drastically downgrade relations with “aggressive” Israel.
The Greek political center is, if anything, more troubling. The center-right New Democracy Party has been a favorite of Greek Jews since the early 1990s when its Prime Minister Mitsotakis upgraded diplomatic relations with Israel and also practiced domestic fiscal sanity. But now, the New Democracy has admitted to its ranks some former MPs belonging to LAOS including Thanos Plevris, son and ally of Greek’s leading anti-Semitic lawyer-politician, Konstantinos (Kostas) Plevris, a self-declared “Nazi, fascist, racist, anti-democrat, anti-Semite.”
As the German people learned between the world wars: after the center collapses – what remains standing against the extremes?
In September of that fateful year 1943, the leader of the Greek Jewish community, Asher Moissis, who prided himself on his dual Hebraic-Helenic heritage, secretly paid his last visit to Archbishop Damaskinos. It was clear that the Germans would soon extend the deportations from Salonika to Athens. Moissis asked the religious leader to intervene. The elderly but unwavering Archbishop agreed to try to intercede with the Germans to delay Athens Jewry’s death warrant. Knowing, however, about the massive deportations that had already occurred in the North, he urged the entire Jewish community to flee and instructed Greek Orthodox priests to speak out against the deportations of the Jews.
Both Moisses and Archbishop Damaskinos have long gone to their reward. But what must they have thought looking down from Hebraic-Hellenic heaven in 2010 when Greek Orthodox Bishop Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus said on Greek television that Jews “control the international banking system,” and that “Adolf Hitler was an instrument of world Zionism and was financed from the renowned Rothschild family with the sole purpose of convincing the Jews to leave the shores of Europe and go to Israel to establish the new Empire.” In response to criticism, he issued a statement denying that he was anti-Semitic but also equating Zionism to “Satanism.”
Of course, the Archbishop was rebuked by leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church.
No one will argue against the importance of helping the Greek people get through the crippling economic mess. But it is also time for the world community to hold to the fire the feet of Greece’s leaders in both priestly and parliamentary offices.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center
Dr. Harold Brackman is a historian who serves as a consultant to Simon Wiesenthal Center