THESSALONIKI, Greece – Thousands of Greeks took to the streets in this seaside city on Saturday in remembrance of more than 50,000 Jews who lost their lives in Nazi concentration camps during the German WWII occupation of northern Greece.

The march, part of a weekend of commemorative events, began in Eleftherias (Liberty) Square, where the first Jews were rounded up 70 years ago — on March 15, 1943 — before continuing to the old railway station, where they were sent north to their fate in the camps. Most of the community ended up in Auschwitz-Birkenau and did not return.

An estimated 3,500-4,000 people turned up on a crisp, cold morning to participate in the march, the first public memorial event of its kind for the Jews of Thessaloniki. The city, also called Salonika or Saloniki, was once home to a thriving and ancient Sephardic community and was known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” due to the concentration of Jews, who before World War II made up some 25 percent of the population.

Today some 1,000 Jews remain, largely the descendants of the few survivors of the camps or of those who avoided the Nazis by hiding outside the city or joining Greek resistance fighters in the nearby mountains. The Jews of Thessaloniki are today a tightly knit community with three synagogues, an elementary school and close ties to Israel.

Most of the marchers were non-Jewish Greeks of all ages, including a group of anti-fascist activists, representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church, Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris and other government officials. In addition to Jews from Thessaloniki and other Greek communities, international representatives of the World Jewish Congress joined the event as co-sponsors, as did Israeli ambassador to Greece Aryeh Mekel. There was also a delegation of Israelis whose roots lie in the city.

The memorial events took place against the backdrop of the well-publicized rise of the Golden Dawn, the far-right, neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalist political party that made international headlines after receiving 7 percent of the vote in the May 2012 national elections, capturing 21 seats (out of 300) in the Greek parliament.

The prominence of the Golden Dawn was addressed directly by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who spoke at a standing-room only Sunday memorial event at Monasteriotes Synagogue, the only Jewish house of worship (out of more than 50) not destroyed by the Nazis.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras speaking at Monasteriotes Synagogue in Thessaloniki, on Sunday, March 17 (photo credit: courtesy World Jewish Congress/Michael Thaidigsmann)

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras speaking at Monasteriotes Synagogue in Thessaloniki, on Sunday, March 17 (photo credit: courtesy World Jewish Congress/Michael Thaidigsmann)

In his address — it was the first time a Greek prime minister officially visited a Greek synagogue — Samaras said that “neo-Nazis have appeared once again” but that there was “no room for racism and anti-Semitism” in Greece. As prime minister, he said, he would continue to push for legislation to limit anti-Semitic and racist speech and activity in Greece.

“We should not be tolerant of this phenomenon,” Samaras said to the packed crowd of dignitaries and Jewish community members. “Today, the government is obliged to take any measure to avoid a repetition [of the Holocaust]. Many people are naïve to think that this occured only in the dark corners of history. They are wrong.”

“Our mission is to recall that the values governing society should not be taken for granted,” he continued. “The Greeks fought against the Nazis… this victory is threatened by isolated voices that offend the memory of our Jewish brethren and others who lost their lives.”

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, which convened its annual Executive Council meeting in conjunction with the memorial events in Thessaloniki, also addressed the crowd in Monasteriotes Synagogue, calling for a Greek law “that punishes effectively the denial of the Holocaust.”

He said the Golden Dawn are representatives of the “same extremist, fanatic ideology that brought devastation over Europe 70 years ago” and were effectively Nazis who today have “representation in the Greek parliament.”

Lauder reminded the audience that Hitler was appointed chancellor of the Weimar Republic during an economic crisis in Germany, much as the Golden Dawn achieved prominence during an extended period of economic instability in Greece, but at the time “there were not enough democrats willing to join forces against the enemies of freedom and democracy.”

Modern Greece, he predicted, “in spite of the economic crisis, will be strong enough to rein in” extremist forces, and will subsequently ”witness a golden dawn of a different kind” as a “prosperous country that will have the affection of its people and the admiration of its neighbors.”

Greek Jewish community head David Saltiel (photo credit: Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

Greek Jewish community head David Saltiel (photo credit: Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

Greek Jewish community head and Thessaloniki resident David Saltiel, speaking with The Times of Israel after the memorial events, said that the last few years had been a time of “great difficulty” and that “people are feeling depressed.”

“After so many years,” he said, speaking of the Golden Dawn, “they came back again. This is very bad for all of us.” He praised the prime minister’s speech and said that a combination of education and tough laws against Holocaust denial were the best way to combat the neo-Nazi extremists.

“We are not alone,” he added. “We have Israel. Why should a small community be afraid?”