THESSALONIKI, Greece — Greece on Sunday commemorated the 80th anniversary of the first deportations of Greek Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Thessaloniki, the northern metropolis that lost almost its entire flourishing Jewish community.
Holding white balloons captioned ‘Never Again,’ around a thousand people of all ages marched to the old railway station of Thessaloniki, where the deportations began on March 15, 1943.
Many people left flowers on the train tracks.
The deportations were carried out in cattle wagons, each holding around 80 people forcefully crammed in, ceremony officials told AFP.
Some 46,000 Thessaloniki Jews were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau between March and August 1943, said the president of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki David Saltiel.
Just 1,950 returned, he said.
“The community lost 97 percent of its members, around 50,000 people,” Saltiel said, noting that Jews made up a fifth of Thessaloniki’s population at the time.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, and Thessaloniki Mayor Konstantinos Zervas were among the officials at the ceremony.
The American ambassador to Greece, George Tsunis, and Israeli Minister of Innovation, Science and Technology Ofir Akunis also attended.
Thessaloniki mayor Zervas said work has begun on a Holocaust museum to honor the memory of those who died in the Nazi camps.
Greece has gradually begun honoring its Jewish community after formalizing relations with Israel in 1990.
In Thessaloniki, steps were taken a decade ago under the reforming mayor Yiannis Boutaris to highlight its rich Jewish past.
But antisemitism persists, with Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials regularly vandalized.
“Antisemitism and racism remain a threat,” Saltiel said.
Among over 77,000 Jews living in Greece before World War II, more than 86 percent perished during the four-year occupation by Nazi Germany.
Today, the community numbers around 5,000, according to the Jewish Museum in Athens.