Greece’s second largest city Thessaloniki on Saturday commemorated the 70th anniversary of the first deportation of its Jews to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Around one thousand people walked in a silent march to the old railway station where the first train left Greece’s northern city for the notorious death camp on March 15, 1943.
Flowers were thrown onto the rails after the march, and the Thessaloniki Jewish Community Choir gave a performance.
Among the people taking part in the solemn walk was Israeli violinist Ivry Gitlis, according to an AFP reporter.
Robert S. Lauder, who heads the World Jewish Congress, and Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, are also attending this weekend’s anniversary events.
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is expected to address a commemoration ceremony on Sunday.
Thessaloniki, a multi-cultural city that served as a link between the Balkans and the East and which counted more than 50,000 Jews before World War II, today has a Jewish population of only about 1,000.
“The Jewish community is very small now and nobody believes it will be as big as it was,” Thessaloniki mayor Yiannis Boutaris told AFP.
“What we try to do is bring out the heritage… and not only the heritage of the Jews, but also of the Turks and the Greeks that have been living together here in peaceful coexistence,” he added.
More than one million people, mostly European Jews, perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau, operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland from 1940 to 1945.
Amid worry about the rise of Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, Jewish leaders from around the world have arrived in Thessaloniki to commemorate an event that decimated the Jewish population of the so-called “Jerusalem of the Balkans.”
“Greek Jews are currently adversely affected by the country’s deep economic problems and by the rise of the extremist Golden Dawn, a movement whose leaders openly deny the Holocaust,” the World Jewish Congress said in a press release.
For the first time in Greek political history, the party elected 18 deputies to the country’s 300-seat parliament after elections in June.
“The Golden Dawn are suing me because I have said it is a shame to have a Nazi party in parliament,” Boutaris told AFP.
“The case is pending. But it is true that they don’t respect democracy, they don’t respect human beings and they don’t have any place in society,” he added.