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Thursday, January 15, 2004

Our Opinion

The Return of the Repressed

Last week, the Greek parliament’s committee on public administration unanimously (which was noteworthy in itself in this pre-election period) approved legislation introduced by the interior ministry to declare January 27 as the annual Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust. The date was chosen to commemorate the day in 1945 that the Red army liberated the surviving inmates of Birkenau and Auschwitz.

The parliament’s act has received minimal attention from the Greek public, let alone from its professionally catatonic media. It has been lost in the spectacle (in the worst sense of the word) and circus-like atmosphere created by Kôstas Sêmitês’s decision to resign as head of PASOK and, therefore, as the country’s prime minister and call for national elections on March 7.

Despite the indifference with which it has been received, however, the legislation is of some significance. Greece was until now the only country in the pre-enlarged European Union not to mark the Holocaust of European Jewry, which is to say, not to commemorate the slaughter of tens of thousands of its own citizens. A national day of remembrance constitutes long overdue official recognition of the historical role and presence of Jews in Greece and — inevitably and horribly — of their almost total extermination in the Nazi death camps. When the Second World War ended, Greece had lost between 87 to 89 percent of its Jewish population, while Thessaloniki, home of the extraordinary, centuries-old community that had made the city known throughout the Mediterranean world as Malkah Israel, or “Queen of Israel,” lost 95-96 percent of its Jewish sons and daughters.

But decades of Greek governments were notoriously slow in — or, more often than not, actively opposed to — publicly accepting, or even recognizing, Greek Jewry’s historical and cultural existence. The debates on establishing and, subsequently, siting the Holocaust Memorial in Thessaloniki — and the conspicuous absence of any substantive reference to Greek Jews in government-approved textbooks — are wretched testaments to the monumental denial that has defined official policy toward Greek Jews. Undoubtedly, then, the legislation creating the day of remembrance goes some distance in addressing and remedying this collective, if feigned, amnesia.

But not very far. We suspect — actually, we’re certain of it, but we don’t want to be accused of ill will — that this legislation does not signal the beginning of a significant shift in governmental or, even more important, civic engagement between Greek gentiles and Jews, but rather a forced gesture. The initial announcement of the government’s intention to establish this day of remembrance was made by Deputy Interior Minister Nikos Bistis on November 21, 2003 — a day after the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center used a recent rash of antisemitic acts and rhetoric in Greece as an excuse to issue a travel warning for Jews planning to visit the country and attend the 2004 Athens Olympiad.

The Wiesenthal center’s travel advisory was almost as kneejerk, and neurotic, an overreaction as the unceasing Greek underreaction to the continuing, almost unconscious and automatic, antisemitism that is still so fundamentally a part of the Greek cultural landscape. Indeed, over the last couple of years, there has been a resurgence (albeit random and uncoordinated) of antisemitism in Greece, expressed in repeated vandalism of Jewish sites, as well as in a barrage of inflammatory comments by extreme right-wing politicians (Giôrgos Karatzaferês, so beloved by His Beatitude Christodoulos, archbishop of Athens and all Greece) or leftist artists who once moved the country to tears of solidarity but now merely provoke it to hysteria and a pathological form of “resistance” (Mikês Theodôrakês).

The silence about Jews in Greek history and culture is deafening, and it constitutes the most devastating accusation, and proof, of antisemitism. A visitor to Thessaloniki today who is not aware of the city’s past would never know that just a couple of generations ago, one of the greatest ports in southern Europe was brought to a standstill every Saturday because virtually all the hamallik (a Turkish word, of course) was made up of the city’s poor Jews, who had only this one day of their Sabbath to rest.

The desecration of the Holocaust Memorial in Thessaloniki in February 2003 was the central reason that Greece’s Jewish community requested that the government declare a day of remembrance of the Holocaust. Despite politicians’ promises, however, it took the travel advisory issued by the Wiesenthal center to bestir the “conscience” of the Greek government and parliament. Which is why, finally, it is difficult to see this legislation as anything other than a public-relations gambit.

We genuinely hope that this is not the case. However, another element of a repressed history has recently reared its heretofore bowed head in the form of the construction of the first mosque to be built in Athens (or, more accurately, Paiania) since the foundation of the modern Greek state. The debate that has ensued regarding this initiative signals yet another test of Greek self-definitions of identity and nationhood. (And since we’re on the subject, we urge everyone to read our lead article in this issue, by Nikos Chrysoloras, for its astute analysis of how Greek Orthodoxy is becoming as much — or more — a political cause as a religious one.)

Finally, one would think that a nation that came of age 80 years ago under the physical and psychological trauma crystallized by the term, “chamenes patrides,” would understand that a lost homeland is almost the definition of humanity in the twentieth century — and that to say “Greece” is, practically speaking, to say very little. “Greece” means absolutely nothing bereft of the people and culture(s) that made it, and if we really want to understand (let alone honor) the country, we have to repatriate, and embrace, the memory and historical truth of all the human beings whose own homeland it once was. For Greece itself is a chamenê patrida to Jews (and Turks and Slavs and others), and the sooner today’s Greeks come to terms with that fact, the sooner they can finally begin to figure out who they really are.

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