Nearly 70 years later, Athens, one of the last European capitals to commemorate those who perished at the hands of Nazi forces, finally has a Holocaust memorial.
But since its dedication in May, synagogues have been targeted, Jewish cemeteries desecrated, Holocaust monuments elsewhere in Greece vandalized and the Jewish Museum of Greece, in the capital, defaced with swastikas. What’s more, an alarming chunk of Athenians in November supported the election of a neo-Nazi candidate to the capital’s city council.
The ocher-colored marble sculpture in the shape of a broken-up Star of David, its triangular tips dismembered, points toward the 29 Greek cities from which at least 60,000 Jews were gathered and deported to the Auschwitz and Treblinka extermination camps between 1943 and 1944.
The deaths of these victims are memorialized amid striking serenity. Set within a patch of olive and almond trees, and its pieces embedded alongside an herb garden of lavender, marjoram and thyme, the sculpture symbolizes survival and healing. Or is supposed to.
Although anti-Semitism is an old and shameful part of Europe’s history, Greece, more than many European nations, continues to wrestle with strong anti-Jewish feelings.
Such sentiments have been revived amid the angst and anger of the Greek economic crisis.
“We’ve always been under siege by fanatics and far-right political movements here,” said David Saltiel, president of the Central Jewish Board of Greece, which represents the country’s 6,000 Jews. “The fear now is that anti-Semitism will get worse with the financial crisis.”
Well into the nation’s worst recession in 17 years, the government in Athens was thrown a bailout lifeline of $146 billion by the European Union and International Monetary Fund last year in exchange for draconian reforms and cost-cutting measures designed to slash the country’s yawning budget deficit, equal to 15.4% of gross domestic product.
The measures are thought to be responsible for a surge in hate crimes against minorities by Greeks venting rage over rising unemployment and immigration.
Strapped for cash, the Socialist government has been aggressively wooing rich sovereign investors, tapping into deep pockets in China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and, now, Israel.
This month, scores of Jewish American leaders arrived in Athens to advance Israel’s revived relations with Greece, but not all here were happy to see yarmulkes on Greek streets, much less in the offices of senior politicians, including the country’s president.
“We’re in danger!” warned renowned composer Mikis Theodorakis, who in the course of a television interview openly conceded that he was an anti-Semite. “Zionism and it leaders are here, meeting in our country!
“This is no laughing matter,” he railed, berating Zionism and its “control over America and the banking system that Greece is now a victim of.”
Such beliefs aren’t new. Nor are they just Greek.
What’s different in Greece is the level of tolerance for anti-Semitism.
“There is zip, zilch, zero reaction to any semblance of anti-Semitism,” said human rights activist Panayotes Dimitras, “leaving the door wide-open for extremists to come in and exploit this phobic society, more so now, in this time of crisis.”
Some critics fault the country’s Jewish organizations for shunning quick public reaction to attacks; others point to the attitude of some church prelates and to Greece’s failure to come to terms with its once-multicultural identity and harrowing past.
“Whatever the cause,” said Anna Stai of the Anti-Nazi Initiative, “Greece can no longer sit in denial about its anti-Jewish feelings. It’s dangerous.”
Take the case of Konstantinos Plevris.
A self-avowed anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, the 70-year-old lawyer was sentenced to 14 months in prison in 2007 for inciting racial hatred with his book “Jews: The Whole Truth.” In 2009, the decision was overturned, and a year later, the Supreme Court upheld Plevris’ acquittal, arguing that his “scientific work” did not target the Jews as a race or religion but, rather, their “conspiratorial pursuit of global domination,” according to a copy of the 2010 decision.
World Jewish organizations kicked up a storm in protest, but in Athens, mainstream news media offered scant coverage of the ruling and the government remained silent.
Two weeks ago, Stai and other members of the Anti-Nazi Initiative traveled to Brussels to lobby for support from European lawmakers.
“There is such a strong undercurrent of anti-Jewish feeling in Greece,” said Dimitras, the human rights activist, “that any hope of drawing attention to the problem must now come from outside pressure.”
Others say there is still hope within.
“We’re at a turning point as a society today,” said Zanet I. Battinou, standing before a scale model of the Holocaust memorial showcased at the Jewish Museum of Greece, which she directs. “If we found the courage to take on responsibility for the financial mess we find ourselves in today, then we can take responsibility in facing down one of our worst traits.”
If anything, she quips, “we’re running out of scapegoats.”