Friday, 3 September 2021

‘Be gracious to us and answer
us … treat us with charity
and kindness, and save us’

The bimah in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

After a long delay and a lengthy period of impatient waiting, I plan to return to Greece next week, and I am looking forward to two weeks in Rethymnon, which has been the nearest thing to home in Greece since the 1980s.

This holiday coincides with the Jewish High Holy Days, which begin with Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, beginning at sunset on Monday evening (6 September), and they include Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur on Wednesday evening and Thursday 15 and 16 September.

I hope in these two weeks that I can also take the journey from Rethymnon to Chania and visit Etz Hayyim, the only surviving synagogue in Crete.

In the past few days, the Jewish community in Greece has expressed its concern about the appointment of Thanos Plevris as Minister of Health earlier this week. Twelve years ago, in a court hearing in 2009, he appeared to deny the Holocaust and the horrors of Auschwitz when he was defending his extreme-right father.

The right-wing minister had been a defence lawyer for his father, Constantinos Plevris, when he was charged with incitement to racist hatred or violence over his book Jews: The Whole Truth.

The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) expressed concern over the cabinet appointment on Tuesday and called on the new minister to apologise for his remarks.

A Greek MEP, Stelios Kouloglou, has also asked European Commissioner Margaritis Schinas to investigate whether Plervis represents the ‘European way of life.’ In response, Plevris said the KIS objections to his court comments were ‘understandable,’ but now claims he ‘fully disagrees’ with his father’s views.

His father wrote, ‘Keep the camp of Auschwitz in good condition because I want, at some point, the national socialist regime to come back, Hitler to come back, take the Jews and put them in Auschwitz.’

Defending his father in court, Plevris said at the time, ‘What kind of instigation is this? What incitement is this? Is one not allowed to believe and want to believe “I want to exterminate someone”?’ Both father and son have been members of the extreme-right Popular Orthodox Rally party.

This week, in response to the concerns expressed by KIS, the new minister said, ‘I never wanted to insult the Jewish people, and I apologise if I did.’

He has also suggested in the past that migrants at Greece’s border with Turkey should be shot. He went on to argue that all migrants should be banned from basic essential health and education services, even suggesting they should be denied food until they leave.

Greece’s COVID vaccination rate is behind many other EU member states, but Plevris holds views on vaccination that appear to be to the right of Trump. In a July op-ed headed ‘The Government has no obligation to enforce vaccinations,’ he wrote: ‘If the citizen does not want to be vaccinated, is it my responsibility to convince him or to go and be vaccinated himself?’

This is the man who was appointed as the new Greek Health Minister this week. Many Greek media have criticised the cabinet shuffle, saying it is a clear turn to the far-right faction of ruling New Democracy party. The Interior Minister, Makis Voridis, has also been forced in the past to apologise for anti-Semitic comments.

In its statement this week, KIS asked Plevris to apologise to the Jewish people for his words in court and to express his unequivocal condemnation of intolerance, antisemitism and Holocaust denial. ‘We also hope that the new Minister will address all citizens equally, regardless of skin colour, race or religion.

The controversy over the appointment of Plevris comes only weeks after the death of Isaac Mizan, the last Holocaust survivor from the former Jewish community of Arta in north-west Greece. He was arrested by the Nazis on 24 March 1944, along with 351 other Jews in Arta. They were sent first to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then to Bergen-Belsen.

He returned to Greece and Arta in August 1945. Of the 352 Jews of Arta deported to death camps, only 23 returned; of the 12 members of the Mizan family who were sent to Auschwitz, only three returned.

Isaac Mizan spoke movingly of the deep trauma suffered by the survivors of the Holocaust: ‘There were moments when we felt guilty because we, the lucky few, survived and the others were lost.’ He died earlier this summer at the age of 94.

KIS reports recently that racism and anti-Semitism in Greece remain ‘a serious problem and an open wound for our society.’

A grave was vandalised in the Jewish cemetery in Ioannina last month, and marble fragments from the gravestone were scattered around the cemetery.

In March, vandals attacked a new mural on Michael Kalou Street in Thessaloniki depicting the deportation of the Jews of Thessaloniki and their extermination in the Nazi death camps. The mural was created by the Vardaris Neighbourhood Team of the Self-Help Promotion Programme of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

At the end of last year, the Holocaust memorial in Drama was vandalised.

Last night’s racist chanting and Nazi salutes by Hungarian football fans in Budapest shows clearly that every expression of racism must be challenged wherever and whenever it is seen or heard.

The Ten Days of Repentance (עשרת ימי תשובה‎, Aséret y'méy t'shuvá) are the first ten days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, beginning with Rosh Hashanah on Monday evening and ending with the conclusion of Yom Kippur in the week after.

This evening, for my Friday evening reflections and prayers, I am praying the words of part of a prayer that is traditionally recited during those ten days:

‘Our Father, or King, be gracious to us and answer us, though we are without merit; treat us with charity and kindness, and save us.’

Shabbat Shalom

Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin places candles in the Holocaust memorial in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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