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From Salonika to the Roma
by Thanos Kalamidas
2010-08-21 09:03:16
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The first time I heard Nicolas Sarkozy talking about his roots in Salonika I have to admit that somehow I felt intrigued and looking forward for what was going to follow even though there are too few things that might connect me with the French President. You see Salonika especially between the 18th, 19th and the beginning of the 20th century was the nations' crossroads and where west met east. The capital of Macedonia, the last Greek empire before the ottomans took over, the birth place for Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, the place of poets and artists and the place where minorities thrived.

One of those minorities was the Jewish minority, actually one of the most populated Jewish communities in the region and a reference to the city’s history even today. Unfortunately the Nazis gave an end to this community in the most horrible way sending the ones who didn’t manage to escape mainly to Auschwitz and their inhuman death. Parenthetically one of the Nazis based in Yugoslavia that period and having a role in the events after the war became Secretary General of the United Nation! That’s beyond irony.

However the Jewish community in Salonika played a crucial role in making the city a commercial centre for the Balkans, a region that was coming out of a centuries's occupation and slavery with a lot of open wounds and brought some kind of balance between nations that had anything else than friendly feeling for each other. These people had found settler in the Greek northern capital escaping from another massacre in Spain by the end of the 15th century. In the 19th century a new wave of Jews came to Salonika – feeling the tolerance of the place - from France bringing with them new ideas, technologies and of course modern art giving a new social, economic and cultural push to the community first and to the whole area then.

The community was in really good relations not only with the Greeks but also with the Serbs of the region who actually defended them with the Ottomans a few times. However Salonika like most of the Macedonia untill the beginning of the 19th century and before liberated and reunited with Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire and the New Turks that were rising at the time were not very ...friendly with the Jews. If you add to that that the Greek governments after the liberation – even though not so barbaric – were not font either you get an idea of the problems the community was dealing with. However coming to the people was another story all together. In my travels to northern Greece and especially Macedonia and Salonika I met often people who told me stories about the Jewish community, I saw photos of family parties, and I saw the warm memories people carried and could still remember the friends they lost.

In the beginning of the 20th century Asser Mallah was member of that community and member of the Greek parliament, a man who had witness all the prejudice, the hunt and the slavery. Pepo Mallah was another member of the community and the Greek parliament. What connects those two men except the obvious you can sense from their name is that both are family relatives of Nicolas Sarkozy and the French president often honours them by speaking about them reminding his Salonika roots and the love of his family for the people and the city.  Even lately when his vote was crucial in an EU meeting regarding the dispute with FYROM about the name Macedonia he stood up and said that he is partly Macedonian and Greek not accepting that any other country can carry a name so obviously Greek.

So Nicolas Sarkozy knows very well what prejudice means. He knows very well from the stories he grew up with, he knows from his grandmother and his grandfather. Uncles, cousins and aunties still live in Salonika. He knows about the hell his family gone through and even when his family moved to France things didn’t get any better. He himself had to continue fighting prejudice. Actually I don’t know who had to deal with more prejudice, a black presidential candidate in USA or a Jew in France. And unfortunately I have read a lot of stories about prejudice to Jews in Europe even today.

So, what’s wrong with Nicolas? How a man who knows what prejudice is, who has been victim of prejudice most of his life can be prejudice against the Roma people? I honestly don’t get it. Roma people just like Jews have been victimised in Europe through centuries and they were targeted from Hitler with a big number of them following the same destiny in the concentration camps. Thousand of them got killed hand in hand with Jews in Auschwitz. “Porajmos” was the name of the Nazi genocide plan targeting Roma people. And the story didn’t finish with the end of the WWII since Stalin took over from Hitler in exterminating the Roma people. Even Hollywood has references to what the Roma people faced in Russia before and after Stalin with best reference the film “Fiddler in the roof.”

Do you think anything has changed today? Absolutely nothing, the cover has changed but the Roma people are still victims of discrimination and prejudice. In my travels around Europe I have often met Roma people, from Greece to Bulgaria and from Austria to Ireland. Now I live in Finland and I have never met more assimilated Roma. These people have even lost their own language and when their representatives meet other Roma is international forums they speak to them in English. People who participate in the local culture and economy in many ways, their houses are typical Finnish and their education is totally Finnish. The state has made the right laws to protect their rights but you know how it works with the laws; unfortunately it is the people who practice justice. And all that while a lot of Finnish people believe that the Roma people are just thieves, drug dealers, rapists and all kind of criminals, diabolical creatures of the dark.

The only creature of the dark that I can see is the prejudice that obviously has blinded Nicolas Sarkozy and forgot his wounds and causes bleeding to others; all the way from Salonika to the Roma people.

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